Faithless Fairy Tales

By Jeff Laird

This is the first in a series of articles examining how inaccurate, warped versions of real historical events are misused in order to attack Christianity. These Faithless Fairy Tales may satisfy “once upon a time” appetites, but they don’t represent the truth. These are some of the more common anti-religious historical myths thrown at Christians, debunked by means of the actual storylines.

Mark Twain and G.K. Chesterton came to nearly identical opinions about the odd nature of truth: it’s sometimes stranger than fiction, because fiction is purposefully made to fit our preferences. Unfortunately, that makes it easy to transplant fiction in place of fact, then use those fictions to justify the original preferences. This is particularly common with respect to history, where critics of religion have an insatiable appetite for fiction, often at the expense of truth. Snubbing easily discovered facts, some skeptics choose instead to deal in faithless fairy tales.

An almost too-perfect example of this occurred in the first episode of the new TV series Cosmos. The stylized depiction of Giordano Bruno was so slanted, so historically simplistic, and so blatantly misrepresented, that it became one of the more discussed points of that episode. Such a biased presentation doesn’t add up as an effort to provide historical context…but it does make sense as deliberate attempt to slam religion. Cosmos portrayed Bruno as a humble philosopher, persecuted for his freethinking science. In reality, Bruno was a Dominican friar who caustically and overtly denied major theological doctrines of his own church.

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History says Bruno was a polarizing figure on the wrong end of a deep theological dispute; Cosmos re-branded him as a martyr for the cause of science. This is hardly the first time Bruno’s been used as such; a hallmark of these faithless fairy tales is in their constant re-telling, despite all evidence to the contrary. Accepting the pop culture caricature is like trusting the movie Braveheart as your reference point for the life of William Wallace.

Separating facts from fairy tales is important, because it’s irrational to come to a negative view of anything in response to caricatures, rather than actual historical events. Among the most common faithless fairy tales I encounter are Galileo, the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, and the Scopes Monkey Trial. Historical information on these is not terribly difficult to find. Even a brief check of secular history shows the fairy tale version is simply untrue. Yet their mythical retellings persist. The next four articles in the series will each be devoted to one of these misguided myths.
For now, here are summaries of these skeptical tall tales, followed by a brief synopsis of their actual accounts. First off is Giordano Bruno, who, thanks to Cosmos, is sure to become a new favorite of the religious critic.

Note carefully, the point is certainly not to justify any of these historical events. Incidents like the Crusades and the Inquisition ought to be criticized, and then some, but only according to what actually happened, not a juiced-up tabloid version. Similarly, no particular attempt is being made here to paint Catholicism in a bad light; the fact that the Catholic Church figures in most of these incidents simply is what it is…

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