It is all too easy to read the history of the Middle Ages as an extended chronicle of rank hypocrisy. The philosophy and theology of the epoch harped ceaselessly on the den of pollution that was the material world, on the need of the faithful to renounce it in order to avoid eternal hellfire. Yet the actual events on the ground, as it were, show all too plainly that the hearts of men — not least the men of the Roman Church — were as consumed as ever with worldly status, riches, and pleasures. Confronted with this contradiction, we naturally want to assume that no one is acting in good faith. Edward Gibbon devoted hundreds of pages to skewering the discrepancies between the words and the actions of the powerful, lecherous, and self-serving men of the Medieval Christian establishment in his delicately merciless eighteenth-century prose. Many Marxist thinkers wish to see the whole of the Medieval Church as an elaborate sham cooked up by the ruling classes to keep the ordinary folks who did all the real work around the place fearful and docile.

Such interpretations are made still more tempting by the difficulty we moderns have in wrapping our minds around the Medieval worldview in general. When the people of the Middle Ages attempt to tell us through their surviving documents how palpably real their religion was for them, we think they must be putting us on. Even the genuinely devout of today don’t live so close to these things — don’t really believe that there are witches in their midst weaving sinister Satanic plots, potential miracles around every corner, and a good chance that the apocalypse described in the Book of Revelation could arrive tomorrow. But the people of the Middle Ages did.

In light of this, it may be better to understand the Middle Ages not as an era of conscious hypocrisy but rather one of human spirits that were willing in conflict with flesh that was weak. People wanted to renounce the pleasures of the world, but, as the twentieth-century historian Barbara Tuchman put it, “the generality of mankind is not made for renunciation. Economic man and sensual man are not suppressible.” The gap between word and deed was filled by the familiar coping devices of human psychology, with their near-infinite capacity to convince us that that which we most want to be the case is in fact the case, and that which will most benefit us personally is also the will of God.

Still, if flagrant, knowing hypocrisy is what we’re after, no period seems to offer more evidence of it than the strange one of the Avignon papacy, when the popes left Rome entirely for a life of leisure near the French Riviera.

The chain of events that would lead them to abandon their traditional home began in 1295 with the election of Pope Boniface VIII, about whom even the most committed Catholic historians struggle to find much good to say. “By all accounts, he was a man of exceedingly irascible temperament, given to outbursts of impatience and rage, and a person bent on the acquisition of wealth and power for himself and his family,” writes Richard P. McBrien. “Other popes were more inept and more corrupt, but none made claims for the papacy that were further removed from the spirit of the Apostle Peter, not to mention the Lord himself.”

Boniface’s papacy started under murky circumstances. He was a noted canon lawyer, who was consulted by the current pope, whose name was Celestine V, when the latter was mulling whether to voluntarily resign from office, something only one pope before him over nearly 1300 years of Church history had done. Boniface urged Celestine to heed the call which he believed he had heard from God, telling him to leave his lofty position and take up the life of a simple monk. The lawyer shepherded his client through the process and then stepped neatly into the role of pope himself, placing his predecessor in that role under armed guard in a chamber that was little better than a prison cell to ensure that he wouldn’t cause any trouble. (Celestine had said that he wanted to live an austere, hard life…)

Boniface’s first months in office were marked by a wrangle with King Philip IV of France over the very worldly question of money. The Church had long been exempt from most forms of secular taxation in the kingdoms of Europe. But Philip was strapped for cash and was convinced that some of his less scrupulous nobles were using the Church for, for lack of a less anachronistic term, money laundering. So, he began to levy taxes against the Church itself. Boniface did not respond well to this, threatening everyone involved with an all too familiar hammer from the papal toolbox.

Antiquity reports that laymen are exceedingly hostile to the clergy, and our experience certainly shows this to be true at present. With the counsel of our brethren, and by our apostolic authority, we decree that if any clergy shall pay to laymen any part of their income or possessions without the permission of the pope, they shall incur excommunication. And we also decree that all persons of whatever power or rank who shall demand or receive such taxes, or shall seize or cause to be seized the property of churches or of the clergy, shall incur excommunication.

King Philip actually won this round by blocking exports on which the Papal States were dependent, forcing Boniface to back down and accept some types of taxation in September of 1295. But the die of enmity was cast; dispute after petty dispute between the two men followed. Philip kept trying to turn the bishops in France against the Holy Father in Rome, to which Boniface reacted with predictably self-righteous fury. On November 18, 1302, he issued a declaration whose assertions of absolute, infallible, God-granted papal authority would have left Pope Innocent III nodding in approval.

