[Site editor's note: The following is an excerpt from the new Disinformation title 50 Things You're Not Supposed To Know: Religion, authored by Daniele Bolelli.]
Since the dawn of time, God’s faithful followers have been locked in a war without mercy against the forces of evil. Christian theology (and Muslim too, for that matter) is clear on this matter. This is a fight that can’t stop until the final showdown at the end of times, when God’s partisans will drown their enemies once and for all in rivers of blood. Until then, the battle rages on, and the entire earth is divided in opposing armies. Neutrality is just not an option. Much like rust, Evil never sleeps, and its agents are constantly busy trying to hurt the followers of the one true faith. Given this outlook, it then logically follows that it is wise for God’s people to strike down the devil’s minions wherever they are found: heretics, witches, pagans and other fans of the devil simply have to be stopped.
It would be easy for Christians to despair when they are always surrounded by such scary opponents, but in the Spain of the 1400s, a man rose to their defense. His name?
Fighting out of the red corner, wearing the robes of inquisitor general, he is “The hammer of heretics, the light of Spain, the savior of his country.” Ladies and Gentlemen, representing the Holy Inquisition, and sporting a record of hundreds of heretics killed, I introduce to you, the one and only reigning heavyweight champion of the Catholic faith, Tooooomaaaaaaasss de Torrrrrqueeeeemaaaadaaaaaaaaaa!
A Dominican friar and Queen Isabella’s personal confessor, Tomás de Torquemada had become Spain’s first inquisitor general, which is to say God’s right hand man in His fight against heresy. In his zealous quest, he set up a system that burned to death over 2,000 people (and many, many thousands more when imitators followed his lead in other parts of Europe). Some of his main victims were former Jews and Muslims posing as faithful Catholics but secretly holding on to their old beliefs. But even more broadly, Torquemada’s mission was to bring down anybody holding ideas that differed from Catholicism.
His methods were not exactly the embodiment of Christian compassion, but in the fight against the Evil One, a man’s got to do what a man’s got to do. Whips, hot irons, thumbscrews, stakes and other pearls of creative sadism were holy weapons to be used in defense of the Catholic faith. By the time Torquemada knocked on your door, you were pretty much screwed. It meant that someone had managed to convince him that you were an enemy of the faith who had to be stopped. The good, old rule “innocent until proven guilty” was not yet old and was certainly not considered good. The legal theory of the Inquisition was more along the lines of “guilty until proven innocent.” Actually, even that was too much to ask, since you really couldn’t prove yourself innocent. If you confessed, then obviously you were guilty. But if you didn’t, then it meant you were truly a lying, sneaky servant of the devil who should be tortured. If you confessed under torture, then it was a done deal. If not, again this only proved your guiltiness since clearly the devil was giving you supernatural power to resist pain: quite literally damned if you do, and damned if you don’t.
Incidentally, along the way the Inquisition was also a profitable business since all the wealth of those convicted would be seized and split between king and church. But whether inquisitors burned you at the stake because they were greedy, or because they truly believed they were doing God’s work, it didn’t exactly make a huge practical difference.
Clearly, the devil had many fans since Torquemada’s holy mission didn’t find universal support. He was so fearful of assassination that he traveled with more than 250 bodyguards (hell … even Mafia bosses are satisfied with less than that…).
But God’s hit man also had many admirers. Not only most Catholic inquisitors looked up to him as a model to be followed, but even Protestants ended up following his same recipe. Both Martin Luther and John Calvin, the giants of Protestant theology, were as insistent as Torquemada about the necessity of barbecuing witches and other soldiers of the devil. It was only after the worst of the devil’s inventions became popular—that pesky Enlightenment with its emphasis on reason, science and individual rights—that the hands of Torquemada’s spiritual descendants were no longer free to strike down heretics. So, these must truly be dark times, now that heroes of the faith like Torquemada are no longer able to carry out their holy mission. If you can’t even burn them on the public square, how can society defend itself against the servants of the devil?