Monday, July 11, 2011

Christianity, Witches and Witch-Burning

In my review of David Bentley Hart's Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and its Fashionable Enemies I didn't delve into many specifics of the book, instead opting to give a more general overview. Some recent readings and discussions prompted me to return to its pages on the topic of witches and witch-burning.

Of course, witch-burning in the Middle Ages is one of the main tentpoles of atheist critiques of Christianity as a historical phenomena and the nefarious influence it has had on history. The idea being that witch hunts and witch burning were remnants of a pre-modern, superstitious past and that the Catholic church and other religious fanatics were the ones who were the source of the superstitions, and who perpetrated most of the hunts and burnings.

Hart questions this narrative, not only on the matter of whether witch-burning and fear of sorcery could be genetically attributed to Christianity or the Catholic Church (rather than the culture at large), but even going so far as to suggest -- and demonstrate -- that it was more a product and cohort of early scientific modernity.
[I]t was the Catholic Church, of all the institutions of the time, that came to treat accusations of witchcraft with the most pronounced incredulity. Where secular courts and licentious mobs were eager to consign the accused to the tender ministrations of the public executioner, ecclesial inquisitions were prone to demand hard evidence and, in its absence, to dismiss charges. Ultimately, in lands where the authority of the church and its inquisitions were strong -- especially during the high tide of witch-hunting -- convictions were extremely rare.  ... The rather disorienting truth about the early modern fascination with witchcraft and the great witch hunts is that they were not the final, desperate expressions of an intellectual and religious tradition slowly fading into obsolescence before the advance of scientific and social "enlightenment"; they were, instead, something quite novel, modern phenomena, which had at best a weak foreshadowing in certain new historical trends of the late Middle Ages, and which, far from occurring in tension with the birth of secular modernity, were in a sense extreme manifestations of it. 
On the face, it seems a bizarre claim, but he presents evidence and a rigorous argument in defense of the claim that is quite fascinating. He goes on:
[S]ome of the great early theorists of modern science and scientific method were believers in magic, and consequently were often willing to prescribe the prosecution of those who used it for maleficent ends. Rodney Stark is not overstating his case when he declares, "The first significant objections to the reality of satanic witchcraft came from Spanish inquisitors, not from scientists."' One might even argue that an interest in magic (though not of the maleficent variety) was one of the essential ingredients in the evolution of modern scientific thought. 
The upshot of all this is historical context. While a critic of Christianity might correctly point out that the Church did participate in witch hunts and execution of heretics, if this is all that they have to say on the matter, then they have presented a piece of data that is out-of-context and misleading. Properly qualified by all of the relevant facts, these admittedly sad episodes of Christian history are seen for what they are; products of the era and culture, of which the Church was only one influence, and often the influence that most strongly resisted these evils -- though it was also, unfortunately, complicit in them.

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