It is for the spiritual power to establish the earthly power and to judge it, if it be not good. Thus, in the case of the Church and the power of the Church, the prophecy of Jeremiah is fulfilled: “See, I have this day set thee over the nations and the kingdoms.” Therefore, if the earthly power shall err, it shall be judged by the higher. But if the supreme power err, it can be judged by God alone, and not by man, the apostles bearing witness, saying, “The spiritual man judges all things, but he himself is judged by no one.” Hence this power, although given to man and exercised by man, is not human, but rather a divine power, given by the divine lips to Peter.

Whoever, therefore, shall resist this power, ordained by God, resists the ordination of God. It is altogether necessary for salvation for every human being to be subject to the Roman pontiff.

In effect, Boniface declared himself to be the king of the world, with the fate of every one of its souls in his hands, a divine monarch not just unquestioned but made unquestionable by the will of God.

Philip wasn’t buying it. He responded with a long list of charges against Boniface, accusing him of everything from murder to embezzlement, idolatry to sodomy. Still, he was nervous of the writ of excommunication that he knew would inevitably follow from the pope, having learned from the experiences of Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV and England’s King Henry II how potent such a writ could be with the peasantry and the other rank and file of a Christian kingdom. And probably as well he felt more than a little bit of fear for the fate of his own soul; again, religion was very, very real during the Middle Ages. So, he sent some henchmen to abduct Boniface from his summer residence in the Italian village of Anagni, thereby to physically prevent the excommunication. Boniface was not treated overly well by his captors, and died within a few weeks, on October 12, 1303.

There was just one more pope in Rome after Boniface VIII. Benedict XI was a frail man more fond of books than politics. He tried to de-escalate with Philip, rescinding all of the numerous condemnations and penalties his predecessor had issued against the French king and his kingdom. But when Benedict died after just nine months in office, Philip saw his opening. He used military pressure on the Papal States and every other sort of leverage he could think of to force the election of one of his own French countrymen as pope. This Pope Clement V was crowned not in Rome but in Lyon. Nor did he go to Rome thereafter; he set up shop instead in the French town of Avignon. He said he did so because the foes of his patron Philip made it too dangerous for him in Rome, and this may have been true. Rumor said that he wanted to stay in France because his beautiful French mistress refused to move; based on what we know of his character, this may very well have been true as well. It didn’t ultimately matter where he was, he said, because “Rome is wherever the pope happens to be.”

Some would take to calling this new Avignon papacy the “Babylonian captivity” — so obviously were the Avignon popes, who were themselves Frenchmen one and all, at the beck and call of the kings of France. All of the questionable practices the Church had dabbled in in earlier times came back with a vengeance. Prominent among them was the selling of indulgences. No sin, whether already committed or planned for the future, was incompatible with a seat in Heaven, so long as God’s representatives on Earth saw their palms crossed with sufficient quantities of silver. Illegitimate children could be made legitimate; stolen goods could be made licit on a sliding scale of Church fees corresponding to their value; even monks and nuns could pay their betters to be allowed to keep maids, servants, and lovers. Positions within the Church were themselves bought and sold, so that services were frequently conducted by unschooled priests who stumbled through the Latin rituals with no more awareness of what they were actually saying than the peasants sitting in the pews. The popes dressed in coats of ermine and slept on silk sheets imported at enormous expense from distant China. They built a sprawling palace complex for themselves in Avignon, with ballrooms and gardens and indoor plumbing and even a steampunk sauna heated by an underground boiler. The palace’s toilets drained directly into the streets of Avignon proper, which struck some as a rather fitting metaphor for the Avignon papacy’s role in society.

Two uproariously entertaining books provide an unusually honest picture of how the Church was viewed during this period. The Decameron by the Italian writer Giovanni Boccaccio and The Canterbury Tales by the Englishman Geoffrey Chaucer both present themselves under the guise of stories swapped by passing groups of travelers, and probably really did have their origin in the yarns the common people told one another around hearth fires and campfires. These tales’ earthy humanity makes a welcome contrast to the solemn prudery of Roland and Arthur; tellingly, both books were written in the vernacular of the people rather than the lofty language of Latin.

