The instruments of torture

November 18, 2010 • 8:55 pm

The Inquisition in Cartagena, Colombia lasted from 1610 until (with sporadic interruptions) 1821. Some of the instruments used to extract confessions from heretics are on display at the Palace of the Inquisition.

I wasn’t going to show these, as they’re pretty grim, and even grimmer if you realize how they were used. But Eric MacDonald persuaded me otherwise.

Catholics, this used to be the business of your church, and not just in Europe.  How much pain would have been spared had there not been faith?

I’ll link each instrument to a description of how it was used.

The heretic’s fork:

The heretic’s fork was a torture device, loosely consisting of a length of metal with two opposed bi-pronged “forks” as well as an attached belt or strap. The device was placed between the breast bone and throat just under the chin and secured with a leather strap around the neck, while the victim was hung from the ceiling or otherwise suspended in a way so that they could not lie down. A person wearing it couldn’t fall asleep. The moment their head dropped with fatigue, the prongs pierced their throat or chest, causing great pain.This very simple instrument created long periods of sleep deprivation. People were awake for days, which made confessions more likely.  Traditionally, the fork was engraved with the Latin word abiuro(meaning “I recant”), and was used by the various Inquisitions.

The rack:

The rack is a torture device consisting of a rectangular, usually wooden frame, slightly raised from the ground, with a roller at one, or both, ends, having at one end a fixed bar to which the legs were fastened, and at the other a movable bar to which the hands were tied. The victim’s ankles are fastened to one roller, and the wrists are chained to the other.  As the interrogation progresses, a handle and ratchet attached to the top roller are used to very gradually stepwise increase the tension on the chains, inducing excruciating pain. By means of pulleys and levers this roller could be rotated on its own axis, thus straining the ropes until the sufferer’s joints were dislocated and eventually separated. Additionally, if muscle fibers are stretched excessively, they lose their ability to contract, rendering them ineffective.One gruesome aspect of being stretched too far on the rack is the loud popping noises made by snapping cartilage, ligaments, or bones. One powerful method for putting pressure upon prisoners was to force them to watch someone else being subjected to the rack.

The breast ripper, a device specially reserved for women:

Used as a way to punish women, the breast ripper was a painful and cruel way to mutilate a woman’s breasts.  This instrument was mostly reserved for women accused of conducting a miscarriage or those accused of adultery.  The claws were used either hot or cold on the victim’s exposed breasts. If the victim wasn’t killed she would be scarred for life as her breasts were literally torn apart.  A common variant of the breast ripper is often referred to as “The Spider” which is a similar instrument attached to a wall. The victim’s breasts were fixed to the claws and the woman was pulled by the torturer away from the wall; successfully removing them.

The saw:

I forgot to photograph this, but this is exactly what it looked like (along with a medieval illustration of its use):

There is not much that need be said after having examined the accompanying illustrations. The saw here on view is antique but cannot be associated specifically with the homonymous torture, a process that can be carried out with any large-toothed, four-handed woodsman’s saw. The present example is such a one, and certainly a couple of centuries old, or more.  History abounds in martyrs –religious, lay and antireligious– who suffered this fate, one that may be worse even than being burnt at the stake with a slow, small fire, or being dipped into boiling oil. Owing to his inverted position, which assures ample oxygenation of the brain and impedes the general loss of blood, the victim does not lose consciousness until the saw reaches the navel –and even the breast, if one is to believe accounts of the early eighteen-hundreds.

The garrote:

The garrote particularly refers to the execution device used by the Spaniards until as recently as 1974. In Spain, it was abolished, as well as the death penalty, in 1978 with the new constitution. Originally, it was an execution where the convict was killed by hitting him with a club (garrote in Spanish). Later, it was refined and consisted of a seat to restrain the condemned person, while the executioner tightened a metal band around his/her neck with a crank or a wheel until suffocation of the condemned person was accomplished.  Some versions of this device incorporated a fixed metal blade or spike directed at the spinal cord to hasten the breaking of the neck. [This version had an attachment to pierce the spinal cord.]

The head crusher:

The head crusher was widely used during most of the Middle Ages, especially the Inquisition. With the chin placed over the bottom bar and the head under the upper cap, the torturer slowly turned the screw pressing the bar against the cap.  This resulted in the head being slowly compressed. First the teeth are shattered into the jaw; then the victim slowly died with agonizing pain, but not before his eyes were squeezed from his sockets.  This instrument was a formidable way to extract confessions from victims as the period of pain could be prolonged for many hours if the torturer chose to. This could be done by repeatedly turning the screw both ways.  If the torture was stopped midway, the victim often had irreparable damage done to the brain, jaw or eyes.  Many variants of this instrument existed, some that had small containers in front of the eyes to receive them as they fell out of their sockets.

