Tuesday, January 31, 2006

The Numbers Game

My post on atrocities caused some excitement from the headbangers of the Internet Infidels Discussion Board. I'd originally noted my thoughts here and then another poster, keen to score some cheap points and unaware I had already posted elsewhere, repeated the exercise here. Before you click on these links, I'll warn you that the discussion doesn't go much beyond a load of anti-Christians shouting yaa-boo sucks. However, one interesting point did emerge - how we use numbers.

A notorious example of the numbers game is the claim that nine million women were executed as witches during the period of the witch trials. This gained popular currency from the writings of radical feminist Andrea Dworkin but dates back to the nineteenth century. Likewise, you will hear large figures bandied about for the number of inquisition victims, crusade victims and such like. If you get a kick out of that sort of thing there is a page of it here. However, there is a serious problem when we try to correct these misrepresentations and a trap that we need to avoid.

The problem is that if I counter a claim that nine million witches died, with a referenced rebuttal saying that the true figure is nearer 50,000, I still have a big number. It looks like I am belittling the death of 50,000 men and women, especially if I use the little word 'only' at some point in the discussion. The 10,000 or so executions of the Inquisition is also a much smaller number than usually given, but it is not a small number in an absolute sense. It leaves an open goal for the anti-Christian, who, without even acknowledging their initial gambit was way off beam, will accuse you of 'approving of' or 'rationalising away' these deaths. Eventually, you are guaranteed that someone will use the tabloid throw away line that "one death is too many". Frankly, I have no idea what to do about this. You can compare the actual figures to other events but that rarely helps as atheists always claim that atheism never causes anything bad to happen.

The trap to avoid is down to us, though. We must not respond to anti-Christian exaggeration in one direction by minimising in the other. In 1099, a crusader army slaughtered the population of Jerusalem. No one has any idea how many people died. It is assumed no one escaped but we have no evidence of this. We also know of plenty of survivors later living in Damascus. A good researcher could come up with a maximum and minimum figure based on population density, how many Christians had already left the city and examination of all the sources. But ultimately, it would be a mug's game. The truth is probably between 10,000 and 40,000 but could be more or less than either of these figures. One of the Internet Infidels posters took great exception to my using a figure of 10,000 which is at the low end of estimates. So rather than get into that mess again, I am going to adopt a policy for numbers. I will take the lowest standard estimate and double it. That will be my base figure for any debate on numbers of deaths. Thus, for witch trials (usual scholarly estimate 40,000 - 100,000), I will say about 80,000. For the inquisition (usual scholarly estimate 5,000 - 10,000), I will say 10,000. For the sack of Jerusalem, 20,000.

The main point of the numbers game from an anti-Christian perspective is to show what a bad thing religion is. That's why they exaggerate the numbers. They need them to be big, especially now they have to compete with Stalin and Hitler. It is worth continuing to challenge these misrepresentations but it requires care not to veer too far in the other direction.

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

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