Many have said that history is written by the victorious. This usually means that the record of the past is merely used to suit an agenda. While many exceptions to this rule exist, the age-old saying does point to an important truth: history can be abused for nefarious purposes. This may take the form of propaganda in which the winner reshapes the past to achieve present-day goals. History can also be manipulated to either defend or attack a particular point of view.
In an era where feelings often matter more than facts, the historical record has become a wax nose for militant atheists who criticize the Christian faith. (I am using “militant atheist” here in the same sense as Richard Dawkins and other atheists have used it of themselves, to describe aggressive, confrontational atheism or anti-theism.) This often takes a predictable form: an anti-Christian author or speaker presents a severely distorted version of historical facts to either extol atheism or casts aspersions on Christianity.
History in the Wrong Hands
Virtually everyone recognizes that objective history does not exist. No one can be perfectly impartial. Even professional historians fall prey to the same biases that affect us all. Partiality is particularly common in journalism, where reporting the facts is replaced by offering an interpretation (or reconstruction) to support a narrative.
For the most strident atheist apologists, history is not a field of study to be examined with dispassionate objectivity. Though they often appeal to history, these writers rarely have any training in the discipline. Consequently, they produce materials commonly accepted by their fan base but rejected by professional historians.
One of the most prominent examples of historical abuse is the notion that religion and science have been locked in mortal combat for centuries. This idea first appeared in two books published in the late 1800s: John William Draper’s History of the Conflict between Religion and Science (1874) and Andrew Dickson White’s History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896). These two authors wrongly—and, some might say, deceitfully—argued for the conflict model, which did not exist before the 19th century. Historians of science today rightfully view Draper’s and White’s assertions as heavily-biased misrepresentations of the facts, but their claims persist in the public mind nevertheless. Sadly, this is not an isolated example, as we shall see.
The History of Science
A favorite weapon in the militant atheist’s arsenal is twisting historical facts to aid in the criticism of religion. One of the most famous examples involves the alleged anti-scientific nature of faith. For example, Sam Harris has bemoaned Christianity’s supposed habit of “torturing scholars to the point of madness for merely speculating about the nature of the stars.”1 Carl Sagan lamented that religious authorities threw Galileo into a “Catholic dungeon” for daring to teach that the earth revolved around the sun.2 Daniel Dennett has claimed that the Roman Catholic Church has an “unfortunate legacy of persecution of its own scientists.”3
This claim that Roman Catholic authorities persecuted scientists such as Galileo for being thinkers ahead of their time is demonstrably false. A close look at church history reveals that many of the most accomplished scientists in history were devoutly religious. As for Galileo, a combination of his opposition to the church and papal politics led to his detention. Yet even under house arrest, he continued to pursue his research.
Another common myth is that Christians have taught the earth is flat. “Flat-earther” has become synonymous with scientific ignorance arising from religious commitment. Daniel Dennett warns believers, “If you insist on teaching your children falsehoods that the earth is flat … those of us who have freedom of speech will feel free to describe your teachings as the spreading of falsehoods, and will attempt to demonstrate this to your children at our earliest opportunity.”4 Christians do not teach the earth is flat, and this belief appears nowhere in the Bible. The charge arises from critics who frequently misinterpret phenomenological language in Scripture.
Even in antiquity, the ancient philosophers such as Aristotle knew the earth was round. The Greek philosopher Eratosthenes arrived at a relatively close estimation of the earth’s circumference in the 3rd century BC. In the Medieval period, every educated European knew the earth was not flat. Unfortunately, this old canard makes too tempting a target for irresponsible critics to resist.
Political History and Religion
The historical record can be unforgiving, regardless of the personal beliefs held by its most noteworthy contributors. Both atheists and professing Christians alike have harmed others and ruled with iron fists. However, Christians rightly point out that atheism has by far the highest body count, with many tens of millions murdered in the 20th century alone. Further atrocities have continued into the 21st century in countries like communist China. In attempting to avoid this uncomfortable fact, militant atheists usually try to defend their position and insulate themselves from criticism for crimes committed by fellow unbelievers.
The attempt to exonerate atheism from the guilt of the atrocities committed by its subscribers often fails spectacularly. One tactic is to excuse the dictators responsible for millions of deaths in atheistic states, claiming that these rulers considered themselves “gods.” For instance, Daniel Dennett argues that Joseph Stalin was not an atheist, despite his professed disbelief. He says that Stalin “wasn’t an atheist at all. He believed in god. Not only that, he believed in a god whose will determined what right and wrong was. And he was sure of the existence of this god, and the god’s name was Stalin.”5 Dennett’s sophomoric claim would be humorous if he were not serious.
Another popular argument is that Adolf Hitler was a Christian because some of his speeches included references to God. In truth, he followed the same course as other political figures before him who used religion as a tool for control, such as Karl Marx and Niccolo Machiavelli. The Nazis showed their true colors when they sought to destroy Christianity and replace it with a state church committed solely to promoting Nazi ideology. They planned to de-Christianize Germany, a goal betrayed by the fact that Hitler’s government confiscated church property for government use and sent thousands of clergy to concentration camps.
One of the most recent examples of historical revisionism is the portrayal of the Northern Ireland troubles as a religious conflict. Richard Dawkins claims that without Christianity, there would have been no conflict.6 Sam Harris says this battle is “deeply rooted in religion.”7 While the hostilities are often described as being between Protestants and Catholics, the actual causes had virtually nothing to do with religion. The root cause centered upon the constitutional status of Northern Ireland and was a territorial and political battle waged between two ethnically different groups of people.
Historians correctly recognize the terms “Protestant” and Catholic” in the context of the Troubles as convenient political labels. A popular joke underscores this fact. An Irishman approaches a tourist visiting Belfast and asks, “What religion do you practice?” The tourist states that he is an atheist. The Irishman says, “But are you a Catholic atheist or a Protestant atheist?” Those who rush to use the Troubles as an example of religious violence miss the fact that the origin, circumstances, and goals of the conflict were almost purely secular.
Any point of view has subscribers who will resort to half-truths, fallacious arguments, and underhanded tactics to defend themselves and criticize the opposition. In a matter as important as the question of God’s existence, we have the right to expect that participants in the debate will conduct themselves with thoughtfulness and integrity. Often, militant atheists have lacked both. This can be seen quite clearly in their attempts to revise the historical record to promote atheism and demonize Christianity. Thankfully, facts tend to resist such abuse.
Dewayne is a minister at the New York Ave. Church of Christ in Arlington, TX. He serves as a staff writer for Apologetics Press and the Apologia Institute, and as a professional associate for the Associates for Biblical Research.
1Sam Harris, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason (New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 2004), 105.
2Carl Sagan, Cosmos, (New York: Random House, 1980), 54.
3Daniel Dennett, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (New York, NY: Penguin, 2006), 274
4Daniel Dennett, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster,
5Stated during a debate with Dinesh D’Souza, Is God (and Religion) a Man-Made Invention?
6Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin, 2006), 24.
7Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation (New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006), 81.