Updated and edited slightly, 2019
Reprinted Feb 2015, unedited, from over nine years ago. (1/12/06) One of my first posts, and apropos in light of the president's (Obama) venturing into historical discussion with the approximate sophistication of a freshman at a late-night bull session.
When editorialists and online commenters want to illustrate for you how bad Christianity is, and how much it has contributed to the misery of man, there are three examples that are trotted out: the Salem Witch Trials, the Inquisition, and the Crusades. Keep in mind...
Witch trials were more common -- ten thousand times more common -- in Europe, and increasingly common the farther east you went, until it stopped hard at Belarus/Ukraine/Russia - Orthodox lands. My thought is that the milder superstitions of curse and the evil eye in Orthodox thinking was more deeply embedded and thus somewhat moderated. As the colonies were still part of Europe, being the most western (that is, least witch-burning) portion fits the pattern nicely. Not only was there no correlation to strongly religious areas in European witch trials, there was a negative correlation. Execution of witches was most common in areas that still had strong pagan and folk superstitions. Salem was not even known as a particularly religious city in the New England Colonies. Seaports seldom are. Following Hawthorne's self-hatred and Miller's anti-McCarthyite agenda, the idea that Christian extremism leads to witch-burning is firmly implanted in our mythology, but is false. There is some connection to the rise of heresy crackdowns, but a stronger one to the plague and to social unrest.
The small-i inquisitions, insane as they were, were usually saner than the civil courts around them. A higher percentage of "heretics" tried in civil courts were executed. It may be sad, or even infuriating, that things were so bad that the Inquisitions were a step up, but they were.The Spanish Inquisition was the great exception, because it was under the direction of Ferdinand and Isabella, not the Dominicans and Franciscans who had developed very clear rules for what was a fair way to "inquire" and what was not. The crown made money from the forfeited lands as well. This was not the primary motive, but it sweetened the deal. The treatment of the conversos and the expulsion of the Jews comes into this, though not always with clear lines.
Western Europe played defense against Islamic expansion for almost 95% of the 7th-17th Centuries. In our current imagination, this is remembered as a series of aggressive Crusades by the West. The Romanians, who got slaughtered and had their heads put on pikes for our sake, remember the events a little differently. There were a hundred tribes in the mix, and it almost never was broken down as entirely Christian vs Muslim in battle and competition. The Christians took small amounts of territory, not empires. Eventually, they had some very valuable ports, and that became a good portion of the value. Also, there were Crusades to the Baltic counties, to Spain, to everywhere. Crusading became part of the culture.
Remember also that reference to the evil of the Inquisition and Crusades were first used as criticisms against Catholics rather than Christians in general. When the individuals who had the temerity to name themselves The Enlightenment spun their version of European history into popularity, they were building on the considerable anti-Catholic spin that already prevailed from their upbringing. To steal an image from a recent post of mine below, the background music you hear when you read the words Salem, Inquisition, or Crusades promises more evil than the actual events deliver. Da-DUHH! Real events are more complicated. The numbers actually killed, versus huger numbers of the dead in other battles and invasions we no longer even mention, are small, but the infamy remains great. Historical events are often remembered more for their symbolic value in modern culture wars than for their actual effect.
The Jews get a pass and are allowed to complain about any of it, because they really were screwed over at least once a century just about everywhere. No argument from me there. The interesting thing is that these were always the brutal, explosive exception. Jews would live in a place long enough to prosper, be tolerated and even somewhat accepted, and then the Christians would just descend into a decade of violence again.
There have been no religious wars in Christendom since the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. What people call religious wars in Europe are tribal and national wars that people tried to dress in religious clothing. Wolves don't hide in wolf's clothing.
Update: We treat not burning witches anymore as a moral improvement. It is actually only a scientific improvement. We no longer believe witches can accomplish those horrible things, so we don't persecute them anymore. People who we believe can do bad things to us from a distance -- disease, radiation, toxins -- we still want to do bad things to. Because we consider their damage partial or minor we only sue them and fine them and put them in jail. If we thought they could kill our children we might get meaner. Part of the sneering against us is drawn from secularists treating the scientific advance as a moral one. Yet notice the recovered memory of satanic cults hysteria from 10-20 years ago -- both religious and secular people went completely nuts with that, and sent some innocent people to jail over it -- not to mention destroyed families and reputations.