This article is a list of common misconceptions held by people about Traditional Christianity. For examples of this in action and for misconceptions about other religions, see Artistic License – Religion. For more information, see the Useful Notes page on Christianity and Orthodox Christianity.
For specific misquotations of the Bible, see BeamMeUpScotty.Religious Scripture.
Common Misconceptions About Traditional Christianity:
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General Beliefs and Theology
- "Jesus Christ of the Nazareth Christs": The word "Christ" means "the anointed one" (a translation of the Hebrew term "messiah"), a title that Jesus' followers applied to him based on what they believed him to be. All too often it is clear that people think that this is his last name. Outside of his circle of believers, Jesus would have been known as Jesus of Nazareth, or as Yeshuanote barnote Yosef.note His enemies, despite how they are depicted in Jesus Christ Superstar, would largely have thought it heresy to refer to him as Jesus Christ.
- Catholicism is often claimed to be quasi-polytheistic by non-Catholics (veneration of saints and the Mother Mary). Catholics don't actually worship the saints, including Mary, any more than they worship icons such as the crucifix, or "pray to statues". They usually get annoyed when people accuse them of this. In actual fact, when Catholics pray to the saints they ask them to 'intercede' with God on their behalf, basically asking the saint or Mary to speak up for them to God.
- The New Testament canon was not decided at the Council of Nicaea, and it certainly wasn't decided by placing all the books on a pedestal and keeping those that didn't fall off; that was a myth made up by Voltaire. The books themselves had been in common use throughout the Church since the first century and were chosen because they were believed to have been written by either the Apostles, Paul, or scribes close to them (Mark and Luke-Acts). The canon had been in more or less continuous use for a long time before Nicaea, and it wasn't officially adopted until the Council of Trent in 1563. The reason it took so long is that most people from the second century onward generally agreed on which New Testament books were canonicalnote , and it wasn't until the Protestant Reformation that an officially declared canon was deemed necessary. The earliest reference to our present New Testament canon is from Athanasius in 367, but it was probably around for some time prior to that. Debates on which books were canonical, however, extended at least into the second century.
- A common misconception is that the Roman Catholic practice of Canonization makes someone a saint. A saint, in Catholic teaching, is any human who has made it to Heaven. God makes them saints. Canonization is just when the Church has sufficient evidence that the individual is in Heaven to declare that we know for a fact that they are sainted. This proof usually comes from miracles performed for someone who specifically prayed for that person's intercession. There is generally a lengthy investigation of each "miracle" to rule out scientific explanation and falsehoods.
- A large number of people misunderstand the Catholic teaching of the Immaculate Conception. The Immaculate Conception was NOT Mary's virgin conception of Jesus—that's called the Incarnation. The Immaculate Conception is the belief that Mary was herself conceived without original sin—which has nothing to do with a virgin conception. Specifically, the miracle of the Immaculate Conception was God preventing the transmission of Original Sin (which was Adam's curse after the expulsion from Paradise, to pass the sin of his transgression on to all his descendants, which she would have normally received from her father and mother at the moment of her conception) so she would be spiritually fit to give birth to Jesus. It's also Newer Than They Think. Orthodox, believing Christians have believed in the Virgin Birth since the beginning, but the Catholic Church only adopted Immaculate Conception as an official doctrine in the 19th Century. Belief in the doctrine has existed for several centuries — you find arguments for and against it by name stretching back to the early Middle Ages and in concept as far back as the 4th century — but not as Church dogma.
- Similarly, many non-Catholics are vaguely familiar with the concept of "papal infallibility", the dogma that The Pope is 100% correct when he talks about faith and morals. What most don't realize is that the Pope's words are only considered infallible when he is speaking ex cathedra (literally, "from the throne")note meaning it only applies when he is explicitly invoking the infallibility or is otherwise considered to have the intention of doing so; in addition, he must not contradict Scripture, existing Church dogma, nor another Pope who spoke Ex Cathedra, and it only applies to matters of theology, all of which adds up to some pretty strict and explicit criteria. To date, this has happened at least twicenote , while some put the definite count at seven times. Probably. While the doctrine is understood today as giving the Pope a lot of power, at the time it was perceived as a way of LIMITING the Pope's power; if a past Pope makes an infallible statement, a later Pope cannot "change" this teaching if he doesn't like it. He's also not the only infallible authority in the Church. Ecumenical Councils — general councils of all of the bishops in the Church — are also considered infallible in their solemn pronouncements. Both of these are for the same reason: God would not allow the supreme teaching authority of His church to lead His followers astray.
- In general, suggesting that all Protestants are united in certain beliefs, specifically concerning hot-button social issues like homosexuality and abortion is simply incorrect. Unlike the Catholic church, there is no central authority equivalent to the Vatican that decrees official doctrine for all Protestant groups. This is the entire reason Protestantism exists, after all. Protestantism refers to a wide variety of denominations including Baptists, Lutherans, Methodists, the Restoration movement, and many, many others, all who trace their origins (eventually) back to the Reformation. Other than a few key commonalities (the primacy of faith, the priesthood of all believers, and the authority of Scripture alone), different denominations endorse a wide variety of social, political, and theological beliefs, up to and including issues as important as whether or not Jesus was physically resurrected. Even further, individual congregations within a specific Protestant denomination can differ in their beliefs. This largely depends on the denomination's history and how it is organized. Whether a particular denomination has a doctrine-making authority of any kind, what that authority is, how wide the latitude to disagree over points of doctrine is, which doctrines can vary, and how much influence that authority has over the workings of individual congregations varies greatly. Some don't recognize any higher (human) authority than the individual congregation and/or don't have anything resembling rules about what you must believe. Some have central authorities that determine doctrine, either in an episcopal structure (i.e., with bishops/metropolitans) or a confessional one (i.e. a council like the Southern Baptist Council). And, like any religious group, a person's fidelity to the professed beliefs of their group can vary greatly as well. Simply put, saying that any two people are Protestants can tell you virtually nothing about what, if any, beliefs they have in common without the proper context. For example, despite superficial similarities in belief and preaching style, Billy Graham and Jimmy Swaggart would differ significantly on key points of doctrine. Another point to make is that "fundamentalist" is synonymous with neither Protestantism or Evangelicalism, and the latter two are no longer considered exactly synonymous with each other. They actually deal with two different doctrines; fundamentalism is about how you read the Bible and Evangelicalism is about how you approach salvation.
Symbology and Iconography
- The Number of the Beast is not three sixes in a row. 6,6,6 from an eschatological standpoint is utterly meaningless. The number of the beast is six hundred and sixty six. Or Six hundred and sixteen in some translations. Or possibly 216 (six cubed, or "six by six by six"). It's a subject of some debate, but of little real interest to anyone but the nerdiest of scholars and the crankiest of cranks.
- The upside-down cross is not a Satanic symbol. It's a common symbol used by the pope in tribute to St Peter, who died by being crucified upside down because he did not believe himself worthy to die the same way as Jesus. In fact, many really by-the-book old-school Catholics consider wearing an upside down cross is a more humble and respectable Christian thing to do than wearing a normal cross. Sorry, Satanists. An inverted crucifix (that is, a cross with a figure of Jesus on it) is offensive, however.
- The pentacle, which (among other things) was used by Christians for centuries to represent the five wounds Jesus suffered on the cross, and to provide protection from evil spirits. It was a common Christian symbol as recently as the advent of the Mormon church. In Wicca, Onmyōdō and most other non-Left Hand Path forms of occult belief, the symbol uses a meaning developed within alchemy: the five points are the five elements, and again as a "protection from evil" seal. The Satanist or other Left Hand Path version, the pentagram, is, for this very reason, an inverse (upside down) pentacle, which often gets confused with the upside down cross above.
- The debate about Jesus' physical appearance vs. how he appears in icons and artwork is full of misconceptions. The most common depictions of Jesus (long, brown hair and olivish complexion) are based on the earliest Christian icons, some of which date back to the 1st Century AD. His depictions in Medieval and Renaissance artworks are reflective both of the influence of Classical Mythology and ideals of masculine beauty at the time and were never meant to be realistic or accurate portrayals. Michelangelo's famous painting is also not based on Cesare Borgia as some have alleged, whatever similarities in their appearance probably has more to do with the fact that Borgia was considered drop-dead gorgeous by Renaissance Italian standards. The same is true of, for example, Chinese icons which depict Jesus as Chinese. The concept of race is also far newer than most people think; as such, the notion of "White Jesus" is a very recent invention and is entirely baseless. Any attempt to root the concept any farther back than about the late 1700s is equally baseless. No one without ulterior motives argues that Jesus — in his human nature at least — looked like anything other than a typical Palestinian Jew of his time period; alternative depictions at best represent artistic license. It's also generally accepted that you can depict Jesus in his divine nature however you want (hence the variations), with the understanding that his true form is beyond human imagination.