115 thoughts on “The instruments of torture

  1. I saw (no pun intended) a lot of these at the Torture Museum in Toledo, Spain. It is religion at its finest!

  2. I’m reading the Devine Comedy right now. It kind of explains how these horrible devices were justified. Basically God is so good and so holy and so perfect that you must hate sin and hate those who sin, for otherwise you would be denying the righteousness of devine love. As Dante felt pity for those he saw suffering in Hell Virgil would scold him for it. The allegory is Virgil is human reason, and reason tells us not just not to feel pity for the sinners in their plight, but take part in the punishment. As Dante made it down into Dis he felt less pity to the point where he would exacerbate the suffering of the damned.

    The people who used these terrible instruments in their own twisted minds were doing it for gods glory and even to save the heretics. I’m not an apologetic, but they didn’t have science, they didn’t have any evidence to the contrary. All they had was a pagan past supplanted by a new Christian heritage that was actually less cruel and less bloody and actually had some sense of order.

    Having said that, I find all of this despicable and I’m glad we all know such superstition is wrong and hopefully as time passes religions and belief in the supernatural fades from human culture. As you can see, it’s not always so wonderful.

    1. I’m saying the horrors of Christianity were tame in comparison to pagan horrors. You could quite conceivably live a life free from physical harm (from priests) if you tried to live a virtuous life. There were rules. Of course if you were Jewish or Muslim or gay, not sure there was anything that could help you. So my point is there yes it was terrible, but it was less terrible and more orderly like.

      Pagan rituals involved the sacrifice of hundreds of animals and even humans. For example at the beginning of gladiator games, noxii were people who were slaughtered en masse. One of Constantine’s reason for making Christianity the official religion was his distain for the blood and brutality of pagan ways.

      1. You’re joking – right?

        The inquisitors only tortured people who weren’t trying hard enough to be virtuous? In the days of the Inquisition in Spain, one would only have to look sideways at the wrong priest to find yourself on the rack.

        Are you suggesting that Constantine, who murdered his own family with his own hands, was put off by the state-sanctioned blood sports? (The Christians of his day BTW were notorious for bloodying the streets with the victims of their incessant interdenominational warfare.) I doubt very much he considered them to be some sort of peaceful influence on the general public.


        1. Based on what I have read I believe you have a skewed perspective of history, but I could be wrong. I’m always open to being wrong. I think this kind of vitriolic revisionism only does more harm since by exaggerating what happened you are actually saying that the atrocities that did happen were not terrible enough to support your view.

          1. Vitriolic revisionism? Is squeezing the eyeballs out of someone’s head “tame”? ONE PERSON TORTURED is way too many. And the Inquisition is being “exaggerated”? Please take your concern trolling somewhere else.

          2. With all due respect Apphacker, I think you need read a little more history. My statements are not exaggeration or hyperbole.

            Try reading Gibbon’s “Decline & Fall of the Roman Empire” if you think I am making this stuff up or overstating the horror of the situation.

            Thank goodness these museums & artifacts have not been lost. Like the preserved concentration camps of WWII, these mementos of the “good old days” are evidence of horrors we would otherwise dismiss as incredible ‘vitriolic revisionism’.


            1. Right priests had people tortured on the spot for looking at them wrong. My bad. It’s true that every christian is also secretly a murderer. Forgive me. This is the kind of stupidity that turns people off to atheism. If you’re not going to be reasonable how are you going to expect religious people to be that way. I’m pretty sure that many of us hate it when atheists are depicted as baby eaters, but it’s totally ok to just imagine that all of group A is also evil, all throughout history.

            2. Burn your men fleshmen elsewhere; enough has been burned by the religious. What was said is that it happened, and we need evidence for inquisition torture procedures being more or less atrocious and/or frequent than in other cultures.

              It is concern trolling, among other things, that turn people off religion. Seriously.

            3. To Torbjörn Larsson who wrote:

              we need evidence for inquisition torture procedures being more or less atrocious and/or frequent than in other cultures.

              Unspeakable horrors have been perpetrated in the name of many gods, races & ideologies. The unspeakable evils done in service to the Christian god serve to show that he is no more interested or able to intervene than were the gods of the Mayans or the Philistines. The supposed regenerative powers and gracious qualities of the indwelling Holy Spirit are conspicuously absent from those claiming to be his followers.

              The evidence would suggest that evil is not discriminatory & can infect anyone or any institution with the power to grasp it. Are Christians less likely to engage in these sorts of horrors? – Seemingly not.

              There is value in pointing this out.


          3. Apphacker,

            I too am open to being wrong. I may have overstated the case as to how easily or often one might find oneself under the careful attention of an holy inquisitor. It would appear that the Inquisition disproportionately targeted Jews & other more visible minorities than it did simple backslider; but wealthy women were also prime targets of the Inquisitor’s attentions – the proceeds of their estates went to fund the Inquisition effort. So was it rampant & widespread or confined to predictable targets? I don’t know & apologize if I overstated the extent of the abuse.

