Witch trials against pizza cannibals, haters twist religion, ignore the law

Most human societies believed not only in gods, but also in devils and demons. One way to explain a lot of trouble. Such beliefs were common and powerful in the pre-Enlightenment West. While today witches are fun Halloween characters, people were once terrified of them and witch hunts were very real.

It might sound crazy now. But nothing crazier, really, than some commonly held beliefs today. Polls show that about 40% of Americans still believe in Satan; we had satanic panic as recently as the 1980s. Many people have been jailed for absurd charges of abuse of devil worshiping children.

And of course, even now millions of people worship a real living devil. Trump’s support has many religious aspects. Much like the apocalyptic cult of QAnon, full of language and images mimicking religion.

Indeed, a witch hunt, accusing political targets of being satanic baby eaters (inciting a true believer to shoot a pizzeria). The January 6 attack on the Capitol also resembled religious fanaticism. Just like the anti-vax and anti-mask hysteria, responsible for several thousand deaths.


The era of the literal witch-hunt began in 1484 when Pope Innocent VIII promulgated a Bull declaring “evil angels” to be a big deal, causing vast damage, especially related to procreation. He commissioned a report, titled Malleus Malificarum, The “Hammer of Witches”. An instruction manual for inquisitions and fires that have properly exploded.

Under its system of show trials, devoid of due process rights, any accusation of witchcraft was indeed conclusive, with torture prescribed to confirm it. An open invitation to the accusers to manipulate religious rhetoric for generally bad reasons: envy, or personal or political vendettas, or to seize the property of the victims. Or just his own power projection.

The inquisitors were encouraged to profit from their pursuits. “An expense account scam,” Carl Sagan said. All the procedural costs were billed to the families of the victims, including banquets for his judges, the intervention costs of a professional torturer, and of course the straw and other supplies necessary for the fire. All remaining property was confiscated for the benefit of the inquisitors. And as if that wasn’t enough, they earned a bonus for every witch cremated.

Unsurprisingly, the witch fires spread like, well, wildfire.

Some people, at least, must have realized that it was messy and horrible. But you had better not express such thoughts – lest you yourself get caught in the jaws of this death machine. It is safer to encourage it, or even to participate.

Misogyny and repressed sexuality were important factors. While men and women were considered equally vulnerable to Satan, those burned were mostly women. Pursued mainly by members of the clergy – theoretically celibate, but we have come to know the prevalence of misdirected sex. Charges of witchcraft often had sexual aspects, requiring close inspection of private parts and appropriate tortures.
How many victims were there altogether? Thousands at least.

It requires a comparison with the Holocaust. Europe at that time had a much smaller population then and the death toll spanned centuries. However, in both cases, the evildoers saw themselves in a sort of purification mission.

Some religious claim that there is no morality without God. In the witch hunts, the evildoers were clearly the god-obsessed burners, not the burnt ones. Did it ever occur to them that they themselves were doing the devil’s work? With all the extravagant belief in Satan’s underhand power to subvert humans for his purposes – didn’t prosecutors stop to wonder if he was doing this to them? With the sweet teachings
of the forgotten Jesus, they didn’t realize that torturing and burning the innocent, often including children, blackening the church with iniquity, was exactly what the devil would have wanted.

But maybe it was almost rational, and reason and religion don’t mix. No morality without God? Witch fires prove that there is no morality without reason.

Frank S. Robinson is the author of The Case for Rational Optimism and blog on www.rationaloptimist.wordpress.com


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