- Claiming that God declared the human body sinful during the Fall of Man (after Adam and Eve were kicked out of Eden). Actually, after being tempted by Satan to eat the Forbidden Fruit, Adam and Eve's (spiritual) eyes had opened, and they began to see everything as shameful, including their own bodies (they were unaware of their nudity until now). (They already knew about sex; God asked them to 'be fruitful and multiply' while they were still in the garden.) So, they attempted to cover them up by making "aprons" out of fig leaves (some versions of the Bible imply that only their genitals were covered with a single leaf) and hiding from God in the trees, but He calls them out on this. God did give them better clothing than the "aprons" after kicking them out, mainly because He had cursed the Earth with things like thorns as punishment, so their bodies would occasionally need protection from the harsh world outside; never did He say that they must be covered up at all times. Plus, He still loved and cared for them even though they sinned. 
- The origin (i.e., the Hebrew version of the Bible) states that "יִּתְפְּרוּ עֲלֵה תְאֵנָה וַיַּעֲשׂוּ לָהֶם חֲגֹרֹת", i.e., they took fig leaves and made themselves belts (or aprons). God did give them leather shirts before He kicked them out, but it isn't clear why. A common Christian interpretation of the coverings is that they're early symbols of Christ's death. Let clothing be a symbol for righteousness; Adam and Eve try to cover themselves with righteousness, but their efforts are inadequate — just some big leaves they've sewn together pretty roughly. In steps God and graciously gives them fabulous fur outfits that cover them perfectly, but it's come at a price — blood had to be shed to provide them. The blood of a lamb, perhaps?
- Slavery as described in the Bible deserves a mention of its own. The Bible and historical documents noted rules that supported that ancient slavery was generally indentured servitude:
- A slave's contract can be no longer than six years unless they were a foreigner, then they could be kept forever (Leviticus 25:44-46). However, this only applied if he was a male Israelite slave that was sold into slavery. Female slaves, anyone born into slavery and foreigners were slaves for life.
- A slave is not barred from owning property.
- A male slave who marries a female slave may, if his time in service is shorter than his wife's, take his wife and any children they have with him when he leaves service.
- A slave cannot be made to work while sick.
- If a slaveowner beats a slave and the slave dies within two days, his contract is void, and his owner to be tried as a criminal.
- If a slaveowner beats a slave so that he loses an eye or a tooth, or kills a slave, his contract is void, and his owner to be tried as a criminal, and the owner must pay a fine to the slave's next of kin.
- Slaves were Jews first and slaves second. As such, slaves were actually required to rest on the Sabbath and High Sabbaths, and a slave's duty to his master was not permitted to interfere with his duties to God. For this reason, it was not lawful for a Jewish master to sell his Jewish slave to a foreigner, lest the foreigner refuse to respect these rights. Which did not apply to slaves who were themselves foreign.
- Matthew 7 "Judge not that ye be not judged...", is really misunderstood as a message of unquestioning tolerance. The following verses point toward the scripture being a message against hypocrisy in judgment (rather than judgment itself) and a warning that the standards you judge others by will be the standards you yourself will be judged by. Romans 2:1-3 has a similar teaching about judging hypocritically.
- When it comes to homosexuality, the Catholic Church does not consider it a sin. Homosexual sex is a sin. Treating homosexuality itself as a sin is condemned by the Catholic Catechism (which hasn't stopped some Catholics). For traditional Protestants, homosexual intercourse is frowned upon and is considered as a sin because Book of Romans mentioned that same-sex intercourse is against the nature of marriage and reproduction as proposed by God. However, attitudes towards non-straight relationships vary by denomination, and many progressive churches officiate same-sex marriages, largely due to a looser approach to interpreting scripture.
- The Bible does not say that The Three Wise Men visited Jesus, nor does it say they were kings, nor does it say they rode on camels. Their names aren't known either, and neither is said that one of them was black (although it doesn't say they weren't black either). It also does not say that they visited Jesus as an infant at the stable, they were simply said to have come when Jesus was a "young child" and at "the house". On that note, "young child" probably means three to six years old, which would mean "the house" refers to his parent's house in Nazareth. The grouping of 3 stems from the fact that there were three gifts, Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh. Their depiction was later expanded into European, (black) African and Asian, to symbolize people all over the world worshiping Jesus (in the future). "The house" (yes, not stable) is explicitly in Bethlehem; the wise men followed the star there, and Herod ordered all the baby boys of two years old or younger in the neighbourhood of Bethlehem to be killed. Which also proves Jesus' maximum possible age at the time. Seems Mary and Joseph found a house to stay in at Bethlehem after Jesus was born, had him circumcised and dedicated at the Temple while living there, then at some point after that the wise men came to visit, then they went to Egypt/back to Nazareth. The Gospel accounts have somewhat differing versions of the sequence and timeline of events, but generally agree that they all did happen in Jesus' infancy prior to Jesus' baptism by John.
- Nobody knows specifically when Jesus was born,note but there is a prevailing idea that the date accorded was an attempt to co-opt Aurelian's Feast of the (Birthday of the) Unconquered Sun or Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, a festival that took place on what was, in the Julian Calendar, the Winter Solstice, December 25.note It's assumed that the Roman authorities just said "Hey, we're Christian now, so let's change the meaning of our holidays", but the reality is, to put it mildly, much more complicated:
- While the earliest hard evidence regarding Dec. 25 as the date of Christmas is from 336 A.D., and it wasn't made an official festival until 379, there is evidence that the date was already being put forth by the integration of several strands of thought. The formulation of the date of Christmas actually has to do with the attempt to set the date of Good Friday and Easter, for the purposes of smoothing out the liturgical calendar.note After years of argument, two dates were generally held for the timing of Good Friday: the Eastern Church claimed the date of April 6, while the Western Church observed March 25. In order for this to make sense, we need to concern the idea of "Integral Age", the extra-Scriptural, though apparently widespread, Judaistic idea that the great prophets of history had all died on the same day as their conception or birth. This gives the dates extra significance of being candidates for Jesus' birth or conception, and eventually March 25 took prominence. To the day, March 25 is celebrated as the Feast of the Annunciation (or Incarnation), when the Archangel Gabriel visited Mary and related a certain request to her, and upon her acquiescence conceived the "Eternal Word of God" in her womb. Anyone remotely familiar with pregnancy can make the nine month jump to December 25. April 6's nine month jump led to January 6, which is celebrated as the Feast of the Epiphany (the visitation of the Magi). Combine that with the "Chronicle" of Hippolytus of Rome (which precedes Dies Natalis Solis Invicti by a good three decades) stating that the birth of Jesus "took place eight days before the kalends of January", and suddenly it seems more like Dies Natalis Solis Invicti was a political statement and a paganization of a significant date to Christians.
- Also, a further point to reference the date was put forth by St. John Crysostom (died 407 A.D.), as regards the Bible's record of Mary visiting her pregnant sister, Elizabeth. This took place during the sixth month of Elizabeth's pregnancy, when her husband Zechariah was performing priestly duties in the temple. Zechariah was in the eighth of a 24-class priestly system, so, calculating backwards from the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D. (Rabbinical Tradition fixed the class on duty during that time), Zechariah would have been serving Oct. 2-9 in 5 B.C. (again, the modern year system may be a bit off) when he was visited by the angel and told his elderly and infertile wife would conceive and bear his son. Mary's sudden conception visit six months later puts us in March, and the nine month pregnancy leap leads us to late December.
