Sunday, September 6, 2009


"Congratulations to Sam Harris on a characteristically brilliant broadside. His book, The End of Faith is one of those books that deserves to replace the Gideon Bible in every hotel room in the land."

Thus Richard Dawkins (

So let's see just what kind of reading our sojourner in Motel Six will enjoy if Dawkins has his way.

One of the most striking and shocking passages in the book deals with the religion-driven horrors of the Inquisition, where "thumbscrews may be applied, or toe-screws, or a pear-shaped vise may be inserted into your mouth, vagina, or anus." Alternatively, "You may be bound to a bench, with a cauldron filled with mice placed upside down on your abdomen. With the requisite application of heat to the iron, the mice will begin to burrow into your belly."

Harris's source for this is a 1930s book by one John Swain, otherwise unknown to history, called The Pleasures of the Torture Chamber. Its title alone should indicate the kind of titillating, salacious potpourri that this is. And ITS sources? Religious propaganda!

The sources it cites are people like John Marchant, an industrious Protestant pamphleteer who churned out broadsheet after broadsheet in the first half of the eighteenth century, or Anthony Gavin, a renegade Catholic priest (or so he claimed) from Spain who made his living in England by tell-all confessions about atrocious Catholic practices. These in turn follow a rich vein of anti-"Popery" dating at least from Foxe's Book of Martyrs in the 1550s, long-lasting fruit of the two centuries of struggle between Catholics and Protestants that killed more Christians than Christians ever killed infidels. Some of this propaganda is based on fact but most of it is sheer fancy, designed to inflame the indignation of fellow-Protestants while tickling their prurient imagination with borderline porno about vaginas and anuses.

Now, just the facts, Sam.

Thumbscrews were never used by the Inquisition. They were an invention of Dawkins's fellow-countrymen, first used by William Cecil in the reign of Queen Elizabeth to extract confessions from...guess who? Catholics! Toe-screws I've never heard of; why couldn't you just use thumbscrews on the toes? The "pear-shaped vise" may have existed and may on occasion have been used by the secular power, but again, there is no evidence that the Inquisition ever used it. The inquisitors were neither naive nor (as a general rule) sadistic. They were certainly well aware of the spiritual dangers of sexual torture for excitement's sake; for this reason, instructions to inquisitors included adjurations to leave the sex organs alone (they made their victims put on white drawers after they'd humiliated them by stripping them naked), and indeed to do nothing that would mutilate people or imperil their lives (that was reserved for the secular powers, to whom prisoners judged guilty were always handed over for physical punishment or execution--hypocrisy, if you like, but historical fact). As for the cauldron of mice, this is the kind of masturbatory fantasy dreamed up by sadists too timid to follow in de Sade's footsteps. In fact, the three methods favored by the Inquisition--and used to the exclusion of almost all others--were: the rack; suspension; and...wait for it...


Right. Dick Cheney's favorite torture, naturally under the title of tortura del agua, was also a favorite of the Spanish Inquisition. The method was identical: victim bound and laid on his or her back, linen cloth inserted in throat, water poured onto cloth until choking began, then cloth removed, process repeated as often as necessary.

It would take too long to document all the other travesties in Harris's account. He totally confuses the treatments of heretics, witches and Jews, compounding what were quite different procedures into a monolithic chamber of horrors. The kinds of tortures used by the Inquisition were relatively mild compared with the tortures used on a regular basis by the civil powers in any "civilized" country, and--especially if you were accused of witchcraft--you were probably better off with the Inquisition than in a civil court: a lot of Catholic clergy were quite skeptical about the diabolical power of witches, Protestant clergy and laity were much more enthusiastic witch-hunters. What the Inquisition did was quite atrocious enough, especially coming from people who were supposed to love their neighbors, but that doesn't justify replacing genuine history with the fevered imaginings of people who were themselves religious zealots.

