A+ A A-

Introduction: Confronting Distinguished Bigots


I am not a Roman Catholic, and I did not write this book in defense of the Church.  I wrote it in defense of history.

stark6While growing up as an American Protestant with intellectual pretensions, I always wondered why Catholics made such a fuss over Columbus Day.  Didn't they see the irony in the fact that although Columbus was a Catholic, his voyage of discovery was accomplished against unyielding opposition from Roman Catholic prelates who cited biblical proof that the earth was flat and that any attempt to reach Asia by sailing West would result in the ships falling off the edge of the world?

Everybody knew that about the Catholics and Columbus.  We not only learned it in school, the story of Columbus proving the world to be round also was told in movies, Broadway plays,[1] and even in popular songs.[2]  Yet, there they were every October 12: throngs of Knights of Columbus members accompanied by priests, marching in celebration of the arrival of the "Great Navigator" in the New World.  How absurd.

And how astonishing to discover many years later that the whole story about why Catholic advisors opposed Columbus was a lie.[3]

By the fifteenth century (and for many centuries before) every educated European, including Roman Catholic prelates, knew the earth was round.  The opposition Columbus encountered was not about the shape of the earth, but about the fact that he was wildly wrong about the circumference of the globe.  He estimated it was about 2,800 miles from the Canary Islands to Japan.  In reality it is about 14,000 miles.  His clerical opponents knew about how far it really was and opposed his voyage on grounds that Columbus and his men would all die at sea.  Had the Western Hemisphere not been there, and no one knew it existed, the Niña, Pinta, and Santa Maria might as well have fallen off the earth, for everyone aboard would have died of thirst and starvation.

Amazingly enough, there was no hint about Columbus having to prove that the earth was round in his own journal or in his son's book, History of the Admiral.  The story was unknown until more than three hundred years later when it appeared in a biography of Columbus published in 1828.  The author, Washington Irving (1783–1859), best known for his fiction — in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow he introduced the Headless Horseman.[4]  Although the tale about Columbus and the flat earth was equally fictional, Irving presented it as fact.  Almost at once the story was eagerly embraced by historians who were so certain of the wickedness and stupidity of the Roman Catholic Church that they felt no need to seek any additional confirmation, although some of them must have realized that the story had appeared out of nowhere.  Anyway, that's how the tradition that Columbus proved the world was round got into all the textbooks.

By Washington Irving's day, this was a well-worn pattern, as many vicious distortions and lies had entered the historical canon with the seal of distinguished scholarly approval, so long as they reflected badly on the Catholic Church (keep in mind that Catholics were refused admission to Oxford and Cambridge until 1871, and some American colleges did not admit them in those days either).  Unfortunately, unlike the Columbus story, many of these equally spurious anti-Catholic accusations remain an accepted part of the Western historical heritage.  Indeed, a survey of Austrian and German textbooks conducted in 2009 found that the falsehood about Columbus and the flat earth was still being taught in those nations![5]

It all began with the European wars stemming from the Reformation that pitted Protestants versus Catholics and took millions of lives, during which Spain emerged as the major Catholic power.  In response, Britain and Holland fostered intense propaganda campaigns that depicted the Spanish as bloodthirsty and fanatical barbarians.  The distinguished medieval historian Jeffrey Burton Russell explained, "Innumerable books and pamphlets poured from northern presses accusing the Spanish Empire of inhuman depravity and horrible atrocities. . . . Spain was cast as a place of darkness, ignorance, and evil."[6]  Informed modern scholars not only reject this malicious image, they even have given it a name: the "Black Legend."[7] Nevertheless, this impression of Spain and of Spanish Catholics remains very much alive in our culture — mere mention of the "Spanish Inquisition" evokes disgust and outrage.

persecutionThe myth of Catholic barbarity: This 1598 engraving, published in Holland,
shows a Spanish don feeding Indian children to his dogs.
It was typical of the anti-Spanish, anti-Catholic propaganda of the time.

But it wasn't only angry Protestants who invented and embraced these tales.  Many of the falsehoods considered in subsequent chapters were sponsored by antireligious writers, especially during the so-called Enlightenment, whose work was condoned only because it was seen as anti-Catholic rather than as what it truly was — although more recently such scholars have paraded their irreligion as well as their contempt for Catholicism.[8]  In his day, however, Edward Gibbon (1737–94) would surely have been in deep trouble had the bitterly antireligious views he expressed in The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire not been incorrectly seen as applying only to Roman Catholicism.  But, because in the days of the Roman Empire Catholicism was the only Christian church, Gibbon's readers assumed his attacks were specific to Catholicism and not aimed at religion in general.

Although Gibbon was one of the very first "distinguished bigots," he is in excellent company — the list of celebrated, anti-Catholic scholars (some of them still living) is long indeed.  We will meet scores of them in subsequent chapters, some of them many times.  Worse yet, in recent years some of the most malignant contributions to anti-Catholic history have been made by alienated Catholics, many of whom are seminary dropouts, former priests, or ex-nuns, such as John Cornwell, James Carroll, and Karen Armstrong.  Normally, attacks originating with defectors from a particular group are treated with some circumspection.  But, attacks on the Church made by "lapsed" Catholics are widely regarded as thereby of special reliability!

In any event, should you doubt that your knowledge of Western history is distorted by the work of these distinguished bigots, consider whether you believe any of the following statements:

▶ The Catholic Church motivated and actively participated in nearly two millennia of anti-Semitic violence, justifying it on grounds that the Jews were responsible for the Crucifixion, until the Vatican II Council was shamed into retracting that doctrine in 1965.  But, the Church still has not made amends for the fact that Pope Pius XII is rightfully known as "Hitler's Pope."