- The misunderstanding here regarding who ripped off whom has several roots. First, was that there was virtually no conflict during the institution of the festival; Christians examined Aurelian's ideas, took a shine to them, and functionally baptized them, giving them new Christian significance without having to impose a whole new methodology on everyone around them. The Birth of the Unconquered Sun was re-appropriated to refer to the "Sun of Salvation" or the "Sun of Justice", as in, Jesus himself. This "baptism" is actually quite common in nascent and/or rural Christian communities, which is why there is a disconnect when festivals and celebrations that look decidedly un-Christian (or, at least, are missing the cultural images of a certain set of "Smells and Bells") and Pagan are witnessed by casual observers. note Also important in the idea of Christmas originally being Pagan are the theories proposed by Paul Ernst Jablonski, a German Protestant, who wanted to demonstrate that the festival of Christmas was one of the early "Paganizations" of Apostolic Christianity into Catholicism, and by Dom Jean Hardouin, a Benedictine monk, who wanted to demonstrate the Catholic Church adopted Pagan festivals for Christian purposes without paganizing the Gospel. Both theories agreed on the assumption that, since the Julian calendar, which dated from 45 B.C. listed December 25 as the Winter Solstice, the date had a pagan significance prior to its Christian one. Jablonski merely noted the correlation of the technical designation of Dec. 25 and thus concluded that the Roman Winter Solstice had a significance prior to Christmas. Hardouin failed to challenge the assumption.
- Further, the particular sun-centric date was foreign to either of the two Roman temples of the sun. The one to whom Aurelian's clan belonged celebrated its dedication festival on August 28, but by the second century, both temples had fallen into disuse and neglect by the second century, when the eastern sun cult Mithraism was gaining ground. And none of the above had ceremonies dealing with Equinoxes or Solstices.
- In summary, the current date of Christmas is the result of various attempts to calculate Jesus' age based on tradition and Biblical accounts, decades of debate about various chronological theories, and the coincidence of several religious practices already existing in Rome. So while Christmas does technically have "pagan roots", the idea that the Romans just took a pagan holiday, dressed it up with Christan trappings, and decided it was the birth-date Christ is very much inaccurate, and to a certain extent rooted in Anti-Catholicism.
- Mary Magdalene is not identified as a prostitute by the biblical canon, nor as the woman who washed Jesus' feet and/or poured perfume on him. All we specifically know of her by name in her life prior to becoming a follower of Christ is that He purged seven demons out of her. Word of Dante later identified her with an unnamed "woman who was a sinner" (probably a prostitute) who did do those things. Biblically, though, there is no explicit link between these two women, since Mary Magdalene is mentioned a few pages before the unnamed woman in the gospels. The frequency with which the name "Mary" appears in the Gospels, itself a very common name at the time, doesn't help. To add to the confusion, a woman named Mary did anoint Jesus with perfume in a separate incident, shortly before his death—but she is Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, whom the Bible does not specifically identify as being one and the same with Mary Magdalene. Films love to embrace the folklore likely for artistic or pragmatic reasons in terms of telling the story without turning the work into a tediously long analysis. The 1965 film The Greatest Story Ever Told condensed much of the Biblical stories—including shoving Mary Magdalene into the role of the unnamed woman that was to be stoned. Memetic Mutation might have gone off from there.
- While there is naturally quite a bit of debate about the divinity of Jesus and certain specific details of his ministry (e.g. whether he had disciples, whether he personally claimed to be the Son of God), the consensus among the vast majority of scholars of antiquity, even the non-Christian ones, is that a Galilean Jew named Jesus (well, "Ye(ho)shua(h)") did actually exist, that he was baptized by John the Baptist when he was around 30, and that Pontius Pilate ordered him to be crucified. The idea that Jesus was a purely fictional character is generally considered to be refuted by professional historians, and in fact they look at people who make this claim the same way they do people who claim the Holocaust never happened. (Not with the same level of horror, mind you, but with a similar level of "are you kidding me?")
- Although there have been Christians who believed that the Jews killed Jesus, this notion is not a part of mainstream Christian doctrine. The Catholic Vatican II document Nostra Aetate, which denounced this idea, was not an innovation, but a restatement of longstanding Christian teaching. Recall that the New Testament writers were Jewish, and that their original aim, in addition to converting Gentiles, was to reform Judaism from within. Indeed, the Gospel writers portray the architects of Jesus' crucifixion as a cabal within the Jewish leadership that not only violated Jesus' rights under Jewish law, but sold out the Jewish cause. First, Jesus is arrested by night and tried before a Kangaroo Court composed mostly of Sanhedrin members who have already made up their minds to condemn him. (One of the dissenters indicates that there is not a proper quorum present, and that the time of Jesus' trial is irregular.) Once condemned, when Jesus is brought before Pilate, there is a mob present, but it is not representative the Jewish people, but a handpicked gathering that has been given prior orders to call for Jesus' crucifixion. Tellingly, during the exchange with Pilate, Caiaphas and his followers state, "We have no king, but Caesar". In so doing, they have betrayed the Jewish cause. To first-century Jews, Caesar was not the legitimate government, but a conqueror, an oppressive occupier, and many dreamed of a time when they would again live under a King. note (The Gospel of John portrays Caiaphas somewhat more sympathetically, as a Knight Templar who believes that Jesus will bring the wrath of Rome down on the Jewish people, and concludes that his death is necessary to prevent a wholesale slaughter of the Jewish people.) What about the statement of the mob that Jesus' blood was on their hands and those of their children? According to Biblical scholars, this was a ritual statement traditionally made at executions. It was basically a formal way of saying "If our accusations are false, then may our bloodlines be cursed for all time!" or in modern words, "If the things I say are not true, then may god strike me dead!" While the mob may have said this, it has no real meaning or effect, as Deut. 24:16 and Ezek 19:20 clearly hold that the sins of the father shall not be visited unto the son, but that each shall bear his own sin. In fact, established Christian doctrine states that Jesus died for the sins of all humanity and that humanity as a whole bears the guilt for his death. (Rom 8:3 and Heb. 2:14). Note also that, in the Passion narratives of the Gospels, Jesus stated that, if he wanted to, he could have called down legions of angels to deliver him from his fate.
- Question: Why were Sodom and Gomorrah destroyed? If you answered only rampant homosexuality, you answered wrongly. See Ezekiel 16:49 for more details. The short answer is that they were destroyed for a number of crimes, most importantly rape and failure to observe Sacred Hospitality (which in that hostile world was critical for a newcomer's very survival).
Recent History & Events
- Pope Pisu XII neither supported the Nazis nor deliberately turned a blind eye towards their atrocities. Though it could be debated whether the Vatican's relative silence during the war was justified in attempting to prevent the Nazis' persecutions against Jews (and Catholic clergy) from worsening, it is clear from the actions he did take that the silence was not out of support nor apathy.
- With that said, it is impossible to deny that sympathies for fascism did exist within the Catholic Church. All three of the major fascists of the time (Benito Mussolini, Francisco Franco and Adolf Hitler) did pay lip service to Catholicism (although it was certainly nothing more than lip service in the case of Mussolini, who had spent much of his life a firm atheist and started off as a communist, and it is widely debated how religious Hitler was) and canonically the Catholic Church considers Franco to be in Heaven (although in the case of Spain, Catholics more went with Franco out of circumstance due to the Red Terror during the Spanish Civil War than anything else). However, the popular idea that the bigwigs in the Church, especially the Pope of the time, were active supporters of fascism has little historical basis.
- There were attempts to smear Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI by claiming he was a Nazi because he was drafted by them at age sixteen. Not only was the Pope never a Nazi, his family had to keep moving house because of their strong anti-Nazi beliefs. The "Hitler Youth" part of the equation never even happened — they told him to join, and he got a note saying he was excused for he wanted to become a priest. He also deserted from the army towards the end of the war, by this point many overseers of Child Soldiers weren't zealous and just let them go or shooed them away to save their lives. To make matters worse, Benedict's fourteen-year-old cousin was taken away and killed by the Nazis because he had Down syndrome.
- The Catholic Herald has been under attack for several years now for publishing an article claiming that the books of Philip Pullman should be piled up and burnt. Pullman has even put (what we are told is) the offending Herald quote in his book and the controversy is such that it has actually become a long-standing part of Pullman's introduction and featured on the BBC's Big Read. The truth? The Catholic Herald never said anything of the sort!. While book burning is mentioned in the text, it is done so in the context of ridiculing the furor of Moral Guardians over the alleged anti-Christian nature of Harry Potter at a time when there are children's fantasy books such as His Dark Materials which are rather explicitly anti-Christian; the woman who wrote this wasn't saying that Pullman's works should actually be burnt. Here's the actual article (apologies for a few minor typos, the CH recently digitized their entire archive and the speed-typing shows somewhat). In short, what the Herald actually said was:
"THE CONTROVERSY over Harry Potter is still brewing in the USA. Parents in South Carolina are pressing their Board of Education to ban the best-selling children's stories. "The books have a serious tone of death, hate, lack of respect and sheer evil", said one mother, in her deposition to the board. "No doubt the books are attracting attention precisely on account of their success: they have sold 30 million worldwide. But if one was going to start banning books, there are numerous candidates that seem to me to be far more worthy of the bonfire than Harry. The children's market is glutted with tomes a million times more sinister. This is particularly true in the area of fantasy fiction, which appeals to children as they approach their teens. One such is the trilogy by Philip Pullman, entitled His Dark Materials."
