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  • E.G. Maladroit

'Bearing False Witness', Rodney Stark on the myths about Catholicism

Stark’s 2016 book, ‘Bearing False Witness’, is a brilliant and fast paced overview of the most pernicious catholic myths of history. In ten chapters he concisely addresses some of the most mistaught and misunderstood eras and teachings about the church, and sheds light on the shocking amount of misinformation which is accepted as received within popular culture. As a non-Catholic, raised in the Calvinist church, he does not have a vested interest in romanticising the church – it is clear his passion is for history, and the truth, and that really shines through in his writing.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of the book is the way Stark constructs his arguments, building up the strongest case for the opposite opinion and received narrative, only to totally deconstruct it whilst disclosing thoroughly all of his sources and options for further reading. It reads with a sense of excitement, and reverence for the truth – and shows he does not fear the opposing arguments. The short form nature of the book adds to this pacey enjoyability, as you do not feel overrun with useless jargon or information meant to dilute the truth. It conveys Stark’s confidence in what he’s writing.

The most valuable sections of the book for me were those on the Spanish Inquisition, slavery, and the suppression of science. They alone make the book a must-read, with the most surprising of these being the myths around the Spanish inquisition – the violence of which is a so commonly accepted that my catholic mother believed in it. The fact that the inquisition actually acted as a force against violence and killed only around 400 people in over 200 years is amazing – and it makes for an enjoyable fun fact. The belief that Catholicism was a terrible detractor to scientific study is also one I was bombarded with through much of my high school education, and it is particularly relieving to see it so thoroughly picked apart. One might find some of the other sections, particularly that on the development of capitalism and the ‘protestant work ethic’ slightly less enthralling – and I was less struck by their convincingness, or necessity.

However, a major gripe I discovered only whilst reading around reviews was that about the anti-Semitism chapter. Whilst I do not feel this invalidates the whole book, as many of the other parts are incredibly important to read, it is a part which should be read critically – something I’m glad to have discovered after reading around the subject and reviews. An especially useful review was a comment on the amazon listing for the illustrated version, wherein a commenter named ‘Max Blackston’ provides an invaluable counter argument to Stark’s defence of the church in this respect. I do agree with this point, and feel the chapter did not provide the book with much – whilst Christianity or Catholicism cannot be blamed for all aspects of anti-Semitism throughout history, it is neglectful to try and wipe aside all guilt, as it undoubtably played a heavy role in promoting such beliefs within the early Christian values. The chapter feels more as though Stark has gotten carried away in his defence and is attempting to override narratives which hold more truth than he acknowledges. It is important to have conversations about the origins of anti-Semitism as it allows us to spearhead it within modern society, but it is equally important not to excuse organisations unnecessarily. I do not believe the catholic church holds all the blame for anti-Semitism – but it certainly holds some, and perhaps a considerable amount.

That aside, it is a very interesting read, and well worth it. It is shocking to realise how much of history can be so easily miscommunicated, and how prevalent these misinterpretations can become. Stark is a brilliant writer, and it is honestly hard to put down.

NOTE: I read, or rather listened, to this in audio-book form. Still used the language of having 'read' it as it allows less awkward phrasing.


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