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"These are the days when the Christian is expected to praise every creed except his own." G.K.Chesterton

"You cannot grow a beard in a moment of passion." G.K.Chesterton

"As you perhaps know, I haven't always been a Christian. I didn't go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that."C. S. Lewis

"I blog, therefore I am." Anon

Sunday, March 09, 2003

Which burnings?

I was once involved in a discussion on an e-group in which my interlocutor made the following statement:

Some, also like me, possibly also saw in Young Earth Creationism the lowest form of Christianity since the Salem witch burnings.

To which I responded:

Witch burnings?! I wonder how much you actually know about the Salem witch trials - there were no burnings for example. So I think you are merely rehashing populist and inaccurate nonsense and are ignorant of the actual historical data about the role or otherwise of Christianity in that affair.'

That's it. End of story - or so I thought. He had made a historical gaffe in his attempt to sling mud at certain creationists and I was correcting him before moving on to discuss other matters which he had raised. But that simple response unleashed a torrent of anti-Christian abuse and accusations.

One of the comments I received was that I was telling a "half-truth". While it was “technically correct” that: no one was burned as a witch at Salem there were nineteen [sic] people executed for the crime of witchcraft, so there! I was trying to soft-pedal the evil of Christianity and its complicity in the affair. Why, I could even be referred - and was - to any number of websites that reported the “fact” that "nine million women" were executed as witches by crazed Christian zealots during “The Burning Times” of “The Witches Holocaust”!

I discovered that very few people who hang out at such sites are historically literate and they would rather deal in urban myths than do a little investigation in reputable sources or at reputable historical websites. It was disheartening that persons who claim for themselves a monopoly on reason, logic, evidence and skepticism could also peddle such gross distortions.

The inference in most of the responses was the notion that "religion", specifically "Christianity", was unequivocally and solely responsible and culpable for the deaths in Salem - and most of the rest of suffering in history, as well. This was in turn inextricably linked to modern day creationism. - “the lowest form of Christianity since the Salem witch burnings”.

[An aside: The number of web posters who refer to the Puritans using the anachronistic - historically inappropriate - term of "fundamentalists" is astounding - clearly indicating the poor level of scholarship and even basic historical knowledge of many of them.]

So it was "All needless killings in the name of religion", to quote one anti-Christian correspondent - as if the 20th century had somehow slipped by without anyone noticing the deaths of countless millions under regimes and dictatorships that overtly and defiantly eschewed religious values in favour of "scientific", "materialistic" and atheistic ones. That such enlightened regimes proceeded to exterminate anyone identified as "enemies of the state", including large numbers of religious believers, puts the lie to the popular myth that religion (i.e. by which is usually meant Christianity) is history’s real bogeyman.

I refer to the Soviet Union, Communist China and Pol Pot's regime in Cambodia. On this latter case I always found it to be one of the greatest ironies that the film "The Killing Fields" prominently featured John Lennon's song "Imagine" as a kind of anthem when the film itself so vividly portrayed what really results when men actually do start "imagining there's no heaven, no hell below us, above us only sky". And it is not pretty. They don’t build paradise on earth; they build hell on earth, whether it’s a gulag, a concentration camp, or a killing field. As G.K.Chesterton noted at the beginning of that last bloody century: "When men stop believing in God, they don't believe in nothing, they believe in anything". Or as Cole Porter so vividly summed up the reigning ethos of the twentieth century - "anything goes!"

I have not forgotten the evils of Nazism with its dogmatic social Darwinism, mystical pagan veneration of “blood and soil” and its glorification of the Neitschean “will to power” that resulted in the scientific "disposal" of "sub-humans" via the horrors of the "final solution". However I am hesitant to mention them for concern at unleashing a tirade from self described "internet infidels" who pedal a fantastical revisionist scenario about Hitler being a "Christian" and his regime also being "Christian". Again, I am certainly not averse to refuting this assertion but it is not my intention in this blog to diverge into that issue.

The Salem incident was not primarily about religion, but originated in a
personal feud between neighbours in a small rural community. This resulted
in various accusations being levelled, which then spiralled into a wave of
hysteria that allowed for a cycle of vendetta and revenge to occur. It was ordinary people, mostly young women and girls, not clergy, who brought charges of witchcraft against their neighbours.

That Tituba, the Caribbean slave at the heart of the allegations, was a dabbler - however harmlessly to us moderns - in spells, charms and "witchcraft" is beyond doubt. The "hysteria", whether genuine or feigned, which developed in the young girls who associated with her and which they directed at their "enemies" - mostly middle-aged women - in this small community, played upon these rivalries and jealousies through the conscious and unconscious manipulation of both the pervasive superstitious folk beliefs of the era and the populist teachings of Christianity.

But the resultant furor had nothing to do with any organised effort by Christianity to suppress "heretics". The process was a product of, and drew upon, the particular social, economic, political and religious circumstances that existed in that time and place. Nineteen unfortunate people were hanged and one was pressed to death under rocks for allegedly being witches during the hysteria. This is a tragedy - one among countless millions of others that have befallen humans throughout history at the hands of their fellows.

There is no denying that Christians were involved in the trials and executions
of witches. There is no doubt that numerous professed Christians, as well as
others - religious believers and non-believers alike, throughout history have
done evil things in the name of their gods or ideologies. But to paint
this incident as simply a matter of the powerful church oppressing the
weakest members of society is to distort what really happened. To claim that it is somehow inherent in the teachings of Jesus that such things should be condoned is even more offensive.

It bears repeating: the Salem witch trials were not principally a religious matter as is often erroneously believed. The trials were not conducted by "the Church" at all, but by magistrates and officers of the State. The Puritan clergy, far from being the cause of the problems, placed themselves strongly against the excesses of the trials; the ministers of New England certainly did not approve of the proceedings. Cotton Mather, the leading citizen and preacher of Massachusetts, along with the vast majority of the pastors of the colony vigorously opposed the manner of the proceedings in Salem. It was in fact the church leaders who were instrumental in curbing and finally bringing the trials to a halt thereby preventing further loss of life. The only ministers to support the trials were the pastor of Salem church, Samuel Parris (whose daughter and niece were at the centre of the furor by, actually initiating events with their claims of witchcraft) and two neighbouring ministers.

It was an era and a place where "People commonly appealed to magic and witchcraft to explain tragedies and misfortunes, or more generally to gain power over neighbours." But the primary reasons for the Salem incident are found not in bizarre supernatural behaviours, heretical beliefs, or in the explicit teachings of the Christian churches but in more mundane causes such as brooding, overactive imaginations exacerbating the tensions brought about by a petty jealousies and fears over crop losses and land disputes. The line between good and evil does indeed run through every human heart.

11:52:00 pm