Saturday, January 30, 2021


The other night my reading of Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark took me off onto a tangent of learning more about the Malleus Maleficarum (the “Hammer of Witches”), a 15th century book that is generally credited with sparking the witch burning craze in Europe and the New World that lasted for 300 years. Of course the church had been busy torturing and killing heretics—in the most gruesome ways—for many hundreds of years prior to that. But the Malleus Maleficarum—essentially a guide to detecting and trying witches—received wide distribution due to the advent of the printing press. Thus, despite being filled with bad theology, impossible anecdotes, conspiracy theories, pure misogyny and cruelty, it became authoritative in both the Catholic and Protestant Church, and in the legal systems under church influence.
According to Sagan, “What the Malleus comes down to, pretty much, is that if you’re accused of witchcraft, you’re a witch. Torture is an unfailing means to demonstrate the validity of the accusation. There are no rights of the defendant. There is no opportunity to confront the accusers. Little attention is given to the possibility that accusations might be made for impious purposes—jealousy, say, or revenge, or the greed of the inquisitors who routinely confiscated for their own private benefit the property of the accused…. The more who, under torture, confessed to witchcraft, the harder it was to maintain that the whole business was mere fantasy. Since each 'witch' was made to implicate others, the numbers grew exponentially. These constituted ‘frightful proofs that the Devil is still alive,’ as it was later put in America in the Salem witch trials.”
Sagan continues: “In the witch trials, mitigating evidence or defense witnesses were inadmissible.” If, for example, a husband claimed that his wife had been with with him the whole night, not cavorting about in the forest with demons, the archbishop would explain that the husband had been deceived—such is the power of the Devil—and had in fact shared his bed with a demon masquerading as his wife.
Women and girls, in particular, but also men and boys were accused, tortured and killed in the most painful and humiliating ways imaginable. Sagan recounts, “In the immolation of the 20-year-old Joan of Arc, after her dress had caught fire the Hangman of the Rouen slaked the flames so onlookers could view ‘all the secrets which can or should be in a woman.’”
The parade of horrors goes on and on. But the aspect that really caught my attention was the attitude of the church officials who endorsed and perpetrated witch trials. They were convinced of their absolute rightness. There was no alternative explanation other than the one they already believed. To even raise the possibility that they were mistaken was to engage in heresy and commit the mortal sin of attacking the Church. Critics of witch burning were themselves put on trial and burned. “The inquisitors and torturers,” writes Sagan, “were doing God’s work. They were saving souls. They were foiling demons.” Thus any opposition was standing in God’s way and deserved to be crushed.
During my time as a fundamentalist charismatic Christian I saw the same type of mass hysteria manifest around conspiracy theories about global Satanic witch covens that kidnapped children for human sacrifice. I see it today with QAnon and claims that Joe Biden (who is cast as a godless liberal despite his devout Catholicism) somehow stole the presidential election from Donald Trump (who is cast as a righteous instrument of God despite being antithetical to everything Jesus taught). I saw in my fundy days the same practice of applying bad theology in an effort to control people’s sexuality (especially LGBTQ people) and to control women via the Pro-Life movement. I saw the same arrogant certainty in leaders (typically men) who claimed to be unquestionably right and to have authority from God which should not be criticized.
I’m grateful that the church (Protestant and Catholic) does not today have a shred of the civic power it once had. History has shown that theocracy inevitably results in oppression and atrocity. But I’ve seen with my own eyes that the mindset remains that would plunge us back into darkness if given the chance.


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