Nunneries, which had become places for parents to quietly dispose of daughters whose dowries they couldn’t afford or who had disgraced themselves with premarital liaisons, are a constant source of hilarity. Boccaccio, for example, tells of a young man who falls for a nun in the local convent, and finds his interest is reciprocated: “Their desire for one another being equally acute, the young man thought of a way for him and his nun to foregather in secret, and with her willing consent he visited her not only once but over and over again, to their intense and mutual delight.” Unfortunately, they are a bit too vocal in their revels one evening, and attract the attention of some of the other nuns. After espying the couple’s exertions through the keyhole of the door, these other nuns run to fetch the abbess of their convent.

But as they knock on her door the abbess is in the midst of a frolic of her own, with a local priest. Panicking, she grabs the priest’s trousers in the dark and puts them on her head in lieu of the coif she was looking for. She answers her door while the priest hides under her bed, and she and the other nuns then proceed to burst into their holy sister’s room and drive out her energetic young beau. Now the abbess commences giving the girl a right proper tongue-lashing, while the recipient of her ire is scrambling to pull on her habit and make herself decent. But the girl soon notices that something is amiss with the abbess’s garb as well.

Realizing what the abbess had been up to, she took heart and said, “By the grace of God, Mother Abbess, tie up your bonnet, and then you may say whatever you like to me.”

The abbess, having no idea what she meant by this, said to her, “What bonnet, you little whore? Are you going to have the effrontery to stand there making witty remarks? Do you think it funny to have behaved in this disgraceful manner?”

And so, for a second time, the girl said, “I would ask you once again, Mother Abbess, to tie up your bonnet, and then you may address me whatever way you please.”

Accordingly, several of the nuns looked at the abbess, and the abbess likewise raised her hands to the sides of her head, so that they all saw what [the young nun] was driving at. Whereupon the abbess, recognizing she was equally culpable and that there was no way of concealing the fact from all the nuns, who were gazing at her with their eyes popping out of their heads, changed her tune and began to take a completely different line, arguing that it was impossible to defend oneself against the goadings of the flesh. And she told them that, provided the thing was discreetly arranged, as it had been in the past, they were all at liberty to enjoy themselves whenever they pleased…

Stories such as this one are invaluable for the way they help to balance our view of the Middle Ages, showing that the wonderful human attribute of humor has always been around to skewer the pretentious and the hypocritical in high places. We can only wish we had more texts like these — more pictures of the real life of the people in place of the tedious doggerel that issued from the pens of Medieval monarchs and clergymen.

Of course, there remained even during this period plenty of clergymen who tried their level best to be good and humble shepherds of Christ. These earnest souls were as appalled as anyone by the way they saw some of their brothers and sisters in Christ behaving, in Avignon and elsewhere. A treatise by the bishop of Mende, a town in southern France not far at all from the new seat of the papacy, is a cry of despair.

The whole Church might be reformed if [she] would begin by removing evil examples from herself, by which men are scandalized and the whole people, as it were, infected. For in all lands the Church is in ill repute, and all cry and publish it abroad that within her bosom all men, from the greatest even unto the least, have set their hearts upon covetousness. That the whole Christian folk take from the clergy pernicious examples of gluttony is clear and notorious, since the clergy feast more luxuriously than princes and kings…

“Wolves are in control of the Church, and feed on the blood” of the people, said a Spanish prelate. King Edward III of England sent a pointed note to Avignon, reminding the pope that “the successor of the apostles was commissioned to lead the Lord’s sheep to pasture, not to fleece them.” But the pleading and scolding alike fell upon deaf ears.

A series of natural disasters struck Europe during the time of the Avignon papacy, and many were quick to attribute these to God’s displeasure over the behavior of his representatives on Earth. The winters were unusually severe in the first decade of the fourteenth century; the Baltic Sea froze over completely twice during this period, an event which has occurred fewer than 25 times in all of recorded history. The shorter growing season caused by the long winters brought famine in some places. Then, in 1315, it rained so long and heavily that people wondered whether the Earth was about to be subjected to another wrathful Flood like the one described in the Book of Genesis. More and more severe famines followed this crop-destroying inundation; lurid stories spread of parents killing and eating their babies, of people cutting down hanged criminals from the gibbet and eating them instead of burying them.

These were times to try anyone’s faith in humanity. With the popes so thoroughly under the thumb of the French kings, the Inquisition turned into a weapon of the latter, to be deployed against anyone who fell out of royal favor. Most infamously, the Knights Templar, the largest and richest of the surviving chivalric orders from the time of the Crusades, was targeted in 1314 by King Philip IV, who was jealous of the respect the organization still commanded. At his behest, Pope Clement V declared the Knights to be Satan-worshiping heretics, whereupon they were all thrown in dungeon cells without food or water and subjected to the whole range of sadistic Medieval torture techniques: the rack, thumbscrews, pliers to the teeth and fingernails, finally burning at the stake. Legend has it that one of them called down a curse upon the king and his pope as he burned — and, sure enough, both men died before the year was over, albeit not before splitting the treasure they had found in the Knights’ coffers between them.

