Archive for March, 2008

The Church and the British Government’s Human Embryology Research Bill

March 26, 2008

One of the big stories over this side of the Atlantic in Britain this week is the debate in parliament over the government’s human embryology research bill. This is, or should be, intensely controversial, not least because one of the possibilities being discussed is of allowing human and animal cells to be mixed. The Church criticised this suggestion on Monday, and was in turn criticised by the broadcaster and infertility expert, Lord Robert Winston. Winston stated that such research, using cells created from a mixture of human and animal genetic material, would lead to cures for disease, and that by opposing this the Church risked making itself look stupid.

Now I like Dr. Winston. He’s a great science presenter with a genial and avuncular manner. He did a fascinating programme on the development of the world religious faiths, The Story of God, on BBC television a few years ago. He’s a practising Jew, and managed to leave Richard Dawkins looking more than a little nonplussed on camera when he and Dawkins were discussing religion. Dawkins had made a statement, if I remember correctly, to the effect that he could see how many scientists took belief in God seriously, to which Winston quietly replied ‘I believe in God.’ Dawkins seemed to step back a bit, looked at him and questioned this. ‘Yes, I really do believe in God’, said Winston. I don’t think Dawkins really knew how to take this, as although Dawkins does recognise that many scientists are religious, it seems to me that he genuinely doesn’t understand how any scientifically educated person can still believe in God. Furthermore, Winstone gave a talk last year to the Edinburgh Association for the Advancement of Science criticising atheists like Dawkins for confusing atheism with science. I think he described such people as ‘deluded’.

However, I think he’s wrong on this point. Very wrong.

The opposition to such embryological research is based on very carefully reasoned positions on the dignity of human life. People aren’t just biochemical machines, but possessed of reason and the capacity for suffering. Human life has an innate dignity which extends also to its beginning in embryos and blastocytes, even though these may not be able to experience pain. The philosophical issues involving the treatment of human embryos, even if these are merely the few cells envisaged by the scientists engaged in this research, have implications for human dignity as a whole. Hence the opposition to such embryological research. For Jews and Christians, human dignity has its basis in the Biblical description of humanity made in the image of the Almighty, though this does not make it irrational. Philosophers have defended the innate dignity of human life against attitudes to reproduction that are felt to degrade this dignity through rational, logical argument. Now the Church’s attitude towards such research can be questioned, and arguments framed against it, but that does not mean that the Church’s attitude is stupid or wrong.

The statement that such experiments in creating human/animal hybrids would lead to cures for disease is also open to question. There is in fact no guarantee that this will occur. All that can be said is that those engaged in such research believe that it will lead to cures for disease. And the question remains that even if this were so, whether it would justify the moral danger of such research.

Parallels to Controversy over Embryonic Stem Cells

There are parallels here to the controversy in America a year ago about research into embryonic stem cells. The use of such material from embryos was being advocated as holding insights to any number of important biological questions, including the replacement of other cells damaged by disease or aging. It promised cures for a number of acutely debilitating conditions. Nevertheless, George Bush’s administration felt that federal funds could not be used to support this research, and it was believed that here Bush’s religious views and those of the Christian Right were important in blocking such funding. There was a storm of protest from the scientific community engaged in the research, and it was presented in parts of the science press as a case of retrogressive religion holding back the progress of science and medicine.

Other scientists involved in stem cell research, however, pointed out that there were major flaws in the supposed usefulness of embryonic stem cells and stated that adult stem cells were far more suitable for such research. I remember reading an article about it in a Right-wing American Christian website, which quoted the Christian head of a biotech company as stating that his company was not engaged in embryonic stem cell research because of the serious technical difficulties in manipulating such cells compared to those from adults. Nevertheless the suitability of adult stem cells was apparently rejected in favour of embryonic stem cells by the vast majority of those engaged in such research. It was claimed that the support of research using adult, but not embryonic stem cells was part of a ‘Republican war on science’, and that adult stem cells could not possibility be manipulated so that they fulfilled the scientific and medical claims made for their use. Such criticism was contradicted last November when two labs, one in Wisconsin and the other in Japan, independently showed that adult stem cells could be induced to perform the functions being claimed for them. There are, however, still immense practical difficulties for the manipulation of embryonic stem cells, or so I understand.

My own feeling is that something similar may be the case with the claims made by British biotech researchers here that creating cells from animal and human material will lead to greater insights and cures for diseases. The claim that such hybrid cells could lead to medical advances may be misplaced or overstated. As well as being morally dubious, the science also may be flawed.

Parallels to the Ethical Debate over Cloning

There is also a further danger that such research will lead to a return to eugenics, assisted by modern biotechnology. In 1970 the President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Bentley Glass, declared that humanity should take control of its nature and try to transcend itself by altering its genotype. 1 As for the ethical dimensions of such research, while the ethics of science are given far greater attention and discussion than they were in the 1950s some scientists have commented that scientists engaged in such research are rarely interested in its ethical dimension. Lee Silver, the director of a molecular biology lab at Princeton, commenting on the cloning of Dolly the sheep, remarked ‘The scientists who do the research never think about the implications’, concluding that they did so because it might affect their ability to do research’. 2  

Now clearly medical research should be encouraged and supported, and the immense potential of science to cure and treat disease explored and realised. But this does not mean that all such research that claims to lead to cures for disease should be followed. For this reason I strongly hope that attempts to mix human and animal material to create hybrid cells, even for the noblest reasons of curing disease, will be rejected because of the immense moral danger it presents to humanity. The rejection of this type of research by the Church is neither stupid nor irrational, but an entirely rational response to the immense human moral cost involved.


1. Gina Kolata, Clone (London, Penguin 1997), p. 65.

2. Kolata, Clone, p. 35.

Nietzsche, Nihilism and the ‘Shadows of God’

March 24, 2008

Friedrich Nietzsche is undoubtedly one of the foremost atheist philosophers and perhaps the one who most strongly represented the 19th century attack on God. Although atheism long predated his assault on theism in general and Christianity in particular, Nietzsche’s vehement declaration that ‘God is dead’ in a series of books sent a philosophical shockwave through Europe. Previous atheist works, such as those of the French philosophes, had argued for atheism as a liberating force while often still accepting the existence of objective moral values that could be discovered by human reason, a reason freed from belief in God. Nietzsche challenged this assumption. In his attack on Christian morality, Nietzsche attempted a thorough exploration of what it actually meant to live in a Godless universe. Instead of the optimistic belief in continuing progress of the philosophes and Positivists, Nietzsche instead argued instead that in the absence of God, there were no objective moral values and the universe itself was inherently meaningless. It was a profoundly pessimistic view, and one from which the human mind instinctively draws back. While conceptions of morality vary from age to age and generation to generation, nevertheless people instinctively insist that some moral must be absolute, such as the injunctions against killing and lying. As for an inherent meaning in the cosmos, atheist philosophers such as Sartre argued that humanity was now free to invent its own meaning. Yet whether one agrees with Nietzsche’s analysis or not, his discussion of the philosophical implications of atheism far beyond the mere question of the existence of God – how it affects, or can affect, every aspect of human life and endeavour, is still immensely relevant to the debate about atheism. Recent critiques of the arguments by New Atheists like Sam Harris, for example, by Dinesh D’Souza have cited Nietzsche. So an examination of Nietzsche’s basic conception of atheism and his violent rejection of Christianity and morality is timely here.

Nietzsche’s View of Theism as a Disease

Despite the marked difference between Nietzsche’s nihilism and the positivism of the New Atheists, there are a number of striking similarities. Atheists like Richard Dawkins and Peter Atkins claim to be arguing in favour of science when they attack theism. Nietzsche similarly claimed to be critiquing theism from a scientific standpoint, considering himself to be a physiologist or psychologist examining the unconscious reasons why people say what they do. 1 In his discussion of truth from the perspective of life, Nietzsche constructed a series of typologies of humanity based on physiology, environmental and temperamental conditions. 2 Indeed, he declared that all moral values needed to be critiqued from the perspective of physiology and medical science.

‘In fact all tables of values – all ‘you out to’s’ – which we know from history or ethnological research, in any case, first require a physiological examination and interpretive explication, before even a psychological one; similarly, all of them stand in need of a critique from the side of medical science.’ 3

Like some contemporary atheists, such as Richard Dawkins, who regard theism as a disease or disorder, Nietzsche similarly rejected theism, and particularly Christianity, as a source of depression and spiritual debilitation, and that God had to be killed in order to restore health and self-confidence. 4 ‘He perceives taht the human society surrounding him is in a diseased spiritual state, and that something needs to be done, lest the entire species waste away.’ 5 Nietzsche’s sentiments here are very strongly similar to some of the claims by contemporary atheists that theism is somehow harmful to the species, or humanity needs to evolve out of theism. Part of Nietzsche’s rejection of God was based on his belief that theistic religion repressed healthy biological energies. In the case of Christianity, it was the sexual energies that were repressed. The Rational Response Squad notoriously provoked a storm of controversy by describing theism as a ‘mind disorder’. While even other atheists attacked them for this, their views here are exactly the same as Nietzsche.

‘As far as Nietzsche can see, this theistic outlook amounts to a form of madness, and he reasons that the kind of sickness with which he sees the European Christian as having been infected is a mental illness.’ 6 

Rejection of Absolute Truth In Nietzsche

Where Nietzsche differs from contemporary atheists is that while many contemporary atheists deny that the absence of God has any bearing on objective truth or morality, Nietzsche believed that without God there was no single, objective truth or set of moral values. Indeed, Nietzsche was resolutely opposed to any dogmatic philosophical or scientific concepts that did claim to be objectively true. Thus Nietzsche rejected concepts such as eternally enduring substances, matter and Platonic forms. He denounced these concepts as ‘shadows of God’, ideas that act like God in that they similarly claim to be the absolute foundation of the universe and its contents. 7 Scholars of Nietzsche have also suggested that these ‘shadows of God’ could also be expanded to include notions such as ‘laws of nature’ and definitions of human nature that set limits upon or imprison humanity within distinct notions of the human condition. 8 

This rejection of any single, dogmatically true conception of the universe was based on a vehement rejection of any kind of anthropomorophism of the cosmos. Nietzsche followed Hume, Feuerbach and the ancient Greek philosopher, Xenophanes, in considering that God was merely a projection of human concerns and qualities. However, expanded this rejection of anthropomorphism to the universe itself. He strongly rejected anthropocentric interpretations of reality, comparing them to ants in a forest who similarly believed that the forest was for them. 9 Far from being a universe of order, the cosmos was instead based on chaos.

‘The overall character of the world is, to the contrary, in all eternity chaos – not in the sense of any necessity that is missing, but an absence of order, structuring, form, beauty, wisdom, and everything else named by our aesthetic, human constructions’. 10

The universe was not just beyond or outside human aesthetic constructs, but also based very much on chance. ‘Nature, considered artistically, is no model. It exaggerates, it distorts, it leaves holes. Nature is chance.’ 11

Like conceptions of the universe, objective truth also was, for Nietzsche, merely another anthropomorphism without any real validity.

‘What, then, is truth? A maneuverable army of metaphors, metonymies, anthropomorphisms – in short, a summation of human relationships which have been poetically and rhetorically heightened, transposed, and embellished, and which, after long use by a people, are considered to be solid, canonical, and binding: truths are illusions whose true nature has been forgotten.’ 12

Nietzsche’s Rejection of Objective Moral Values

For Nietzsche, the absence of God and objective truth and humanity’s existence in a meaningless, fundamentally unknowable universe, meant that not only were all moral values merely social constructions, but even immoral acts were valid from the perspective of life – when they aided the individual’s continued existence or social advancement. For example, lying is traditionally considered immoral. Yet Nietzsche considered that weaker and less robust people often maintained themselves by lying, flattery and other forms of deception, so from the perspective of survival, lying was not entirely objectionable for those whose circumstances necessitated it. 13 Indeed, Nietzsche considered that humans were primarily motivated by a will to power, and that traditional moral principles, such as those against lying and harming and exploiting others, were opposed to human biology.

‘Life operates essentially, namely, in its basic functions, with injury, violation, exploitation, destruction, and cannot at all be concived without this character. One must stand by an even further thought: that, from the highest biological standpoint, legal conditions can only be anomalous conditions, as partial restrictions upon the actual life-will, which is a will for power.’ 14

Nietzsche and Suffering

Contemporary scholars of Nietsche note that although there is a very definite sense that might makes right in his works, Nietzsche’s philosophy is also one of being able to transcend and transform oneself and ones values to become a stronger person. 15 Nietzsche was strongly aware of humanity’s insignificance in the atheist conception of the cosmos. In the absence of God, the problem of evil for Nietzsche was not how God could let evil occur, but ‘the more frightening problem of how to say “yes” to a world where there is no God to work against evil, and where there is no justice.’ 16 Nietzsche conception of the universe as a place of suffering in which one must test one’s strength has suggested to scholars that he designed his philosophy not for the brutal and insensitive, who suffer less under cruel conditions, but for those who were potentially strong-willed, but also cultivated and caring. 17 

Nietzsche and the Nazis

Nietzsche’s philosophy is also strongly associated, at least in the popular view, with the Nazis through his celebration of the superman and the will to power. The association of Nietzsche with militant German nationalism began in the 19th century when his cousin, Elizabeth Forster-Nietsche, issued an edition of his writings under the title The Will to Power. During the Third Reich, his sister attempted to approach Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini to help spread his ideas. In 1934 the Nazis issued a propaganda photograph showing Hitler gazing at a bust of Nietzsche during his visit to the Nietzsche archive in Weimar. 18 The association between Nietzsche’s ideas and Nazi ideology was reinforced still further by the title of Leni Riefenstahl’s propaganda film of the Nuremberg rally, Triumph of the Will. The perceived link between Nietzsche and the Nazis has been strongly criticised and refuted, however. Nietzsche himself was a vehement critic of the Germans and despised the nationalism of Wilhelmine Germany. When Elisabeth Forster-Nietzsche published her edition of his works, with a very strong nationalist bias, he commented that he wrote his books ‘only for people who like to sit and think, no more’. He was not particularly anti-semitic, and while Thus Spake Zarathustra celebrated the warrior and was issued by the German government to soldiers in the trenches during the First World War along with the Bible as inspirational reading, Nietzsche’s own view of the warrior was that of the idealised heroic warrior of ancient Greece, rather than modern soldiers who massacre unarmed civilians. 19 Nietzsche hated mass politics, and his philosophy was too individualistic to support the totalitarian ideology of the Nazis. Historians such as Joachim C. Fest have noted that Hitler was far more influenced by Arthur Schopenhauer, and that only severely edited versions of Nietzsche’s works were published during the Third Reich.