            I may also have an exaggerated idea of how easily one might be subjected to this sort of mistreatment but others of the day clearly saw the Inquisition as unjust, capricious and capable of targeting just about anyone.

            Even the Pope recognized the injustices wrought by the Inquisitorial process. From Wikipedia: Sixtus IV who promulgated a new bull categorically prohibiting the Inquisition’s extension to Aragon, affirmed that,

            ‘many true and faithful Christians, because of the testimony of enemies, rivals, slaves and other low people—and still less appropriate—without tests of any kind, have been locked up in secular prisons, tortured and condemned like relapsed heretics, deprived of their goods and properties, and given over to the secular arm to be executed, at great danger to their souls, giving a pernicious example and causing scandal to many.’


        1. Execution was by stoning: certainly a form of torture, though admittedly somewhat quicker than the methods used by the Inquisition.

          1. Folks may have noted a pattern with medieval methods of torture & execution, especially when religiously motivated.
            That is that *most* methods did not involve the spilling of blood. (Which has a not very clear biblical sanction against it).
            Thus: Hanging, the gruesome “pressing” executions, stoning, thumbscrews, the rack, burning at the stake (done today in the form of ‘necklacing’), the breaking wheel, boiling in oil, ducking & drowning (still done today, but called waterboarding), starvation (iron maiden), crucifixion (ropes, not the fictional nails and the shoulder joints popping out did not spill blood), etc.
            The ‘humane’ methods that drew blood were mostly secular & mostly quick, such as Madame Guillotine’s device.

            1. Alas, the nails were not fictional. The Romans did use them. Also, severe scourging was used beforehand, causing heavy loss of blood. I think that this distinction between torture which lets blood and torture which doesn’t is perhaps accidental.

        2. actually the difference may not be that big. in each instance the last thought and feeling in you is that of hate, rage, remorse, fear, etc. and a great pain

  3. I’m a fairly morbid person, so none of this is new to me. Oddly enough, the medieval torture that bothers me the most is the oubliette, which was generally used by civil authorities against the clergy.

    Fans of Republican foreign policy may wish to acquaint themselves with a technique know to the pre-
    Revolutionary French ecclesiastical courts as Le maudit extraordinaire, (usually rendered in English less euphemistically as “the water torture”), as documented in Arthur Conan-Doyle’s “The Leather Funnel.”

    The more things change . . . .

  4. It was touring museum displays like this in Europe that got me really questioning the truth of my Christian Faith. How could God allow these sorts of sickening heinous crimes to be carried out in his name?

    Best answer to date:
    He isn’t there to be outraged.


    1. I’ve read every almost post here & not one puts the horror where it belongs. Satan is the monster that gets people to do things in God’s name. Thats why he’s called the Devil, which means “Slanderer”. He is also called the God of this world, because his rebellion has been allowed to prove his contention that we don’t need Jehovah’s direction…… So, yes God allows all this, but promises an end and then a resurrection to give people a chance to see what he had in mind before this rebellion. If you read the Bible with any understanding at all…’d know it warned in no uncertain terms that all this would happen.

      1. Idiot. If your God were truly omni$ATTRIBUTE, none of this would have happened in the first place. You are rearranging deckchairs on the titanic as far as apologetics goes.

        But to sink to your own level, reading the book of Job it becomes clear Satan is God’s lackey and betting partner, i.e., God and Satan are in cahoots when it comes to torturing people and/or letting them torture one another.

        Refute the logical problem of evil, and then you may have some apologetic ground; until then, you don’t have a leg to stand on.

      2. A decent, rational being would never allow any Devil to commit wrong against us.The notions of the Devil and Hell add to the problem of religion, which Fr. Meslier’s problem of Heaven overcomes all defenses and theodicies. Why, Alvin Plantinga begs the question in his unknown reason defense and the greater good defense.

        And the Deity would have no rights over us, none whatsoever, but would only face the one-way street of having to put us into a better place in the first place as that problem notes1 Per,Lamberth’s argument from autonomy, as independent beings, we derive our rights from our level of intelligence so that neither the state nor the Deity grants them!
        Why would a rational person accet either the Qur’ and or the Tanakh or the Testament as having force over us anyway. All scriptures are anthropogenic- man-made twaddle!
        That murderer Calvin’s theology makes matters even worse for the problem of evil!

    1. Yes, that’s exactly right. No different. Some people can easily justify the grossest sadism, even today, if they think there’s a righteous cause. I’d like to think we progress, but do we? The ugliness is apparently always lurking and can grip societies when certain stresses are present. Fear of “heretics,” imagined “witches,” enemy “subversives” or “terrorists” can all be the triggers. Even solidly democratic counties can go very wrong, with the worst people in them becoming dominant. We’re seeing that in the U.S. today, I fear, and I just hope we step back.

