Christianity and the Witch-Hunt Mentality

It’s alive, potent, and dangerous

It isn’t hard at all to come up with a hundred verses in the gospels and epistles that would shock Christians. We would hear, “How can that be?” or “Well, I don’t believe that!” or “That’s not part of my religion.” Robert Conner doesn’t exaggerate: “The overwhelming majority of Christians know bupkis about what’s in the New Testament.” Even if, at one time or another, they’ve come across the alarming texts, they become masters of denial; their ‘nice religion’ remains invincible. Jesus too remains intact, despite many of the despicable things he (supposedly) believed and said.

Nor do most of the folks in the pews have much of a clue about the full scope of horrors committed through the centuries by Christian zealots who have gained positions of power. All in the name of protecting the faith. How many Christians have read substantive histories of the church? William Zingrone sums it up pretty well: “Most regular folks don’t know shit about their own religion. If they did, they would quite likely be able to see it as if from the outside, as they do all other religions…” (The Arrogance of Religious Thought: Information Kills Religion, p. 59)

When Christopher Hitchens died, and many Christians found out for the first time that one of his books was titled, God Is Not Great, they lit up social media with hate and venom…more or less proving Hitchens’ title. In 2014, John Loftus published an anthology whose title is a nod to Hitchens, Christianity Is Not Great: How Faith Fails. It includes 23 essays about the harms done by this major world religion. Four of the essays are by Loftus himself, including one called, “Thou Shalt Not Suffer a Witch to Live: The Wicked Christian Witch Hunts.”

Even if Christians are vaguely aware of this Bible-based atrocity, they shrug it off. “Oh, that was long ago and far away. Not my fault.” But, no, that won’t do. There are lessons to be learned from the theologically based witch frenzy, lessons that apply to—are predictive of— Christian behavior today. Loftus’ essay provides insight into what people are capable of when they think they’re ‘doing the Lord’s work’ to protect the faith.

Theology had caused such incalculable damage, and Christians would do well to be suspicious of any and all of it. Loftus quotes from Outbreak! The Encyclopedia of Extraordinary Social Behavior by Evans and Bartholomew: “The witch culture against which the Christian Church took up arms was an artificial construct created by their theologians.” (p. 109)

An artificial construct. Theology is good at this sort of thing, and most such constructs fade or crumble as human knowledge of the world has advanced. No matter how much popular piety still flirts with demons—and shame on the Vatican for being a primary cheer leader—Loftus points out the inconvenient truth:

“…no reasonable, scientifically minded person in today’s world should believe that the devil (or Satan), who commands a host of demons and empowers witches who cause great harm using their black-magic spells and potions, actually exists.” (p. 109)

Scientifically literate Christians—though we now fear they are in the minority—cannot assume that all such nonsense is in the past. Loftus lists about ten counties in Sub-Saharan Africa in which ‘witch beatings and burning’ are contemporary practice. And since these are “carried out by Bible-believing Christians, the earlier which hunts are not merely an historical anomaly. Witch hunts could arise on Christian soil whenever conducive conditions arise.” (p. 110)

Loftus points out that blame for this Christian horror rests largely with one of the most famous theologians:

• “In the thirteenth century Thomas Aquinas provided the arguments that inspired the European witch hunts. Contrary to the Canon Episcopi, which instructed that heretics were merely to be ejected from the church, Aquinas argued heretic should be killed…Since heretical ideas could send people to an eternally conscious torment in hell, it was the greatest crime of all. So logic demanded that the church must get rid of them.” (p. 113)

• “All it took for the witch hunts to begin was a sizeable number of powerful people who accepted Aquinas’s ideas and had the political need to follow through on them.” (p. 113)

Hold that thought: “The political need to follow through on them.” It has implications for Christian wickedness that we see around us in our own time.

