October 16, 2021

[I can hardly believe this piece got published in today’s Albany Times-Union. On the “Faith and Values” page! Especially my final paragraph!]*

Most human societies have believed not just in gods but also devils and demons. A way to explain much evil. Such beliefs were commonplace and powerful in the pre-Enlightenment West. While today witches are Halloween figures of fun, people once were terrified of them, and witch hunts were very real.

That might seem crazy now. But no crazier, really, than some beliefs commonly held today. Polls reveal around 40% of Americans still believe in Satan; we had a Satanic panic as recently as the ’80s. Many people were imprisoned on absurd charges of Devil-worshipping child abuse.

And of course even now millions worship an actual living devil. Trump support does have many faith-like aspects. As does the apocalyptic QAnon cult, full of language and imagery emulating religion. Indeed, a witch hunt, accusing political targets of being Satanic baby eaters (prompting one true believer to shoot up a pizza parlor). The January 6 attack on the Capitol too resembled religious fanaticism. As does the anti-vax, anti-mask hysteria — actually responsible for many thousands of deaths.

The age of literal witch hunting began in 1484 when Pope Innocent VIII promulgated a bull declaring “evil angels” a big problem, doing vast harm, especially connected with procreation. He commissioned a report, titled Malleus Malificarum, the “Hammer of Witches.” A how-to manual for the inquisitions and burnings that now duly exploded.

Under its system of show trials, devoid of due process rights, any accusation of witchery was effectively conclusive, with torture prescribed to confirm it. An open invitation for accusers to manipulate religious rhetoric for typically bad motives: envy, or personal or political vendettas, or getting hold of victims’ property. Or just one’s own power projection.

Inquisitors were incentivized to profit from their prosecutions. “An expense account scam,” Carl Sagan called it. All costs of the proceedings billed to victims’ families, including banquets for her judges, the costs of bringing in a professional torturer, and of course the straw and other supplies needed for the burning. Any remaining property was confiscated for the inquisitors’ benefit. And as if that weren’t enough, they earned a bonus for every witch incinerated.

Not surprisingly, witch burnings spread like, well, wild fire.

Some people, at least, must have realized this was deranged and horrific. But you’d better not voice such thoughts — lest you be grabbed yourself in the jaws of this death machine. Safer to cheer it on, or even participate.

Misogyny and repressed sexuality were big factors. While men and women were believed equally vulnerable to Satan, those burned were predominantly female. Prosecuted mostly by clergymen — notionally celibate, but we’ve come to know the prevalence of misdirected sexuality. The witchery charges often had sexual aspects, requiring careful inspection of private parts, and tortures tailored accordingly.

How many victims were there in all? Hundreds of thousands at least. Maybe millions. [Alas in the published piece this was edited to merely “Thousands at least.”]

This begs comparison with the Holocaust. Given Europe’s much smaller population then, the death toll was comparable, though spread over centuries. In both cases, the perpetrators saw themselves on a kind of purification mission.

Some religionists claim there’s no morality without God. In the witch hunts, clearly the evildoers were the God-besotted burners, not the burned. Did it never occur to them it was they themselves doing the Devil’s work? With all the extravagant belief in Satan’s power to deviously subvert humans to his purposes — the prosecutors didn’t pause to wonder if he was doing it to them? With the mild teachings of Jesus forgotten, did they not realize torturing and burning innocents, even often children, blackening the church with iniquity, was exactly what the Devil would have wanted?

But that might almost have been rational, and reason and religion don’t go together. No morality without God? The witch burnings prove there’s no morality without reason.

* Though their title is not mine.