  5. Here’s a quote from a pope: “The death sentence is a necessary and efficacious measure for the Church to attain its ends when obstinate heretics disturb the ecclesiastical order”

    Who said this, and when did he say it? It’s not, as one might assume, one of the Medieval popes. It was Leo XIII, who sat on the Vatican throne from 1878 to 1903, putting him well into the modern age. He also said, “The equal toleration of all religions is the same as atheism.”

      1. Again, read Cardinal Newman on heresiarchs in his Apologia: he asserts that they need to be treated without mercy lest thousands of souls (those of the heresiarch’s followers)are lost; he also asserts that it is for the heresiarch’s own good that he or she should be treated unmercifully. ‘This hurts me more than it hurts you.’

  6. The people who used these terrible instruments in their own twisted minds were doing it for gods glory and even to save the heretics. I’m not an apologetic, but they didn’t have science, they didn’t have any evidence to the contrary.

    What sort of science or evidence is needed to judge torture as wrong? We now have evidence that beyond a certain age, children can understand that others feel pain like they themselves do. I doubt if that capacity just evolved in the last few centuries.

    As horrid as these instruments are, the real horror is that there were enough people to carry out their purposes as designed. As is so with any modern horror–Hutus killing Tutsis (and vice versa), religious honor killings, stonings, dismemberment;…and dare I say, pre-emptive war?

    Almost as if it’s adaptive for a certain percentage of the population to be blindly leadable…

    1. They knew the torture was terrible but they believed that life without devine love from God was even worse! They believed that humans could not anything so terrible as a man or woman might do to themselves by giving up on eternal hope. All of it is absolute nonsense, and I’m not excusing it, I’m explaining it. Many of the people who did these terrible things saw themselves as good people doing the right thing. They were not all horrible executioners who took joy in the suffering of others. Think of it as an extreme version of the dentist – she can cause a lot of pain to do good. People really believed that heresy was so terrible, that getting them to confess was good for them. Again not excusing it. If anything this shows how terrible ignorance and religion is, it can make otherwise intelligent and even ingenious poets like Dante do terrible things to others.

      I think we actually do an injustice by thinking these people performing these acts were flawed because then we don’t see the poison that religion can be, because we think only terrible people were capable of this who would enjoy it with or without religion. That isn’t true, it is superstition we should blame.

      1. I do think I understand what you’re saying, but it’s hard for me to grasp that any more than a few mentally ill or psychopathic individuals would not mentally and physically balk at carrying out these ‘persuasions.’ I would find it easier to believe that some did so only under threat of having the same fate befall them if they refused.

        I think at least some of us would have a concrete physical revulsion, to the point of sickness, if told to carry out these actions. I believe I’d try cutting off my own hands, first–whatever it took to avoid conscription…

        I certainly agree that this shows the bad side of superstition fairly conclusively. But while this Colombian branch of the Inquisition was taking place, in other parts of the world so was the Enlightenment, and the idealistic constitutional framing of the USA’s founders. Hard to believe none of this was trickling out to the far flung reaches of the mother Church…

        1. It’s all in what you’re conditioned to deal with. For each of us, Mother Culture provides so much of a mental frame of reference that it’s usually hard to imagine life any other way. For people living back in these times, this level of barbarism was just normal.

          You have to wonder what customs will be seen as barbaric/odd in 500 years that today all of us would shrug at.

      2. I don’t think the torturers believed getting the victims to confess was good for the victims – the point was that it was supposed to be good for others – god, the church, the faithful. The victims were wholly other – abandoned – damned.

        The dentist analogy is not a good one. The pain of dentistry is an unavoidable part of healing; the point is to heal or repair. The point of these tortures was not to heal or repair, it was to punish and extort.

        1. Having read a lot about the Holocaust, the Troubles in Ireland, and the Inquisition, I have come to believe that in any society there are sadists. Even in a healthy society, these sadists will exist, but they will be forced to suppress their sadistic urges or act outside the law and social convention; they become rapists or serial killers.

          In less functional societies, sadists still act outside the law but can find themselves ready supporters in the community; these sadists become Shankill Road Butchers or anti-abortion murderers, who commit criminal acts but have a wide network of protectors.

          In broken societies, sadists find official positions with legal and moral support to enact their sadism; these sadists become Inquisitors, concentration camp guards, CIA torturers, or Castro’s jailors.

          In the very worst of situations, even those who are not sadists are forced to torture and murder; check out the history of the Rwandan massacre or Liberia’s Army of God. The fact that some people have to be forced at gunpoint (or upon threat of tortures being applied to their families) and the fact that these people are forced to do this because the sadists want to distribute the blame shows that on some level the sadists know damn well that what they are doing is good for nobody but themselves.

          I simply do not believe in the torturer who only tortures because he (and occasionally she) thinks it is the right thing to do. I think that torturers (apart from the few who are forced into it) are sadistic scum who find ad-hoc justifications for their actions. Sadly, too many non-sadists are prepared to accept their excuses, presumably because it makes them feel sophisticated.

