Book Review

Bullies and Saints: An Honest Look at the Good and Evil of Christian History

by John Dickson
Bullies and Saints: An Honest Look at the Good and Evil of Christian History

God’s love for us must animate our love for all.

In Bullies and Saints: An Honest Look at the Good and Evil of Christian History, historian John Dickson presents a nuanced and critical take on violence found in Christian history—from the Crusades to the Spanish Inquisition to the Irish Troubles—challenging both sensationalized narratives and apologetic whitewashing.

Toward the beginning of his book, Dickson notes that Christianity remained on course for its first century, even into the 300s AD. They prayed and ate together, celebrated and grieved in unity, helped the poor and afflicted, and suffered well under persecution. As Dickson calls it, they carried a beautiful tune. Things began to change when Christianity gained political power with the conversion of Constantine. But before going into the historical details, Dickson describes context for the modern secular resistance of Christianity—and religion in general.

Bullies and Saints: An Honest Look at the Good and Evil of Christian History

Good losers and the morality police

In the fifth chapter, Dickson notes a dramatic contrast between two major groups of Christians: the “morality police” and the “good losers.” The morality police have legislative and social power, and they use it to force Christian morals onto unwilling populations. Western nations like the United States and Australia are under the influence of these morality police.

The good losers, on the other hand, can be found in places like Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. Christians in these areas are among the most persecuted minorities in the world today.1 Religious persecution in China is rampant. A church in Chengdu had 100 of its members arrested in 2018. Though most were released shortly afterward, Pastor Wang Yi was sentenced to nine years in detention—the longest sentence given to a house church pastor in a decade.

Though it seems like Pastor Yi would have more reasons than most to fight back, he has taken a position of peace in the face of unjust religious persecution. In a smuggled letter, Yi writes from prison:

The mystery of the gospel lies in active suffering, even being willing to endure unrighteous punishment, as a substitute for physical resistance. Peaceful disobedience is the result of love and forgiveness. The cross means being willing to suffer when one does not have to suffer. For Christ had limitless ability to fight back, yet he endured all of the humility and hurt. The way that Christ resisted the world that resisted him was by extending an olive branch of peace on the cross to the world that crucified him.

Though the persecution of Christians in the early days wasn’t comprehensive, it was brutal when it happened. Tacitus described Christians being torn apart by dogs and set ablaze to light up the night—at the orders of Emperor Nero—just thirty years after the death of Jesus. This was also around the time when Paul and other New Testament authors wrote their letters. In the twelfth chapter of his letter to the Roman church, Paul writes, Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God… Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.2 The first hearers of Paul’s words had witnessed their friends and family members killed in horrific ways, but Paul instructed them not to fight back. That is how the church should behave in the world.

Dickson goes on to describe anonymous pamphlets that were distributed in the Roman province of Bithynia-Pontus around 112 AD. The governor, Pliny the Younger, described in a letter to Emperor Trajan how locals wrote the pamphlets to out their neighbors who had converted to Christianity. Christians were bad for business because they refused to purchase meat involved in idol sacrifice. When Christians were reported and brought before Pliny, he would ask them three times if they were a Christian, reminding them of the capital punishment that awaits any found to practice Christianity. He would also invite them to invoke the Roman gods, participate in emperor worship, and revile the name of Christ—a test to discover the true Christians. Dickson notes, Almost a hundred years after Jesus had proclaimed love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, it is clear that this was still the melody Christians were expected to sing.

In fact, Justin Martyr (AD 100–165) recounts the earliest description of a Christian church service in one of his writings, with five elements: readings from the writings of the apostles, instruction from a designated leader, a thanksgiving meal of bread and wine, public prayers, and, finally, a collection for orphans and widows, and those who, through sickness or any other cause, are in want, and those who are in bonds. If this is how the first Christian churches conducted their services, by all appearances, they seemed to be singing the tune that Jesus taught them.

How could a movement that acted like Pastor Yi for its first three hundred years end up looking and sounding like the morality police?

Religious feuding and the modern interpretation of widespread Christian endorsement of violence

For its first few centuries, Christianity was diametrically opposed to violence. Believers took seriously the words of Jesus in his Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5), and the words of Paul in his letter to the Roman church (Romans 12:17–21). Early Christians were resolute in their commitment to nonviolence.