In the absence of a strong independent pope to corral them or any foreign Crusades to distract them, Europeans turned their swords and arrows more enthusiastically than ever against one another. In 1337, a complicated dispute over royal bloodlines and succession rights led England to attack France. There followed the so-called “Hundred Years War,” which actually went on in France for 116 years by most reckonings. As such, it has a claim to being the longest single war in human history, although the waters are somewhat muddied by the fact that it was fought only intermittently. Nevertheless, it would remain something between a piercing foreground agony and a dull background ache for the peasantry of France throughout that astoundingly long period of time.

But the worst tragedy of the fourteenth century — in fact, the worst of the entire Middle Ages — did not stem so directly from the folly of men. At the height of the Black Death, the most terrible plague in recorded history, it seemed patently obvious that the Armageddon promised in the Book of Revelation had well and truly arrived at long last.

The horror began in October of 1347, when a pair of Genoese trading ships arrived at the island of Sicily from the Crimean port of Caffa (modern-day Feodosia). Half of their crews were already dead, the other half dreadfully ill almost to a man, their armpits and groins covered with black, oozing pustules, the skin all over their bodies discolored by internal bleeding. The Sicilians watched in shock as the sailors died in an agony that seemed downright Biblical, spewing black blood from their mouths, noses, and ears, even from their eyes. Within days, people all over Sicily were dying of this terrible bubonic plague.

Just as the disease was reaching the Italian mainland, a violent earthquake struck like the clap of doom, cutting a swath of destruction between Naples and Venice. The pestilence that followed this strike spread rapidly through the devastated countryside and then beyond, reaching France within a month, reaching as far as Iceland and Greenland within a couple of years. Its luckiest victims died almost instantly; there were stories of healthy people going to bed at night and simply never waking up the next morning. Others endured as much as a week of unimaginable torment before finally succumbing. Some few of the infected survived, but these were left so weakened that they often died of some other disease shortly thereafter. The world really did seem to be ending; the plague left whole regions of Europe denuded of their populations, houses standing vacant, pigs and cows running feral with packs of hungry dogs on their heels, crops rotting in the fields.

Although no one understood the science of how an infectious disease like this one was transmitted, it was obvious enough that personal contact with its victims increased one’s own chances of getting sick enormously. This made the bubonic plague a cruel as well as a deadly illness, given that few healthy souls dared to enter a sickroom to provide aid or comfort to those within. Its victims rather tended to die alone, shut up in sweltering houses with doors and windows barred, outcasts from the world of the living already well before their deaths. Villages with the plague running wild through their streets were written off by the authorities, ordered to fly black flags from their church steeples so that everyone else would see and keep away. “Father abandoned child, wife husband, one brother another, for this plague seemed to strike through breath and sight,” wrote a nobleman of the Italian town of Siena. “And so they died. And no one could be found to bury the dead for money or friendship. I buried my five children with my own hands, and so did many others likewise.” The pope’s physician wrote bluntly from Avignon that “charity was dead.”

The unfinished cathedral in Siena is a grim reminder of the Black Death. A new nave extension was under construction when the plague struck. The work was abandoned and never completed. (Miguel Hermoso Cuesta)

The doctors of the time had no solutions to offer beyond telling the healthy to douse themselves daily in vinegar and rosewater; they were on the right track in a way, but their disinfectants were hopelessly inadequate for the purpose. Where medicine failed, there remained only God to turn to. Thousands walked the roads in rags like the Flagellants of 100 years earlier, scouring their flesh with whips tipped by iron spikes and begging God to reverse the judgement he was inflicting on his creation, however richly deserved it may be. But, as the English poet William Langland wrote, “God is deaf nowadays and deigneth not hear us, and prayers have no power the plague to stay.” Some decided that God was angry because Christians still allowed Jews to live among them; Jewish massacres and expulsions swept across Europe as a result. The Christians of Mainz killed 6000 Jews in one night, those of Erfurt 3000. But the killings changed nothing, beyond increasing the plague’s death toll that much more.