- In response to the continued controversy and the quip at the BBC's Big Read, the Catholic Herald completely re-printed the original article and added a response by its author, Leonie Caldecott, who said that "the tactics of the author and his supporters have not been exactly honourable" (which is a bit of an understatement) and goes on to add that "Since no clergymen have [publicly denounced Pullman and his book] the millionaire author has had to make do with an Oxfordshire housewife".
- Adolf Hitler called himself a Catholic during his speeches, as well as in Mein Kampf, but actions both public and private suggest that he was strongly anti-Christian, or even anti-religion entirely. He was raised Catholic by his devout mother, but in his adult life his attitude towards the Church became more "the rituals are cool, but all this religious stuff is stupid." He later tried to unify and Nazi-fy all of the Protestant churches in Germany into worshiping him as a messiah, which the majority of German Protestants did not take kindly to.
Christianity and War
- The Crusades as you might expect from multiple conflicts that span across several centuries, are more complex than commonly thought of, featuring a variety of antagonistic factions, a variety of different rationales — both religious and secular — and a variety of different goals. Accordingly, they are not reductable to a monolithic conflict between Muslims and Christians over the Holy Land. The First Crusade, in fact, was every bit a war between two conflicting Muslim groups and two conflicting Christian groups as it was a war between "Crusaders and Saracens".
- The conflict in Northern Ireland between "Protestants" and "Catholics" has much less to do with religion than the labels imply. The religious labels are used (mostly by the media) as easy identifiers for two ethnic and cultural communities whose grudges against each other spring not from religious differences but from historical wrongs (England invaded and subjugated Ireland). Many of the people most deeply involved in the conflict today do not believe in God at all, yet will still use the religious label as a way to identify with their community. The main sides in the conflict are actually known and self identified as the Republicans (who want Ireland to be a unified Republic) and the Unionists (who want Ireland to remain in the United Kingdom). The initial conflict does have its roots in religion, attempts to impose the Protestant Church of England by force and oppress the Catholic Irish being a major sticking point, but the religious significance of the conflict itself has waned over time.
Christianity and Other Belief Systems
- People who claim that Christianity is based on earlier religions are, unless they mean Judaism, very sorely mistaken. There is no actual historic proof that this is the case. Indeed, there is nothing in what we know of the original Pagan beliefs that we can even draw a respectable parallel with. This, however, has not prevented bunkum, such as Christianity supposedly being based on the Mithraic Mystery Cult, appearing from the mouths of respected and intelligent people, such as the ones who run the QI panel game. Quite apart from the fact that we know almost nothing about the Mithraic Mystery Cult, everything we do know contradicts all of the claims made. This is merely the very tip, of the very tip, of the colossal iceberg of earlier beliefs that people regularly claim Christianity is based on. One of the more amusing being the supposed 'virgin birth' of Horus. Long story short: Isis gathered the various parts of Osiris and rebuilt him, she then brought him back from the dead for a single day so that she could, er, conceive with him. The ancient Egyptians also didn't have a single, dedicated word in their language that easily translates to "virgin", as it wasn't considered a terribly important thing. This is a classic double bind. Any feature of a given religion either will or will not resemble things in other religions. Now the Christian-baiters argue that if it does, that "proves" it was "stolen", but if it does not, that "proves" how "unnatural" Christianity is. As C. S. Lewis remarks, the only way one could NOT expect to find resemblances between Christianity and other religions would be by assuming that all other religions are COMPLETELY false.
- Dionysus' religion is often framed as being reminiscent of early Christianity, due to superficial similarities between some Dionysus myths and Christian practice, particularly an affinity for bread and wine and that Dionysus was worshiped as a death and rebirth deity (in some versions), dying annually and resurrecting annually in accordance with the seasons. While some of the various Dionysus cults do have some very vague reassembles to Christianity, in that they are both religions, this doesn't mean one is based off of the other. The cults of Dionysus may have valued wine and bread very highly... but they valued it because they were hedonists. The bread and wine in Christianity are a re-enactment of the last supper and symbolic of Christ's body (bread) and blood (wine). The significance and timing of Christ's death and rebirth is the exclusive province of the Jewish Passover, which takes place in spring and was celebrated by Jesus and the apostles at the Last Supper, just before he died. To understand symbolism in Christ’s death one would have to look at the story of the first Passover (many historians believe the fact that Christ’s death and resurrection centers around Passover isn’t a coincidence). During the first Passover, the Israelites had to sacrifice a lamb (a sacrificial lamb) and use its blood to cover the tops of their doors to protect their firstborns from the angel of death that God sent down on Egypt. Accordingly, Christ is called the lamb of God” in several of the canonical Gospels, implying his death was sacrificial. So many assume that Christ's death was in some ways meant to symbolize the lambs that were sacrificed during Passover, whose blood was then used to protect the Israelites from God's final plague, and whose bodies were used in the Passover feast. More to the point, Dionysus myths, like all Geek Mythology, vary wildly depending on region, time period and author. The supposed correspondences are the result of cherry-picking certain myths that have superficial similarities with Christianity and supposing some significance comes from that.
- The pagan roots of certain folk customs around certain Christian festivals (think Christmas trees, the Easter bunny, Halloween costumes, etc.) have sometimes been used to suggest that the festivals themselves are pagan in nature. This would be the equivalent of saying that, since we now celebrate July 4th by setting off fireworks, the Founding Fathers signed the Declaration on that day in order to appease local firework manufacturers.note The explanation is cultural inertia. Names and customs continue long after their religious significance has faded. This is also heavily based geography and linguistics. To suggest that, for example, the basis of the word "Easter" in the name of a Germanic goddess means that it's a pagan festival ignores the fact that this is a quirk of the English and German etymology of the word, and it is called something completely different in other languages (usually based on the Latin name for the festival: Pascha, itself derived from the Aramaic name for the Passover). The Easter controversy also runs afoul of the fact that almost every Christian denomination celebrates Easter at roughly the same time — between late March and late April, depending on the year and which calendar is used — due to the Gospels placing Christ's resurrection less than a week after that year's Passover, and that this date has been used for two millennia even by denominations that would have been very unlikely to even be aware of (or care about) the existence of a fairly minor Germanic deity half a world away.
Heaven & Hell
- Hell. Any time Hell is depicted as "the Devil's domain", typically with Satan sitting on a throne of skulls, idly twiddling his pitchfork while the damned are marched by in chains. The Bible clearly teaches that Hell (well, the Lake of Fire at least) was always intended as a punishment for Satan, not as a kingdom. The closest analogue to a realm of the dead is Sheol or the grave — a place where the dead go, but not for punishment or reward. It seems to be a place where absolutely nothing happens. This misconception comes from the line in Paradise Lost: "Better to rule in Hell, than serve in Heaven." However, when read in the context of the rest of the poem, it's pretty clear that Satan is lying to himself (Which the text makes explicit: "You'll find no realms there."). Satan does have some autonomy in Paradise Lost; he breaks his chains and founds a city (Pandaemonium). However, it's clear that he's still being tormented (both by the fires and by the absence of God), and that he has no actual power over the damned.
- Similarly, Satan isn't the one doing the punishing in Hell; that's God's job (or more precisely, that's the job of Hell itself, since simply being there is the punishment). Satan is getting punished alongside everyone else, and his role is to ensure that others share in his misery.