There is even a surviving document called The Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus (AD 200) that provides a detailed glimpse into early church liturgy and customs, including regulations for accepting catechumens—Christian converts receiving formal training prior to baptism. The ineligible included gladiators, trainers of gladiators, charioteers, hunters in the arena (killers of animals for sport), public officials responsible for arena violence or executions, and military officers who executed people or took military oaths.3 While the document doesn’t explicitly disqualify soldiers from formal training and baptism, it does reject those catechumens who have received training and yet desire to become soldiers.

Constantine the Great

All of this would begin to shift with the rise of Constantine the Great. Although he didn’t instruct or incite violence against pagans—Constantine was actually very tolerant, officially, toward non-Christians—the great emperor represented the first significant transition of power into Christian hands.

One notable benefit toward Christians was Constantine’s enactment of tax breaks for churches, which were spending their own money to feed, clothe, and heal the poor. He also enacted a law on July 3, 321 that allowed individuals to leave untaxed bequests to the church upon their death.

According to Dickson:

…this law allowing untaxed bequests to churches, a thing already permitted for other corporations, would eventually have a huge impact on the church’s ability to be self-sufficient, and more! Over time—and, of course, no other organisation has had more time—the property holdings of the church would become unfathomably large. What seemed like a small tax concession in the summer of 321 would become one of the church’s chief sources of income (property) and a principal cause of understandable criticism.

Constantine further exempted clergy from the burden of public office. At that time, middle-class citizens were often required to be involved in government service. Despite this, some clergy started to see the benefit of holding public office as a Christian, leading to instances of abuse of power. Christians were starting to become less like the frightened followers hiding underground and more like public officials issuing pro-Christian edicts.

Dickson argues that Constantine’s public policies towards Christians weren’t driven solely by religious conviction, but also by shrewd political calculations. While acknowledging the Edict of Milan’s pivotal role in legalizing Christianity, Dickson highlights how Constantine strategically leveraged Christians for social cohesion and loyalty, aiming to bolster his own imperial authority. This nuanced perspective challenges simplistic narratives of Constantine as a purely religious benefactor, suggesting a more complex interplay between political pragmatism and religious favoritism.


Constantine at the beginning of the fourth century made Ambrose at the end of that century a possibility, even an inevitability. And, as I have said, Ambrose represented a new muscular Christianity that had all of the political confidence of a Roman senator and all of the righteous sense of mission that was native to Christianity. It was a powerful fusion, with definite historical consequences.

Dickson portrays Bishop Ambrose as a complex figure, both a staunch defender of Christian values and a skilled political player. He acknowledges Ambrose’s courageous confrontations with emperors like Valentinian and Theodosius, highlighting his unwavering commitment to justice and the protection of the vulnerable. However, Dickson also examines Ambrose’s political maneuvering and his use of excommunication as a tool in power struggles, suggesting a more nuanced understanding of his motivations and legacy. Ultimately, Ambrose flexed his political muscles in his religious duties with an oppressive hand.


The most famous fifth-century mathematics and philosophy teacher in Alexandria was a woman named Hypatia, the daughter of an academic named Theon. In AD 415 she was murdered by Christians. Hypatia, a beacon of reason and independent thought, attracted students from across the empire. Her lectures on philosophy and mathematics resonated with pagans and Christians alike.

Alexandria, a melting pot of Christian and Jewish cultures, simmered with political and religious tensions. Bishop Cyril wielded growing influence, clashing with Governor Orestes, himself a baptized Christian, who represented the Roman emperor and championed intellectual freedom. Following the public torture of a local Christian named Hierax4, the simmering tensions erupted when a mob dragged Hypatia from her chariot. They took her to the church called Caesareum, brutally murdered her with tiles, tore her body to pieces, and burned her remains.

Dickson notes that the popular interpretation of Hypatia’s murder is one of religious extremism and intolerance of women and education. At least, this is the way the tale has been told since the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, including in the 2009 film Agora

I want to make a note of a book that John Dickson calls the most authoritative work on the topic to date: Hypatia: The Life and Legend of an Ancient Philosopher, by Edward J. Watts, Professor of History, University of California. This would be a great book to add to the reading list of anyone interested in this early account of Christian-pagan clashes, including myself.