It cannot escape notice that this devastating chapter in Christian history is another major blow to theism itself—well, against the concept of a caring, powerful God. Loftus describes what happened:

“Between 45,000 and 60,000 people, 75 to 80 percent of them women, were killed as witches during the early-modern witch hunts that took place in Europe…While little could be universally said about all these witch hunts, the common denominator is the Christian belief in the devil and the black witchcraft arts.” (p. 110) There are plenty of biblical texts that feed the superstition, including the much-quoted Exodus 22:18: “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.”

Jesus himself chatted with demons—the gospel of Mark specializes in this kind of reporting—he could even transfer them into pigs. Matthew, in his expansion of the Temptation Story, provides the dialogue that took place between Jesus and Satan. It’s no wonder that a demon-haunted world has been taken for granted down through the centuries. Loftus shows just how rotted the brain of John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, had become:

“Giving up of witchcraft is in effect giving up the Bible. With my latest breath I will bear testimony against giving up to infidels one great proof of the invisible world; I mean that of witchcraft and apparitions, confirmed by the testimony of all ages.” (p. 112)

What a strange thing for a Christian theologian to concede, that one great proof of the invisible world is witchcraft.

But how do theologians handle the scandal of God’s inaction? He couldn’t think of ways to intervene in the killing of 45,000 – 60,000 witches? Of course, this is but one example of colossal human suffering that God has allowed on his watch—he’s got the whole world in his hands, right?—as the millennia rolled along.

Of course, they invent excuses; that is their specialty, as Loftus points out:

“Christian defense lawyers, called apologists, seek only to get their divine client acquitted no matter what the intellectual or moral cost. Rather than face the evidence that shows their God to be nothing more than the product of ancient people…these apologists use convoluted legalese to obfuscate and confuse the jury…

“Tens of thousands of people, mostly women, suffered intensely and were killed needlessly because this God didn’t do anything to help them.” (p. 118)

If you’ve got the stomach for it, read Loftus’ major section of the essay on the use of torture in the interrogation of witches. Once the theology was in place that witches were evil creatures in league with the devil, then mercy was no longer a consideration. “It was believed that witches could withstand greater pain for extended periods of time due to the power of the devil…In come cases, the lack of a confession under extreme torture was even considered to be strong evidence that the accused was in fact a witch.” (p. 124)

Christians today will usually grant that these ‘un-Christian’ excesses are to be deplored—well, maybe the zealous persecutors in Sub-Saharan Africa won’t—but the basic problem hasn’t gone away: theological certainty remains a clear and present danger. By no means are we free of the witch-hunt mentality; now that witches are passé, Christians settle on other targets, and the suffering is just as terrible.

The Natural Function of Women, According to Men…of course

It would be impossible to calculate the damage done by religion-based patriarchal assumptions about male superiority. What a surprise: Christianity has participated in this sin—along with most religions—precisely because men invented the Judeo-Christian faith and, overwhelmingly, still run it. Misogyny is embedded in the Bible in so many subtle and overt ways. No surprise that most accused witches were women, the corrupt descendants of Eve. Witch-hunting was theologically based terrorism, and the prevailing misogyny today still is.

In a 2013 article titled, “Twenty Vile Quotes Against Women By Church Leaders from St. Augustine to Pat Robertson,” Valerie Tarico describes the complicity that should shame defenders of the faith:

“Why has the main current of Christianity produced a steady diet of misogyny for over 2000 years? The answer may lay partly in human biology and culture. But it also lies in the Iron Age texts of the Bible itself. The Judeo-Christian tradition of building up men by tearing down women goes all the way back to the most ancient parts of the biblical collection, to the opening pages of Genesis, and continues unabated through the New Testament.”

Now, back to that earlier thought: “The political need to follow through on them." Namely, Aquinas’ ideas about killing those who cooperate with demons. There was a political need to go after them, namely to protect the power of the church, and secondarily, I suppose, of the faith as well. According to the patriarchy, women have an established, sacred and limited role, primarily the bearing of children. With a nine-month gestation period, and years of child dependency following that, women had their place. Period.

Nor did men want competition in their spheres, and any intuitive man can sense women are just that. Hence theological terrorism was brought into play: the place for women had been determined by God. Anything that could exempt women from their sole destiny as child-bearers had to be resisted based on theology as much as possible.