- The traditional view of Fire and Brimstone Hell is due to distinctions Lost in Translation. The word "Hell" is used as a translation for FOUR words used in the initial writing of The Bible in its original languages: Sheol, Hades, a single mention of Tartarus (2 Peter 2:4), and Gehenna. Sheol is a Hebrew word and Hades is Greek; both mean the same thing, the abode of the dead for all humans, whether good or bad, at least until Armageddon. Gehenna is a Greek word that when translated means "Valley of Hinnom", which was a trash dump where garbage filth, corpses of criminals, and the like were burned. Jesus re-purposed this word to refer to the future eventual end and Karmic Death of the wicked, whether human or demon, and also has the same symbolic meaning as the Lake of Fire in Revelation. Not everyone agrees whether it is a place of eternal torment or eternal destruction. Unfortunately, Bible translators usually translate all four words as "Hell", despite that Gehenna has a different meaning from the first two, thus causing a lot of confusion. More recent translations such as the New Living tend to put Sheol and Hades as "The Grave" and Tartarus and Gehenna as "Hell" (or leave them untranslated).
- On that note, the traditional phrase "He descended into Hell", may not refer to actual Hell, but may instead be another case of English translators using Hell for four different words. Probably the most popular interpretation of this phrase is that "Hell" refers to Sheol, the place of the dead and that Jesus descended there to take the souls waiting there into Heaven, which was then opened, rather than saving souls which were previously damned by God the Father. Further consider the possibility that Heaven, Hell, Purgatory, and Sheol exist outside of time, and that the passage of time as we experience it may not apply the same way outside of this world. The important thing to note though is that Heaven, Hell, and the like function on a completely different system of space and time than the physical universe does, and that when the Theologians/the Bible say things like "enter Heaven" and "descend into Hell", it's merely putting physical aspects into supernatural things we can't understand.
- On that note, any time Satan is depicted as an "opposite but equal" force to God the Father or Jesus. The passage cited as his Backstory (whether it is or not), in Isaiah, depicts him as a fallen angel. God is infinite. Satan is not. The reason Satan even thinks he can oppose God is the same reason rebellious edgy teens tend to think they're going to live forever (since that's basically exactly what he is). Dualism influenced some sects of early Christian Gnosticism, & some were quite open to the possibility of two equal deities. The concept was never very popular, partially because St. Paul trashed it in his Letter to Timothy, and partially because their extreme acesticism was somewhat off-putting to a lot of people. Manicheanism, which was similarly heavily dualistic, was also one of the chief competitors with Christianity during the early period, but quickly lost out due to many of its missionaries not being very good at their job (and several high-profile Christian bishops being former Manicheans who pilloried the philosophy). Beyond the issue of relative power or lack thereof, Satan is believed by most Christians to have already been defeated via Jesus' Crucifixion and Resurrection, and is at this point on borrowed time waiting for the other foot to come down. The only exceptions are the grimmest of Evangelical sects, and the Jehovah's Witnesses, who believe that Satan currently rules the world. But even these groups believe that Satan is destined to inevitably lose out to God at some point in the future.
- The classic appearance of Satan as a red-skinned, goat-hoofed, barb-tailed, goatee-wearing, and horned man does not come from Scripture. It emerged around the 19th century representing the faun Pan as a symbol of pagan decadence, becoming associated with sin and then with Satan. As for the Bible, the closest it gets to describing Satan's appearance is in 2 Corinthians 11:14, which warns that: "even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light." Satan was originally created as an angel just as sinless as the others [hence his actual name ("Satan" is simply a title, akin to "destroyer of worlds") "Lucifer" which translates to "bringer of light"], so that is what his true form would look like.note In fact, Satan would likely hardly ever even take on this stereotypical form. If he needed to pretend to be an unfallen angel, he'd be in his true form (or whatever you thought angels looked like). If he was trying to tempt you, he'd appear as something you'd readily accept the temptation from (such as your favorite pornographer). If, for whatever reason, he needed something actually "demonic", he'd probably take on a form somewhere between an Eldritch Abominationnote and a Living Shadow with Glowing Eyes of Doom.
- As a technical matter, Christianity does not teach that good people go to Heaven when they die (though Popular Christianity embraces this idea). The most ancient understanding of the person, inherited from Judaism, is of an individual who is a psycho-somatic whole, a unity of body and soul/spirit/breath. Therefore, to live fully, one had to be embodied. The early Christians, as with the sect of the Pharisees, believed that life after death involved not living in some alternate spiritual plane of existence, but a Resurrection of the Dead in a new, glorified body. Jesus' Resurrection, according to the early church was, in the words of St. Paul, "the first fruits", that is, the first of many to come at judgment day with the arrival of the Kingdom of God. Heaven was, according to the most ancient cosmologies, the domain of God in the Creation (think of it as God's loft in the city), not a separate dimension (see, Genesis 1:1), and was never intended to be the final resting place of anyone. In fact, according to the Book of Revelation, the New Jerusalem and the Kingdom of God come to Earth from Heaven, to dwell with God's people rather than the other way around. As with Hell, Heaven has been affected by the writings of Dante and medieval piety. The ancient creeds speak only of the Resurrection of the Body and the Life Everlasting (in resurrected, bodily form) here in the Creation.
- Anything that depicts or refers to dead souls as angels. Angels are not the souls of the departed. They are a separate Order of Creation and were on staff from the Beginning. Of course, in Catholicism at least, some souls do act as intercessors and provide guidance and miracles. They are called saints.
- Regarding the hierarchy of angels (from Catholic theology, though common in general Christianity and often in works that need an angelic army or government system) there are nine orders of a celestial hierarchy — from least to greatest: Angels, Archangels,note Virtues, Powers, Principalities, Dominions, Thrones, Cherubim, and Seraphim. Michael, the angel who cast Satan from Heaven, has proven difficult regarding which order, exactly, he belongs, to — the most common interpretation of his position, as you may have guessed from the trope, is as an archangel, which is the position accorded to him by St. Basil and a good many Greek Fathers, in so far as he is the prince of all angels. St. Bonaventura, on the other hand, refers to him as the prince of the Seraphim, the highest order of the angels, whereas St. Thomas Aquinas places him as prince of the Angels (lowest choir). This latter interpretation makes sense when considering the role of the angelic hierarchy as regards the degrees of their servitude — in a reverse from the human way of doing things, the higher orders of angels actually serve the lower orders. Following the Summa Theologiae of St. Thomas Aquinas and the writings of Dionysius the Pseudo-Areopagite, the division is more on nature rather than status. Archangel is not a choir so much as it is a title. Under the hierarchy listed by those two theologians, the only angels whose nature was sufficiently close to temporal to fall were the Cherubim (meaning Satan must have been one as well, though he was "unique" and his references tend to depict him more like a suped-up Seraph). Of course, this goes into the nature of the soul as well and the intellective and sensitive powers. Animals possess only sensitive powersnote , angels only possess intellective powers (and thus the only sins an angelic being can commit are envy and pride, as the others require a body, and thus the sensitive powers), whereas humanity is horizon (possessing both). It also demonstrates why a demon (fallen angel) cannot be redeemed, since they are eternal (there is no concept of "when" so "when" would they be able to change? — but then "when" did they fall, and wasn't that fall a change?). Note that all of the above is Word of Dante. In the Bible, the only thing said about Angelic hierarchy is that Michael is higher than the others.
- In addition: the perception that salvation will exclusively be afforded to Christians by God himself is not endemic to all of traditional Christianity. In Eastern and Oriental Orthodoxy, for example, salvation is seen as the result of one's disposition towards God when He is near us come the resurrection (if they are able to receive Him, they experience this closeness as bliss, and if they are not ready, as torment). However, outwardly being the most pious Orthodox Christian does not necessarily afford one salvation to someone, and physically appearing to live outside the Church or commit sins does not necessarily mean "eternal damnation". Eastern Church Fathers such as St. Isaac of Nineveh even preached universalism, and Bishop Kallistos Ware has suggested that even the salvation of the Devil cannot be determined. Ultimately, who is saved (typically outside of saints and the Theotokos (Mary)) is a mystery, and thus Christians are taught not to judge non-Christians. Some Western Christians, such as early Quakers, also were a bit less discriminatory in their perception of salvation than fire-and-brimstone narratives of the day.
- Purgatory, as Catholic teaching goes, is not a third place where souls go after they die. Don't confuse it with other portrayals on television, either. It's a place/state where the souls of folks who are headed to Heaven are cleaned up of the effects of their sins before they enter the Pearly Gates. Catholics believe that the damage we cause from forgiven sins leaves tarnishing on the soul. As St. Paul notes, purgatory removes such impurities "with fire" before the soul can enter Heaven, for "Nothing unclean can enter Heaven." A good analogy of Purgatory is what happens if a young child is given a drink, purposefully spills it, and regrets it. The child can say "I'm sorry", and the mommy says "That's OK". But there's still a mess to be cleaned up from the effect of the spill. You can also think of purgatory as the "front porch" of Heaven, where God gives you a thorough scrub-down of any remaining impurities. Your mom loves you and wants you to come in for supper, sure. But you're going nowhere if you're tracking mud inside.
