Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Accommodating evil

I didn't comment on this at first, but I was pretty disgusted at the way the media fawned over North Korea's cheerleaders and Kim Yo Jong at the beginning of the Olympics. I think I understand their motive: they're trying to paint North Korea as not that bad in order to minimize American public support for a war with them, and doing one's part to avoid war is not in itself a bad thing. (If I'm imputing an incorrect motive to them, I apologize.) Having said that, if you end up accommodating evil in order to avoid war, you stand a good chance of being on the "greater evil" side of things, and I think that's exactly what's happened here. I hadn't put my thoughts together on this, but then I read this tweet from a couple of weeks ago:

Yeah, that's pretty much it. People who have lived in agony for decades will have the last of their hope stolen away by Westerners pretending like their suffering isn't worth getting in a tizzy over. The media is effectively running defense for a regime that is as evil as Nazi Germany -- I don't think that's an exaggeration at all. Not long after reading that tweet, I found an article that expresses my concerns in more detail here.

And since we're on the subject of Nazis, one of the claims made of them and Hitler is that they were Christian. There's a lot of back-and-forth over this, but here's two articles (here and here), that are interesting although one-sided, arguing that the Nazis were vehemently opposed to Christianity. He brings to bear a lot of quotes from Hitler and the most prominent Nazis expressing their disdain for, and desire to destroy, Christianity. This makes sense given their hatred of Judaism, since Christianity can easily be seen as a form of Judaism. I would have liked to see quotes from similarly important Nazis expressing the opposite view and weighed them against each other, but I also would have ascribed less weight to them, since quotes from such people expressing a positive view of Christianity could more easily be explained as political pandering than quotes expressing a negative view of Christianity could be.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Quote of the Day

The story of witch-hunting has two settings: a dark, medieval world ignorant of science and under the sway of religion and superstition, and a later enlightened period when reason banished superstition and men were freed from the fear of witches. We might loosely call these periods the "Dark Ages" and the "Enlightenment" respectively.

The idea of the Dark Ages, with its flat earth and excommunicated comets, however, is mythical and reinforces the modern mind's conviction of its own tolerance and rationality. The belief that the church uncritically accepted bizarre and sensational tales about witches is equally ill-founded. The story of witch-hunting, however, relies on these stereotypes of the Dark Ages and the Enlightenment. Thus, for Lecky, witchcraft was due to a "general credulity" that declined only when "prevailing modes of religious thought" gave way to reason. However, it is not in general possible to draw the sharp distinctions between "modes of religious thought" and early science, which Lecky blithely assumes. Indeed, early modern science, far from universally rejecting witchcraft, sometimes assisted in its investigation. In England, midwives and physicians medically examined suspects for "witch marks" -- the physical signs said to be associated with witchcraft. In the Lancashire witch trials of 1633, Sir William Harvey, who had discovered the circulation of blood in 1628, led a team of doctors and midwives to provide such expert medical evidence.

Historians have long recognized that there is something wrong with the thesis that witchcraft ended with the Renaissance and Enlightenment. As long ago as 1969 Hugh Trevor-Roper asked why, if this view is correct, the witch craze grew in particular in the two centuries that followed the Renaissance recovery of Greek ideas of reason rather than in the Dark Ages of the medieval period.

Lecky's confidence that science would bring enlightenment and progress is viewed more critically now than it was in the nineteenth century. The violence and persecution of the modern world is on a scale that far outweighs the cruelties visited on women accused of witchcraft. The Enlightenment faith in reason no longer seems plausible. Instead, witchcraft is seen as a sign of the way people understood the world they lived in. This puts it in a more complex and concrete context of social, economic and political history: the status of women and the routes to power open to them, the conflicts and tensions of village life and the specific anxieties of poor people over the health of animals or the growth of crops. Within this setting, witchcraft is a rational, though superstitious, response to illness and catastrophe.

Like our other stories, that of witch-hunting has its conventions and props. Probably the best known is the broomstick, used by witches to fly by night to their "sabbaths." This prop is almost universal in modern portrayals and together with a pointed hat is essential garb for the well-dressed witch.

The ancient belief that witches can fly was dismissed by canon law as a folktale. Indeed, papal rulings, canon law and Inquisitorial Directories tended to reject the exotic manifestations of witchcraft as pagan superstition until Heinrich Krämer and Jakob Sprenger published their Malleus Maleficarum in about 1486. This book repeatedly appears in the story of witch-hunting on account of its bizarre and sensational content, which fits well with the stereotype of medieval religion.