Nevertheless, Nietzsche’s vehement hatred towards Christianity has been compared to the Nazis hatred of the Jews and other racial groups. ‘Sometimes when reading Nietzsche, one feels that in his worst moments, the psychological venom with which he attacked Christians was comparable to the venom with which Hitler attacked the Jewish people. It is from the same bottle of poison that rabid racists attack those who are unlike them, and  religious fanatics attack those who stand opposed to their doctrinal expansion.’ 20 Unlike the Nazis, however, Nietzsche mostly advocated peaceful solutions to what he perceived as contemporary problems which involved merely a change in worldview and self-improvement through an emphasis on personal strength and aesthetic appreciation. 21 Indeed, the Nazis themselves and their aggression can be seen as psychologically weak and inferior from a Nietzschean perspective that considers that the truly strong individual can nevertheless still flourish and not feel threatened by the type of society, like Weimar Germany, which threatened the Nazis. 22

Nietzche’s Influence on Contemporary French Philosophy

Regardless of Nietzsche’s perceived connection with the Nazis, he has influenced 20th century and contemporary French philosophy, including existentialists such as Sartre and Camus. His statement in Human, All-Too-Human, that ‘everything, though, has become; there are no eternal facts: just as much as there are no absolute truths’ formed the basis for Postmodernism. 23 Nietzsche’s rejection of a single authority and unique worldview for historical philosophizing influenced Georges Bataille, Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, Luce Irigaray, Gilles Deleuze and Jacques Derrida. 24

Similarity Between Nietzsche’s Views on Cosmic Meaninglessness and those of Monod and Weinberg

Some of the pronouncements made by contemporary atheist scientists are also very similar to statements made by Nietzsche, even though there may be no direct influence. The French evolutionary biologist, Jacques Monod, who signed the 1975 Humanist Manifesto, declared that the message of of science was that humanity was a gypsy on the boundary of an alien world. 25  Monod considered that the emergence of humanity was entirely due to chance, stating that

‘Immanence is alien to modern science. Destiny is written as and while, not before, it happens … The universe was not pregnant with life nor the biosphere with man. Our number came up in the Monte Carlo game. Is it surprsing that, like the person who has just made a million at the casino, we should feel strange and a little unreal?’ 26

The great American cosmologist, Steven Weinberg, has similarly remarked that humanity is merely an insignificant part of a vast, meaningless universe.

‘It is very hard to realise that this all is just a tiny part of an overwhelmingly hostile universe. It is even harder to realise taht this persent universe has evolved from an unspeakably unfamiliar early condition, and faces a future extinction of endless cold or intolerable heat. The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.’ 27 Nietzsche expressed a similar bleak, cosmic pessimism at the beginning of his essay, ‘On Truth and Lie in a Morally-Disengaged Sense’, stating

‘In some isolated corner of the cosmos, poured out shimmeringly into uncountable solar systems, there was once a star upon which clever animals invented knowledge. It was the most arrogant and hypocritical minute of “world history”: but it was only a minute. After nature drew a few breaths, the star grew stiff with cold, and the clever animals had to die.’ 28

In fact the view of humanity as an alien, out of place in the universe, has been challenged by science. It has been remarked that evolutionary biologists have been demonstrating for over a century that humanity was born here and should acknowledge the cosmos as their native home. 29 Humans are natural products of the world, and so, like other creatures in the cosmos, are intrinsic to it. 30

Intelligibility of the Cosmos

Despite these apparent points of contact between Monod, Weinberg and Nietzsche, however, there are immense differences. Rather than believing in an unknowable cosmos, such as that imagined by Nietzsche, Monod and Weinberg would argue strongly that science gives a unique access to objective truth about the nature of the world. From the Nietzschean standpoint, any attempt to ascribe a particular character to the cosmos, or make dogmatic statements about its fundamental nature, is an anthropomorphic projection comparable to the process by which humans invented God. The physical laws and models of the universe created by Monod and Weinberg are, in the Nietzschean view, shadows of God fulfilling the same conceptual role in human ideology as God. Thus, ironically, in the Nietzschean view atheists like Monod and Weinberg, in their conception of an intelligible, universe, aren’t atheist enough.

Criticisms of Nietzsche

In fact Nietzsche’s philosophy is vulnerable to criticism on a number of fundamental points. It is fatally flawed in the sense that it is basically self-contradictory. Nietzschean philosophy states that there is no fundamental truth about the world and no objective worldview or morality. Yet for Nietzschean philosophy to be valid, it has to be fundamentally and objectively true, something which it denies.

Furthermore, for all his claims to rationality and scientific methodology, Nietzsche’s approach was literary and poetic rather than entirely scientific and rationalistic. Nietzsche was opposed to exclusive and excessively rationalistic thought and ‘to any science devoid of art, to any purely literalistic, non-literary, non-poetic approach to understanding the world’. 31

Nietzsche’s family circumstances also seem to bear out the suggestion of the Christian psychologist, Paul Vitz, that people turn to atheism due to the breakdown of their families and particularly a poor relationship with their father. Nietzsche himself loved his father, a Lutheran minister, and his early years centred around his father’s church and pastor’s house, which was situated only a few meters away. In his teens Nietzsche wrote music strongly influenced by the style of that of the contemporary Lutheran Church.  However, Nietzsche’s father died when he was four, and his two year old brother only six months later. It’s possible that the grief caused by this loss was important in generating Nietzsche’s atheism. ‘Nietzsche’s early childhood experiences presented him with an understanding of death that could easily be transposed into reflections on the “death of God,” if only because the Christian God is a superhuman father figure.’ 32

There is also the point that rather than being an unintelligible chaos as imagined by Nietzsche, science instead has discovered the universe to be intelligible and ordered. T.H. Huxley himself stated that ‘if imagination is used within the limits laid down by science, disorder is unimaginable.’ 33 For people of faith, this order present in the cosmos is due to it being the product of a transcendent Creator, and the belief that this is case was one of the causes of the rise of science in Europe. Paul Davies has pointed out in his 1983 The Mind of God that the scientific investigation of nature was justified in renaissance Europe through the argument that nature was the creation of a rational God and therefore displayed this order. 34 Eugene Wigner, one of the founders of Quantum physics, remarked on the ‘unreasonable successfulness of mathematics’ in describing the universe. The British physicist Sir James Jeans similarly considered that it was little short of miraculous that an insignificant creature such as humanity, briefly occurring in the immensity of the cosmos, should possess a mind that could map the universe. Humanity was able to do this because the universe conformed to the same mathematical framework that humanity had constructed, and so bore witness to a mind that had kinship with humanity’s own. 35 The Oxford mathematician Roger Penrose similarly argued in his 1985 Shadows of the Mind that the best explanation for the beauty and structure of mathematics was that they were somehow given by God. Instead of inventing equations and formulae, mathematicians instead discovered the mathematical creations of God. 36

Conclusion: Intelligibility of the Cosmos Supports the Existence of a Rational God

If the universe was unintelligible, then Nietzsche’s rejection of any attempt to define its fundamental characteristics as mere anthropomorphism could be justified. However, its intelligibility suggests that both it and humanity have a common origin as creations of God. The former Quantum physicist and Anglican priest, John Polkinghorne, in his 1988 Science and Creation: A Search for Understanding, stated that

‘If the deep-seated congruence of the rationality present in our minds with the rationality present in the world is to find a true explanation it must surely lie in some more profound reason which is the ground of both. Such a reason would be provided by the Rationality of a Creator.’ 37 Thus, science, far from supporting the meaningless universe of chaos envisaged by Nietzsche, instead to people of faith continues to point to a meaningful cosmos of divine order, and a transcendent rationality which humans share with the author of that cosmos. In this view, Monod and Weinberg are also wrong for viewing the cosmos as meaningless like Nietzsche despite their rejection of Nietzsche’s view that the cosmos has not objective nature.


1. Robert Wicks, Nietzsche (Oxford, One World 2002), p. 39.

2. Wicks, Nietzsche, p. 43.

3. Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals, cited in Wicks, Nietzsche, p. 43.

4. Wicks, Nietzsche, p. 54.

5. Wicks, Nietzsche, p. 57.

6. Wicks, Nietzsche, p. 56.

7. Wicks, Nietzsche, p. 65.

8. Wicks, Nietzsche, pp. 65-6.

9. Wicks, Nietzsche, p. 66.

10. Nietzsche, The Gay Science, cited in Wicks, Nietzsche, p. 68.

11. Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols, cited in Wicks, Nietzsche, p. 68.

12. Nietzsche, ‘On Truth and Lie in a Morally-Disengaged Sense’, cited in Wicks, Nietzsche, p. 44.

13. Wicks, Nietzsche, p. 42.

14. Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals, cited in Wicks, Nietzsche, p. 70.

15. Wicks, Nietzsche, p. 73.

16. Wicks, Nietzsche, p. 75.

17. Wicks, Nietzsche, p. 77.

18. Wicks, Nietzsche, p. 125.

19. Wicks, Nietzsche, pp. 128, 129.

20. Wicks, Nietzsche, p. 131.

21. Wicks, Nietzsche, p. 131.

22. Wicks, Nietzsche, p. 134.

23. Wicks, Nietzsche, p. 140.

24. Wicks, Nietzsche, pp. 136-44.

25. Mary Midgeley, Evolution as a Religion: Strange Hopes and Stranger Fears (London, Methuen 1985), p. 76.

26. Midgeley, Evolution as a Religion, p. 88.

27. Midgeley, Evolution as a Religion, p. 88.

28. Wicks, Nietzsche, p. 74.

29. Midgeley, Evolution as a Religion, p. 76.

30. Wicks, Nietzsche, p. 148.

31. Wicks, Nietzsche, p. 38.

32. Wicks, Nietzsche, p. 51.

33. Wicks, Nietzsche, p. 79.

34. Alister McGrath, The Science of God (London, T& T Clark International, 2004), p. 67.

35. C.E.M. Joad, Philosophical Aspects of Modern Science (London, Unwin 1963), p. 48.

36. McGrath, The Science of God, p. 116.

37. John Polkinghorne, Science and Creation: The Search for Understanding (London, SPCK 1988), p. 22, cited in McGrath, The Science of God, p. 60.

A Happy Easter to All Readers

March 23, 2008

This is just to wish everyone reading my blog a very happy Easter. Whether you’re a Christian or not, I hope you and your family and friends are having a great weekend, and will go back to work on Tuesday renewed and refreshed. Or just that bit less worn out and hassled than usual. 🙂

‘Focus’ Magazine on the ‘Dawn of Life’

March 16, 2008

There’s an interesting item over at Atheism Sucks at on an article the science journalist John Horgan wrote some time ago on the problems of current theories on the origin of life.  Five years ago in 2003 the British popular science magazine, Focus, also did a feature on the origin of life by their writer, Robert Matthews. This covered the famous Miller-Urey experiment, various extremophiles such as Deinococcus radiodurans, a bacterium discovered in 1956 by the American microbiologist Arthur Anderson that can survive levels of radiation that will kill a human instantly, and four of the major figures in the discussion of the origin of life. These were Anaximander, who considered that life had spontaneously emerged from mud to produce fish, and then every other creature when the fish moved onto dry land; Leeuwenhoek for his discovery of microscopic creatures, confirmed by Hooke; Louis Pasteur, for proving that spontanous generation did not occur and that disease was caused by germs passing from organism to organism; and Oswald Avery, Colin MacLeod and Maclyn McCarty. The article credited Avery, MacLeod and McCarty for showing in 1944 at the Rockefeller Institute in New York that ‘a simple molecule called deoxyribonucleic acid – or DNA – found in the nucleus of living cells is the key to life’ for carrying the genetic instructions for organisms to reproduce themselves. 1 This is quite remarkable, given the way that Crick and Watson’s work on DNA is usually mentioned to the exclusion of all the other researchers. It also included a brief interview with Graham Cairns-Smith, one of the foremost researchers on the origin of life. It also briefly discussed Dr. Freeman Dyson’s theory that life evolved twice. It also included a brief overview of ‘seven of the most popular theories currently being debated’ – the RNA world, primordial soup, life from clay, PNA theory, hydrothermal vents, panspermia and Creationism. These overviews were just a paragraph long, though the piece on the Miller-Urey experiment, ‘A Landmark Experiment’, ran over four pages. 2

The Miller-Urey Experiment

The article was certainly not pessimistic about the possibility of discovering the origin of life. While it stated that ‘as a demonstration of how to create life, Miller’s experiment could be dismissed as a heroic failure’ it considered that ‘its real significance lies not in results, but in its approach. For millennia the solution to the mystery of the origin of life seemed beyond reach. It was Miller who brought it into the lab – a nd began one of humanity’s most exciting scientific quests.’ 3 Nevertheless, the feature noted the same problems with the theories as John Horgan. Although Time magazine declared when Miller and Urey’s results were published in Science in 1953 that ‘If the apparatus had been as big as the ocean, and if it had worked for a million years instead of one week, it might have created something like the first living molecule’, the results were not nearly as good as was believed. 4

The article notes that while the experiment did create six types of amino acid, only two – glycine and alanine – had any known relevance. As for amino acides, while they’re life’s building blocks, by the 1950s they were, as merely constituents of proteins, far from ‘living molecules’ and had lost their status as the master molecules of life to DNA. Specifically, they were not self-replicating, a key feature of any ‘living molecule’. Miller did not produce any DNA, nor even the A, C, G and T nucleotides. ‘As Miller himself acknowledged, the chemicals produced were as far from life as a pile of bricks is from being a humming metropolis.’ 5 Instead of the reducing atmosphere of hydrogen, methane and ammonia, astronomers instead theorised that the atmosphere on the early Earth was probably composed of nitrogen, carbon dioxide and water. Any methane and ammonia was probably destroyed by the light of the primordial sun. ‘When Miller and others ran the experiment with this chemically neutral mix, they only produced traces of glycine, the simplest amino acid.’ 6