- Not even Catholics can tell you how or what goes on in Purgatory, or how long the process lasts. Dante for his part favored—with some justification—a timeframe on the order of centuries. In the Purgatorio, he caught up with the Roman poet Statius, whom he claims—without historical evidence—converted to Christianity in his old age. Statius lived in the first century CE. When Dante visits in the early fourteenth, he is only just being completely purged. To help in cleaning yourself up from the effects of sin before you die, the Catholic practice of plenary indulgence began. It has very specific rules to complete. It is NOT the same as "buying your way into Heaven" or "working your way to Heaven." Historically, a few rich people and misunderstandings in almsgiving made indulgences seem like heavenly bribes. Today, nothing is required to be given except a person's devotion to the practices (defined by the Pope) that allow the indulgence to help clean you up, reducing your "time" in or eliminating the need for stopping in Purgatory.
- For those playing at home, the word "Purgatory" isn't found in The Bible, hence, the concept does not exist in the Protestant tradition. But then, neither is the word "Trinity". Yet, the concepts are there for both. See 1 Corinthians 3:11-15 to start. The book of 2 Maccabees, which isn't in many Protestant versions (or for that matter, any of the Jewish versions) of The Bible's Old Testament, also shows support in praying for the dead to help them find purity so as to complete their journey to God. Needless to say, a lot of heated debate about the Biblical basis (or lack thereof) for the doctrine has taken place over the centuries, which need not be replicated here.
- The theory of Limbo is commonly misunderstood, and sometimes confused with purgatory. Limbo is supposedly a place for those who cannot enter Heaven, but do not deserve Hell, and is actually a term for two realms: the Limbo of the Infants, where infants who die before being baptized end up, and the Limbo of the Fathers, where folks like Moses and Samuel ended up before Jesus allowed them to enter Heaven. It is therefore distinct from Purgatory as being a permanent residence (or semi-permanent in the case of the Fathers) rather than a temporary place of purification. Also, while Purgatory is a place of punishment, if only temporary, Limbo is essentially Heaven-lite: a place of "natural" (as opposed to divine) happiness. The most important difference between the two, however, is that, while Limbo has been postulated by several important church figures (like St. Augustine), it has never been adopted as an official church doctrine. The Church officially takes no position on the matter, except to essentially say "God Is Good, so He will make sure everyone gets what they deserve". A plurality of opinions exist on the subject, which the Church maintains are all equally valid. For example, Pope Benedict XVI, when he was still a Cardinal, went on record to say that he believes unbaptized infants would enter Heaven, to absolutely no controversy. Needless to say, having largely rejected baptism as the primary means of regeneration (i.e. salvation), Protestants generally reject the concept of Limbo as well; while having been born with a sinful nature, infants are not held accountable and thus would enter Heaven upon death.
- One of the most prevailing myths about Catholic Missionaries is that they are there to force their faith on people. There may be other Christian groups that do do this, but the Roman Catholic Church is not one of them.
- The main point of a mission is humanitarian aid, missionaries become missionaries for the same reason people volunteer for other charities — they want to help. It's also some of the hardest and most dangerous work on the planet, the fact that missionaries protect the communities they join and are often praised by them, and the fact that the mission brings things like sustainable water, food, health care (including medicines for people with AIDS), education, good moral teachings, and hope to billions is entirely lost on most people.
- The first buildings established by a mission tend to be rudimentary medical facilities, followed by schools. It is generally the people themselves who ask for a church. But any teaching of Christianity only happens when the priest asks people if they would like to learn about the faith; if they agree, they then come to the priest. Otherwise, when a missionary priest approaches a tribe, they can ask him to leave, and he has to go if they do. The priest is there only as long as the people want him, and he is not allowed to force Christianity on them. During the mission the priest (and often volunteers) will go and build pumps, a hospital, a school, and start teaching people to read.
- Related to the above two points, the priest is not there to force another culture on the people or tell them that their current beliefs are wrong — often a missionary will be the only person making sure the local children know their own history and culture. The Vatican has numerous letters on file thanking them for the Word of God, including one from a tribe of Native Americans, which is written on tree bark.
- Protestant missionary work, likewise, has a popular image of individuals venturing into places and cultures they have no understanding of to preach fire-and-brimstone and replace local culture with their own. At most, this is a Shallow Parody of complex reality in the intent and practice of missionary work.
- The infamous death of John Allen Chau in an attempt to evangelize to the violently xenophobic tribe of North Sentinel Island serves as an excellent example of both the most purely evangelical sort of mission, and of the reality behind the stereotype. While commonly portrayed as a foolhardy venture that endangered the locals as much as himself, in reality Chau was an experienced missionary who felt a moral obligation to enter a dangerous situation, and prepared accordingly. In addition to familiarizing himself with nearby cultures and languages likely to be related to those of the Sentinalese over the course of two previous missions to other contacted islands in the chain, his preparations included extended quarantine and vaccinations to prevent introduction of disease to the isolated population, and gifts of the sort that had been accepted in previous peaceful contact attempts in the 1990s by anthropologists. While one can debate the philosophical motive for his venture, he nonetheless entered into it well-prepared and fully cognizant that he would be killed if the tribe was not in a welcoming mood.
Morality in Practice
- Where do the vast majority of Christians stand on alcohol, gambling and legal drugs such as tobacco? They are fine, so long as you do it in moderation and do not let them harm yourself or others (which in the case of gambling means don't take more than someone can afford to lose). Most of the rest, typically the newer, less traditional end, take the view that humans have proven that they cannot do such things in moderation and so you should not do it. Alcohol, gambling, etc. are not evil. Letting those things rule you is.
- Much debate is possible about the attitudes of various Christians toward sex, and there have been very many problematic statements made and repressive attitudes held by Christians. However, a work does fail Religious Studies forever if it claims or implies that The Bible or any mainstream Christian denomination (including Catholics and mainstream fundamentalists such as evangelicals) actually teach that you shouldn't have sex because Sex is Bad. As opposed to "you shouldn't have sex unless you promise to stay with the person forever." You are also wrong if you believe that the Catholic Church teaches that sex is solely for procreation, and that all forms of birth control are wrong. As of Humanae Vitae and Evangelium Vitae (official doctrinal letters issued by Pope Paul IV and Pope John Paul II respectively), the Church teaches that sex has two purposes: procreative and unitive (bringing the couple closer together and helping preserve the marriage). The Church is opposed to artificial contraception, maintaining that artificial methods disrupt both the unitive and procreative aspects of sex; however, natural methods, such as Natural Family Planning do not disrupt these aspects and are permissible if the couple has important reasons (physical, psychological, material or others) to limit the number of children or to postpone conception of a child. Specifically, Catholicism requires 4 facets for the sex to be considered a "good" act. It has to be Relational, Unifying, Humanistic, and Fecund. It can satisfy that through the law of double effect though, meaning intent, course, and principle can lead to it even if the result is not the production of life. Doing less is considered a privation, or lessening of the act (sort of like cutting down a redwood forest for the sake of obtaining a single toothpick). That said, natural family planning is a sufficient method.
- When the Catholic Church refers to the sin of lust, it does not mean that sexual desire or attraction is wrong. Lust refers to the treatment of another person as nothing more than a sex object, thereby dehumanizing that person.
- Also, the Catholic Church does not teach that infertile couples are simply not meant to have children. While the Church is opposed to prevalent artificial reproductive technologies, such as in vitro fertilization, the Church does support ongoing research designed to treat the underlying causes and conditions of infertility, allowing couples to have babies naturally. This means that infertile couples can still have sex, and they are permitted to use fertility drugs or other treatments to assist conception or assist in consummating the act, so long as these methods do not attempt to substitute for sex and do not harm any conceived children. So, Viagra and fertility drugs are allowed, but in vitro fertilization and artificial insemination are prohibited since they involve a substitute for the sexual act. Also, the process of in vitro fertilization can create fertilized eggs (embryos) that are not transferred back into the womb — some fail to develop and die before they can be returned to the woman's body, others are frozen, sometimes indefinitely, and others may be destroyed. As life begins at conception, this is equal to abortion, and another reason for the prohibition of in vitro fertilization.