Anyone who wants the true history of the Inquisition can read Henry Charles Lea's monumental History of the Inquisition of the Middle Ages and History of the Inquisition of Spain, the full text of both of which is readily available on Google Books--a bit on the dry side, and lacking the salacious details Harris craves for, but reliable and comprehensive. For that matter, an acclaimed BBC documentary on Myths of the Inquisition, aired ten years before Harris published, explodes all the hoary garbage he peddled, so it's hardly esoteric knowledge that we're talking about here. End of Faith is, despite its 62 pages of notes and overstuffed bibliography, as research-free as LCN. At least Harris had the honesty to bring out LCN with a bare three-and-a-bit pages of notes, a 10-item list of "books I recommend", and no index.

But what's really shocking about all this is that--to the best of my knowledge--no-one has ever called Harris on his distortions of history. Not in any of the reviews I've seen, certainly. Not even people like Dawkins or Natalie Angier (who should surely know better). Horrible suspicion: they may indeed know better, but keep their mouths shut because, even if Harris is an asshole, he's OUR asshole, and you don't rock your own boat.

And then, a hundred pages down the road, this stunning discovery: Harris thinks torture is okay! Granted he pussyfoots around it, but after endorsing the unspeakable Dershowitz's adolescent ticking-bomb scenario, he holds his nose and dives in. Yes, torture is fine and dandy, if...If it's useful in the so-called War on Terror. If the information it yields saves lives. Not that he or anyone else has yet come up with a credible case of a single life saved by it. And never mind that the FBI, who should know more about interrogation than most people, think it's useless as a way of obtaining valid information. Nor that the only two viable functions of torture are (a) frightening and cowing groups regarded as subversive and (b) securing confessions that are politically or ideologically convenient. "You want witches? Pass the thumbscrews and I'll give you more witches than you can shake a broomstick at...Sorry, what was that? Wrong century? Oh, it's terrorists you want now! What for? Ratchet up the threat level and keep the military-industrial complex in business? Gotcha. Pass the water-jug."

Speaking of that, did you notice that Harris never mentions water-boarding? Not in his account of Inquisition tortures, even though it was one of the Inquisition's top three. Not in his discussion of whether it's okay to torture terrorists, even though it tops the CIA's list. Not one solitary word. Why do you think that is? Like a guess? Mine is, he'd do anything to keep you from realizing that he supports the very same kind of torture the Inquisition practiced. That wouldn't look so good for his Religion's-horrible, Atheists-are-lovely argument, now would it?

Indeed, bullshit makes strange bedfellows How about Sam Harris and General William Boykin? Yeah, the guy who said "We're a Christian nation. because our foundation and our roots are Judeo-Christian. Did I say Judeo-Christian? Yes. Judeo-Christian. The enemy that has come against our nation is a spiritual enemy. His name is Satan. And if you do not believe that Satan is real, you are ignoring the same Bible that tells you about God" ( http://www.irregulartimes. com/tortureboykin.html). But both Boykin the armed fundamentalist and Harris the committed infidel are on board in the war on Iraq, sorry, IN Iraq, and Afghanistan--in the crusade against Terror, the anti-jihad jihad against the Muslims, most of whom "are utterly deranged by their religious faith" (LCN p. 85). If it comes to that, Hitchens is on board too . Two out of the Four Horsemen on the side of the angels. And, incidentally, on a side that most atheists and humanists wouldn't touch with a bargepole. Life's sure way more complex than you'd like to think it is.

But for me, the most disturbing thing about Harris is not his racism, nor his acceptance of torture, nor his siding with Christian warriors, nor his cavalier way with historical facts. It's his credulity.

Later on there'll be a chapter on this blog entitled "The Credulity of the Skeptic". For now, just note this. On p. 49 of LCN, Harris says that the Bible is "brimming with lies". Harris doesn't believe the Bible, but he does believe the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth-century equivalents of today's Christian fundamentalists--believes in their phoniest propaganda, as long as it makes some other Christians, Catholics in this case, look bad. In other words, he'll grab onto anything that supports his case, regardless of trivial details like whether it's true or not.

I think that fact alone pretty well takes Harris out of play in this science v. religion business, don't you? Time to move on to Hitchens--at worst, in contrast with the dour Harris, he's good for a laugh or two.

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