      3. This contradicts your earlier comment about Christianity being an improvement on Paganism, you didn’t get tortured or executed for heresy in Pagan times the concept was meaningless.
        As regards Constantine, if you haven’t read it I recommend reading Saki’s ‘The Story of St.Vespaluus’ for a cynical and accurate take on the religious motives of rulers.

  7. The horrifying power of belief!——enough to make you crush another person’s skull. Gruesome stuff. Glad to hear you were convinced to include the pictures. They came through fine in the emailed version.

  8. Thank you Dr. Coyne for investing so much of your time and energy into documenting the irrationality and cruelty of organized religion.

  9. EA Blair: need a source for that “The death sentence is a necessary and efficacious measure” for heretics, which you attribute to Leo XIII. Googling the exact quote yielded zero hits. Doesn’t seem plausible for the 1800’s. I did learn that he became pope in 1820, not 1878, the longest popocracy and the oldest pope ever.

    1. I got the quote from the book “The Quotable Atheist” by Jack Huberman. Here’s what Wikipedia has to say about Leo XIII:

      Pope Leo XIII (2 March 1810 – 20 July 1903), born Vincenzo Gioacchino Raffaele Luigi Pecci to an Italian comital family, was the 256th Pope of the Roman Catholic Church, reigning from 1878 to 1903 in succession to Pope Pius IX. Reigning until the age of 93, he was the oldest pope, and had the third longest pontificate, behind his immediate predecessor Pius IX and John Paul II.

      If he had become pope in 1820, he would have been 10 years old. The youngest known popes were either either Benedict IX (who became pope at an unknown age between 11 and 20) or John XII (who was 18 at the beginning of his papacy). I think a 10-year-old pope in the 19th century would have been a matter of record. On the list of longest-reigning popes, he comes in #4.

      Leo XIII wrote 83 encyclicals – these quotes may be in them. I wish you joy in your search.

      1. One source says #4, another says #3, because the list that puts Leo further down includes St. Peter, which the other source considers legendary and unverifiable.

  10. Hey, the christian religions do glorify torture and murder – just read the goddamned bible. I’m sure this all pleased that sado-masochistic god. Let’s not forget the witch hunts throughout Europe either – anyone who believed in a god was prone to believe in demons and to believe that some people work with demons.

    1. >>the christian religions do glorify torture and murder

      Here in the U.S., the most enthusiastic supporters of aggressive war, torture, and casually applied capital punishment are also among the most enthusiastic Christians. I wonder why that is?

  11. I knew this stuff existed. It’s not the first time I’ve seen it. Yet I was so disgusted and horrified I had to leave Jerry’s page; I thought I was going to be sick for a few minutes.

    How – how? – can people be so horrifically cruel, and how can they revel in it, as they so clearly do?

  12. Fundies often maintain that atheists have no moral compass and no reason to behave well.
    The more one sees, the more one realises that the true picture is the exact opposite,that religious nutjobs are only kept from performing atrocity by secular law.

  13. It does seem likely that some people would enjoy their role as torturers, as depicted in Ken Russell’s film, The Devils, 1971 (you need a strong stomach for this scene that is not the worst one in the film.)

    Russell may have overstated the case, however. Almost anyone is capable of extreme acts of abuse against others under carefully managed circumstances.
    This does not imply that they enjoy the abuse however, rather that they helplessly defer to authority in most cases.

    The situation might have been a small number of psychopaths in positions of authority within the Inquisition who were empowered by the obedient majority. Psychopaths are not necessarily violent but can be highly charismatic individuals who lack empathy but are able to learn to read others by observing and manipulating them.

    The role of psychopathology in religion in the historical context might be a fruitful area for research, as might also the possible role of certain types of autism in religious fundamentalism as these can sometimes be characterised by an inability to appreciate metaphorical abstraction (literal mindedness.)

    To summarise, it could be that a minority of people with a proficiency in memorising religious texts may have been placed in a position of authority where they provided the justification for others to cruelly enforce rules and punishments that most people were powerless to oppose and generally aided and abetted – however reluctantly.

    1. Some of those devices make even stoning appear ‘merciful’.
      It is, however, useless to point out these sort of things to modern Christians. They simply do not associate their religion with that of five hundred years back. To them it’s like the connection between the modern Episcopalian faith and the most fundamentalist Al-Qaeda version of Islam – it’s simple seen as a different (and bad) religion that has no real connection with their own.

  14. Reading the descriptions left me with horrific images, and a very nauseous feeling in my stomach. What kind of person could operate this day in and out – religious brainwash or not. I couldn’t read past the description of the ‘Rack”, and a glance at the rest of the implements was enough to kill any curiosity I had about this topic.