The ‘Double Origin’ Theory

The ‘double origin’ theory for the emergence of life, as formulated by Freeman Dyson, suggests that the first lifeforms were protein-like molecules, which gradually evolved more sophisticated metabolisms, passing on their abilities to other proteins using enzymes as a primitive form of genetics. Later, more sophisticated genetic molecules like DNA emerged that were able to reproduce their traits much more accurately, but still lacked sophisticated metabolisms. However, eventually the proteins and the genetic molecules fused in a symbiotic relationship that produced life forms with a sophisticated metabolism and genetics. However, Dyson admits ‘that his ‘double origin’ theory is a highly speculative one, but scientists concede that today’s cells do show combinations of simpler life-forms’. 7 Thus, the paragraph on the ‘Primordial Soup’ concluded that ‘while teh primordial soup expected on the early Earth can create some of the most basic building blocks for life, it seems incapable of generating the crucial self-replicating molecules like DNA.’ 8

The RNA World

Most of the other theories discussed also had serious flaws. The RNA world, proposed in the 1980s, after it was discovered that RNA could act as catalyst and not just a carrier of genetic information, considers that the earliest life forms were naked genes of RNA. However, the article noted that while RNA can be persuaded to evolve new abilities, such as limited self-replication and the ability to link amino acids together, it so far has not demonstrated itself able to replicate itself completely as required for life on Earth. 9

Life from Clay

Graham Cairns-Smith’s own theory was that life was originally based on chemicals more robust than DNA, such as the clay mineral, kaolite. In this view, the first genes were defects in the crystal structure of these clays that were passed on to successive generations of crystals as they formed. However, there is no experimental evidence, according to the article, that clays really can replicate in this way. 10

Interestingly, the brief interview with Cairns-Smith suggests that the distinction drawn by some opponents of Intelligent Design between the origin of life and Darwinism is not accepted by all scientists. While Darwin himself did not discuss the origin of life, but merely speculated in a letter to a friend in 1871 that it may have occurred ‘in some warm little pond, with all sorts of ammonia and phosphoric salts, light, heat, electricity present’, Cairns-Smith himself stated that the process involved Natural Selection. 11 In answer to the question ‘What is your advice to anyone thinking of entering this area of research?’, Cairns-Smith answered ‘Oh, to forget about the chemistry of life as it is now and look creatively for the simplest real chemical systems that can evolve through natural selection, whatever they are made of.’ 12 It thus appears from Cairns-Smiths comments that however different the process of the origin of life may be from the evolution of living organisms, it is still held to be the product of Natural Selection.

The PNA World

The PNA theory arose from the work of Peter Nielsen of the University of Copenhagen in 1991. Nielsen used computers to design a molecule – Peptide Nucleic Acid, or PNA – that had the both the structure of DNA and the chemical abilities of proteins. He was intending to use it for cancer therapy, but its combination of the genetic quality of DNA and the resilience of proteins appealed to scientists struggling to discover the compounds that would have been suitable for the origin of life on Earth. PNA does share with DNA some limited capability for self-replication, but nothing on the scale of DNA. 13

Hydrothermal Vents

Regarding the origin of life around hydrothermal vents, while these do have iron sulphide, which performs a key process in living organisms by linking up amino acids, the extreme heat inside the vents, which exceeds 300 degrees Celsius, rapidly tears apart amino acids and DNA. Nevertheless, William Martin and his colleagues at the University of Dusseldorf in 2003 suggested that key reactions may still occur in cavities inside iron sulphide cells in the vents. 14


The paragraph on panspermia – the theory that life was seeded on Earth by comets and meteors from elsewhere in the cosmos –  noted that it was first proposed by Victorian scientists, and that its supporters included Francis Crick and Fred Hoyle. Its propnents argued that the discovery of amino acides in meteorites and bacteria high up in the Earth’s atmosphere support the theory. However, although this solved the problem of the origin of life on Earth, it was considered to be a ‘cop-out’ by many scientists because it pushed the problem away into deep space. 15


As for Creationism, the article merely stated that it was ‘the oldest theory for the origin of life – and the simplest to explain: God did it.’ 16

Conclusion: Materialist Solutions of the Origin of Life Problematic

Thus, while the article certainly wasn’t as pessimistic about the possibility of discovering a materialist solution to the origin of life, it was clear that all the scientific theories presented had major flaws. The mention of Creationism alongside the materialist scientific theories is interesting. It’s clear that the article wasn’t written from a Creationist standpoint, and broadly supported the search for a materialist solution to the problem of the origin of life. Nevertheless, it seems extremely unlikely to me that many science magazines would ever have even mentioned Creationism as a solution at the time, even if merely for the sake of completeness, because of the threat that it is held to present to materialist science, which is construed and presented as genuine science in opposition to non-materialist approaches. It might have been because Creationism has, until very recently, been very much a minority point of view in Britain, though one that has been vigorously attacked over the past decades by Richard Dawkins, amongst others. With the growth of interest in Intelligent Design since the 1980s, I do wonder if Creationism would now be mentioned without an explicit condemnation, even in passing, in a British popular science magazine.


1. Robert Matthews, ‘History of Pondering Life’s Origins’, Focus, no. 130, September 2003, p. 39.

2. Matthews, ‘A Landmark Experiment’, Focus, no. 130, September 2003, pp. 38-41.

3. Matthews, ‘A Landmark Experiment’, Focus, no. 130, September 2003, p. 41.

4. Matthews, ‘A Landmark Experiment’, Focus, no. 130, September 2003, p. 40.

5. Matthews, ‘A Landmark Experiment’, Focus, no. 130, September 2003, pp. 40-41.

6. Matthews, ‘A Landmark Experiment’, Focus, no. 130, September 2003, p. 41.

7. Matthews, ‘Has Life Originated More than Once on Earth?’, Focus, no. 130, September 2003, p. 41.

8. Matthews, ‘How Did Life Get Started – Seven of the Most Popular Theories Currently being Debated’, Focus, no. 130, September 2003, p. 42.

9. Matthews, ‘How Did Life Get Started – Seven of the Most Popular Theories Currently being Debated’, Focus, no. 130, September 2003, p. 42.

10. Matthews, ‘How Did Life Get Started – Seven of the Most Popular Theories Currently being Debated’, Focus, no. 130, September 2003, p. 42.

11. Matthews, ‘Meet the Origin of Life Expert’, Focus, no. 130, September 2003, p. 41.

12. Matthews, ‘Meet the Origin of Life Expert’, Focus, no. 130, September 2003, p. 41.

13. Matthews, ‘How Did Life Get Started – Seven of the Most Popular Theories Currently being Debated’, Focus, no. 130, September 2003, p. 42.

14. Matthews, ‘How Did Life Get Started – Seven of the Most Popular Theories Currently being Debated’, Focus, no. 130, September 2003, p. 43.

15. Matthews, ‘How Did Life Get Started – Seven of the Most Popular Theories Currently being Debated’, Focus, no. 130, September 2003, p. 43.

16. Matthews, ‘How Did Life Get Started – Seven of the Most Popular Theories Currently being Debated’, Focus, no. 130, September 2003, p. 43.

Medieval Ideas of Evolution

March 13, 2008

Evolutionary theory and speculation on the transmutation of one species into another isn’t something that one associates with medieval thought. The Middle Ages were, after all, the age of faith when the world was interpreted according to the Bible and Aristotelian philosophy, both of which stressed the fixity of species. Now it is true that the modern conception of an evolving universe is a uniquely modern worldview, alien to the philosophers and theologians of the Middle Ages. Nevertheless there was an awareness of change in the varieties of plants and animals, which for some, entirely orthodox philosophers and theologians was developed into a theory of micrevolution in which new breeds of animals had evolved from an ancestral type.

Evolutionary ideas had been developed in antiquity. The Greek philosopher Anaximander considered that humans had first evolved from fish. 1 Empedocles similarly believed that the world moved through periods of cosmic separation and differention, and blending and merging similar to the cycles of ‘Big Bangs’ followed by ‘Big Crunches’ proposed by the Oscillating Universe model in modern cosmology. He suggested that in the early universe, the various parts of human and animal anatomy had appeared separately and, through a process of trial and error, had become attached to each other to produce the characteristic modern lifeforms. This process had also generated monsters, which had been unsuited to survive and so died out. 2 Some of these ideas were taken over by the Church Fathers in their interpretation of Genesis. Noting the apparently different accounts of creation in Genesis 1 and 2, St. Augustine drew on the Stoic doctrine of the Seminal Reasons to suggest that God had implanted in matter the latent germs of future organisms, that developed in due course. 3

In the 13th century Albertus Magnus also discussed the appearance of new species through evolution based on the discussions of the ancients, particularly Theophrastus. Albertus believed that the appearance of new species was demonstrated by the domestication of wild plants, and the appearance of wild varieties from formerly domesticated types. Some of these were not the development of new species as such, but merely the actualisation of potential attributes in an earlier variety, such as when rye increased in size over three times and became wheat. He also believed that some species were generated from the corruption of existing forms, such as when a felled oak or beech tree allowed aspens or poplars to spring up in their place. He also believed that new species could be created by grafting. 4  These early speculations on evolution and speciation continued in the next century with the work of Henry of Hesse, who discussed the appearance of new diseases and the new herbs that would be required to treat them. 5 These early discussions of evolution also influenced Giordano Bruno, Francis Bacon, Leibniz and the 18th century evolutionists. 6

Along with the literal interpretation of Genesis, theologians and religious scholars have also interpreted it allegorically since Philo in the 1st century AD. These scholars include St. Thomas Aquinas, who believed that Creation had been instantaneous, and that Genesis laid out the rational, but not temporal order of Creation:

‘If, however, we take these days to denote merely sequence in the natural order, as Augustine holds and not succession in time, there is nothing to prevent our saying … that the substantial formation of the firmament belongs to the second day.’ 7

Aquinas, like the other scholastics, believed that God also worked through secondary causes through the order He had given the cosmos. ‘the orderly teleology of nonconscious agents in the Universe entails the existence of an intelligent Orderer.’ 8 This notion of the universe as subject to and illustrating a divine order was a vital factor in the development of modern science in the 16th century, when scientists investigated the Book of Nature as a similar revelation to the Book of Scripture.

Thus, while the medieval philosophers and theologians did indeed believe in the fixity of types of species, some of them were interested in the possibility that new varieties could appear of existing types. Furthermore, the allegorical approach adopted by some ancient and medieval theologians meant that when Darwinism emerged in the 19th century many Christians were able to reconcile faith with evolution, whilst rejecting the atheistic implications of the theory.

Thus paradoxically evolution as an idea was partly the result of the Christian investigation of a rationally ordered creation, and the medieval discussion of the development of future varieties of existing types can appear very modern. This in itself can challenge the notion that medieval philosophy and theology was primitive and irrelevant to today. It can also lead one to wonder how far modern scientific views of evolution have actually progressed. Although biological knowledge has increased immeasurably since Albertus Magnus’ time, if ID theory is correct and macroevolution cannot be demonstrated, then science has progressed far less in explaining evolution since the Middle Ages than has been claimed. 


1. A.C. Crombie, Augustine to Galileo: Science in the Middle Ages – Fifth to Thirteenth Centuries (London, Mercury Books 1959) p. 150; Jonathan Barnes, Early Greek Philosophy (Harmondsworth, Penguin Books 1987), pp. 72-74.

2. Crombie, Augustine to Galileo, p. 150; Barnes, Early Greek philosophy, pp. 179-181.

3. Crombie, Augustine to Galileo, p. 150; Gordon Leff, Medieval Thought: St. Augustine to Ockham (Harmondsworth, Penguin Books 1958) p. 43.

4. Crombie, Augustine to Galileo, p. 150.

5. Crombie, Augustine to Galileo, pp. 150-151.

6. Crombie, Augustine to Galileo, p. 151.

7. Roger Forster and Paul Marston, Reason, Science and Faith (Crowborough, Monarch Books 1999), p. 214.

8. ‘Aquinas’ in Jennifer Speake, ed., A Dictionary of Philosophy (London, Pan 1979), p. 19.

History and the Witch Hunts

March 8, 2008

For most people, the witch hunts provide one of the most powerful testimonies of the evils of institutional religion and specifically the Christian Church. According to the popular image of the witch hunts, this was the time when a powerful Christian church kept humanity in ignorance and superstition, exercising a tyranny over intellectual life that saw hundreds of thousands, if not millions of innocent women sent to the stake. It was a campaign of intolerance against indigenous, pre-Christian religions, which were unjustly misrepresented and viciously attacked by the church’s bureaucracy. Through the Inquisition and its manuals, like the notorious Malleus Maleficarum, the Church blocked scientific investigation and progress, keeping humanity in mental world of superstition and magic. The Roman Catholic Church was responsible for persecuting innocent people as witches in the Middle Ages. After the Reformation, they were succeeded in bigotry and superstition by the Puritans, whose scientific ignorance and religious intolerance resulted in the brutal reign of Matthew Hopkins, the infamous ‘witchfinder general’ in Cromwellian England, and the horror of the Salem witch hunt in New England.

Now the witch hunts certainly were a brutal period in European and American history. The vast majority of Christians today rightly regard the use of violence, torture and execution to enforce religious conformity abhorrent, and the savage persecution of the vast majority of the accused deserves its condemnation. Unfortunately, the Satanism scare of a few years ago and repeated persecution of suspected witches in parts of Africa demonstrates that the mythology of the malevolent witch is still very much alive today, and needs to be combatted by people of humanity and decency, regardless of their religious beliefs or lack thereof. Nevertheless, amongst the true horrors of the witch hunts there are serious distortions and exaggerations, perpetuated by 19th century radical, secularist and Neo-pagan journalists and historians with an anticlerical and antichristian agenda. The result is a view of the witch hunts and the Middle Ages that often sharply varies from the reality. It’s view that needs to be tackled and rebutted.