Slowly the Black Death burned itself out, leaving behind not the earthly paradise for God’s chosen predicted in the Book of Revelation, but just a sadder, emptier, shabbier version of the same old world. Some historians estimate that 150 million or more people perished in the plague, half or more of the entire population of Europe. Life for the survivors was transformed. Healthy laborers were scarce, and the knowledge of planting and harvesting that had been carried in the heads of the older generations of the peasantry was in many places lost entirely. Despite its greatly reduced population, Europe would totter on the ragged edge of famine for decades to come, frequently sliding over that line. Those peasants who survived were more desperately needed than ever, and thus felt empowered to make new demands on the landowning classes. These tensions led to major peasant rebellions in France in 1358 and in England in 1381, both of which were brutally crushed in the end. The king’s knights “flung themselves upon hamlets and villages, putting them to the flame and pursuing poor peasants in houses, fields, vineyards, and forests to be miserably slaughtered,” reads one French chronicle.

In its effects and its aftereffects, the Black Death was quite simply the most calamitous single thing ever to happen to Europe, an event against which even such colossal modern tragedies as the First and Second World Wars pale. Thanks to the plague in Europe, the total number of humans in the world as a whole probably declined over the course of the fourteenth century; it still stands as the only century in history or prehistory in which such a thing is believed to have occurred.

Through it all, the corrupt popes of Avignon provided little aid and less comfort. In 1375, a rebellion was fomented in Italy in the name of returning the papacy to Rome, thereby to end God’s displeasure, which had so literally, it was widely assumed, brought a plague down upon Christendom. The Papal States joined most of their Italian neighbors in rejecting any pope not based in Rome as illegitimate, a blasphemy against God; only Naples, a longtime political foe of Rome, failed to join the movement. Gregory XI, the current pope in Avignon, first tried to put down the rebellion by force. He sent an army of mercenaries to Italy under the command of Robert of Geneva, a cardinal who also happened to be a cousin of the current king of France. Robert was responsible for an infamous incident in the town of Cesena. He asked the citizens there to lay down their arms preparatory to a parley, swearing a solemn oath that no harm would come to them. As soon as they did so, he let his soldiers run amok among them, until “all the squares were full of dead.” His army left everything in the town “burned, made unfit for use, or spilled upon the ground.”

Yet Robert’s mercenaries were less effective on the open field of battle, where they were roundly defeated by the armies of the rebel states. In January of 1377, faced with the very real prospect of the Italians electing their own pope and going their own way with much of Europe behind them, Gregory reluctantly moved to Rome, taking the papacy with him. But as it happened, the rupture in the Church which he was trying to avoid by doing so would take place anyway.

The trouble began upon Gregory’s death in March of 1378. His successor Urban VI was the first Italian-born pope in many years. Unfortunately, Urban was also, in the words of Will Durant, “not urbane.” He lambasted his underlings and his flock daily in spittle-flecked tirades, answering their attempts at remonstration with “Rubbish!” and “Shut your mouth!” and waving blank writs of excommunication in their faces like daggers. At one point, six cardinals languished in his personal dungeon for offending him in one way or another. While it is always problematic to diagnose anyone’s mental health from a remove of centuries, his behavior evinces every sign of paranoid schizophrenia, aggravated by malignant narcissism.

The French-dominated wing of the Church, which had never wanted an Italian pope in the first place, saw opportunity in Urban’s crazed intransigence. They declared him to be a false pope, and elected one of their own back in Avignon. The man they chose for the office was a provocation to all of Italy: Robert of Geneva, the cousin of King Charles V of France and the mastermind of the rape of Cesena. He now took the name of Pope Clement VII. And now the kings of Europe had to decide which of the two popes to support — a decision which would have far more to do with temporal politics than theology, especially given that both of them were such uninspiring, debased characters. France naturally opted for Clement, as did Naples, Scotland, and the Christian kingdoms of the Iberian Peninsula, with the exception only of Portugal. Meanwhile the Holy Roman Empire, England, Flanders, Poland, Hungary, Portugal, and the rest of Italy supported Urban. Just like that, there were two separate popes leading what amounted to two separate Western European Churches, each condemning the other as a nest of heretics and blasphemers.

Institutions and power structures that had held firm in Western Europe since the time of Charlemagne were unraveling. The continent stood on the verge of outright social and economic collapse, even as other parts of the world were going from strength to strength. The wealthy Ming dynasty in China, for example, was sending its awe-inspiring fleets of “dragon ships” as far as Arabia and East Africa. The largest single city in the world was the great Muslim capital of Cairo, a flourishing center of art, commerce, and learning, beside which the depopulated, impoverished European capitals of Rome, Paris, and London looked downright pathetic.