Heinrich Krämer and Jacob Sprenger, Dominican Inquisitors, believed that they had a special mission to prosecute witches. However, the local priests and the German church authorities did not agree with them and opposed their activities. They appealed directly to the new pope, Innocent VIII, who supported them by issuing a bull, Summis Desiderantes, against witchcraft in 1484. He also commissioned Krämer and Sprenger to write a guide for witch prosecutors. And so the Malleus Maleficarum was born.

The orthodox story regards Krämer and Sprenger's notorious book as typical of the bigotry and cruelty of the medieval church throughout Europe. Carl Sagan describes it as a "technical manual for torturers" and implies that it was widely used by the Inquisition in "God's work" of torture and burning. Even distinguished historians refer to it as "the guide and beaconstar of the . . . Inquisition," "a handbook used at witch trials" that "codified the belief in witches for the sixteenth century, a century which witnessed their burning in every part of Europe."

This reputation as the standard manual of the church is wholly undeserved. The Malleus Maleficarum was in fact treated with suspicion by the Inquisition and was not extensively used in witch trials. From Venice to Germany and the Netherlands, studies have shown little or no reliance on it: "Its influence and authority have been vastly exaggerated by most scholars." Moreover, its language made it "accessible only to scholars and not to many lawyers or even to the average judge."

Torture and justice
The second prop in the story of witch-hunting is the torture chamber. The popular picture of the Inquisition, from Monty Python's famous "Spanish Inquisition" sketch to films like The Name of the Rose, is of the fanatical and routine use of torture to force victims to confess: "The most horrendous tortures were routinely applied to every defendant, young or old, after the instruments of torture were first blessed by the priest."

It is undoubtedly true that torture was widely used in many judicial proceedings from the fifteenth century onward, and many sickening accounts of the horrors endured by astonishingly courageous women and men survive. But when Carl Sagan writes that torture routinely proved the validity of witchcraft accusations, he is drawing on the widespread and uncritical acceptance of the story that the church, especially the Inquisition, mercilessly and indiscriminately used torture in witchcraft trials.

Recent historical scholarship has recognized that the Inquisition compared favorably with contemporary standards of secular justice. "In contrast to the secular courts, the Inquisition was a model of moderation and due process. The Holy Office was sceptical about the validity of confession obtained by torture, and did not employ torture as a matter of course." In Protestant countries, torture was used in witchcraft trials in both Scotland and Northern Europe, although the worst excesses occurred when political intrigue was suspected. However, there "seems not to have been one single occasion where torture of a woman for suspected witchcraft was licensed" in England, despite the fact that women were commonly whipped to obtain evidence in criminal cases and torture was used for milder felonies, including burglary and assault.

The background for the use of torture in witchcraft trials was its use in criminal proceedings generally. Some historians have argued that the use of torture grew as formal tribunals displaced trial by ordeal or combat. As courts increasingly used new standards of proof, obtaining and sifting evidence became more important. Whereas the survival, or otherwise, of a suspect subjected to trial by ordeal itself demonstrated either guilt or innocence, the newer courts required other means of testing the truth. In this context, torture became a means of rational investigation, replacing the "trial by swimming" that a suspect might face in summary village justice. Inquisitorial skepticism about the results of torture was often associated with the better organization of church proceedings and the better standard of education of its officers. For example, the moderation of the Venetian Inquisition resulted from its local strength, close accountability to Rome and the high standards of training and discipline. The lay courts often lacked these qualities and treated their suspects more severely. "Given . . . a strong Inquisition which followed the guidelines laid down for it by the Church, witchcraft prosecution was unlikely to result in mass hysteria and persecution."

Philip J. Sampson
Six Modern Myths about Christianity and Western Civilization

Monday, February 12, 2018


Just watch these two videos. My favorite part is the top staff at 4:21 in the second one.

Monday, February 5, 2018


A cab driver tried to run down a Jewish boy and his father in Belgium. Several years ago, an old professor of mine who's Jewish, and who had lived in Belgium before I did, told me he would be scared to live in Europe today -- "today" meaning several years ago. It's only getting worse. Here's a case I personally encountered over there about five years ago.