Middle Ages Not Totally Period of Superstition

Firstly, historians today are increasingly critical of the idea of the Middle Ages as a period of superstition and credulity. The secular French historian, Jean Claude Bologne, has pointed out that most of the spell books date from the 16th – 19th centuries. 1 For Bologne, the goal of the medieval intellectuals was, above all, to find the ‘tricks’ concealed behind miracles, and represent as ‘natural’, what appears to violate the laws of nature. No one is more sceptical of a miracle than a theologian. 2 The Scottish historian of magic, P.G. Maxwell-Stuart, notes that the Middle Ages was a period of intense intellectual challenge and change. The Middle Ages, ‘popularly regarded as something of a stagnant entity, was in fact a millennium of the most intense waves of challenge beating with frequent violence upon the supposedly settled shores of religious, intellectual, and political orthodoxy.’ 3 It was a period when universities and monastic schools were founded, the created universe was examined a constant sense of curiosity and awe, and Arabic, Hebrew and Greek learning entered Europe through Latin translations ‘to leaven the intellects of Europe and produce fresh ideas, fresh theories, and fresh interpretations of everything, theological or temporal: an ebullience which makes the notion of a ‘superstitious’ Middle Ages misleading at best and nonsensical at worse.’ 4 Indeed, Maxwell-Stuart points out that the medieval worldview could be described as ‘sceptical’, though not in the modern sense. The universe was understood and examined in relation to God, with history as the continuing narrative of humanity’s relationship with the Lord. This examination of the nature of the cosmos involved doubt, both because of the liability of the individual to error, and because the nature of the universe was such that it could produce misunderstanding, illusions and deceit. The medieval project to understand the operation and meaning of the cosmos in relation to God, and thus allow humanity to transcend history and approach God ‘is perfectly rational.’ 5

The idea that the Middle Ages was a period of superstition and ignorance, represented by the Roman Catholic Church, in contrast to the modern, forward-looking and ‘rational’ age, was the product of the 18th century French radical philosophes. It has persisted because it assumes that the historical process is one of progress from primitivism to sophistication, with the present age one of comfortable sophistication. 6 It was buttressed by 19th century romantic historical novels and early 20th century anthropology, which were strongly influenced by Darwinism and imperial and racial assumptions of natural hierarchy. These also created the image of a quaint, superstitious peasantry, liable to be awed by the technological inventions that the more sophisticated upper classes took in their stride.7 Indeed, the notion that humanity has moved from magic through religion to science has for many scholars been thoroughly discredited because the three have at times been indistinguishable and all of them have been found in varying degrees of sophistication in societies ranging from the primitive to the modern. 8

Idea of Medieval Witch Hunts the Product of 19th Century Anticlericalism

Much of the idea that the witch hunts were the product of Roman Catholic superstition was produced by 19th century liberal historians like Jules Garinet in France and Henry Scott Lea in America. Their approach was influenced and informed by an optimistic belief in scientific progress and human rationality. ‘Emotionally committed to liberalism and viewing the Church as an obstacle in the road of progress, they reject the possibility of there being any real currents of witch belief and practice and insist that not the witches, but the inquisitors invented witchcraft.’ 9 The most influential scholar of this view was Lea, who was an historian of the Inquisition. He was followed by Andrew Dickson White, the president of Cornell University partly responsible for the myth of the war of science with religion. White considered that ‘witches were unfortunate wretches blamed by superstitious Catholicism for natural disasters like storms for which White knew the true, scientific, explanations.’ 10

The history of witchcraft and the witch hunts has also suffered from the false claims of 19th century radical journalists and social campaigners like Jules Michelet in France and the American feminist campaigner, Matilda Joslyn Gage. Michelet, in his 1862 book, La Sorciere, viewed the medieval witch cult as an egalitarian peasant religion of nature in which women were natural healers, enchantress and the guardians of the cult’s ancient secrets. These witches were heroic rebels against the brutality of an oppressive, feudal hierarchy and the misogynist Roman Catholic church. 11 This view was taken up and embellished by Gage in the 1890s. She saw the medieval witch cult as the remnant of ancient, matriarchal religion that venerated Mother Earth. 12 This cult was suppressed by the Roman Catholic church, which reinforced male domination by removing the cult’s female healers and priestesses. 13 It was Gage who invented the figure of the supposed nine million people executed for witchcraft. 14

Ancient Origins of Belief in Witches

In fact the Middle Ages experienced relatively few witch hunts. ‘Fear of it permeates folklore of all periods, but it was not until the late 15th century that it was perceived in Europe as a threat grave enough to require systematic prosecution.’ 15 Witches, and the belief in magic existed long before Christianity. A large amount of surviving Hittite literature is magical, and black magic was treated in Hittite law as a crime in the same category as assault and battery. 16 The Twelve Tables of Roman traditional law treated the recitation of a malum carmen – an evil spell – as a criminal offence. 17 Roman literature contains a number of witches and descriptions of witchcraft. Horace in his Epodes describes the horrific murder of a child by witches. While the incident is fictional, and may have been intended as part of a propaganda campaign against witches by the pagan Roman emperor Augustus, nevertheless there were witches working clandestinely in the Roman slums. 18

Medieval Scepticism of Witchcraft

While the early Christians certainly believed in the existence of demons, and believed they were active in the world, there was considerable scepticism about human witches. Saint Augustine stated that while demons were able to change their shapes, humans could not and God does not grant power to demons to change things from one form into another. When this occurred, it was merely an illusion. 19 The ritual masquerades held in honour of Diana on the 1st of January, in which some people believed that they had really been transformed into animals, was viewed as irrational by some clerical writers. Observing them, Caesarius of Heisterbach declared ‘What rational person could believe that he would find men of sound mind who would wish to change themselves into a stag or other wild beast?’ 20 The Pactus Alamannorum, the law code of the Alamanni tribe of southern Germany, of 613-623 punished wrongful accusations of witchcraft against innocents with a fine, and prohibited the seizing and harming of witches by individuals. The Frankish king Rothari, in an edict of 643, prohibited the burning of women for the crime of cannibalism as the crime was impossible. 21 The capitulary – the governmental order – issued by the Frankish emperor Charlemagne for Saxony of 775-790 strictly prohibited violence against innocents suspected of witchcraft: ‘If anyone, deceived by the Devil, believes after the manner of the pagans that any man or woman is a witch and eats men, and if on this account he burns (the alleged witch) or gives her flesh to be eaten or eats it, he shall be punished by capital sentence.’ 22 Here the belief in witches is treated as a pagan superstition, the result of Satanic delusion. Nevertheless, belief in magic was strong and punishments could be harsh. King Alfred the Great in England punished witchcraft with the death penalty. However, the Carolingians in France and Visigoths in Spain, although passing harsh legislation against witchcraft, tended to treat it in much the same way as other harmful crimes against people and property. 23 The church penitentials of the seventh to ninth centuries mostly punished black magic, incantations and idolatry with penances for three years. 24

Medieval witchcraft appears to have emerged from a mixture of the belief in night-flying, malignant spirits – the striga and lamia of the Romans; that certain people were able to leave their homes at night to join the wild ride with the spirits of the dead across the world under the leadership of Diana, Herodias or Holda, a witch of Germanic folklore; and the activities of Christian heretical sects, such as the Cathars and Waldensians, that were accused of holding orgies presided over by a demon or the Devil himself. 25

Nevertheless, the early medieval legislation against witchcraft was sceptical of the existence of night-flying witches. The Canon Episcopi, published by Regino of Prum in 906 and the Corrector of Burchard of Worms, considered the belief that certain women left their homes at night to fly across the Earth following the Greek goddess Diana, to be deluded by the Devil and urged parish clergy to act against them and their delusion. 26 This scepticism continued into the 12th century, when John of Salisbury, who believed in the reality of magic, repeated the comments about the night ride of with Herodias and Diana as a delusion, and viewed the idea of shapeshifting as a similar demonic illusion. 27 There has been an attempt by some historians to claim that Thomas Aquinas was responsible for spreading the mythology of the existence of witches that supported the persecutions of the Inquisition. In fact, Aquinas views were entirely traditional. While he firmly believed in the existence of demons and magic, he believed that demons could only act with God’s permission. Magicians implicitly formed a pact with the demons they invoked, but he doubted that anyone had ever made a pact face to face with a demon, like Faust. He similarly saw the night flight as illusory, and while he believed that there were demons who had sex with people, he did not consider this to occur during the orgies supposedly held by witches. ‘The great scholastic can in no way be held responsible for the witch phenomenon except in the general sense that the Aristotelian system he used was conducive to support of the craze that was beginning to grow.’ 28 Some intellectuals remained sceptical In the 15th century, for example, the author of a treatise on witchcraft written in Cologne considered that some of the illusions ascribed to demons were really the entirely natural product of disturbed minds. Antonio Guaineri, the author of a medical treatise that briefly considered witchcraft, stated that the incubus who supposedly had sex with sleeping women was psychological in origin, caused by some kind of physiological disorder. 29 Medieval medicine considered that nightmares were sometimes due to the pressure of the stomach on the heart, particularly after a heavy meal. This blocked the healthy flow of the vital spirit that animated the body through the nerves, thus causing nightmares. 30 While this explanation has been thoroughly discredited by modern medicine, nevertheless it demonstrates that alongside the theological discussion of witchcraft there was a tradition of scientific research that also considered non-supernatural explanations. Nicholas of Cusa considered people who confessed to witchcraft to be merely mad. 31 Nicholas Oresme certainly believed demons were active in the world and followed by witches. However, this was rare, and confessions of witchcraft should be treated with scepticism because they were obtained through torture or the threat of torture. 32

Societal Factors in the Expansion of Belief in Witches

Despite this tradition of scepticism, the belief in witches expanded. The church acted to counter this perceived threat from heresy and witchcraft with the foundation of the Inquisition by Gregory IX after the end of the Albigensian Crusade in 1229. 33 Along with the theological and philosophical reasons for the growth of belief in witches in their powers were economic, political and sociological factors that created a sense of crisis in medieval civilisation and society, a sense of threat that sought a solution to the strains of contemporary civilisation in the attempt to identify and destroy an obvious source of the threat. In the case of medieval culture, this was witches. However, contemporary scholars have remarked that societies under stress and rapid change generally become intolerant, and seek out or invent clandestine conspiratorial groups that are perceived to be a threat to society. A. Rebecca Cardozo, in her comparison of the similarities between the medieval and McCarthyite witch hunts, has stated that

‘Social, political, economic and religious upheaval makes a society especially vulnerable to a craze. In an atmosphere of confusion and uncertainty, people become intolerant towards change; and it is primarily social, political and religious intolerance that provides the initial impetus for a craze.’ 34

Historians of medieval witchcraft like Jeffrey Burton Russell have recognised the role social change and dislocation played in creating the belief in witches and the witch hunts. From the 11th century onwards Europe experienced marked economic and societal change, marked by a growth in population, the rise of the towns, the development of trade and industry. These changes resulted in religious and spiritual change, such as the stress on apostolic poverty, heresy, and reforming movements within the monastic orders and Church hierarchy. ‘These changes caused a break in the sense of community, a break causing anonymity and alienation.’ 35 These changes were exacerbated by the plagues and famines, including the Black Death, which destroyed nearly a third of the European population, in the 14th century, and the wars and rebellions of the 15th. The change from the use of serf labour, bound to the aristocratic manor, and the movement of the population away from the villages to the towns changed the structure of the medieval family. The extended family of uncles, aunts and cousins was replaced by the nuclear family of parents, children and possibly grandparents. The result of this was the increased isolation of the elderly when the rest of the family moved away in search of work. ‘Abandoned, the old people were prey to anxieties and fears that might cause them to adopt witchcraft or at least drive them to eccentric behaviour that could cause them to be considered witches.’ 36 Sociologists studying the Satanism scare of the 1990s also noted the profound effect economic decline and family breakdown also had in generating rumours of the vile activities of suspected Satanic groups. The rumour-panic of Satanic crimes took place firstly in the American ‘rust belt’, such as western New York and northwestern Pennsylvania where industries that traditionally paid good wages were disappearing, leaving unemployment and anxiety. 37 Similarly, the stable family structure that provided emotional support, problem solving and financial help has similarly suffered disintegration due to changing economic circumstances and social roles. The result has been a rise in marriage breakdowns and parent-child conflicts, as well as teenage drug abuse, and single parent families in the small town and rural communities in which the Satanism scare first emerged. 38 Thus economic and social stresses, and strains and breakdown in the family, can produce the anxieties leading to witchcraft scares both in the Middle Ages and in today’s technological, industrial society.

Torture and Burning of Witches Partly Based on Secular Law

The view of the medieval Inquisition as the primary cause of the accusations of witchcraft has been extensively critiqued. Historians have challenged the idea that the Inquisition was more brutal in its methods than other contemporary courts, including secular tribunals. The adoption of torture and burning for the interrogation and punishment of heretics and witches is a problem for the view of history that considers societies progress from superstition and brutality to enlightenment and humanity. The early Church, for example, strongly opposed torture, and it was also opposed by the papacy, including popes such as Gregory the Great and Nicholas I. It was illegal under Canon Law until the 13th century. It was adopted by the Church following the practice of secular courts and the rediscovery of Roman law, which had provided for torture as part of judicial proceedings. 39 Thus, the rediscovery of part of the classical heritage, which also provided the basis for the modern constitutional state, was also responsible for the reintroduction of torture into European law.