Hypatia was killed by a mob of Christians. That much is true. But Edward Watts is adamant that the awful fate of Hypatia had nothing to do with her being a woman or being educated. It even had little to do with religion.

Dickson argues against attributing Hypatia’s death solely to religious fanaticism. He paints a picture of a complex political landscape, where personal rivalries and power struggles intertwined. He cautions against simplistic narratives, urging readers to critically examine the historical accounts, which are riddled with biases and conflicting versions of events.

Hypatia’s murder came on the heels of a controversial law enacted on June 16, 391 by Emperor Theodosius (AD 347–395), which outright banned pagan worship of the gods. Prior to him, Emperor Gratian (AD 359–383) had withdrawn the official state sponsorship of pagan temples. Christians were feeling powerful while pagans were forced to denounce their gods.

Fifty-four years after the death of Constantine the Great, and three hundred and sixty years after Jesus Christ, the old Greco-Roman religions were officially illegal.


Born in North Africa under Roman rule, Augustine (AD 354–430) embarked on a youthful pursuit of pleasure and intellectual exploration. Initially drawn to Manichaeism5, he later converted to Christianity, profoundly influenced by Ambrose. Rising to become the Bishop of Hippo Regius, Augustine was involved in many charitable endeavors, including farming to feed the poor and using church funds to free slaves. On one occasion, as described by Augustine in one of his three hundred surviving letters, a local church raided a slave ship and freed 120 souls, restoring many to their families and housing and feeding the rest.

Augustine’s prolific writings and theological arguments shaped the course of Western Christianity. His monumental work, Confessions, laid bare his spiritual journey, while his City of God explored earthly and divine societies. Augustine’s “just war” theory and doctrines on grace and original sin continue to influence religious and philosophical discourse to this day.

His theory of “just war” can be summarized in five key points:

  1. The goal is to establish mutual peace between the parties.
  2. The military force is waged only in self-defense or to recover stolen property.
  3. Soldiers exercise maximum restraint during battle.
  4. Fighting is conducted “with such respect for humanity as to leave the opponent without the sense of being humiliated and resentful.”
  5. Prisoners of war are preserved, not executed.

Dickson dissects Augustine’s “just war” theory with a surgeon’s scalpel, avoiding glorification and condemnation alike. He dives into the Roman cauldron of Augustine’s era, where barbarian invasions and imperial decline brewed anxieties about violence and self-defense. Dickson argues that Augustine’s just war theory wasn’t a vacuum-sealed philosophical treatise, but a response to this very real-world pressure cooker.

Instead of branding Augustine a warmongering crusader, Dickson highlights the intricate conditions of his “just war” framework: a righteous cause, proper authority, pure intention, and proportionate force. He fiercely attacks historical distortions that twisted Augustine’s ideas into justifications for colonial conquests and religious slaughter. For Dickson, interpreting Augustine demands historical context, not cherry-picking convenient justifications.

Yet, Dickson doesn’t shy away from acknowledging the limitations. He admits that judging the “justness” of a cause can be subjective, and the theory leaves potential loopholes for abuse by those in power.

Ultimately, Dickson presents Augustine’s just war theory as a tapestry woven with complexity, not a simplistic picture. He invites readers to unravel its threads, engaging with both Augustine’s arguments and their historical context, their echoes resonating in contemporary discussions about war and peace. While interpretations may differ, Dickson’s approach pushes us beyond easy labels and towards a more informed understanding of this influential chapter in the history of war and ethics.

Most of the events that follow in church history, good and bad, find some precedent in the events and ideas of the first half-millennium of Christianity. Later ecclesiastical bullying can already be glimpsed in the muscular vision of church-and-state first exemplified in Ambrose. The church’s infamous bigotry toward ‘sinners’ is forecast in the monkish riots against pagan shrines. The flood of wealth that flowed into medieval church coffers (and contemporary megachurches) finds its source in the donations, land gifts, and tax exemptions granted to churches by successive fourth-century emperors. And the largescale ‘holy wars’ against Muslims and heretics in the eleventh–fifteenth centuries were, with just a little bit of imagination, rationalised on the basis of Augustine’s theory of just war.

