Hunting Witches

For many, the image of women burned to death for practicing witchcraft is a potent symbol of both Christian intolerance and Christian irrationality. That's why critics of Christianity are so quick to bring the subject up. But as a new book demonstrates, nearly everything we've been told about Christianity and witch-hunts is wrong. Feminists like Andrea Dworkin and Mary Daly claim that up to nine million European women were burned at the stake for witchcraft. And even non-feminist historians write about how the witch-hunts "consumed millions of innocents." Historian Rodney Stark calls these claims "absurd" and "nonsense." In his new book, For the Glory of God: How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, Witch-Hunts, and the End of Slavery, Stark estimates that the number was closer to 60,000. What's more, many of those killed -- perhaps a third of them -- were men. And their accusers weren't fanatical clerics, seeking to suppress heresy. On the contrary, in Spain, home of the infamous Spanish Inquisition, there were far fewer trials for witchcraft than there were by secular officials in the rest of Europe. And those brought to trial were far less likely to be executed. In fact, the Spanish Inquisition sometimes brought charges against the accusers instead. As Stark reports, this pattern was repeated throughout Europe. When church officials intervened in witchcraft trials, it was usually to protect the accused, not persecute them. The witch-hunts that we've read so much about overwhelmingly took place in isolated areas where church and government authority were weakest. This lack of authority enabled local officials and citizens to perpetrate injustice. But how about the role of Christian irrationality in what happened? Once again, the accepted wisdom is wrong. If the witch-hunts were the product of Christian irrationality and intolerance, you would expect the high Middle Ages, the "Age of Faith," to have been the historical setting for these hunts. But they weren't. What Stark calls the period of "frantic" witch-hunting took place during the late Renaissance and the Enlightenment, periods when Christian influence over European culture began to wane. While Christians tried to protect the accused, anti-Christian Enlightenment figures like Thomas Hobbes and Jean Bodin supported the prosecution and execution of so-called witches. Much of what happened during the witch-hunts, of course, was a travesty of justice. But, as Stark shows us, it is untrue to lay the blame solely at the feet of Christianity. In fact, the only reason to ignore the historical record is if you want to smear Christianity as the "relentless opponent of reason and science." Unfortunately, witch-hunts are not the only area where Christianity's historical record has been distorted. Correcting these misperceptions is necessary if our positions are going to get a fair hearing in the public square. That's why we'll be spending the next few days with Stark's book. Christianity has been a proponent, not an opponent, of reason and tolerance in Western civilization. And people who distort the historical record through their own intolerance and irrationality are the true heirs to the witch-hunters. For further reading and information: Rodney Stark, For the Glory of God: How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, Witch-Hunts, and the End of Slavery (Princeton University Press, 2003). David Neff, "Getting Western Civ Right," Christianity Today, 18 July 2003. Read an interview with Rodney Stark and an excerpt from the book. David Klinghoffer, "The Civilizing God," National Review, 28 July 2003. Vincent Carroll and David Shiflett, Christianity on Trial: Arguments against Anti-Religious Bigotry(Encounter, 2000). To order call 1-877-322-5527.


Chuck Colson



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