In short, Europe was in the worst disarray it had known in hundreds of years as the fourteenth century lurched to a close. And yet by the end of the next, it would be poised to dominate the entire world, including two whole new continents that no one yet suspected to exist.

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(A full listing of print and online sources used will follow the final article in this series.)

7 Comments for "Chapter 7: A Century of Dissolution"

  • Andrew McCarthy

    parlay > parley

    I remain amazed that the massive success of one movie – the first Pirates of the Caribbean film – has so thoroughly changed how most people spell this verb, as a synonym for “to negotiate, treat with” (as opposed to “to augment one’s resources (with); to use (something) to enhance one’s capital”, which really is spelled “parlay”). “Parley” was a fairly obscure word before, but its misbegotten cousin’s time on the silver screen has arguably led a majority of people to internalize that version with no idea of the misspelling. People like me who aren’t reconciled to the change are left to wage a futile battle, stumbling around in the comments on blogs like these and trying to clean up the mess. 😉

    • Jimmy Maher

      I’ve actually never seen any of those movies, so I didn’t get it there. Just a typo. 😉 Thanks!

  • Peter Olausson

    ”Life for the survivors was harder than ever.”

    Well … I beg to differ.

    When ”healthy laborers were scarce”, those who remained could ask for higher wages. (Many ”waves of discontent” were caused by this, and many resulted in higher wages.) When fewer were around to lease lands, they could demand lower leases. Much land which had been used for crops was turned into pastures, giving more meat and dairy products on the menu. So the lower classes who survived the black death got better paid, better food, and more self-confidence. Serfdom vanished in many parts of Europe. In others, it never got a foothold. When population growth resumed, so did eventually many aspects of the bad old life.

    • Jimmy Maher

      Thanks for this! While I don’t want to get too far down in the weeds on the peasant rebellions and the like, I did make some adjustments.

      • Martin

        I would say things were worse for the survivors until the next season’s crops could be brought in but as stated, it came better for them, collectively, going forward from there.

  • P-Tux7

    I’d like to dispute your interpretation of Marx’ quote a bit – “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions.” I took this to mean that Marx isn’t just saying that the rich take over religion – but that religion, in its original form, was genuinely created by and for the people. A people who knew all too well that their lives depended on the whims of weather, crops, and fertility would naturally be inclined to find a way to tilt the balance. For example, we can see this by the Greek and Viking sacrifices of food not to the rich, but to the gods. They didn’t need to be ordered to do it, at least by laws – all you need to get that practice started is someone spreading the rumor that they sacrificed 10% of their yield, and got a twice-as-bountiful yield the next year. After a meager harvest, that’s a rather tempting gamble. (Of course, this would be semi-codified into family and community superstition, but it still retains its genuine character as a “legitimate” or “scientific” way of ensuring good harvests, not to be a distraction from the well-to-do.) That desire for self-determinism is already seen in the story of Adam and Eve deciding to take control of their own destinies. (That’s a lot of D-words!) It was only after religion was created for these altruistic (or at least sympathetic) purposes that the rich could then take the concept and twist it into “Oh, God called me on the phone and said if you raise arms against me, you’re going to Hell.”

    And of course, I don’t need to tell you that the first person who thought “My life sucks.” was hoping that there was a light at the end of the tunnel, and that that notion originally started as a hope – a way to get out of bed in the morning – and a self-motivator for good character rather than a demand to tithe or face eternal perdition.

    • Jimmy Maher

      It is a bit of a fine-grained distinction. I went back to find the original quote, and, read in context, it does indeed describe religion as a balm that suffering people invent to soothe themselves rather than as a tool of cynical social control that is imposed upon them from on high. On the other hand, the latter strain can definitely be found in Marxist thought.

      Either way, the argument is far too reductionist, of course. Prior to Christianity, almost all Western religions were surprisingly vague on any prospect of an afterlife. So, it wasn’t as if people were all telling each other, “Don’t worry about having it so bad now. It will be better in the next life.” I find that atheist thinkers really struggle to wrap their heads around the experience of religious faith, and it leads them to trivialize aspects of it that are most definitely are not trivial. One might even argue that the sense of rudderless nihilism that grips so much of Western society today is a demonstration of what happens when large numbers of people lose their spiritual anchors. Likes on Facebook and Instagram are a poor substitute…

      Anyway, you’re absolutely correct that I misapplied the quote. I’ve made an edit. Thanks!


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