- The Catholic stance is that using condoms is still better than unprotected sex. The Catholic Church does not look kindly on sex before marriage (or slightly more liberally, without intent to marry or without being in love, which brings in different cultural matters), but they are against that more than they are against using condoms at all, and the general advice is that you should not be having sexual intercourse before marriage (CCC 2353). Period. That said, the Church's stance on condom use—as noted above—has not always been particularly clear. In fact, it wasn't until the 1960s that it had an officially defined position on the issue at all, and even then it caught a lot of people in and out of the Church by surprise.
Science and Christianity
- The notion that The Middle Ages, particularly the 'Dark Ages' (now referred to as the 'Early Middle-Ages') were a time of darkness where religious leaders suppressed scientific advancement has in fact been widely discredited and is now considered untrue by most historians. Many inventions were actually promoted by the Church, which also worked to preserve Pagan writings and built scientific experiments into the very fabric of the Vatican. And don't forget that many priests were also scientists, or rather, most scientists were also priests (or clericals at least). Here is a list that just shows the notable ones, including Henri Lemaître, a Belgian priest, astrophysicist, and professor of physics at the Catholic University of Leuven and the guy who originally proposed Big Bang theory, one of the most important theories in modern physics. There's also the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, the Vatican Observatory, one of the oldest scientific institutions in the world, the former priest and famous evolutionary biologist Francisco Ayala, and Gregor Mendel. You know, that guy with peas who pretty much figured out genetics and was also a monk. The irony here is that the people who regularly claim that Christianity stifles research and the acquisition of knowledge are failing to do any research themselves.
- The practice of medicine was never opposed by the Catholic Church. Clerics who studied medicine were indeed discouraged from practicing it outside of monasteries, but only because doing so exposed them to the risk of actually being "corrupted": in the Middle Ages, medical knowledge and skills were obviously very rare, so to possess them meant having a high standard of living, with greater access to money, women, and the chance to aspire to high social status; all things clergymen must give up the moment they take vows. Therefore, the only thing that was disapproved was for clergymen to put into practice their medical knowledge outside of monasteries and other places of worship, to ensure that they did so without asking for anything in return. The study of medical fields like anatomy was also never forbidden by the Catholic Church. While in ancient Greece and Rome it was forbidden for religious reasons to study the human body on human corpses and so it was studied on animal corpses and unborn human fetuses, in the Middle Ages and forward the study of anatomy was permitted and even encouraged, by the Catholic Church. In fact, autopsies, especially those of important people such as nobles, clergy, the wealthy and academics, were often performed in churches and, when necessary, even for forensic purposes.
- Likewise evolution. The claim that the Catholic Church/the Pope opposes evolution is still used today. Especially egregious considering that evolution is part of the Catholic catechism. Creationists are not representative of most Christians and some of the older, traditional branches embraced the work of Charles Darwin within a few decades of publication. For the first decades after Darwin, the Church took no official position at all. However, in the debates over Modernism (1910s-1930s mostly) it tended to get bashed, so Pius XII put out an encyclical in 1950 clarifying that the evolution of species did not contradict the doctrines of the Church, and that the Church's job was to teach faith and morality, not arbitrate between scientific theories. The upshot essentially was "you must believe that God created the world, but believe whatever you like about how He did it." Some individual priests/theologians/etc opposed it; but it is indeed accurate to say that the Church never opposed evolution. In fact, the foundation of the molecular basis of evolution (genetics) was first laid by a Catholic monk, Gregor Mendel, experimenting with pea plants about the same time as Darwin.
- What's very ironic, however, is that Creationism is indeed a very common belief amongst lay Catholics, in complete ignorance of The Vatican's above official stance on the matter.
- For that part, the infamous case of Samuel Wilberforce, the Anglican Oxford Bishop who opposed Darwin's ideas, is grossly misrepresented in popular history. He is usually mocked for supposedly making bad arguments and resorting to simply mocking Darwin's theories with bad jokes about monkeys; in reality, he was a highly intelligent man and most of his arguments were based on orthodox scientific theories of the time- and were so good and insightful, Darwin himself took them on board and worked to modify his theories in response and went on to regard Wilberforce as an outright genius. With regards to the infamous 1860 debate between himself and Darwin's supporter Thomas Huxley, Wilberforce (even if he technically lost) gave as good as he got, the two became friendly afterwards, and the debate itself- which is often presented as the Trope Codifier for Science vs Religion-, was actually a pretty jovial affair, a lively intellectual debate that was initially famous mainly because both sides thoroughly enjoyed themselves.
- It should also be noted that Christian opposition to evolution is only in part because it goes against a literal interpretation of Genesis. Several Christian commentators, including St. Augustine, held to non-literal views of the creation account long before the true age of Earth and the universe were known. More importantly, they object to a naturalistic explanation because they think it would undermine the role of God in creation in general (i.e. life arising by chance) and the relationship between man and God in particular (i.e. consciousness arising by chance).
- Regarding creationism, that has always largely been a Protestant phenomenon. Not even all Protestants of course, but those of a particular fundamentalist variety, and even then mostly in the United States. Modern creationism (with the idea of flood geology, an actual six-day creation, etc.) began in the 19th century as a reaction against modern scientific theories which showed literal interpretations of Genesis were untenable. Rather than accept this and reject such an interpretation (as Catholics plus many liberal Protestants do) they doubled down. Protestants of this variety tend to claim that Catholics are actually not Christians at all, it must be noted, and hold very negative views toward Protestants who don't take this stance as well.
- Not only does Catholicism accept the notion of the Big Bang, but it was actually Msgr. Georges Lemaître, a Catholic priest, who originally theorized it. In point of fact, the term "Big Bang" was originally supposed to be disparaging, and the person who coined it, Fred Hoyle, backed a "Steady State" theory that held that the Universe has always been more or less the same. Why? Because he was an agnostic, and thought that the universe having a definable origin in time was too much like Biblical creation. However, when the Pope wanted to refer to the Big Bang as the moment of creation, Fr. Lemaitre explicitly advised him against it. Lemaitre was enough of both a scientist and a theologian to realize that mixing science and religion was not a good idea. He acknowledged that it didn't necessarily prove God, as a materialist interpretation was also possible.
- The "Vatican Secret Archives" are real, but they in no way resemble how many would depict them. In this context, the word "Secret" is closer to what we would call "private",note and they're better known as the Papal Archives. Unfortunately, the fact they ARE open to scholars of all faiths (and none), and that this is thoroughly decent of them, is entirely lost on a lot of rather militant and ignorant people who continually demand access to what they think is 'a sealed vault full of all their dirtiest secrets'. The actual vault contains every letter ever sent to the Vatican, including the famous divorce correspondences of a certain Henry Tudor (a strange fellow who ruled most of a pious if somewhat backwards little island off the coast of France), and a letter written on a roll of tree bark from a Native American tribe thanking the Church for the Word of God. To quote the official site:
"More than 1000 years of history on 85km of shelving. The Archivio Segreto Vaticano has served the Holy See for 400 years and is one of the most important and renowned research centres in the world. It is a treasure trove of peerless precious documents; millions of papers and parchments that can be assessed by scholars of all nationalities and faiths."
- The idea that Galileo was persecuted by the Church for his teachings is also false. The details are touched on in the Useful Notes for Heresies and Heretics, but the basic rundown is that the whole thing was a personal dispute that got out of hand.
- Galileo was neither the first nor the most prominent individual to advocate a heliocentric universe. That was Nicolaus Copernicus, a Catholic priest, in a work dedicated to Pope Paul III which also insisted that the theory did not contradict Christian doctrine. Fast forward 80 years and "Copernicanism" is considered a plausible (if not well supported) cosmological position, but not widely accepted for scientific rather than theological reasons.note .
- Enter Galileo, a particularly insistent proponent of the theory. The Church had taken a position on the matter — the Holy Office concluding that geocentrism had Biblical support — but was in the process of reconciling its theology with a heliocentric universe and asked Galileo and others not to publicly advocate theory as anything more than opinion until they could find solid proof for it. Galileo, being a rather difficult person, refused, started squaring off against the Church, alienated his friends in the scientific community, and publicly insulted the Pope, causing the Church to come down hard on his head to protect its reputation. In other words, Galileo was prosecuted for being a dick to people powerful enough to make him regret it.