Bishop Eligius

Bishop Eligius (AD 590–660) of Noyon, a town in northern France, was one of the great Christian leaders of history and among the most beloved men in Europe. A master goldsmith by training, he was hired by Clothar II, the king of the Franks, to manage the crafting of royal jewelry—a position which afforded him great wealth and honor. To match his position and prestige, Eligius dressed in expensive robes adorned with precious metals and gems and carried elegantly jeweled purses6 and plenty of gold.

As extravagant as Eligius dressed, he was quite the devout and charitable Christian. Dickson describes his devotion to Christ’s teachings, notably including Christ’s call to assist the downtrodden. Jesus had given himself for the world, and we are to do the same; that is the logic of life. Eligius was known for giving away the clothes (and jewelry) off his back. Wherever he would come upon people suffering in poverty, he would gift them his expensive clothing, belts, purses, gems, and gold. He would often leave on a journey dressed like a prince and return looking like a pauper.

Along with frequently giving away his wealth, Eligius was known widely throughout Europe for purchasing and freeing slaves. This could be described as his passion project, because he was known to rush off to slave markets when he heard of them. He would spend his entire purse to purchase as many people as he could—men, women and children, his own countrymen and foreigners—and when he ran out of money, he would begin to strip himself of his expensive adornments to cover the costs. And once these people were free, he would cover the costs to either settle them locally or return them to their homelands, whichever they preferred.

Eligius became a priest and a powerful evangelistic preacher. In 641 he was made the bishop of Noyon, sixty miles north of Paris. But he never stopped feeding the poor and freeing slaves, using his own personal wealth and redirecting church funds for his projects. He converted many pagans in Flanders and Antwerp and built monasteries and churches. Upon his death, the entire city mourned at his grave in the cold rain on December 1, 660.

Bishop Boniface

Bishop Boniface (AD 675–754), nicknamed “Apostle of Germany,” tirelessly championed Christianization in 8th-century Europe. A skilled diplomat and organizer, he founded monasteries, reformed the Frankish clergy, and established bishoprics, laying the groundwork for German Christendom.

​​In Bullies and Saints, Dickson peels away the romanticized layers of Boniface, revealing a far more complex, even contradictory figure. He dismantles the heroic lone-wolf missionary image, exposing Boniface’s reliance on Frankish muscle to access and influence pagan communities. This dependency raises questions about coercion and the messy marriage of politics and religion in his mission.

Dickson then plunges into the murky waters of theological controversies. Boniface’s clashes with other Christian factions over pagan practices and tree veneration are laid bare, showcasing his strict adherence to Roman orthodoxy and his willingness to enforce it through the violent destruction of sacred groves. This creates a fascinating tension within the nascent Christian community.

Despite Boniface’s undeniable human flaws—accusations of arrogance and power hunger— Dickson avoids hagiography7, painting a relatable figure who wasn’t above political maneuvering to achieve his goals. Yet, he doesn’t ignore his undeniable achievements. Boniface’s establishment of monasteries and bishoprics laid the groundwork for a lasting Christian infrastructure in Germany, and his championing of education and literacy fostered cultural development alongside religious conversion.

Ultimately, Dickson presents Boniface as a product of his time, a skilled but ambitious figure navigating a complex political and religious landscape.

Odo the Reformer

A man named Odo (AD 879–942) was intrumental in a reform movement that corrected ecclesiastical errors whereby abbeys were sold for profit and bishops attained their prestigious positions financially. Odo became the Abbot of the monastery at Cluny (in southeast France) in AD 927 and quickly began to reshape its practices. Drawing from his education under the renowned Benedictine scholar Remigius of Auxerre (AD 841–908), Odo adopted for the monastery the Rule of Benedict. He was a blistering humanitarian in the style of Jesus Christ, and he denounced violence and greed with gusto. In one of his written works, Collationes (or Conferences), Odo blasts proud and wealthy Christians for being the worst of humanity.

