Summary of 6 Modern Myths About Christianity and Western Civilization by Philip J. Sampson

Myth #1 - “Galileo was a hero of science, harassed by the Christian church for his scientific beliefs.”

The story is that Galileo stood against the church, was tortured, condemned as a heretic, and wasted away in a prison. But here is the real story. Western Europeans got their idea of the universe from Aristotle, who pictured the earth at the center. This was no compliment to the earth because that was considered the lowest place in the universe. The Christian church largely accepted Galileo's conclusions even though his ideas clashed with Aristotle's beliefs. The important point to notice is that Galileo opposed Aristotle, not the Bible. A major part of the church intellectuals were on his side, while the clearest opposition to him came from secular individuals. Galileo put out a book which mocked the pope and got himself in trouble. He was detained but was given his own rooms and servants. He was allowed to return to his own home with his pensions from the church intact. He had been condemned not because the Bible conflicted with observation but because he differed with the church over what authority should be used to interpret it. Christianity was not opposed to science. In fact, it was the basis of modern science because it did not deify creation itself (allowing people to investigate it), it emphasized dominion involving the growth of technology (it was OK to harness nature), it recognized reason in God's creation (the world would be rational and understandable), and it trusted in God's covenantal faithfulness (suggesting there were laws governing the world).

Myth #2 - "Charles Darwin came up with a theory of evolution which has replaced the Christian view of creation."

Darwin said evolution happens by means of random mutation and natural selection. In the United States there was a famous "monkey trial" which supposedly showed the superiority of evolution. This trial produced a well-known film Inherit the Wind. In this trial John Scopes was supposedly an innocent victim of an anti-evolution law and his defenders, including William Jennings Bryan, were stupid bigots. However, Scopes, at the urgings of the American Civil Liberties Union, volunteered to test a law against the teaching of evolution. Bryan was not a bigot or stupid. As far as Darwin’s theory, Christians did not all oppose it bitterly; there were mixed responses. In addition, not all scientists supported Darwin. Today, criticism of Darwinism has grown because of a lack of proof in the fossil record, the complex language found in DNA, and the incredible complexity of organisms. The most skeptical scientists of Darwinism today are mathematicians and physicists. Evolution was well received by liberals and radicals because it offered a scientific foundation for ideas of progress and political change. Many used it to push unrestrained capitalism and colonialism. Evolution also justified distinction between the races, suggesting some were lower than others. Opponents of the women's movement used Darwinian arguments to argue for the subordination of women. Darwinism also influenced a belief in eugenics, the scientific, rational control of human breeding. Darwinism also played an important part in Nazi ideology.

Myth #3 - "Christianity has encouraged exploitation and destruction of the environment."

Supposedly, Christianity bears a huge burden of guilt for ruining the environment. But the idea that nature exists for us to use comes from Aristotle, not the Bible. The Bible teaches that things were not made for us; they were made by and for Jesus (Colossians 1:16). The apostle Paul says created things reveal to us the very Godhead. Environmental exploitation is not a particularly modern phenomenon, nor is it a unique feature of Western culture. Neolithic and Bronze Age people deforested much of northern England, and fire-driven hunting techniques had serious effects on ecology of pre-Colombian North America. There was a great deal of cannibalism in pre-Colombian America because many animals had been hunted to extinction. Thousands of years ago early settlers in Australia used fire to clear land, significantly reducing plant cover in the interior and disrupting a sensitive ecosystem to produce the desert we see today. Much of Imperial China was deforested in a Buddhist religious context.

Many church fathers and medieval theologians taught that Christians have a duty of responsible stewardship toward creation. They noted that the Bible's authors emphasize human beings are dependent creatures, not masters of everything. The Mosaic covenant forbade the exploitation of natural resources to extinction (Deuteronomy 22:6-7) and not even warfare justified deforestation (Deuteronomy 20:19-20). Animals and the land are included in both the weekly and seventh year Sabbath. Later, Martin Luther claimed that our mistreatment of animals will have eternal significance for which we will have to give account. In England and through figures such as Jonathan Edwards in the United States, a deep sensitivity toward creation emerged, leading to arguments opposing animal cruelty. Puritans were known for their opposition to animal cruelty. For them, God's care for his creation extended beyond individual animal welfare to what we would now called the ecosystem.

Myth #4 - “Christian missionaries have oppressed native cultures.”

The unfair picture is of idealized natives who are exploited and forced to convert by Christian missionaries as part of Western colonialism. However, it was Darwinism that suggested there was a division between “higher” and “lower” races. Christian missionaries believed that native peoples were made in God’s image and thus treated natives often with more respect that national governments and fellow citizens of the area. Church opposition to slavery began shortly after the systematic enslavement of the New World began in the last fifteenth century. Slavery was justified not from the Bible but from the works of Aristotle. Missionaries were often expelled so they would be unable to tell of atrocities or help natives against government attacks. It was common for there to be conflict between missionaries and trading or colonial interests. These traders and colonialists tried to stop missionary activity because they believed conversion would help natives gain the resources of the Western world. Many missionaries forged alliances with native people. The image of happy, peaceful, idyllic natives before the coming of missionaries is incorrect. Natives were often cruel to each other, held slaves, and collected enemy heads long before any whites showed up.

Myth #5 - “Christians feared and suppressed anything about the human body.”

True Christian teaching, based on the Incarnation, says the physical body will be resurrected, hardly an attitude of disgust toward our physicality. Genesis says the body, not the spirit, was created first. The Greeks were patriarchal, but Christianity shows no favoritism for males since both had the image of God. Recent scholarship has shown that the medieval period, often said to be obsessed with the sinfulness of the flesh, actually established areas of female power. During the Reformation, celibacy was rejected as the highest ideal. Equal rights for wives in divorce cases were legally enforced in Geneva, home of John Calvin.

Myth #6 - “Christians persecuted witches throughout Europe and America.”

First, the number of witchcraft persecutions has often been highly exaggerated, and we now know that the Inquisition tended to moderate rather than incite them. Recent estimates put the number of executions at 150-300 people per year throughout all Europe and North America. Most of the proceedings were by the state, not the church. Put that in comparison with the estimate that Aztecs put to death about 15,000 each year from a far smaller population base. In addition, the state was far more harsh in its verdicts than church courts were. Church courts required a higher standard of proof. Secondly, the accusation of witchcraft was not primarily from the church. People of that time period commonly appealed to witchcraft and magic to explain tragedies and misfortunes or to gain power over neighbors. One study of witchcraft found that most of those bringing charges were women, not men. Of course, people want to bring up the Salem witchcraft story as proof of the church’s harshness. However, only 20 people died, and it was the clergy that were from beginning to end the chief opponents to the events in Salem. The violence and persecution in today’s world is far worse than what happened to people accused of witchcraft.

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