Although the first fully attested burning of heretics was of those of Orleans in 1022, it was unusual and not provided for in most law codes. While it had a theological base in the purifying fire mentioned in the Bible, Greeks, Teutons and Romans had also used it as a punishment for certain offences. It may have been introduced as a replacement for the trial by ordeal, condemned by the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215. 40 It was adopted by the Church after it was established as the punishment for heresy by secular European rulers. It entered canon law following the endorsement of the German emperor Frederick II’s adoption of it as the punishment for heresy by popes Honorius III, Gregory IX and the Council of Toulouse. 41

Brutality of 16th century Inquisition Exaggerated

While the operation and procedures of the medieval Inquisition have rightly been condemned, historians have also suggested that, following the reforms of the bull Licet ab initio of July 1542, the Inquisition included many aspects of modern criminal law. 42 In trials under Roman jurisdiction, depositions were made under oath to exclude loose accusations. Individuals testifying were required to provide the names of people whom they considered their enemies, in order to prevent charges caused by personal grudges. Although the names of the prosecuting witness were withheld from the defendant and his attorney, nevertheless records of the proceedings were supplied to the accused and his lawyers so that they could prepare a proper defence. Torture was allowed, but its use was restricted and strictly supervised. Physicians were called on to testify that the illness affecting the bewitched victim was the result of natural causes, rather than magic. The Inquisitors did not look for the Devil’s mark supposedly left on the bodies of the witches by Satan, and the testimony of witnesses with poor reputations could not lead to the defendant’s torture. Witches also were not sent to the stake for a first offence if they showed signs of genuine repentance. 43 Furthermore, the accused were allowed a defence attorney, extrajudicial confessions were not valid, and the system allowed appeals to a higher court. There was considerable leniency to first offenders, and long before the civil authorities used imprisonment as a punishment rather than just for custody of the accused during the trial this was the procedure taken by the Inquisition. In some respects Inquisitorial law was remarkably modern. ‘A sentence to life imprisonment by the Holy Office meant, as it does today, parole after a few years, subject to good behaviour; and hose arrest, joined to work-release programmes, tentatively being considered at present by some our more progressive, communities, was a common form of penal service practised by the Inquisition in its day.’ 44

Concern for Reputation of Accused

Inquisitiors were well aware of their duty to protect people’s reputation from harm caused by wrongful accusations. Eliseo Masini, in his manual Sacro Arsenale, stated that ‘great prudence must be exercised in the jailing of suspects because the mere fact of incarceration for teh crime of heresy brings notable infamy to the person. Thus it will be necessary to study carefully  the nature of the evidence, the quality of the witnesses and the condition of the accused.’ 45

Inquisitors’ Relative Scepticism towards Witchcraft

The Inquisitors were also relatively sceptical in their attitude towards witchcraft, a fact that saved Italy from the extremely savage witch hunts elsewhere in Europe. Masin stated that

 ‘In prosecuting suspected witches the inquisitor must not reach the point of incarceration, inquisition or torture until the corpus delicti is judicially established. The presence of sickness in a man or the presence of a corpse in themselves do not constitute adequate evidence, since infirmity and death do not need to be connected to acts of witchcraft but can rsult from a large number of natural causes. The first step, therefore, is to question the physician who attended the patient.’ 46

Indeed, the Holy Office itself acted to suppress a witchcraft panic in Florence that had resulted in gross miscarriages of justice by the secular authorities. The Holy Office declared that ‘these matters are extremely fallacious, and, as daily experience demonstrates, much more real in the imagination of men than in the reality of events; too often every illness whose cause is not immediately discernible, or whose remedy is not readily available is attributed to malefice.’ 47

The testimony of witches was considered unreliable as the basis for the prosecution of others. Judges were specifically instructed not to believe the testimony of witch that named other people they had supposedly met at the Sabbat, as witches did not physically travel to them but only in their imaginations and illusions inspired by the Devil. 48 After the initial interrogation, if the accused had not cleared himself or been pronounced guilty, they were given a record of the entire trial to allow them to prepare their defence. They were allowed to call friend witnesses, who were to be given travel expenses by the court if they came from distant parts and the accused was too poor to afford their expenses. 49. The accused was to be provided with a lawyer if he stated that he needed legal help. He was asked to supply the names of three lawyers, one of which would be selected to represent him by the court. 50 If the defendant was too poor to afford a lawyer, one was to be provided for them. 51 This situation compares extremely favourably with secular courts. Defence lawyers were excluded from the secular legal codes promulgated by the emperor Charles V in 1532 and in France by the Ordinance of Villers-Cotterets of 1539. In England the accused in criminal trials, except those involving treason, were denied legal defence until the Prisoners Counsel Bill of 1836. 52

Strict Controls on Use of Torture 

The use of torture was rigidly controlled. It could only be applied after the defendant had presented their case and the evidence was compelling. The decision to apply it was not the inquisitor’s alone. He had to seek the opinion of the consultori, a permanent advisory committee of six lawyers and theologians that sat on every inquisitorial court. In particularly difficult cases, the evidence was supplied to Rome, with the testimony in the words of the witnesses and the accused themselves in the vernacular and not in specially prepared Latin translations used by the court. If these sanctions were not observed, the evidence obtained under torture would be thrown out of court. 53 Torture was only to be used on people who could stand it. When a physician testified that the prisoner could not endure it, it was not used. 54 The usual method of torture was to tie the accused’s hands behind their back, draw them up to the ceiling and then drop them. Mercifully, sessions of this horrific abuse tend to last only half an hour. The maximum permitted length of time was an hour. 55 A confession obtained by this method was only considered valid if it was ratified outside the torture chamber 24 hours later. 56 Sentences were closely scrutinised by the Vatican, and commuted and cases reopened where irregularities were detected. 57

Relatively Humane Punishment of Offenders

As today, when the complaint is often that ‘life imprisonment’ really means only a few years, the formal language used for sentences may exaggerate their severity. Carcere perpetuo – perpetual prison – actually meant only three years, provided the accused repented. Carcere perpetuo irrimissible actually meant an eight-year sentence. 58 Immuratio, which meant true life imprisonment, actually meant confinement in a room with four walls, rather than being walled up alive. 59 Sentences included imprisonment in a monastery, house arrest, or confinement to a particular area that could range from a village to a city or contado. Elderly wage-earners with modest incomes, large families and daughters of marriageable age and witches whose husbands would take them back were generally assigned back to their homes and shop. 60

Regarding conditions in the prisons of the Holy Office in the Palazzo Pucci, cells were spacious and well-lit, with a bed, table, sheets and towels. There was a barber, bathing facilities, laundry service and mending. Prisoners were allowed a change of clothing twice a week. They were required to appear before the Holy Office to state their material needs and the cardinals were expected to inspect the prisons. On the other hand, prisoners could only read and write about their immediate cases, and could not talk privately with their gaolers or use them to communicate with the outside world. 61 Clergy certainly were not exempt from prosecution, and the Church dealt with them more severely than lay people. 62 While sentences could include the horros of the galleys, there was the possibility of commutation of the sentence even there. 63 Most sentences, however, consisted of public humiliations, such as public abjurations read on the cathedral steps on Sundays and feast days; penances, fines paid to charities, and a cycle of prayers and devotions to be said for months or years. 64

Capital punishment was rare, and reserved for the unrepentant, those with a previous sentence for heresy and those who attempted to overturn central Christian doctrines such as the Virgin Brith and the full divinity of Christ. 65 Only 97 people were executed by the Holy Office in Rome for the period 1542 to 1761. 66 While that’s clearly 97 too many, it ‘s far from the millions suggested by some individuals. John Tedeschi, an historian of the 16th century Inquisition, has concluded that

‘It is impossible to condone coercion, the stake, and the other horrors perpetrated in the name of religion during the Reformation era. They were employed both by the Inquisition and by almost all other judicial bodies in Europe. In the sixteenth century they were an unquestioned part of legal proceedings. But I believe that future research will show that they were used less frequently, wtih greater moderation, and with a higher regard for human rights and life in the tribunals of the Holy Office than elsewhere. Scepticism and incredulity in regard to witchcraft invaded Roman legal circles early in teh seventeenth century, at a time when the lands north of the Pyrenees and the Alps remained in the grip of a witch-hunting mania. It was a modest step towards sanity, and a glimmer of hope at the end of a dark tunnel.’ 67

Lack of Officially Motivated Witch Hunts in England

There were also very few witch trials in England during the Middle Ages and sixteenth, seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Most accusations came from quarrels between members of the minor gentry or people in the lower ranks of society. There was no pressure from the central authorities in church or state to prosecute witches. Although James I in 1604 punished magic and witchcraft with death, in practice the trials focussed on the alleged harm done through magic rather than the use of magic itself. Witches were also believed to operate singly or in small groups, so that there was little pressure on witches to incriminate others. 68 Moreover, torture was not used in England, though witches could be kept awake to force a confession. They were also commonly thrown into rivers to see if they would float, as it was believed that water would reject a witch, as a mark of their guilt. As a result of this relative leniency in England, the number of people executed for witchcraft estimated by historians has fallen from ‘under 1000’ to ‘under 500’. Most witches were acquitted. Of the 513 people charged in the Home Assize Circuit between 1559 and 1736 – the date when the Witchcraft Acts were repealed – 200 were convicted and 109 hanged. Again, it’s still far too many, but it’s not quite the vast numbers suggested by some ideas about the prevalence of superstition and fear in England during this period. 69 In many cases, the accused were able to clear themselves through simple compurgation – formally swearing to their innocence with a group of friends and relatives – at the episcopal court. Of the eight women charged with witchcraft in Somerset in England before Bishop Still in 1594, three were dismissed after successfully swearing their innocence, even though one of these was unable to provide the full number of compurgators. One failed to provide any compurgators at all, but was dismissed one and a half years later as her neighbours testified she was not suspected. The one person who was suspect of having killed someone by magic was handed over to be tried by the local justice of the peace. ‘Generally speaking, all seem to have been sympathetically treated.’70

Puritans Not Opposed to Science and Not Wholly Responsible for Witch Hunts

Similarly, the image of the Puritans as enemies of science also has a highly questionable basis in history. Historians have pointed out that Puritanism and the new, emerging experimental science shared a common anti-authoritarianism, optimism about human possibilities, rational empiricism  and the emphasis on experience. They were considered to be intrinsically compatible, to the extent that many anti-Puritan contemporaries strongly identified them with the New Philosophy. 71 The image of the Puritans as hostile to the new learning was due to anti-Puritan polemicists, such as the Royal Society’s apologist, Thomas Sprat. 72 Rather being opposed to science and learning, the Puritans generally staunchly supported it. They were the main supporters of the new science before the Restoration of the English monarchy, and strongly influenced the next generation. 73 The prosecution of witches in England during the 16th and 17th century was not a particular product of Puritanism. While it was said that Hopkins was the son of a Puritan minister, and he claimed to have a commission from the government to seek out witches, he is not known to have had any positive encouragement from the central government or any particular sectarian religious views. 74 Hopkins appears instead to have merely taken advantage of the breakdown in central government during the Civil War/ War of the Three Kingdoms. His colleague John Stearne was a Puritan, but the only evidence of Puritan sympathies was a passing remark, possibly by Hopkins, that when the Devil married witches he used the Anglican ceremony in the Book of Common Prayer. 75 Hopkins himself was not popular, and indeed encountered considerable opposition from the clergy and the judiciary. He did not dare to visit Great Staughton in Huntingdonshire after the vicar there, John Gaule, preached a particularly vehement sermon against witchfinders in April 1646. His book, Discovery of Witches, was published in self-defence after he was questioned by the Norfolk Assize judges. 76 He was ordered to stop the ordeal of floating witches in 1645, and retired in 1646. 77

Political and Social Pressures Producing Salem Witch Hunt

Similarly the view of some historians that the murderous witch hunt at Salem was due to authoritarianism, pietism, revelation, dogma and moralism overriding reason and logic in New England Puritanism, this view has also been challenged. 78 There were strong sociological pressures operating in Massachusetts to produce the general anxiety that promotes the development of witch hunts. The British government had attempted to establish the Anglican Church and appoint the governor, as well as extending the franchise to the propertied members of every Protestant denomination. These measures not only attacked the basis of the Puritan theocracy, but also the tradition of self-government by which the colony had been appointing its own governors since its foundation fifty years previously. 79 The colonies were also at war with the French and there was unrest amongst the Indians. Taxes had been increased to intolerable levels and the colony had suffered from attacks by pirates and small pox. 80 It has also been suggested that the colony had lost its social cohesion in the face of the external threat of the American wilderness as this had retreated with extension of the frontier. 80 Despite this, the New England Puritans were strongly committed to science and reason. Amongst Cotton Mather’s works is The Christian Philosopher, in which science is used to illustrate Christian morality. Gravity, for example, provided Mather with profound experimental evidence of God’s operation in the world.

‘I am continually entertained with weighty body, or matter tending to the center of gravity; or attracted by matter. I feel it in my own. The cause of this tendency, ’tis the glorious GOD! Great GOD, Though givest this matter such a tendency; Thou keepest it in its operation! There is no other cause for gravity, but the will and work of the glorious GOD. I am now effectually convinced of that ancient confession, and must effectuously make it, ‘He is not far from everyone of us.’ 81

In fact the colonists had attempted to use science to examine the case. The supposedly bewitched girls who made the accusations were examined by the town physician, Dr. Griggs, who tried his remedies and consulted his medical texts. Unable to find a non-supernatural explanation, Grigg concluded that their condition was outside the realm of science and that in his view they were bewitched. ‘Given the stage of medical knowledge at the time, this was not an unreasonable assumption.’ 82 The credibility of the girls’ accusation depended on the acceptance of ‘spectral evidence’ – their testimony that they were being tormented by spirits and had supernaturally witnessed those they accused active in their magic. This was controversial, and many Puritan ministers were strongly opposed to it. Increase Mather stated that ‘spectral evidence’ should not be used as the basis for convictions, and stated that ‘it were better that ten suspected witches should escape, than that one innocent person should be condemned…. It is better a guilty person should be absolved, than that he should without ground of conviction be condemned. I had rather judge a witch to be an honest woman, than judge an honest woman as a witch.’ 83 When the Massachusetts General Court called for a fast and a convocation of ministers to decide the best course of action over the accusations, 14 prominent Puritan ministers condemned the use of ‘spectral evidence’. 84 The credibility of the ‘spectral evidence’ was already strongly damaged by the sheer number and respectability of many of the accused. It was almost totally discredited when it was pointed out that in the Bible Satan had also appeared as the prophet Samuel. This would mean that if the visions the girls reported were not of the accused themselves, but of Satan in the guise of the accused, then the prosecution would have no case at all. As a result, the magistrates on the Supreme Court of Judicature refused to allow ‘spectral evidence’ except in marginal cases. The witch hunted ended with all except three of the 52 people tried acquitted. Those three were then issued with a reprieve by Governor Phips, who issued a general pardon for those still under suspicion and released the remaining prisoners from gaol. 85 In fact Puritans as a whole did not indulge in repression on a grand scale, and the Salem witch hunt was uncharacteristic of Puritan conduct. 86 The Salem witch hunt is therefore less the result of Puritanism than of 17th century attitudes to witchcraft generally, caused by a the girls’ behaviour that the science of the time could not explain.