  15. And, eventually, Europe civilized. Despite religion.

    Some day, we’ll see that in Islamic countries. Once we, of course, stop fucking them up for oil and other natural resources…

    So, I’m not thinking anytime soon…

    But once we do, and they move up the civilization chain, they’ll be like your next door neighbor, the lapsed Methodist…

  16. It’s encouraging at least that the church fathers have lost so much power that they can only enjoy the pleasures of passive torture by convincing people that wearing a rubber sock is so much worse than dying of AIDS.

    Except, of course, that dying of AIDS is much more protracted and more horrible than anything that the mediaeval fetishists could come up with.

    The church has orphanages in Africa where the staff raise the kids to believe that their parents died of wearing condoms. This way the Pope can enjoy another generation of holy suffering.

    1. It’s encouraging at least that the church fathers have lost so much power that they can only enjoy the pleasures of passive torture by convincing people that wearing a rubber sock is so much worse than dying of AIDS.

      This isn’t correct. The Vatican has been in and supported some of the most torturing, murderous regimes in history, in the Americas (and beyond), for decades. They have been intimately involved in torture. The torturers and murderers were trained and supported in “counterinsurgency” by the good Christians in the US military. They’re still capable of immense evil; they just work through different organizational structures.

      1. Sorry:

        It’s encouraging at least that the church fathers have lost so much power that they can only enjoy the pleasures of passive torture by convincing people that wearing a rubber sock is so much worse than dying of AIDS.

        This isn’t correct. The Vatican has been in and supported some of the most torturing, murderous regimes in history, in the Americas (and beyond), for decades. They have been intimately involved in torture. The torturers and murderers were trained and supported in “counterinsurgency” by the good Christians in the US military. They’re still capable of immense evil; they just work through different organizational structures.

  17. Thank you, Jerry, for putting up the pictures, which are, as you say, a downer. Even more than that, of course, and as I went through the sequence it became very hard to breathe, to think that people were actually tortured with these devices. But, in answer to Josh’s question —

    How – how? – can people be so horrifically cruel, and how can they revel in it, as they so clearly do?

    — it is quite clear that it is done because those who did it, besides taking some sado-masochistic pleasure in it — possibly for sexual reasons — also had the sanction of a god. Remember, as Weinberg says, that, for someone to do something really evil, it takes religion (or a secular surrogate).

    It is not an exception, but the rule, that women are murdered, buried alive, have acid thrown in their faces, are made to conceal themselves in cloth bags, have their genitals mutilated: all in the name of someone’s religious beliefs. And those who do these things claim to have the archetype of the best society! It’s good to have a graphic reminder of what the religious would do if they had the power to do it. (Of course, as Kevin points out, they’re still doing it. They get away with it, because the myth is still put about that religion is really about love and compassion.) Don’t think for one moment that these tendencies of religion have disappeared, and that all is now sweetness and light: all it takes is religious hands on the levers of power, and the whole inhuman drama would play itself out again, even to the crushing of heads and pulling people apart, I suspect.

    1. I completely agree with you Eric. The fact that we now have arguably more moderates (however you define them) professing a faith that once sanctified killing and torturing heretics is no redemption at all. Many of them are moderates (or at least appear to be one) simply because they don’t have the power to be otherwise. As a French philosopher once observed –
      “Quand les vices nous quittent, nous nous flattons de la créance que c’est nous qui les quittons.”
      And as another favorite writer of mine succinctly observed (in a different context of course)-
      “I have never believed in the chastity of impotent men.”

    2. I think that this stuff is one of the big reasons to not accommodate, since these ‘liberal’ or ‘moderate’ religions are not really theologically justified in the same way that a strict fundamentalist position would be, with every belief justified by a holy book verse. The religions are forced to tolerate one another because the states are more powerful, but you can see the moment a single religion intermeshes with a state that it immediately starts to put screws to the other religions.

      Even Buddhism gets involved in wars from time to time. When you practice any absolute belief, it becomes very difficult to tolerate another. Their lie reflects your lie.

  18. This is a precise rationale for assuming that churches are about power & private law (privilege), not about their infantile con-game that they pull over the teeming credulous masses.

  19. Some of those devices make even stoning appear ‘merciful’.
    It is, however, useless to point out these sort of things to modern Christians. They simply do not associate their religion with that of five hundred years back. To them it’s like the connection between the modern Episcopalian faith and the most fundamentalist Al-Qaeda version of Islam – it’s simple seen as a different (and bad) religion that has no real connection with their own.

    1. Thankfully, they didn’t have cameras around when they were using that one. The rather crude drawing accompanying the saw description and picture almost made me vomit.

  20. Is suspect most people are capable of using these devices. I recommend “The German Historians: Hitler’s Willing Executioners and Daniel Goldhagen.” Thousands of perfectly normal, civilized Germans tortured Jews, Gypsies, etc., to death apparently without qualms. Millions of other Germans were aware it was happening.
    I’ve seen that head crusher used by the Three Stooges on Curly. How bad can it be?