- He was also treated rather fairly by the Inquistion: he was only charged with being "suspect of heresy" (the Church wouldn't call it heresy until they were solidly convinced one way or the other), and sentenced to house arrest in a sumptuous mansion to be waited on hand-and-foot by a Vatican-dispatched servant. He was also permitted to continue writing scientific works, as long as he stayed away from heliocentrism. The infamous recantation is also not as bad as it seems: what Galileo was made to recant was that heliocentrism was absolutely true and that the Church was wrong to oppose him, which is true in retrospect but for which he had no justification in claiming at the time.
- Another thing worth noting is that the Church's defense of a geocentric universe was not based in a literal interpretation of the Bible, but rather the sum total of all Classical astronomy up to that point, particularly the Ptolemaic model. In context, Galileo's position would have been the equivalent of someone today opposing the theory of evolution based on a book they read to the contrary. The Church also acknowledged its wrongdoing in the matter — namely, weighing in on the issue at all and using the Inquisition to essentially prosecute a personal insult to the Pope — and both apologized and officially pardoned Galileo.
- On the above, Catholics were not even the most vocal critics of Copernicus and his ideas, much less the leadership of the Catholic Church. In fact, it was fundamentalist Protestants who were the most vocal critics, as well as the ones who pressured the Church to disassociate from Copernicus in the first place. Martin Luther himself even referred to the ideas as "absurd," which, while not much, is still much harsher than the average Catholic was.
- Also worthy of note, though it may seem obvious to many: the Galileo Affair has absolutely nothing to do with the question of whether the Earth was flat or round. A surprisingly high number of people (including many Catholics) somehow believe that Galileo's revolutionary claim was that "the Earth was round, in contrast to the dominant opinion at the time that the Earth was flat", a statement which is amazingly wrong. The fact that the Earth is round and not flat was known since Antiquity (being easily proven through basic geometry) and had never been forgotten (see for instance Dante's The Divine Comedy: Hell is a cone going through the spherical Earth, down to the center of the spherical Earth (which, once crossed, means that gravity is reversed), Dante and Virgil emerging on the Southern Hemisphere).
- The "God of the gaps" fallacy, despite its use and its common perception as a means of disproving the existence of God, was actually formulated in the first place by the Christian evangelist Henry Drummond and several other later theologians who felt that using God as the direct explanation for currently unexplained natural phenomena ended up limiting God to the unknown rather than acknowledging Him as the creator of the known. Here are what some prominent Christian thinkers had to say about the fallacy:
Dietrich Bonhoeffer: If in fact the frontiers of knowledge are being pushed further and further back (and that is bound to be the case), then God is being pushed back with them, and is therefore continually in retreat. We are to find God in what we know, not in what we don't know....Charles Alfred Coulson: There is no 'God of the gaps' to take over at those strategic places where science fails; and the reason is that gaps of this sort have the unpreventable habit of shrinking.
- Whatever other hang-ups young-earth creationists have with evolution, they generally don't believe that Satan or God put fossils straight into the ground without living dinosaurs to produce them in the first place. They don't think Satan put them there because they don't think Satan has that much control over the physical world, and they don't think God put them there because they don't think an omnibenevolent God would deliberately deceive humans in such a way. YE creationists do actually believe that dinosaurs lived, died and were fossilized; they just think this all happened on a much quicker timescale than most scientists do. One exception to this is the Omphalos theory published by Philip Gosse in a book of the same name c. 1857, which theorized that God created things such as trees with preexisting rings, plus navels on Adam and Eve (Omphalos means "navel" in Greek). This was not accepted for exactly the reasons stated above. It also exists now in the form of a parody religion called "Last Thursdayism" stating that God created everything last Thursday, with memories of supposed prior times included.
Other Common Misconceptions
- Most Christians, quite simply, do not believe in The Rapture/7 Year Tribulation/One World Conspiracy popularized by the Left Behind novels/films, and if they live outside America, they probably don't even know what it is. It is a relatively recent theory and mostly held by Evangelical Protestants, and generally ignored in other Christian Traditions. Eschatology (Study of Last Things) has been discussed and debated since the very earliest days of the Church and the only things generally agreed upon near universally by Christians are Jesus is coming back, he will judge the world, and Heaven and Earth will be destroyed and remade. To make things even more complicated, there is even debate about what that last part even means, ranging anywhere from a Reset Button on current existence, to some sort of utopian new world, to a merging of Heaven and Earth, to any number of other theories. For instance.
- That faith and works are mutually exclusive, or that the doctrine of works is unbiblical. There's whole sections both supporting and rejecting Luther's doctrine of Sola Fide. And at least one passage that says both are necessary. That said, the issue has never been faith or works being necessary for salvation to the exclusion of the other, but rather the relationship between the two. Traditional Christianity denied that you could "work your way into heaven" (that was a heresy known as Pelagianism), and affirmed that salvation was through faith and the grace of God. However, one participated with that grace and allowed it to work through the Sacraments and good works. The Protestant reformers took issue with this, believing that only faith was sufficient for salvation, and that good works were merely demonstrative of true faith. The issue was really over the question of penance and indulgences, neither of which were supposed to be a case of working your way to heaven, but ended up becoming that way in practice thanks to some unscrupulous practices on the part of clergymen and pardoners. The Council of Trent reaffirmed the primacy of grace and strictly limited the granting of indulgences, but by then the damage had already been done and the Reformation had pretty much already happened. Nowadays, the difference is largely the matter of two questions: "Is Christ's sacrifice sufficient alone and by itself to render salvation even without your active reception?" and "Are works required as well as true faith, or are works simply the natural demonstrated result of true faith?"
- The Catholic attitude toward witchcraft. While Catholicism has always taught, and continues to teach, that witchcraft (or any occult practice) is a sin, the reasons for this teaching have been misunderstood, even by members of the Church hierarchy. First, Catholicism does not teach that witches have supernatural powers and endanger the community with their magic spells; in fact, since antiquity, the belief that witches have supernatural powers has been regarded as heresy. (As noted earlier, during parts of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, some Church officials either disregarded or were ignorant of this teaching.) Catholicism's main objection to witchcraft is that, in attempting to arrogate supernatural powers to themselves, practitioners are showing a lack of trust in God, attempting to place themselves outside — even above — His authority. Thus, according to Catholicism, the main danger posed by witches is not that they can cast spells that kill people and destroy crops, but that they could lead people away from God — comparable to how many people who do not believe in psychic powers dislike mediums because they perceive them as frauds and charlatans.
- The Grandpa God image of God as a white-haired, bearded old man has its origins in Medieval and Rennaisance art, which was in turn heavily based on Classical Mythology. That being the case, the charge that Christians worship a "bearded man in the sky" is very much mistaken. For the vast majority of Christians, God's form isn't confined by space or time at all, let alone in a humanoid form.note The Biblical depiction of God would be more closer to an inversion of Eldritch Abomination (an "Eldritch Wonder" if you will) which seeing him would have you disintegrated. The earliest Christians took that description so seriously that, for centuries, there was a strict taboo on depicting God in images at all, not unlike the prohibition that exists in Islam. In fact, the Catholic Church's very first catechism states that the fact that these aren't meant to be accurate depictions of God is precisely the point; a belief that God's true appearance can be captured in images is idolatry.
- Angels are no exception, whenever they take a humanlike form, they don't appear as Winged Humanoid depicted in various painting, but instead, they're wingless, which is why the mobs in Sodom surrounding Lot didn't know they're angels in the first place. As well, the book of Hebrews speaks of showing hospitality to all, as people may have "entertained angels unaware", implying they can appear to persons as indistinguishable from mortal men. While there are winged Cherubium and Seraphim, they both are more close to Eldritch Abomination rather than Winged Humanoid.
- Contrary to popular belief, the Catholic Church does not, in modern times, forbid civil divorce. (Although it doesn't exactly like the concept, either, and encourages couples to work out their problems whenever possible.) What it does forbid is remarriage after a civil divorce, unless a church annulment was also obtained. An annulment also isn't just divorce by another name, it's a declaration that the marriage did not meet the canonical requirements and so, as far as the Church is concerned, never actually happened in the first place.note A divorced Catholic who wishes to remarry without this step may do so, but they must do so outside of the Church, and is not permitted to receive communion until this is resolved.