Secular Courts also Involved in Prosecution of Witches

It was not only only the Inquisition and the episcopal courts that were active persecuting witches in the Middle Ages. Secular courts were also involved in trying witches long before the fifteenth century and to almost as great an extent. 87 The parlement of Paris, which supervised the enactment of French law, considered magic a civil crime, so that throughout the Middle Ages cases of sorcery were tried in the secular courts. Similar views prevailed in England, so that the accusations of witchcraft against Alice Perrers, the mistress of Edward III, were first made in parliament. 88

Existence of Magicians in Medieval Christian Society

While it is debatable whether the witch cult described by the inquisitors, theologians and legal authorities actually existed, historians have rejected the idea that it was a surival of paganism. If the evidence is to believed, it also appears that some of the heresies investigated by the Church came very close to witchcraft, such as the Luciferans of the 14th century, who appear to have worshipped the Devil. 89 There was also a clerical underworld of necromancy within the Church itself, which conjured and invoked spirits and demons to work magic. Medieval necromancy manuals include the Book of Consecrations and the Sworn Book, supposedly written by Honorius, son of Euclid of Thebes. 90 These manuals certainly contained destructive spells, such as to cause death or hatred between friends. Historians studying them have stated that the amoral and destructive aspects of these manuals can make one sympathetic to the inquisitors who condemned them. 91 Rather than these magicians constituting a separate, non-Christian faith persecuted by the Church, many of them appear to considered themselves Christians. The Sworn Book, for example, claimed that it was written to protect magic from persecution by the ecclesiastical hierarchy, which it considers were inspired by demons who wished to corrupt and conquer the entire universe. Both the Sworn Book and the Ars Notaria were largely Christian in their worldview, invoking the Holy Trinity and the Virgin Mary as well as angels, spirits and demons to accomplish its miracles. 92 If there were no witches as imagined by the inquisitors, there certainly were sorcerers and magicians, some of whom believed they had the power and materials to work black magic.

Opposition to Witch Hunts Based on Scriptural View of Witchcraft

The witch hunts stopped with the increase of scepticism towards magic and the presence of demons in the world. While a powerful source of the scepticism was the new materialist philosophy that denied the existence of incorporeal substances, this scientific view of witchcraft reinforced theological objections based on the Bible. Indeed, ‘the sceptical argument was not necessarily linked to any new assumptions about the natural world. On the contrary much of the debate was deliberately conducted within a framework of Protestant fundamentalism. The leading sceptical writers – Reginald Scot, Samuel Harsnet, Sir Robert Filmer, Thomas Ady, John Wagstaffe, John Webster, Francis Hutchinson – all urged that the ‘continental’ conception of witchcraft as devil-worship was unacceptable because it had no Biblical justification.’ 93 Sceptics of witchcraft like Webster argued that any belief regarding witches that could not be found in scripture was to be rejected. 94 The sceptics argued that the witches of the Old Testament had not been devil worshippers, but merely wizards and diviners. When they harmed their enemies, it was through poisons and other natural methods. Most of the were frauds who deserved punishment for their deceit, but not for the non-existent pacts they had made with Satan. The mythology of witchcraft, with nocturnal flights, pacts with the Devil and Sabbaths, was an invention. 95 The witch hunters had never stated that all misfortune was the product of witchcraft. Rather, witchcraft was only to be suspected after natural causes had been excluded. This raised the problem of how an exclusively supernatural cause for the affliction – witchcraft – could ever be identified. The London preacher, John Manningham, remarked on this in 1603. In 1697 the former Secretary for Scotland remarked that ‘the Parlements of France and other judicatories who are persuaded of the being of witches never try them now, because of the experience they have had that it is impossible to distinguish possession from nature in disorder; and they choose rather to let the guilty escape than to punish the innocent.’ 96

Decline of Prosecutions Not Due to Scepticism but Inability to Prove Charge

The judges and jurors who brought the witch trials to an end were, however, not necessarily sceptical of the existence of witches per se, but simply aware of the logical difficulties of proving it in a particular case. 96 Furthermore, the move away from the prosecution of witchcraft based on black magic to its prosecution on the basis of the supposed pact the witch made with the Devil, as stipulated by the 1604 Witchcraft Act, made the courts increasingly strict in the standards of proof demanded for prosecution. Proof of witchcraft was the existence of a familiar, the presence of the Devil’s mark and a confession from the witch that they had made a pact with the Devil. However, the suspect familiar could be merely an ordinary domestic animal, the Devil’s mark merely a natural excrescence and the confession a fantasy caused by melancholy. The severer view of witchcraft introduced by the 1604 legislation led to an increase in acquittals for witchcraft, as confessions could not be obtained without the use of torture as sanctioned on the continent. 98 Juries on witch trials could reject the charge of witchcraft on the grounds that the victim was a fraud, or suffering from a natural illness that could be identified by a better doctor. They also objected to charges of witchcraft on the grounds that, even if the disease was supernatural in origin, it could come directly from the Devil and not from the supposed witch. They would also acquit if it had not been proved that the witch was malicious towards the victim, or the witnesses for the prosecution were unreliable and when the supposed witch regularly went to church and had solid morals. Thus, ‘the mounting rate of acquittals was the work of tribunals which did not deny the possibility of witchcraft as such, but were perplexed by the impossibility of getting certain proof of it in any particular case.’ 99 Much of the scepticism towards witchcraft also came not from any change in worldview, but from personal experience of fraudulent accusations of witchcraft. The celebrated sceptic of witchcraft, Reginald Scot, took up the case against it because of the spate of fraudulent accusations he had personally seen in Kent. In France the prosecution of witches ceased after a series of scandals involving such fraud. 100 These included the notorious case of Marthe Brossier, who from 1598 to her arrest in April 1599 for fraud pursued a career travelling through France as a victim of demonic possession and being repeatedly exorcised and returned to her senses. Examined in prison, the doctors found her to be a fraud with a little genuine illness. 101

Christian Conception of Ordered Universe as Cause for Decline in Witch Hunts

Another major factor in the growth of scepticism towards witchcraft was the increasing philosophical and theological conception of the universe as regular and orderly. Although this view was considerably reinforced by the new, empirical science, it was also very much the product of theology, which saw God ordering the universe through natural causes that were accessible to the human intellect. 102 Thus witchcraft was impossible, according to the sceptic, John Webster, because it was ‘simply impossible for either the Devil of witches to change or alter the course that God hath set in nature’. 103 In some ways, this sixteenth and seventeenth century scepticism was similar to the scepticism of the early Middle Ages that rejected magic because only God could work miracles. Historians have also noted that much of the scepticism towards witchcraft actually derived not from philosophical materialism, but from the revival of Neo-Platonic natural magic that allowed the effects of black magic to be ascribed to a wider range of natural phenomena, such as action at a distance and the sympathy-antipathy laws connecting the microcosm to the macrocosm, than were available within the Aristotelian worldview. 104 Thus before the scientific revolution disenchanted the cosmos, sceptics of witchcraft like Webster could reject it because their conception of nature also included what would otherwise be considered the supernatural, such as astral spirits, satyrs, pygmies, mermaids and sea-monsters. 105

Humane Motives of Opponents of Witch Hunts including Christian Clergy

Much of the opposition to the witch hunts also came from people concerned about the way the fabric of their societies was being destroyed, and innocent people prosecuted and executed. The Jesuit Heinrich Turck of Paderborn remarked ‘Some people began to feel great sympathy for the unfortunate victims; and grave doubts were raised as to whether the many persons who perished in the flames were really guilty and deserving of so horrible a death. In fact, many people thought that this treatment of human beings, who had been bought with the precious blood of Christ, was cruel and more than barbaric’. 106 Thus much of the opposition to the witch hunts, at least as witnessed in Germany by Turck, came from Christian sympathy with the victims. Many of these opponents of the witch-hunts were members of the clergy. Francis Hutchinson, who later became bishop of Down, was motivated to write his Historical Essay concerning Witchcraft of 1718 after witnessing the condemnation and subsequent reprieve in 1712 of Jane Wenham of Hertfordshire. He visited her after her release, and was personally convinced of her piety and innocence. 107 

In Germany, the Jesuit priest similarly voiced his opposition to the witch hunts in his Cautio Criminalis of 1631. Spee had originally been a supporter of the witch hunts, until the Duke of Brunswick had a suspected witch tortured in his presence. The Duke of Brunswick vehemently condemned torture and had it outlawed throughout his territories. The suspected witch was deliberately tortured to demonstrate the horror of the process itself, and unreliability of the evidence obtained from it, so that she confessed not only to attending the Sabbath, but also seeing Spee and another priest there. According to her testimony, produced through this torture, Spee and his clerical companion had turned into animals and had sex with the other witches, who then gave birth to bizarre monsters. This shocked Spee so much that he reversed his support for the witch hunts and became an ardent opponent. 108

Conclusion: Witch Hunts Product of General Human Belief in Magic and Desire to Find Conspiratorial Source of Evil, in Middle Ages Elaborated but also Brought to End through Christian Theology

The use of force, torture, violence and execution to enforce religious or ideological conformity is indefensible. However, the medieval witch hunts were the product of a general belief in the power of magic to harm and kill that predated Christianity and which Christianity shared with other cultures. Witch hunting and the punishment of black magic was not confined to the Church, but occurred throughout society. While it is doubtful whether there ever were witches who actually worshipped the Devil, people, both lay and clergy, did use magic, real or imagined. The witch hunts of the High and later Middle Ages and 16th and 17th centuries were a response to the perception that witchcraft and magic were increasing and a real and ever-present threat, partly produced through societal, economic and intellectual pressures and strains. In this sense the medieval witch hunts were part of the same human psychological process that in modern, secular society saw lives and reputations destroyed through baseless accusations of a vast Communist conspiracy in the West, and in the Communist block of paranoid notions of vast conspiracies of capitalist and imperialist spies and saboteurs.

The witch hunters themselves were not necessarily scientifically illiterate, nor illogical. They were acting within the logic or their own worldview and scientific knowledge of the time. The perception of some of the religious groups commonly associated with witch hunting and religious bigotry as scientifically illiterate seems unfounded. The Puritans, for example, were strongly interested in science and actively involved in its promotion. As for the treatment of the accused, while the medieval Inquisition rightly deserves condemnation, its successor in the 16th century was far more humane and progressive in its treatment of those accused than most secular courts. It’s an horrific indictment of the 20th century that an accused witch probably received better treatment at the hands of the Holy Office in the 17th century than the millions tortured and butchered by murderous regimes of the Left and Right.

Finally, while the end of the witch hunts was greatly assisted by the rise of modern scientific scepticism, this was not the cause of the decline in the persecution of witches. From the early Middle Ages onwards there was a tradition of theological scepticism about witchcraft, based on the belief that only God could work miracles, and that any that appeared to be performed by demons were illusory. The Biblical scholarship of the 16th century convinced many theologians that the medieval ideas of witchcraft were unfounded, and that any witches who believed they could work magic were deluded. The belief in a regular, ordered cosmos that underpins modern science was the product of Christian theology, a theology that considered that it was impossible for the Devil to disrupt the operation of a such divinely established order. The prosecutions also failed through judges and jurors finding the evidence presented inadequate to support prosecutions, and an awareness of fraud by supposed victims and accusers. The opponents of witch hunting included Christian clergymen and lay people motivated by notions of Christian sympathy with the accused and theologically opposed to false and destructive notions of the power of magic and witchcraft. Thus while the witch hunts were a product of a religious desire to destroy real, supernatural forces in the world, their end was also due to a continuing tradition of theological scepticism about the ability of demons to affect God’s world and human sympathy with those so accused, often motivated by a sense of humanity and justice informed by Christianity.


1. Jean Claude Bologne, trans. Marta Jacober, Magie and Aberglaube im Mittelalter: von der Fackel zum Scheiterhaufen (Magic and Superstition in the Middle Ages: from the Torch to the Stake) (Dusseldorf, Patmos Verlag 2003), p. 8.

2. Bologne, Magie and Aberglaube, p. 9.

3. P.G. Maxwell-Stuart, ed. and trans. The Occult in Medieval Europe (Basingstoke, Palgrave MacMillan 2005), p. 5.

4. Maxwell-Stuart, The Occult, p. 5.

5. Maxwell-Stuart, The Occult, p. 6.

6. Maxwell-Stuart, The Occult, p. 1.

7. Maxwell-Stuart, The Occult, p. 1.

8. Jeffrey Burton Russell, Witchcraft in the Middle Ages (Ithaca, Cornell University Press 1972), pp. 7-8.

9. Russel, Witchcraft, p. 30.

10. Russell, Witchcraft, p. 31.

11. Lois Martin, The History of Witchcraft (Harpenden, Pocket Essentials 2002), p. 84.

12. Martin, History of Witchcraft, p. 85.

13. Martin, History of Witchcraft, pp. 84-5.

14. Martin, History of Witchcraft, p. 84.

15. ‘Witchcraft’ in J. Simpson and S. Roud, The Oxford Dictionary of English Folklore (Oxford, OUP 2000), p. 395.

16. O.R. Gurney, The Hittites (London, Penguin Books 1990), p. 135.

17. Georg Luck, Arcana Mundi: Magic and the Occult in the Greek and Roman Worlds – A Collection of Ancient Texts (Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press 2000), p. 19.