  21. Now I have recovered a little bit after looking at those (don’t you know it’s Friday!?) I have to say, I’m unconvinced by the argument that it’s religion that makes people do things like that. Sure, you can argue that most of the worst things that one group of people have done to another have been done in the name of religion – but let’s be honest here, most *things* before recent times were done in the name of religion. Even if only to conform with societal norms. If you attribute these devices to belief, you have to attribute the paintings of Michelangelo, or the work of Newton to belief too.

    My belief (language needs to evolve) on the matter is that people will express the best and worst of themselves no matter what, and religion only facilitates. Sure, you can argue that religion proscribes homophobia; but really, people who are homophobic will claim their prejudices are backed up by religion, and people who aren’t will explain it away. See also: sexism; racism. It’s just a convenient excuse.

    Please note, I’m not being accomodationist. It’s a *bad* excuse, and should be exposed for what it is. But I don’t think people will magically stop being bastards if/when religion is gone.

    1. I tend to agree. The people devising and operating these devices must have been out-and-out sadists.

      What religion did was give them cover to operate in the open. In that regard I think it’s plausible that religion expanded the number of victims… but somebody who would come up with the idea of having little cups to catch the eyes coming out of someone’s sockets as their head is crushed, well, that person would have been a sadist with or without religion.

      Come to think of it, there’s is an analogy here to the Catholic church’s more recent issue with pedophiles. It is not entirely clear whether the priesthood is more infested with pedophiles than other institutions (I have heard people on either side present data supposedly showing that it is less or more, but I have found none of it convincing and so currently consider it an unknown) but what is beyond doubt is that the policy of shielding the predators from prosecution allowed them to reach many more victims.

      The priesthood probably doesn’t make pedophiles, but it seems fairly certain that there is a very high victim-to-molester ratio among priestly pedophiles. So it was likely with the sadist who ran the Inquisition: I doubt the Inquisition changed many people into sadists, but it allowed existing sadists to reach far more victims than they otherwise might have.

      1. I tend to agree. The people devising and operating these devices must have been out-and-out sadists.

        I don’t know. Look at current horror movies where the emphasis is firmly on torture. The disgusting ‘Hostel’ movie was popular and the ‘Saw’ series is extremely popular. It’s common for young people to sit around and dream up despicable methods of death and torture. There are websites dedicated to the most gruesome and disgusting images and videos imaginable. Kids prank each other by tricking one another into viewing images of mutilated bodies.

        Finding people to devise such devices would, I think, not be difficult.

        1. poke, there is a huge difference between seeing images of torture and actually implementing them. Also, the whole point of tricking people into seeing disgusting things is that the people tricked will find them disgusting.

          I am not defending Hostel (I saw Hostel 2 and was appalled by it), nor goatseing one’s friends but let’s not confuse this with actual torture.

      1. Vitriolic revisionism? Is squeezing the eyeballs out of someone’s head “tame”? ONE PERSON TORTURED is way too many. And the Inquisition is being “exaggerated”? Please take your concern trolling somewhere else.

    2. It’s what James said – “What religion did was give them cover to operate in the open.”

      Not just in the open but officially, and in the name of the law.

      What religion does is dress up cruelty as virtue and piety. This was the point of a bit of purple writing at the end of Does God Hate Women? that a few critics have found excessive – but if it’s read in context, I don’t think it’s excessive at all.

      Religion doesn’t necessarily originate ideas about female subordination and male authority, but it does justify them, it does lend them a penumbra of righteousness, and it does make them ‘sacred’ and thus a matter for outrage if anyone disputes them. It does enable and assist and flatter moods of intolerance for all those who seek to challenge cultural and religious values and religious abuse of power. It does turn reformers and challengers into enemies of God.

      Used in this way religion is like a matrix, a nutrient, a super-vitamin. It doesn’t necessarily invent, but it amplifies, and nourishes, and protects. Religion is like the total body irradiation that destroys an immune system and lets an underlying infection take over. It’s like a pesticide that destroys some insect species only to let others, freed from predators and competition, explode.

      Religion, in the hands of the literalist defenders of God’s putative will, is in the business of dressing up what would otherwise obviously be tired old prejudices and hatreds and plain exploitation, and making them seem vaguely respectable. Religion is the whited sepulchre, the warthog in a party dress, the dictator in a pink uniform plastered with medals, the executioner in white tie and tails.

      1. (Replying to all three comments above.)

        I buy the argument that religion contributes to and exacerbates these problems; but it isn’t the only excuse people have come up with down the centuries. For king and/or country is another good one; and I don’t think it’s enough to simply say that kings have made themselves the object of religion.

        Humans seem to have a knack for finding a reason to justify excessive cruelty and injustice. While in many cases, it is a godhead or figurehead, there are others – animal rights being a more perverse example. Perhaps religion just stands out because, as I said before, until recently religion was almost universally an integral part of human society.