Odo’s friend, John of Salerno, wrote his biography, which detailed his extreme generosity. Not only did Odo give to all who asked of him, but he would ask a service of someone whom he suspected was in need but would not ask—to preserve the person’s dignity, he would ask them to sing him a song, then he would pay handsomely. And again with poor farmers selling their wares on the streets, he would refuse to pay until he had negotiated a very high price. On one occasion, Odo was robbed of his water jar, and when the thief was caught, Odo prevented the man’s hand from being removed by the governor (Alberic).

In his heart, Odo believed in treating people as if they were created in the image of God, loved dearly by the Master, and worth immensely more than their economic output.

Forced conversions under Charlemagne, notoriously unusual

During his thirty-year war with the Saxons from AD 772 until 804, the first Holy Roman Emperor, Charlemagne (AD 742–814), decreed that the Germanic warrior people should be put to death unless they were baptized. (He even had more than 4,500 Saxons beheaded on a single day in AD 782.) He was by all accounts a pious Christian, yet his philosophy of evangelism was unprecedented within the faith. Charlemagne’s approach is a notorious outlier in the Christian tradition, writes Dickson.

Fortunately, Charlemagne was eventually convinced to adopt a policy of evangelistic persuasion over brute force. His trusted adviser, Alcuin of York (AD 735–804), an English church deacon and intellectual, was the only person to get through to Charlemagne, who believed he was doing God’s work with his “baptism or death” policy. Following a flowery yet insistent letter by Alcuin, Charlemagne published a new code, Capitulare Saxonicum, on October 28, 797, which removed the “baptism or death” policy and allowed many local pagan customs to resume.

In the long run, Alcuin was proved right. The voluntary approach to mission was more effective. Saxony would eventually fully embrace the faith and would become a leading centre of Christianity in the centuries to come.

Prior to Charlemagne (and after him!), prominent Christians, even those with power and influence, stood firm in their belief that Christian converts should come to the faith willingly and genuinely—not by force.

… freedom and full liberty … to exercise free choice in worshipping as each one has seen fit.

Edict of Milan (AD 313)

No one is to be compelled to embrace the faith against his will.

Saint Augustine of Hippo (AD 354–430)

Those who do not agree with the Christian religion should be brought to the unity of faith by mildness and generosity, by admonition and persuasion. Otherwise men who might be won to believing by the sweetness of preaching and the fear of the coming judgement will be repulsed by threats of pressure.

Pope Gregory I (AD 540–604)

Stop fighting, lads! Give up the battle! For we are taught by the trusty witness of Scripture, that we render not evil for evil, but contrariwise good for evil.

Bishop Boniface (AD 675–754)

A person can be drawn into the Faith, not forced into it.

Alcuin of York (AD 735–804)

Others are to be invited to the faith not by harsh means, but by gentle words… Those who sincerely wish to lead people who stand outside the Christian religion into a proper faith shall strive to do so by gentle means rather than by harsh ones, lest adversity alienate the mind of those whom a reasonable argument would have been able to attract.

Decretum, Canon II (1140)

Unbelievers are by no means to be compelled to the faith, in order that they may believe, because to believe depends on the will.

Thomas Aquinas (AD 1225–1274)

In his letter to an abbot named Mellitus, Pope Gregory I (AD 540–604) advised that instead of destroying pagan temples, they should be converted into Christian churches. He believed that this approach would be more effective in converting pagans to Christianity because it would be less likely to arouse resentment among the pagan population. Though repurposing pagan temples into Christian churches would be viewed as religious persecution by today’s standards, Gregory was adamant that the people should at least have the choice to convert to Christianity.

The Inquisitions

John Dickson opens the twentieth chapter, titled The Inquisition, with a reference to Monty Python’s 1970 comedic hit The Flying Circus (season 2, episode 2). The sketch pokes fun at the Spanish Inquisition while offering a brief history lesson, and Dickson notes that this historical event has completed its period of cultural commentary. When something passes from outrage, disdain, and denunciation to simple jest on national TV, you know the process of cultural critique is complete.