18. Luck, Arcana Mundi, p. 61.

19. Russell, Witchcraft, pp. 56-7.

20. Russell, Witchcraft, p. 58.

21. Russell, Witchcraft, p. 61.

22. Russell, Witchcraft, p. 69.

23. Russell, Witchcraft, pp. 72-3.

24. Russell, Witchcraft, p. 73.

25. Russell, Witchcraft, p. 65, 126-7. 

26. Russell, Witchcraft, pp. 76-7.

27. Russell, Witchcraft, p. 115.

28. Russell, Witchcraft, p. 147.

29. Russell, Witchcraft, p. 207.

30. Bologne, Magie and Aberglaube, p. 100.

31. Richard Kieckhefer, Magic in the Middle Ages (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press), p. 200.

32. Russell, Witchcraft, p. 171.

33. Russell, Witchcraft, p. 155.

34. A. Rebecca Cardozo,’ A Modern American Witch-Craze’, in Max Marwick, ed., Witchcraft and Sorcery (London, Penguin Books 1982), p. 469.

35. Russell, Witchcraft, p. 271.

36. Russell, Witchcraft, p. 272.

37. Jeffrey S. Victor, Satanic Panic: The Creation of a Contemporary Legend (Chicago, Open Court 1993), pp. 47-9.

38. Victor, Satanic Panic, pp. 49-50.

39. Russell, Witchcraft, p. 153.

40. Russell, Witchcraft, p. 150.

41. Russel, Witchcraft, p. 151.

42. John Tedeschi, ‘Inquisitorial Law and the Witch’, in Bengt Ankarloo and Gustav Henningsen, eds., Early Modern European Witchcraft: Centres and Peripheries (Oxford, Clarendon 1990), p. 84.

43. Tedeschi, ‘Inquisitorial Law’, in Ankarloo and Henningsen, Early Modern European Witchcraft, pp. 83-4.

44. Tedeschi, ‘Inquisitorial Law’, in Ankarloo and Henningsen, Early Modern European Witchcraft, p. 84.

45. Tedeschi, ‘Inquisitorial Law’, in Ankarloo and Henningsen, Early Modern European Witchcraft, p. 86.

46. Tedeschi, ‘Inquisitorial Law’, in Ankarloo and Henningsen, Early Modern European Witchcraft, p. 92.

47. Tedeschi, ‘Inquisitorial Law’, in Ankarloo and Henningsen, Early Modern European Witchcraft, p. 93.

48. Tedeschi, ‘Inquisitorial Law’, in Ankarloo and Henningsen, Early Modern European Witchcraft, p. 93.

49. Tedeschi, ‘Inquisitorial Law’, in Ankarloo and Henningsen, Early Modern European Witchcraft, p. 94-5.

50. Tedeschi, ‘Inquisitorial Law’, in Ankarloo and Henningsen, Early Modern European Witchcraft, p. 95.

51. Tedeschi, ‘Inquisitorial Law’, in Ankarloo and Henningsen, Early Modern European Witchcraft, p. 96.

52. Tedeschi, ‘Inquisitorial Law’, in Ankarloo and Henningsen, Early Modern European Witchcraft, p. 96.

53. Tedeschi, ‘Inquisitorial Law’, in Ankarloo and Henningsen, Early Modern European Witchcraft, p. 98-9.

54. Tedeschi, ‘Inquisitorial Law’, in Ankarloo and Henningsen, Early Modern European Witchcraft, p. 100.

55. Tedeschi, ‘Inquisitorial Law’, in Ankarloo and Henningsen, Early Modern European Witchcraft, p. 102.

56. Tedeschi, ‘Inquisitorial Law’, in Ankarloo and Henningsen, Early Modern European Witchcraft, p. 103.

57. Tedeschi, ‘Inquisitorial Law’, in Ankarloo and Henningsen, Early Modern European Witchcraft, p. 104.

58. Tedeschi, ‘Inquisitorial Law’, in Ankarloo and Henningsen, Early Modern European Witchcraft, p. 104.

59. Tedeschi, ‘Inquisitorial Law’, in Ankarloo and Henningsen, Early Modern European Witchcraft, p. 105.

60. Tedeschi, ‘Inquisitorial Law’, in Ankarloo and Henningsen, Early Modern European Witchcraft, p. 106.

61. Tedeschi, ‘Inquisitorial Law’, in Ankarloo and Henningsen, Early Modern European Witchcraft, p. 107.

62. Tedeschi, ‘Inquisitorial Law’, in Ankarloo and Henningsen, Early Modern European Witchcraft, p. 108.

63. Tedeschi, ‘Inquisitorial Law’, in Ankarloo and Henningsen, Early Modern European Witchcraft, pp. 108-9.

64. Tedeschi, ‘Inquisitorial Law’, in Ankarloo and Henningsen, Early Modern European Witchcraft, p. 110.

65. Tedeschi, ‘Inquisitorial Law’, in Ankarloo and Henningsen, Early Modern European Witchcraft, p. 110.

66. Tedeschi, ‘Inquisitorial Law’, in Ankarloo and Henningsen, Early Modern European Witchcraft, p. 111.

67. Tedeschi, ‘Inquisitorial Law’, in Ankarloo and Henningsen, Early Modern European Witchcraft, p. 115.

68. ‘Witchcraft’ in Simpson and Roud, English Folklore, p. 395.

69. ‘Witchcraft’ in Simpson and Roud, English Folklore, p. 395.

70. Derek Shorrock, Bishop Still’s Visitation 1594 and the ‘Smale Booke’ of the Clerks of the Peace for Somerset 1593-5 (Taunton, Somerset Record Society 1978).

71. R. Hooykaas, Religion and the Rise of Modern Science (Edinburgh, Scottish Academic Press 1973), p. 143.

72. Hooykaas, Religion and Rise of Science, p. 144.

73. Hooykaas, Religion and Rise of Science, p. 148.

74. Christina Hole, Witchcraft in England (London, Fitzhouse Books 1977), p. 80; Martin, History of Witchcraft, p. 67; Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic: Studies in Popular Beliefs in Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century England (London, Penguin Books 1971), p. 597.

75. Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic, p. 597.

76. Hole, Witchcraft in England, p. 82.

77. Martin, History of Witchcraft, p. 69.

78. Joyce Bednarski, ‘The Salem Witch-Scare Viewed Sociologically’ in Marwick, Witchcraft and Sorcery, p. 200.

79. Bednarski, ‘Salem Witch-Scare’, in Marwick, Witchcraft and Sorcery, p. 196.

80. Roger Hart, Witchcraft (Hove, Wayland 1971), p. 112.

81. Bednarski, ‘Salem Witch-Scare’, in Marwick, Witchcraft and Sorcery, p. 197.

82.David Levin, ‘Essays to Do Good for the Glory of God: Cotton Mather’s Bonifacius‘ in Sacvan Bercovitch, The American Puritan Imagination: Essays in Revaluation (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press1974), p. 152.

83. Bednarski, ‘Salem Witch-Scare’ in Marwick, Witchcraft and Sorcery, p. 192; Hart, Witchcraft, p. 116.

84. Vincent Carroll and David Shiflett, Christianity on Trial: Arguments against Anti-Religious Bigotry (San Francisco, Encounter Books 2002), p. 182.

85. Vincent Carroll and David Shiflett, Christianity on Trial: Arguments against Anti-Religious Bigotry (San Francisco, Encounter Books 2002), p. 182.

86. Bednarski, ‘Salem Witch-Hunt’, Marwick, Witchcraft and Sorcery, p. 194.

87. Vincent Carroll and David Shiflett, Christianity on Trial: Arguments against Anti-Religious Bigotry (San Francisco, Encounter Books 2002), p. 182.

88. Russell, Witchcraft, p. 199.

89. Russell, Witchcraft, p. 204.

90. Russell, Witchcraft, p. 177.

91. Kieckhefer, Magic in the Middle Ages, p. 163, 170.  

92. Kieckhefer, Magic in the Middle Ages, p. 164.

93. Sophie Page, Magic in Medieval Manuscripts (London, the British Library 2004), pp. 44-5.

94. Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic, p. 681.

95. Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic, p. 681.

96. Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic, p. 682.

97. Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic, p. 685.

98. Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic, p. 686.

99. Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic, p. 687.

100. Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic, p. 688.

101. Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic, p. 689.

102.  P.G. Maxwell-Stuart, Witch-Hunters: Professional Prickers, Unwitchers & Witch Finders of the Renaissance (Stroud, Tempus 2003), p. 80.

103. Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic, pp. 689-90.

104. Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic, p. 690.  

105. Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic, p. 691.

106. Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic, p. 691.

107. Hart, Witchcraft, p. 85.

108. Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic, p. 689.

109. Martin, History of Witchcraft, p. 60.

Sam Harris on Atheism’s Tolerance and Lack of Dogma

March 2, 2008

Wakefield Tolbert, one of the greast commentators here, posted up this piece on Sam Harris’ attempts to dissociate atheism from the horrors of the crimes of atheist Fascist and Communist regimes of the 20th century. It’s at, but I reprint it here:

‘I don’t have the direct source for this — I got it from what someone named Tom Paine whose blog I dislike but nontheless he enjoys bantering with me on stuff like this. Sam Harris replies to charges of atheism’s culpability with terror and war:

Finally, there’s this notion that atheism is responsible for the greatest crimes in the 20th century. … It is amazing how many people think that the crimes of Hitler and Pol Pot and Mao were the result of atheism. The truth is that this is a total misconstrual of what went on in those societies, and of the psychological and social forces that allow people to follow their dear leader over the brink. The problem with Fascism and communism was not that they were too critical of religion. The problem is they’re too much like religions; these are utterly dogmatic systems of thought. I recently had a debate with Rick Warren in the pages of Newsweek, and he suggested that North Korea was a model atheist society and that any atheist with the courage of his convictions should want to move there. The truth is North Korea is organized exactly like a faith based cult, centered on the worship of Kim Jong-il. The North Koreans apparently believe that the shipments of food aid that they receive from us, to keep them from starving to death, are actually devotional offerings to Kim Jong-il. Is too little faith really the problem with North Korea? Is too much skeptical inquiry, what is wrong here?

Now Beast for my part on this, I’ll tell you my initial impression here:

I agree with evolution buff but blaster of Dawkins nontheless for being sloppy, Allen Orr, who said that such arguments are contradictory when it comes to some of these cats saying that they get to disavow all bad things atheist regimes have done. Dinesh D’Souza says much the same thing, and I’ll be doing a book review on one of his latest books around the same time (I HOPE!) when I feel better and do the brain post also. just have too much on the plate. Long story short, Dinesh says basically that you can’t have it both ways.

You can’t say that deviations from the norm due to ANY reason–cults of personality, politics, evil revolutionary histories, allegations of literal insanity (not likely), and other socio-economic explanations for evil behavior are not proof of any thing for atheism and YET hold that all deviations in Christians who fall short (AMONG those who ARE truly Christians, as we don’t know this all to be the case for all “Christian murderers”) are evidence of the moral failings of Christianity.

Christianity proposes a way of salvation–not human perfection. The latter was not promised. The Church is the holding tank or repository of the sinners, not just the saints. Harris is saying that a religious type “cult of personality” is the reason you have North Korea’s nutcase who dresses like Bea Arthur in camo gear proclaim himself godlike, etc. Or that Stalin was literally insance, Mao was a cult of personality as well.

I don’t buy it. You CANNOT remove the dynamism from human personality anymore than dynamic acting from good car salesmen or Congress or Parliement or other areas of human contact that require status and presentation. This is impossible.

Harris is proposing that humans lose human presentation and chicanery from presentation of ideas. Those who’re dynamic are “religious” he seems to say. Based on culture, society, whatnot.

Atheism is thus non-falsifiable when it comes to being seen as a superior way of seeing moral issues. Point out a flaw, and they can disavow anything.

Would they accept a situation as falsification if a famous research scientist (say, Dawkins!) leaves his office one day and shoots thousands dead on campus?

No. That would be an abberation only! And since atheism proposes no world view or viewpoint according to its adherents, who’s to say what is right or wrong and who’s to say this guy it therefore “one of ours”?

Atheists are quick to say that atheism, per se means nothing, as it is a void, a null set, empty, and proposes no moral absolutes nor any moral code other than feel good stuff about nature and being nice to people. This can be done with a bumber sticker or fortune cookie. OK, so they claim you can’t assume the encoding of anything in athiesm. SO you might end up back where you started in morals. To Harris this is a blessing, it seems, since they can’t be held to some standards. YET he finds certain actions odious. WHY?

We don’t know. Athiests DO claim that they alone are in tune with Reason and Science and that TTHESE realms are the only true arbitars of peace and justice, however they define this while claiming there are no trancendent moral codes. Stalin defies this, but then they disavow him completely as a revolutionary train wreck no one could have guessed at outside the context of the hell of old Russia, which I’m sure he blames on Orthodox Christianity.
So it goes…..

D’Souza points out some other unfortunate things about Harris, such as his (Harris’s) refusal to see the political and social context of the Crusades and witch burnings, the latter being vastly overestimated while still horrific.’

This drew a response from Mark Williams, who defended atheism as being intrinsically more tolerant because of its allegedly non-dogmatic nature at

 Now I have to say that I find Harris’ assertion that atheism is intrinsically more tolerant than theism, and that the horrors of the Fascist and Communist regimes were the result of them being too much like religion unconvincing. In fact, it says to me that Harris actually knows nothing about the nature of these regimes, history or human psychology generally. Here’s why.

Rejection of Accusations of Dogmatism by Intolerant Regimes 

Firstly, generally speaking, in such debates dogma is something that the other fellow has, while those professing greater tolerance maintain that they don’t have dogmas, which are irrational constructs, but the truth. This does not, however, prevent them from being intolerant themselves. For Marxists, ideology is the creation of the ruling class to justify the economic relations that support their power and the exploitation of the working class. This is a ‘false consciousness’ that blinds the workers to the reality of their exploitation. Marxism, however, is not an ideology, so defined, but the truth. Of course, this did not stop Marxism itself from being exactly what it claimed other ideologies were: an ideology that supported a brutal, repressive and exploitative social order that created a ‘false consciousness’ in order to justify the new Marxist ruling class of the Communist party nomenklatura, party apparatchiks and civil servants.