          1. But it’s a small, handy, satisfyingly ergonomic little book. 😀

            Seriously, I can’t recommend “Does God Hate Women?” highly enough; to every gender. What serves to dehumanize half the population can’t help but dehumanize the other half as well. And it’s so well-written, it’s a real page-turner. Trust me.

            1. Thanks very much Diane.

              (I didn’t really mean to post an advert. It’s just that the savagery of the “instruments” gets me into the frame of mind in which that passage was written, so it seemed germane.)

          2. I concur. I would love a kindle version as well. (I love in a deeply religious house where it would be much easier to sneak an ebook in than a physical book, haha.

            It sounds wonderful.

            As opposed to the torture devices, which are awful.

  22. Jerry,

    Can you see why the Protestant Reformation was necessary. A good thing getting rid of all those heretical Chatholic clergy, and returning to the one true faith.

  23. Do you know why this was allowed to go on? It’s because the torturers worshiped a God who would do far worse, unimaginably worse, to the vast majority of humanity for all eternity.

    Let that sink in. Not a week, or a year, or a century, or 4.5 billion years: FOREVER. God Himself invented a place where the majority of the human race would go that would make being subject to every single one of these at once look like a luxurious spa bath.

    In God’s image, indeed.

    1. Yes. And because of that, these tortures were more humane, were not only justified, but morally obligated.

      After all, to do this to a handful of people, or by one’s inaction to see thousands condemned to worse torture. How could it be moral not to?

  24. Can anyone suggest some good books on the Inquisition(s)?
    It tends to be present as a single thing, and while there was a single Holy Order for the Inquisition, the times when it was actually functioning, and how bad it was tend to vary a lot on the region and time frame. I’m also curious as to why the Catholic Church stopped.. was it forced to, or was it just that it became deeply unpopular within the church as well as without.

    1. Carl Sagan’s “The Demon Haunted World” has 1 chapter that is a very good introduction the topic – centered around the clergy’s fear of & belief in demons & witches. Note that the inquisition stopped in some countries earlier than others – Holland was one of the first in the 16th century. Germany, not until 100 years or so after. Spain, later again – where the last official death was in 1820’s or so for someone saying “praise be to God” instead of “ave maria” during school prayer. That should give a clue as to why it stopped altogether in all countr

  25. At first I was concerned about having these devices publicized, but then I remembered that Bush and Cheney were no longer in office.

  26. I seem to remember a story about a study of what happens when people were divided into arbitrary groups one being guards and the other being prisoners that had to be stopped because the guards were becoming too cruel, seems to me that it would indicate how ordinary people can rapidly change and do things that they would not previously have done.
    What religion does is divide people into good and bad and sanction the cruelty against the bad. I see no redeeming qualities in any of it none that would let me forgive or excuse any of it nothing to mitigate.

  27. I hate to spoil the fun but the problem is not in religious or non-religious ideologies but in ourselves.

    For a start, I recommend reading “Bloodlands”, by Timothy Snyder, which recounts the slaughter of the millions in eastern Europe caught between Stalinism and Nazism.

    1. Of course violence is a general problem. But torture isn’t, and the purpose of this torture was religious.

      In any case, there is an ongoing discussion on WEIT how religion is a mediator for atrocities in general. WWII & stalinism/nazism are good examples where religion caused much basic animosity (racism, nationalism; and their divides) and specifically helped the regimes do their dirty work by allying with them (under Stalin) or not opting out (under Hitler; see their belt buckles for one). So that is as good a start as any for the purpose at hand.

  28. I really don’t like the subject, too painful.

    But all things happen, and kudos to those who doesn’t shy away from the disturbing observations of religious insanity.

  29. It highlights what I think may be the main purposes of religion: it gives to those people who seem to need it a sense of purpose, and it justifies many kinds of wants and needs. Religion is claimed to act as a check on certain kinds of behaviour, but it seems always possible to find some justification for even the most abominable things. Much depends on how much power you can get within the religious hierarchy (it’s always a hierarchy, isn’t it? and I suppose that that is just human), but humbler people find ways, especially if acting on commands which can be “justified” as ultimately divine. It’s the business of “authority” that matters, even if “authority” is no more than “disgust” or hatred of what isn’t “proper”.

    Apologies if this isn’t quite coherent. Thinking aloud, really.

  30. With all due respect….The problem is indeed religion. Especially the ones you cite, Catholic & Protestant alike…who have championed the Pagan concepts of Hellfire…absolutely not a Bible teaching …..&, as noted …. have acted in harmony with the lie they spread by torturing those that oppose their wrong view, bringing shame on the very God they falsely claim to uphold.

    The problem is unquestionably religion…not the God that commanded those truly in his corner in this present system…. to be peaceable even towards those opposed. Otherwise such ones end up being part and parcel of the commentors in this thread who think being an athiest somehow represents a higher moral standard. Their history is certainly no different.

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