Religion as a source of morality and witch burning

[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.

17 Responses to “Religion as a source of morality and witch burning”

  1. Don Bronkema Says:

    1350-1650 CE Euro immolations estimated from 50,000-300,000-2,000,000-9,000,000. Even one is too many.

  2. Robyn Blumner Says:

    “There’s no morality without reason.” Brilliant. Great column!

    Robyn E. Blumner *President and CEO*, Center for Inquiry *Executive Director,* Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason & Science 1012 14th St. NW, Suite 205 Washington, D.C. 20005

    The Center for Inquiry strives to foster a secular society based on reason, science, freedom of inquiry, and humanist values. Our vision is a world where people value evidence and critical thinking, where superstition and prejudice subside, and where science and compassion guide public policy.

    On Sat, Oct 16, 2021 at 8:35 AM The Rational Optimist wrote:

    > rationaloptimist posted: ” [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” >

  3. David Lettau Says:

    The chapter on the witch craze is one of the best in Carl Sagan’s “The demon haunted world”. It should be required reading in every school. As the sage of the Green mountains Ethan Allen wrote,”reason is the only oracle of man”

  4. Don Bronkema Says:

    Hear, hear!

  5. Lee Says:

    Alas, if only it were the case that those who act areligously were any less prone to evil.

  6. Anonymous Says:

    The Catholic Church and Christian justice has tortured and killed many; not for being a warlock or witch, but for being rational thinkers and scientific pioneering… for views, however accurate, that contradicted religious teaching/dogma/myth and creationism. Hypatia was a brilliant philosopher and scientist (and a WOMAN, who challenged catholic dogma and patriarchy). A Christian mob brutally tortured and murdered her about 1600 years ago. Giordano Bruno was tortured and burned alive for science and advancing the truth in cosmology, when it contradicted Catholic fairy tales… and a man/earth god-centered order! Galileo, Bacon, Cardano… the list is sadly too long.
    Setting us back on advancing knowledge, wisdom and rational thought. Search for truth continues, and religion slows this already difficult process with self-serving manipulation, obfuscation, and specious ideation of an immutable fallacy in the real world that is entropic, and ever-changing.

  7. Don Bronkema Says:

    prolix but true

  8. Lee Says:

    Yes, there are many examples throughout history of people doing the wrong thing for the wrong reasons. An atheist named Stalin murdered many religious people for not believing as he did.

    Evil people will use the power structures that they can control in order to defeat the power structures that they cannot control. As an organization, religion can end up being a power structure on either side of that equation.

  9. Don Bronkema Says:

    science to find truth; humanities wherewith to judge it

  10. fgsjr2015 Says:

    “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?”

    Indeed, how could they be so consumed with fear, anger, hypocrisy and envy/greed that they miss(ed) this simple truth?! (I mention envy/greed because multiple Salem residents accused of witchcraft had their property illegally seized by George Corwin, the sheriff of Essex County; there’s a good chance those residents were charged as a means of stealing their property.)

    Jesus must be spinning in heaven knowing what atrocities have been connected to Christ-ianity. Christ unmistakably emphasized love, compassion and non-violence (regardless of his rightful human anger with the money-changers) — especially towards ALL children — the opposite of what enables the most horrible acts of human cruelty to occur on this planet.

    All scripture was written by human beings who, I believe, unwittingly created God’s nature in their own fallible and often-enough angry, vengeful image. (This helps explain why those authors’ Maker has to be male.) Too many of today’s institutional Christians believe and/or vocally behave likewise.

    I, a believer in Christ’s miracles, can imagine many Christians even finding inconvenient, if not annoying, trying to reconcile the conspicuous inconsistency in the fundamental nature of the New Testament’s Jesus with the wrathful, vengeful and even jealous nature of the Old Testament’s Creator. (Really, why couldn’t Jesus have been one who’d enjoy a belly-shaking laugh over a good joke with his disciples, now and then?)

    While I don’t believe that God required blood and pain ‘payment’, from Jesus or anyone else, I do know that the creator’s animals have had their blood literally shed and bodies eaten in mindboggling quantities by Man. And maybe the figurative forbidden fruit of Eden eaten by Adam and Eve was actually God’s four-legged creation. I can see that really angering the Almighty, and a lot more than the couple’s eating non-sentient, non-living, non-bloodied fruit. I’ve noticed that mainstream Christianity doesn’t speak up much at all about what we, collectively, have done to animals for so long. …

    Also, does the Almighty really need or desire to be worshipped? Could not “houses of worship” actually have been meant for the parishioners, divinely intended to be for the soul what health clinics/spas, even hospitals, are for the body and mind? And perhaps the Ten Commandments were/are not meant to obey in order to appease/please God but rather intended for His human creation’s benefit, to keep people safe and healthy.

  11. fgsjr2015 Says:

    I believe that if it wasn’t religion/theism, a different form of fanaticism or extremist belief system would take its problematic place. One might look at Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge concept of the righteous society as a scary example of this. Having said that, however, I can see how there could be no greater perceived justification for or the-end-justifies-the-means motivator of inhumane/immoral behavior than ‘the Almighty has willed it!’ …

    The bitter irony is that some of the best humanitarians I’ve met or heard about were/are atheists or agnostics who’d make better examples of many of Christ’s teachings than too many (whom I refer to as) institutional Christians (i.e. those most resistant to Christ’s fundamental teachings of non-violence, compassion and non-wealth). Conversely, some of the worst human(e) beings I’ve met or heard about are the most devout practitioners of institutional Christian theology. …

    It seems that when a public person openly fantasizes about world peace, a guaranteed minimum income and/or a clean global environment, many ‘Christians’ reactively presume he/she must therefore be Godless thus evil or, far worse, a socialist. This, despite a big chunk of Christ’s own teachings epitomizing the primary component of socialism — do not hoard morbidly superfluous wealth in the midst of poverty. …

    Many of Canada’s leading conservative politicians, not to mention our previous prime minister, are/were ideologically aligned with the pro-fossil-fuel mainstream American Evangelical community and Republican Party. They generally share the belief that to defend the natural environment from the planet’s greatest polluters, notably big fossil fuel, is to go against God’s will and therefore is inherently evil. (Might this in particular include Greta?) Some among them may even credit the bone-dry-vegetation areas uncontrollably burning, along with global warming, to some divine wrath upon collective humankind’s ‘sinfulness’.

    This all is just how upside-down (I’m sad to say) so much of institutional Christianity has become.

  12. Don Bronkema Says:

    As Lucretius said [De Rerum Natura], the world is natural & nothing more: no miracles, no deities, no telos. We can create hell or ecodise. Ovid: non multo graviora tulisti.

  13. Don Bronkema Says:

    Tho moribund, Christianity is still parlous…

  14. Don Bronkema Says:

    Tho moribund, the church is parlous…

  15. Lee Says:

    @fgsjr2015 you write “Christ unmistakably emphasized love, compassion and non-violence (regardless of his rightful human anger with the money-changers) — especially towards ALL children.”

    Unfortunately, my knowledge of stories of Christ is not all that deep. I have heard some about love, compassion, and non-violence, but am ignorant of those that involve children. Your pointer to a representative story would be much appreciated!

  16. fgsjr2015 Says:

    Perhaps most notable is Matthew 19:14 (King James Version, courtesy of a Google search):

    14 But Jesus said, Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven.

  17. Don Bronkema Says:

    Indeed, the real Yashua was likely much closer to the Gnostic version crushed by the Imperial Church in 5th century. Time for planetary atheism, amigos!

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