Claims of Objective, Scientific Validation Common to Atheist Regimes and Movements

Furthermore, however, doctrinaire and dogmatic Marxism was, it nevertheless shared common assumptions about the world with the larger atheist worldview. It was materialist, embraced Darwinism, and considered itself not the product of intellectual speculation, but of established, empirical scientific fact.

Nor was Marxism the only atheist worldview to consider itself scientifically validated. The Futurists, a militantly avant garde Italian artistic and political movement of the first decades of the 20th century, bitterly rejected metaphysics, looked forward to the new machine age and loudly denounced what they saw as the superstition and bigotry of the Roman Catholic church. They also loudly denounced the Church’s attitude to sex, and issued a manifesto celebrating lust and attacking the Church’s attitude, amongst other things, to homosexuality. They also believed strongly in the Nietzschean ‘transvaluation of values’, looking forward to the time when their artistic and political successors would overthrow them. This did not prevent them from being fervently militarist – they declared war to be the sole hygiene of the world and vehemently misogynist. Marinetti, in his ‘The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism’, published in Le Figaro, stated that the advocated ‘scorn for woman’. There was a short-lived Futurist party after the First World War, and Marinetti and the Futurists of the second generation supported Mussolini and his regime.

 Some Dictatorships Initially Apparently Undogmatic

Secondly, an apparently undogmatic character was one of the factors that made the Fascist regimes attractive to some of their country’s citizens and intellectuals. Some Italian intellectuals, for example, welcomed Mussolini’s Fascist revolution as a solution to the doctrinaire political conflicts that they felt had led merely to division and inertia in Italian politics, rather than effective social and economic change. Similarly the Fascist take-over in Bulgaria was assisted by the increasing fragmentation of the Bulgarian political scene, with parties splitting over specific points of doctrine. Democratic Bulgarian politicians had attempted to counter this through the Zveno organisation that attempted to build a links – Zveno is Bulgarian for ‘link’ – between politicians of different political parties. This was not successful, and the Fascists took power partly through the promise of creating an effective administration in contrast to democratic fragmentation and political paralysis. Similarly, Nazi rhetoric was specifically tailored to appeal to particular social groups – small businesses, industrial workers and big business – even when this led to conflicting claims and ideological contradiction.

Thus strongly ideological regimes have seen and promoted themselves as non-ideological, and the lack of a distinct ideology or party dogma has been a central tenet of Fascist ‘crisis regimes’ whose raison d’etre was to hold and maintain power and order against the threat of ideologically generated political and social fragmentation. Lack of dogma in some aspects of a regime’s ideology or political platform does not prevent that regime from being fundamentally intolerant in others.

Intolerance of Atheist and Secularist Regimes Based on Claims of Defending Intellectual Freedom

Furthermore the militantly anti-Christian regimes of the left and right justified their attacks on Christianity by claiming to defend intellectual and spiritual freedom against the intolerance of Christianity. Hitler in his Table Talk declared that he looked forward to the day when everyone could seek his own salvation, unconstrained by Christianity which he detested for its alleged intolerance, stupidity and Jewish roots. The French Revolutionaries in their murderous attacks on Christian clergy and laymen did so on the grounds that they were defending citizens’ civil, political and intellectual liberty against religious oppression. And while Marxism adopts a particular ideological stance to the world based on Hegelian dialectic, classical economics and the socialisation of property, the economic views of the French revolutionaries is closer to that of the contemporary west, based on notions of political equality and liberty for all humanity and free market economics. This did not, however, prevent revolutionaries such as Robespierre and the notorious Committee of Public Safety developing a dictatorial policy based on the central premise that the French revolutionary regime represented freedom, and so those who exercised their intellectual freedom to disagree with the regime automatically were enemies of freedom.

Roman Persecution of Christianity Based on Same Claims as Later French Revolutionary, Fascist and Marxist Claims

One can see this process in the ancient, pagan Roman persecution of Christianity. Pagan philosophers such as Celsus considered Christianity to be both barbarous – they sneered at Christians for being apparently ill educated and unscientific – and intolerant, because of monotheism’s rejection of all other gods. Indeed, Celsus praised paganism because pagans were free to seek their salvation amongst the variety of different sects and cults through the world, without constraint of particular dogma. The result of this hostility was the series of books and pamphlets by Celsus and his followers to refute and destroy Christianity. When this antichristian literature failed, philosopher magistrates like Sossianus Hierocles, who had declared that he had written his works to lead people ‘humanly’ away from Christianity, resorted to force. 

Thus, the horrific persecutions suffered by Christians in ancient Rome was perpetrated through the belief of the persecutors that they were protecting freedom of religion, lack of dogma, and reason. It’s the same motives that militant atheists, such as Sam Harris, have today, although Harris and the others are keen to distance themselves from the possibility that they might use force against their ideological opponents.

Rigid Ideology Not Needed for Persecuting Mindset

This is problematic. You don’t need to have a rigid ideology or all-encompassing set of dogmas to be viciously intolerant. All you need to do is see your opponent as a terrible other, an other who represents a threat that cannot be tolerated. And there are certainly elements of that amongst the most vociferous of the New Atheists.

 A few years ago Nicholas Humphries gave a speech at a gathering for Amnesty International demanding the British government legislate to prevent children being brought up in religion or other home that accepted the reality of the supernatural. This was, he stated, a form of mental child abuse. Now Humphries clearly doesn’t see himself as intolerant. He made his demands at a rally for an organisation that has done brilliant work promoting freedom of conscience and defending the victims of viciously oppressive and intolerant regimes. Yet one atheist commentator remarked that something has gone seriously wrong when such a vehemently intolerant policy is loudly embraced by an atheist who sees himself as defending freedom.

Claims that Atheism Non-Dogmatic Questionable

Now let’s examine the claim that atheism itself is undogmatic. This is problematic for a variety of reasons. Firstly, it has one central dogma: the non-existence of God. This is the defining feature of atheism and marks it off from agnosticism and theism. Now many atheists may well feel that they cannot know that God doesn’t exist, but nevertheless feel sure that He doesn’t. This epistemological agnosticism does not detract from atheism’s central claim, nor does it necessarily make atheism any the less intolerant. Someone who declares that he cannot know there isn’t a God may still demand the forcible abolition of religion on other grounds, such as the evidence for it is unconvincing and a threat to the values he feels atheism privileges, such as reason.

Now this contradicts another claim made by atheists – that atheism is simply a lack of belief in God, that does not have consequences for the rest of their worldview. Now there clearly is a consequence of a rejection of a belief in God, as it automatically rejects revelation as the basis for knowledge and stresses instead empiricism and rational inquiry. Now religion does not necessarily reject empirical experience and rational inquiry either. Indeed, the Gospels were written on the basis of reports of eye-witnesses to Christ’s ministry and resurrection. St. Paul in his letters provides the names of eye-witnesses, who were willing to testify to the reality what they personally saw and experienced. However, for the atheist empiricism and rationalism are the only basis of knowledge, which religion, because of its supernatural, revelatory character, may appear to threaten. Thus atheism may lead to an intolerant, even persecutory attitude towards religion because of a feeling religion threatens the primacy of empirical, rationalistic truth.

Atheism as Generic Term which Covers Individual Dogmatic Atheist Philosophies

Now let’s tackle Harris’ statement that atheism is undogmatic, and so more tolerant. This isn’t really convincing either. Now people can come to atheism for a variety of reasons, based on their scientific and philosophical perceptions of the world. These perceptions will also shape their response to the apparent absence of God, and what it means to live in a Godless universe. Now the history of philosophy shows that these can be elaborated to a considerable extent, to the point where it’s fair to say that there are a number of atheist sects or schools. There is considerable difference between the views of Arnold Schopenhauer, an Idealist pantheist who hated the idea of God so much that he objected to the ‘theism’ in the word ‘pantheism’, but who nevertheless seems to have held a number of vitalist beliefs, and scientific materialists like Richard Dawkins who strongly reject the notion that living matter is qualitatively different from non-living matter. Humanists like Paul Kurtz in his book The Humanist Alternative: Some Questions of Definition are keen to define Humanism both against theistic philosophies that may also claim a Humanist stance, like Christian Humanism, and other atheist philosophies such as Marxism and Existentialism. Atheism is thus a generic term that includes a number of individual atheist sects or schools, in the same way that theism simply describes a generic belief in God, covering a number of different and often contradictory religions. And ‘theism’, like ‘atheism’, as a generic term, can be similarly undogmatic because it describes general belief, rather than theological details. Voltaire in his approach to Deism declared that he shared the same fellowship towards God as the various believers of non-Christian religions around the world. He described his Deist philosophy as ‘theisme’, in other words, he felt it was a generic, inclusive belief in a deity while bitterly attacking Christian dogma and what he considered to be intolerant exclusivism. Harris in his comparison of undogmatic atheism with dogmatic theism is not comparing like with like. He compares a generic term, atheism, which covers a number of philosophical approaches that can be individually quite dogmatic, with individual religions, which he then describes as dogmatic, in order to show that Marxism, is not atheist, because it too was dogmatic. It’s a bad argument and tortured piece of logic. Dinesh D’Souza is quite right in calling it an ‘intellectual sleight of hand’ that allows Harris to disown the atrocities committed by Marxist and Fascist regimes. The problem is that Marxist and Fascist regimes committed their atrocities through particular atheist or, in the case of the Nazis, pantheist philosophies that saw themselves as scientific, rational responses to a Godless universe, or one in which the Christian God did not exist. Atheism itself as a generic term may be undogmatic, but humans as an attempt to make sense of their situation will develop dogmas, including savagely murderous dogmas, in a universe without God.

Cause of Intolerance in Human Psyche

And the problem here is indeed humanity. People can be argumentative, dogmatic and intolerant outside the intellectual milieu of religion. One only has to think of the bitter in-fighting that can occur within secular political parties or in rival intellectual movements that may loudly denounce their rivals and try to block their appointment to academic or governmental posts. Now it’s fair to say that there isn’t much physical violence between rival atheist schools, at least not on the grounds of atheism. If Marxists and Sartrean Existentialists have beaten each other up, for example, it’s probably been for political reasons, such as the Marxist creation of the gulags. Generally speaking, this might be because philosophy, and particularly metaphysics, has always been of little interest to the great mass of people, who are generally speaking more interested in concrete issues that immediately affect them here and now. It may also be because the atheist schools are generally speaking the product of a common Western intellectual climate and set of assumptions that can blur the differences between them, except to the very committed. Most of the atheists in Western society are probably so because of these generalities, having neither the time nor inclination to worry about particular points of contact and difference between Humanism, Existentialism, Anti-Humanism or Nietzschean Nihilism. Nevertheless, this does not mean that atheism cannot be dogmatic, and that violence cannot proceed from atheist dogma, if it considers that it has found the single, overriding metaphysical truth that has to be defended from an insidious, monstrous threat, like theism. Dogmas aren’t something unique to religion, that suddenly appear with religious revelation. They’re elaborated by humans investigating intellectual problems that they consider to be of supreme importance, and which are considered to give a true description of reality. For contemporary evolutionary biologists, Darwinism, or Natural Selection, has been described as ‘the central dogma’. Nevertheless, the evolutionary biologists who have described it as such do not consider it untrue, nor the product of religious revelation. Nevertheless, they consider it to be a statement about the world that has been refined through intellectual development until it has the status of unimpeachable truth. Thus dogma does not mean something purely religious or irrational, or that spuriously claims to be objective truth while being unscientific, at least, not to the majority of evolutionary biologists who support Darwin.

And rather than decrying religious intolerance as proceeding solely from the character of religion, it might benefit those atheists with such a simplistic view to look more closely at the origins of religious or political intolerance within human psychology and particular historical circumstances. The early Christians were staunchly against torture, which was illegal under canon law until the 12th century. Yet this was taken up and adopted by ecclesiastical and secular jurists and lawyers through the influence of Roman law, the same Roman law that laid the medieval foundations for the modern constitutional state, and as a response to a terrible threat – that of heresy and witchcraft – that for many of them gave no alternative except to use the most severe and horrific measures for its suppression. People react intolerantly through the flaws of human psychology and as a result of a sense of threat, sometimes despite centuries of tradition. Thus atheism, which is a human intellectual approach to the world, can be similarly corrupted to become intolerant and savagely persecutory, despite intellectual claims to openness and tolerance.


Atheism also Potentially Intolerant and Harris Creating Double Standard in Disavowing Atheist Intolerance

Thus, Harris’ claims that the atrocities committed by the atheist regimes of the 20th century weren’t due to their atheism, but their supposedly religious character as dogmatic systems is unconvincing. Religiously intolerant, secular regimes like those of Marxist Russia and revolutionary France claimed to be defending freedom of conscience and intellectual inquiry in a way that echoed the pagan campaigns against the early Christians. Some dictatorships, like those of Mussolini in Italy and the Fascists in Bulgaria, were originally supported by some ideologically non-partisan intellectuals because they appeared to be free from the divisions of party political dogma. In this case, their non-dogmatic character was an intrinsic part of these dictatorships’ constitutional base. Harris does not compare like with like when he posits atheism as undogmatic, as atheism is a general term that can cover a multiplicity of approaches, some of which can be very dogmatic, with particular religions, rather than theism as a whole, which may be similarly undogmatic. Furthermore, Harris does not seem to recognise, or minimises, how far dogmatism and intolerance are the products of human psychology and historical circumstances that can turn even faiths and philosophies that reject the use of force to violence and coercion.

Wakefield and Dinesh D’Souza are therefore entirely right in that Harris has performed an intellectual sleight of hand in order to excuse atheism from any complicity in intolerance, while setting up a double standard with which to condemn theism and religion. No such double standards can be realistically created however, and atheism must stand condemned of intolerance and horror along with religion.