But as Dickson explains, the period of the Inquisitions (1100s–1500s) is misunderstood, and actions of the Spanish Inquisition (1478–1834)—an especially horrendous chain of persecutions—are often attributed to the Catholic Church as a whole. The only Inquisition information available to anyone outside the Catholic Church, until recently8, was popular storytelling passed along through the generations, and much of the scorn and vitriol is the work of preachers and pamphleteers during the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Let me be clear: the Inquisitions, and especially the Spanish Inquisition, were sometimes as horrific and corrupt as the most exaggerated retellings suggest. They are a blight on church history, and it was right that Pope John Paul II publicly apologised for them in a ceremony on 12 March 2000. Still, in a fair-minded history of violence from the Middle Ages to today, the Inquisitions would not even make the Top Ten.

In telling the history of the Inquisitions, which are known for rooting out heretics, Dickson explains the true meanings of both heresy and inquisition:

The first Inquisitions

First announced by Pope Lucius II in 1184 and functionally launched by Pope Gregory IX in 1233, the first Inquisitions were conducted by teams of theologians who would travel to areas of Europe impacted by heresies—Arianism, Catharism, Albigensianism, among others. They would identify heretics and persuade them to denounce their incorrect beliefs and come back into alignment with the theology of the Church. The important word here is persuade. Dickson points out that the vast majority of these early inquisitions engaged only in persuasion, following the general philosophy of historical Christian witness. However, in 1252, the pope authorized the use of torture during inquests, though evidence suggests the measure was rarely employed. Dickson goes on to clarify, Don’t get me wrong. I consider a single act of torture in the name of Christ as a blasphemy.

Dickson argues against the inflated figures of victims often associated with the Inquisitions. He cites historical research and expert opinions to suggest the true numbers were far lower than popularly believed.

Though the early inquests were largely persuasive in nature, they certainly involved intimidation. The typical process began with (1) a public sermon, followed by (2) a thirty-day “period of grace” for confession and repentance, then (3) interviews of defendants and witnesses, and lastly, (4) a public announcement of restoration or continued guilt. Those who repented were required to perform some kind of penance, but anyone who resolutely refused to stop advocating heresy was declared guilty and handed over to state authorities.

It’s here in the history of the first Inquisitions that Dickson notes the stark difference between the Church inquisitors and the state authorities in how heretics were treated. State rulers frequently saw heresy as a cancer to social cohesion, which had to be mercilessly cut out. Church inquisitors, on the other hand, normally saw themselves—so the primary documents reveal—as doctors sent to heal sick heretics and their communities.

When we read what people say about the Inquisitions in the Middle Ages, the biggest criticism is that they are lenient, that they take too much time, that they are too worried about rules of evidence, and meticulousness of ensuring that everyone is treated fairly. And this was a source of great frustration to secular rulers.

Professor Thomas Madden, Director of the Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, Saint Louis University

Dickson challenges the tendency to exclusively demonize the Inquisitions. He draws comparisons to other historical instances of violence and argues that the Inquisition’s atrocities, while horrific, shouldn’t be viewed in isolation.

The Spanish Inquisition (1478–1834)

Dickson makes sure to draw a distinction between the general Inquisitions and the Spanish Inquisition. One place where inquisitors were not always accused of being lenient was in Spain. The Spanish Inquisition brutally persecuted Jews, witches, and Protestants.

Though the Spanish Inquisition was notably more violent and un-Christian, Dickson emphasizes the political and social context, highlighting its role in consolidating Spanish power and combating religious dissent. He avoids simplistic explanations that solely blame religious fanaticism. While questioning the scale of the Inquisition, Dickson doesn’t downplay its brutality. He acknowledges the torture, executions, and psychological terror inflicted on victims, condemning these acts as violations of human rights.

The Irish “Troubles”

In the final chapters, Dickson grapples with the Irish Troubles, a conflict often painted as a simple religious clash. He dismantles this narrative, revealing a tapestry woven from political, social, and economic threads. He emphasizes historical grievances and power struggles that predate any religious divide, highlighting how religion became entangled in a much larger web of tensions.

While acknowledging the influence of faith in shaping identities, Dickson insists it wasn’t the engine driving the violence. He critiques the “sectarian clash” narrative, arguing it fuels further division and obscures the deeper realities. Instead, he focuses on individual stories, giving voice to victims, perpetrators, and peacemakers. These personal accounts illuminate the human cost and the diverse motivations behind the conflict.