▶ Only recently have we become aware of remarkably enlightened Christian gospels, long ago suppressed by narrow-minded Catholic prelates.

▶ Once in power as the official church of Rome, Christians quickly and brutally persecutedpaganism out of existence.

▶ The fall of Rome and the ascendancy of the Church precipitated Europe's decline into a millennium of ignorance and backwardness.  These Dark Ages lasted until the Renaissance/Enlightenment, when secular scholars burst through the centuries of Catholic barriers against reason.

▶ Initiated by the pope, the Crusades were but the first bloody chapter in the history of unprovoked and brutal European colonialism.

▶ The Spanish Inquisition tortured and murdered huge numbers of innocent people for "imaginary" crimes, such as witchcraft and blasphemy.

▶ The Catholic Church feared and persecuted scientists, as the case of Galileo makes clear.  Therefore, the Scientific "Revolution" occurred mainly in Protestant societies because only there could the Catholic Church not suppress independent thought.

▶ Being entirely comfortable with slavery, the Catholic Church did nothing to oppose its introduction in the New World nor to make it more humane.

▶ Until very recently, the Catholic view of the ideal state was summed up in the phrase, "The divine right of kings."  Consequently, the Church has bitterly resisted all efforts to establish more liberal governments, eagerly supporting dictators.

▶ It was the Protestant Reformation that broke the repressive Catholic grip on progress and ushered in capitalism, religious freedom, and the modern world.

Each of these statements is part of the common culture, widely accepted and frequently repeated.  But, each is false and many are the exact opposite of the truth! A chapter will be devoted to summarizing recent repetitions of each of these statements and to demonstrating that each is most certainly false.

It seems pertinent to point out that I did not set out to write this book from scratch.  Rather, in the course of writing several other books on medieval history[9] as well as on early Christianity,[10]  I kept encountering serious distortions rooted in obvious anti-Catholicism — the authors often explicitly expressed their hatred of the Church.  Having written asides in these earlier books on many of the examples listed above, I finally decided that the issue of distinguished anti-Catholic history is too important and its consequences too pervasive to be left to these scattered refutations.  So I gathered, revised, and substantially extended my previous discussions while adding new ones.  In doing so, I have not attempted to "whitewash" Church history.  In these same earlier books, I wrote at some length on such matters as corrupt clergy, brutal attacks on "heretics," and on more recent misdeeds and shortcomings of the Church, such as covering up for pedophile priests and the misguided advocacy of liberation theology.  But no matter how much importance one places on these negative aspects of Church history, it does not justify the extreme exaggerations, false accusations, and patent frauds addressed in the chapters that follow.  Faced with this enormous literature of lies, I have heeded the words of Columbia University's Garrett Mattingly (1900–62), "Nor does it matter at all to the dead whether they receive justice at the hands of succeeding generations.  But to the living, to do justice, however belatedly, should matter."[11]

You may be wondering, if these are notorious falsehoods, why do they persist?  In part because they are so mutually reinforcing and deeply embedded in our common culture that it seems impossible for them not to be true.  One easily assumes that in our "enlightened" times, surely these claims would have been rejected long ago if they were false.  I confess that when I first encountered the claim that not only did the Spanish Inquisition spill very little blood but that it mainly was a major force in support of moderation and justice, I dismissed it as another exercise in outlandish, attention-seeking revisionism.  Upon further investigation, I was stunned to discover that in fact, among other things, it was the Inquisition that prevented the murderous witchcraft craze, which flourished in most of Europe during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, from spreading to Spain and Italy.  Instead of burning witches, the inquisitors sent a few people to be hanged because they had burned witches.

Be assured that you will not be asked to take my word on these refutations.  Sometimes I have done basic research needed to overturn one of these spurious anti-Catholic claims, and in those cases I document my findings so fully that anyone can check them.  But, in most instances, I am simply reporting the prevailing view among qualified experts.  Unfortunately, even though they often grumble because a particular anti-Catholic fabrication lives on, most of these experts continue to write only for one another and do not undertake to share their knowledge with the general reading public — the Columbus myth remained in the textbooks and popular culture for decades after scholars had traced it back to its fraudulent origins.[12]  I have undertaken to make the work of these fine scholars widely available, taking care to cite and fully acknowledge their work — short biographies of major contributors will be presented in each chapter.

Finally, I am not a Roman Catholic, and I did not write this book in defense of the Church.  I wrote it in defense of history.



stark Rodney Stark. "Introduction: Confronting Distinguished Bigots." Bearing False Witness: Debunking Centuries of Anti-Catholic History (West Conshohocken, PA: Templeton Press, 2016): 5-7.

Reprinted with permission of Templeton Press and Rodney Stark. 

The Author

starkstark61Rodney Stark is a leading authority on the sociology of religion. For many years, the Pulitzer Prize nominee was professor of sociology and professor of comparative religion at the University of Washington. In 2004 he became Distinguished Professor of the Social Sciences and co-director of the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University. He is the founding editor of the Interdisciplinary Journal of Research on Religion. Stark has authored more than 150 scholarly articles and 32 books in 17 different languages, including several widely used sociology textbooks and a number of best-selling titles. Among his books are: Bearing False Witness: Debunking Centuries of Anti-Catholic History, The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries, How the West WonThe Victory of ReasonThe Triumph of Faith: Why the World is More Religious Than Ever, God's Battalions: The Case for the Crusadesand The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success.

Copyright © 2016 Templeton Press
back to top