The modern hysteria about abortion must be seen in this context: come up with anything to force women to carry a fetus full-term. In a recent article in Harper’s Bazaar, Jennifer Wright offers a stinging condemnation of Catholic hypocrisy about abortion, and includes this observation: “It was only in 1869 that the fetus was considered ensouled since the moment of conception, and excommunication was considered a punishment for all abortions. In other words, the idea that personhood begins at conception doesn’t date back to the time of Christ. It barely predates light bulbs.”

It really doesn’t matter when Catholics started to believe that ‘ensoulment’ happens at conception. Such talk is irrelevant theobabble, fake news. How would they possibly know that? Soul itself is a bogus idea. Where are the reliable, verifiable data to back up such claims? William A. Zingrone points out the trap that theologians have set for themselves:

“Most religious anti-abortionists imbue the zygote with a soul and/or personhood from the moment of conception, and then attempt to shame us into decrying abortion for killing an unborn human; for being baby-killers. The lack of reality and ultimate irony in this sleazy sensational and emotional claim of the pro-life movement, is that their god (if he existed), whichever one they believe in, kills 50-70% of developing blastocysts and embryos in the first few weeks of development, making their god the biggest abortionist of them all by their own definition.” (p. 76, The Arrogance of Religious Thought)

God is the biggest abortionist? What could be the rejoinder to this? Maybe challenge the 50-70% figure? Or that it’s God’s prerogative to kill whichever embryos he chooses, for whatever reason he wants? This amounts to the most intrusive theism imaginable. If God does indeed tinker at this level in human bodies, how does he remain guiltless as we survey the countless genetic diseases?

Back to the politics. What is the motivation for theologically based terror? In an article on the Debunking Christianity Blog last year, Teresa Roberts called it correctly:

“The big divide has narrowed between the religious right and the rest of us. This has created a huge problem for those who are in need of a moral high ground in order to insist that the rest of us are either going to hell or are politically depraved. Abortion is one of only a handful of things left. The religious right has little else. They are divorcing and remarrying, having sex before marriage, choosing spouses from other races, living together before marriage and if they get pregnant, they reserve the right to live in plain sight and keep their babies.

“Why is the religious right currently so politically obsessed with abortion? Abortion has evolved into a single driving issue of such monumental proportions in part because society has become far more secularized than we realize. The shift away from a moral code dictated by churches and enforced by government has caused a great deal of discomfort for individuals and institutions that once wielded so much power over our lives.

“They feel the shifting tide as they continue to lose their tight grip on the reins of society. It has turned them into crusaders, not just for the protection of the unborn but for a return to the glory days when the church had the final and last say over what would be tolerated and what would not.”

The Other Favorite Target of Evangelical and Catholic Crusaders

What could be worse than a witch? Religious zealots, driven by ferocious theology, are sure that LGBTQ people are an offense to God—enough for him to unleash hurricanes and plagues to get even. The ‘clobber texts’ in the Bible provide sufficient fuel for their anger, with no hint that they’ve tried to probe the reasons for widespread cultural revulsions against gay people; no hint that they’ve shown any curiosity about studies of human sexuality during the last half-century. We’ve heard too many of the zealots calling for ‘death to gay people’—acted upon by street gangs—to imagine that the Christian witch-hunt mentality has faded away.

Some Christians manage to manipulate faith into innocuous new shapes; they have toned down their religion derived from earlier savage eras. There are the mild-mannered pious, but by their silence they enable the contemporary witch-hunters in modern disguise. It is all so tiresome.

At the close of his essay, John Loftus notes

“…the willingness of Christians to revise their beliefs due to the changing times and harsh realities of life, just as they have always done, and just as they will continue to do. They’ll never give up on faith. They’ll never give up on God. They’ll just change what they believe. I for one am utterly and completely unimpressed.” (p. 132)

David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. His book, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith, was reissued last year by Tellectual Press with a new Foreword by John Loftus.

The Cure-for-Christianity Library© is here.