Horrendous Suffering Caused by—Wait for It—the Church

When you're sure God is your boss, others can take a big hit 

Two of the riskiest things Christians can do—from the standpoint of preserving and protecting their faith: (1) Read/study the gospels carefully, critically, with curiosity fully engaged, (2) Read/study Christian history, i.e., what has been done in the name of Jesus over the centuries. There’s a pretty good chance that faith will be abandoned when this kind of homework is done. The clergy know that there are 1,001 embarrassing Bible verses, so many of which are in the gospels—so these are not preached from the pulpit. But it’s not hard to figure out that Jesus fails to qualify as a great moral teacher, based on so much of the Jesus-script we find in the gospel accounts.
The history of Christian behavior also presents a challenge. In 1994, Pope John Paul II, in a letter to the Cardinals, asked the following:
“How can we remain silent about the many forms of violence perpetrated in the name of the faith—wars of religion, tribunals of the Inquisition and other forms of violations of the rights of persons?”  (as reported in the Chicago Tribune, 5 June 1995)
Helen Ellerbe opens the Preface of her book, The Dark Side of Christian History, with this quote. In several chapters that follow, she describes in detail the suffering brought on by religious fanatics who were convinced they were enforcing the decrees of their Christian god. Most of this grim history remains beyond the horizon of awareness of devout churchgoers who show up to worship because “god is good, god is great”—and he deserves to be adored and flattered. But Christian history is littered with horrors, as I discussed in an earlier article here.
In her eighth chapter, Ellerbe describes the violence suffered by women who were accused of being witches. There were two factors that helped fuel the witch hunts.           
(1) The deeply embedded misogyny of so many theologians. She points out: 
“The thirteen century St. Thomas Aquinas suggested that God had made a mistake in creating woman: ‘nothing [deficient] or defective should have been produced in the first establishment of things; so women ought not to have been produced then.’ And Lutherans at Wittenberg debated whether women were really human beings at all.” (p. 115)
(2) Destructive superstitions that are so obvious in the Bible. There’s that famous text in Exodus 22:18, “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live,” but the gospels too provided fuel for the hysteria; Jesus had to defeat demons who recognized him because they both had come from the spiritual realm. “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” (Mark 1:24) But the most dramatic story is found in Mark 5, in which demons tormenting a deranged man beg Jesus to transfer them to a herd of swine—and Jesus obliged, by uttering a magic spell, presumably—upon which the 2,000 swine ran off a cliff into the sea. Educated readers today should protest, “What a load of nonsense!”
Before demon superstition was destroyed by the modern understanding of how the world works, naturally witches were considered a real thing—and they had to be dealt with. 
Ellerbe describes the methods followed:
“The process of formally persecuting witches followed the harshest inquisitional procedure. Once accused of witchcraft, it was virtually impossible to escape conviction. After cross-examination, the victim’s body was examined for the witch’s mark.” She quotes historian Walter Nigg: “She was stripped naked and the executioner shaved off all her body hair in order to seek in hidden places of the body the signs which the devil imprinted on his cohorts. Warts, freckles, and birthmarks were considered certain tokens of amorous relations with Satan.” (p. 123)
What a stain on the Christian religion! How can we not blame the very defective Bible? Had it been inspired by a wise, caring, competent deity, it would have included books devoted to proper hygiene—including an explanation of germs and how diseases spread—and books debunking harmful superstitions about angels and demons. The Bible could have given us a big head start in understanding how the world and the cosmos work: but no, that is missing.   
Hence, cruelties abounded, as Ellerbe points out:
“Witch hunts were neither small in scope nor implemented by a few aberrant individuals; the persecution of witches was the official policy of both the Catholic and Protestant Churches…The vast number of people brutalized and killed, as well as the impact on the common perception of God, make the witch hunts one of the darkest chapters in human history.” (pp. 137 & 138)
But another dark chapter is aptly called The Dark Ages. This is also the title of one of Richard Carrier’s essays in the 2014 John Loftus anthology: Christianity Is Not Great: How Faith FailsHe describes a major desecration:

“The Archimedes Code contained many of the greatest scientific treatises of the pagan scientist Archimedes, but in the 13th century, within the Byzantine Empire, the ink on its pages was scraped off and the whole book reinscribed with hymns to God. That’s kind of like what the Dark Ages were like in the West. Ditching science and knowledge and curiosity and achievement, and putting in its place constant mindless praying to a nonexistent deity.” (pp. 211-212) 
Humanity loses big time when serious thinking, curiosity, and the inquisitive instinct are suppressed. Helen Ellerbe’s fourth chapter is titled, The Church Takes Over: The Dark Ages, and opens with these words:
“The Church had devastating impact upon society. As the Church assumed leadership, activity in the fields of medicine, technology, science, education, history, art and commerce all but collapsed. Europe entered the Dark Ages. Although the Church amassed immense wealth during these centuries, most of what defines civilization disappeared.” (p. 41) 
She points out that Pope Gregory I (590-604 CE) was a true savage in this respect. He opposed the education of anyone except the clergy, and didn’t want laypeople reading the Bible. It’s symptomatic, I suppose, that this pope became known as “the great.” Among his misdeeds was the burning of the ancient Roman library of Palatine Apollo, “lest its secular literature distract the faithful from the contemplation of heaven” (a quote from Barbara G. Walker’s The Women’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets). (p. 48)
In her seventh chapter, on the Reformation, Ellerbe notes that Christians fighting Christians brought horrendous suffering. 

“The animosity between Protestants and Catholics sparked a series of civil wars in France and England, as well as the bloody Thirty Years War involving Germany, Sweden, France, Denmark, England, the Netherlands, and the Holy Roman Empire represented by the Hapsburgs. That both sides consider themselves Christians did not temper the bloodshed. On August 24, 1572, for example, in what is known as the massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Day 10,000 Protestants were slaughtered in France.” (p. 95) 
In my humble experience as a pastor of two parishes, I was amazed that there were warring factions in the congregations: devout people who couldn’t stand each other—and made no secret of it. Isn’t worship of Jesus supposed to have exactly the opposite effect? And it’s much worse on the vast stage of world history: when warring Christian brands—with differing views about their god—confront each other, vying for power, prestige, control, the results can be disastrous. And when a major Christian brand had control for many centuries, humanity paid the price, as Helene Ellerbe makes clear in all the chapters of her book. 
David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. He is the author of two books, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith, now being reissued in several volumes, the first of which is Guessing About God (2023) and Ten Things Christians Wish Jesus Hadn’t Taught: And Other Reasons to Question His Words (2021). The Spanish translation of this book is also now available. 
His YouTube channel is here. At the invitation of John Loftus, he has written for the Debunking Christianity Blog since 2016.
The Cure-for-Christianity Library©, now with more than 500 titles, is here. A brief video explanation of the Library is here