Destructive societal superstitions

There is still a prevalent idea that witchcraft was predominantly a mediaeval thing, representing the remnants of pagan religion amongst the peasantry. In fact, the wave of superstitious belief in witches, pacts with the devil and so on was an early modern phenomenon beginning in the sixteenth century, and was at its height of “witchfinders general,” show trials and so on in the following century. Witchcraft was actually very rare in mediaeval times.

I have argued before that there is a probable causal chain to be traced back to the interest in magic amongst not the common people, but the educated intellectuals of the time. It was, in fact, a belief in natural magic, inherited from the alchemists who arose from the Renaissance rediscovery of ancient texts in the universities, that kick-started the scientific revolution, and even scientists as celebrated as Robert Boyle wrote on witchcraft at the height of the scare.

There had always been a strain of supernatural occultism within alchemy, which the early Baconian scientists studiously divided from natural magic, and shunned. Remember that Dr Faustus, based on a real German alchemist and magician with a degree in divinity, was part of a small academic elite. His legend was popularised by Cambridge-educated Christopher Marlowe: interest in witchcraft therefore trickled down to the masses, not up from them.

Last year, I compared the Social Justice Movement’s “cancel culture” to the Salem witch trials . But the comparison of burgeoning wokeness with the witchcraft craze warrants wider examination.

The mediaeval Catholic church had long denounced witchcraft as empty superstition, rather than dangerous rival. No doubt an uneducated public continued to hold many old superstitions from maypole-dancing to folk remedies and, most of all probably, superstitions transferred to a Christian setting such as lucky amulets of saints. But the idea that there was a seething underclass of “old religionists” suppressed by the church arose in modern folk clubs (ideologically often Marxist) rather than in history. It is likely that ordinary people saw themselves as good – or perhaps sometimes not so good – Christians. It was the academics who wanted to push the boundaries.

But once the new academic theory – that ills in society were probably being perpetrated by malicious crones in league with the devil (note that even this Faustian model is very different from the pagan witchcraft the earlier Popes had condemned) – then we see the escalation of suspicions, accusations and cancellation (in too many cases terminal, though fewer than has often been claimed across the three or four centuries of the craze).

As we all know, a whole pseudo-science of witchcraft developed, in which the “trained” person could discern witches by obscure behavioural traits, and the pet black cat was a sure sign of a “familiar spirit,” at least once suspicions were raised. We also know how the belief came to manifest itself popularly, as children exposed to it became principal accusers, even implicating themselves because the theory was so pervasive, and being readily believed by the adults for the same reasons.

It’s hard to judge what proportion of people thought it was all stuff and nonsense, because the great, the good – and notably the state – thoroughly endorsed it. Those intellectuals who spoke out against it did so against the tide – a tide which, potentially, could sweep them away by counting their denials of witchcraft as a satanic ploy.

I may have mentioned in a previous post that my own Devon Baptist church, whose first church book was commenced in 1653, has as almost its first entry an accusation of witchcraft against some of its members by a man in Chard. The church leaders’ reply was to call on the man to provide hard evidence or shut up, suggesting that at least on the ground personal knowledge and common sense trumped esoteric theory.

But most of the time the uneducated assume that the educated know what they are talking about, and by the time the witchcraft bandwagon was rolling, the philosophers, the bishops, the judiciary – and the public accepting the consensus – were all thoroughly on board. The fires were kept burning (literally) by the malicious denouncers, the attention seekers and the delusional victims. No doubt the “cost fallacy” later played a role, as it does in COVID policy – how can a theory that has cost so many lives be abandoned now?

So how many evil witches were there actually across Britain, Europe and North America during those centuries? I mean, how many people were actually in a pact with Satan to cause their neighbours to get sick or their milk to curdle? The consensus nowadays would be “None at all.”

Absolutes are risky, of course – who knows if some warped divinity graduate in Heidelberg, or a bitter old widow in Kent, may not have succeeded in selling their soul in exchange for occult powers? But since that whole theory of the soul-selling nature of witchcraft was a novel academic theory based on hearsay and contemporary theology rather than a true sociological investigation, it’s unlikely. Certainly nobody nowadays would succeed with the fallacious argument that “even if only 1% of the accusations were true, there’s no smoke without fire.”

No – the entire society, from the top down, was corrupted to a greater or lesser extent with an entirely spurious belief, so that even the skeptical half-believed it. Or at least, they were in sufficient doubt from the weight of consensus that they were unable to oppose it effectively for several centuries. If that is not a strong warning from history, then we should forget history – ah, but forgetting history is a big part of the project, isn’t it?

What is the difference between the witchcraft pogrom and the inexorable rise of critical race theory, implicit bias, white supremacy, and all the alleged “phobias” responsible for the ills of society today? I would suggest that there is very little difference at all in principle. Both have been based on esoteric academic theories as loosely related to historical evils as early-modern Christian intellectual views on witchcraft were based on actual paganism.

The accusations of racism, and so on, are equally based on occult signs, rather than demonstrable proof, and have similarly spread down through society so thoroughly that even the accused may half-believe them even before the realities of cancellation hit home. When the whole town says you are a witch, it’s sometimes less painful to confess than deny, even at the end of a rope.

There are a couple of differences, though. The first is that, whereas under the Witchfinder General it was likely that even the best evidence could be turned against you, nowadays the very concept of evidence is viewed as a symptom of the white patriarchy.

The second difference is that, even if the number of witches condemned was as high as the 40,000 claimed, it was still a tiny minority of people, most of whom stood apart from society in some way – the proverbial gingerbread-making old woman living in the forest. Social Justice Theory, though, condemns entire swathes of the population: not only everybody who appears white, but even those in the “protected minorities” who dare to question the belief system. Wokeness is potentially a far more destructive superstition than witch-fever. And of course it is here and now, whereas witch trials are safely in the past.

Social Justice may have killed fewer people (most actual deaths are either suicides or the collateral damage of murders in Antifa riots), but it is rapidly destroying the whole culture, whereas the witchcraft craze may even, arguably, have reinforced societal values and strengthened the culture overall.

The latest example is in today’s paper: our universities are reportedly discontinuing the study of the classical music tradition, including basic music notation, on the usual spurious grounds of colonialism and racism. Funnily enough, in the world of common folk it usually works the other way round – the unschooled punk drummer matures and learns to arrange music for orchestras, and the rapper acquires a taste for grand opera.

Why, oh why, is it usually the academics who, like false shepherds, perversely lead the people into ignorance? Hey – I’ve got an idea. Since the whole industry of academia is White and European, why don’t the universities abolish themselves as colonial institutions and sack all the academics, and leave the rest of us to do real culture?

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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