Dickson further challenges the simplistic “Catholic vs. Protestant” framework, emphasizing the spectrum of views and experiences within each community. He rejects the notion of monolithic religious blocs, reminding us of the rich tapestry within each group.

Ultimately, Bullies and Saints doesn’t dwell on the scars. It points towards reconciliation and healing, highlighting the work of those building bridges and fostering understanding. Dickson’s message is one of critical engagement, urging readers to move beyond simplistic narratives and embrace the complexities of the Troubles. He offers a hopeful perspective, suggesting that while the past casts a long shadow, the future of Northern Ireland can be one of unity and shared understanding.

While some may argue Dickson downplays the role of religion, his work undeniably enriches our understanding of this sensitive topic. By prompting us to confront the complexities and engage with the lived experiences of those caught in the crossfire, he encourages us to move forward, together.


Dickson points out that many notable atheist thinkers—Andrew Leigh, Luc Ferry, Raimond Gaita, Samuel Moyn, and Tom Holland9, to name a few—have come to two major conclusions: (1) that a nuanced interpretation of historical Christian violence reveals a lot of nonreligious motivations for those conflicts, and (2) that much of the structure of modern morality traces its origins to Judeo-Christian worldviews. This, I think, is the point of the whole book.

When it comes to historical atrocities, Dickson urges readers to move beyond simplistic narratives and engage in a more balanced and nuanced understanding of religious history. He encourages critical examination of historical sources and a recognition of both the complex motivations and tragic consequences of the darker periods in history.

It’s important to note that Dickson’s perspective has sparked debate, with some historians criticizing his methodology and conclusions. I, myself, think there’s more religious significance in some of the atrocities that he attributes to political power-grabbing. We as Christians must account for the actions of our own people throughout history, which Dickson himself doesn’t deny. (I suppose I just read more apologetics into his words than he intended.) However, Dickson’s work provides a valuable contribution to the ongoing discussion about historical violence within Christianity, encouraging readers to engage with the complexities of its history.

I thoroughly enjoyed John Dickson’s book, Bullies and Saints, for its balanced approach to contentious subjects, his lament for the lives destroyed, and his sensitivity for those who still hurt today because of Christian violence and subjugation. This book should be required reading for every Christian.

Christianity was to introduce the notion that humanity was fundamentally identical, that men were equal in dignity—an unprecedented idea at the time, and one to which our world owes its entire democratic inheritance.

Luc Ferry, atheist professor of philosophy at the Sorbonne, former French Minister for Education

  1. According to a report released by the British government ( 

  2. Romans 12:17–21 

  3. A few other ineligible professions strangely included actors and teachers of children (specifically teachers of worldly knowledge). 

  4. Hierax, a Christian loyal to Bishop Cyril, was spotted in the theater of Alexandria during a dance performance. Local Jewish people in attendance assumed he was there to stir up trouble, and Governor Orestes had Hierax tortured right there in the theater. 

  5. Manichaeism is an ascetic philosophy that teaches salvation through special knowledge of spiritual truths. Manichaean teaches a dualistic view of good and evil. A key belief in Manichaeism is that the powerful, though not omnipotent good power, was opposed by the eternal evil power. Augustine ultimately left the “stale and doctrinaire” Manichaeism for the “intellectually vibrant and expansive” Christianity. Not many view Christianity that way today. 

  6. The biography of Bishop Eligius was written by his friend Dado, the bishop of Rouen, who described his clothing and adornments in detail: having belts composed of gold and gems and elegantly jeweled purses, linens covered with red metal and golden sacs hemmed with gold and all of the most precious fabrics including all of silk. 

  7. Hagiography is the practice of writing in a way that idolizes a person, glorifying their exceptional qualities while ignoring their failures. 

  8. Pope John Paul II opened the archives of the Catholic Church, including documents related to the Inquisitions, to historians only as recently as 1998. Prior to this time, little was known, factually, about the Inquisitions. 

  9. John Dickson recommends Tom Holland’s 2019 book Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind as a far more flattering history of Christianity than the one I have offered. 

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