Superstition, throughout human history, has caused incalculable suffering. One way in which this has been manifested in relatively recent times is in the persecution of witches. While this does not lie purely at the feet of Christianity, its teachings and what happened to many accused witches, cannot be separated either.
When things go wrong, it is human nature to look for someone or something to blame. In primitive societies, when crop failures and pestilence took so many lives, it was not uncommon to blame people casting spells or using supposed evil forces in some way. When Christianity came, it did nothing to end such thinking. The devil and evil spirits were at work in the world, and these forces supposedly had human assistance at times. While modern thinking has led most people away from blaming others for things like crop failures, related attitudes persists to this day. For example, it is still not uncommon for many Christians to attribute disasters, droughts and other problems to god’s wrath.
Actions taken against witches
Most people have an idea of the kinds of actions taken against witches in medieval Europe. In those days, the use of torture was just fine as an investigative tool. The barbarity of these methods, involving everything from crushing skulls to maiming people with hot irons, pliers and the like, are too gruesome to possibly be described in words.
It is significant to note that some of the worst abuses were inflicted on women’s sexual organs and rape certainly took place. For anyone who has ever studied human psychology, it would be easy to link at least some of this sadism to the kinds of sickness that grows out of repressed human sexuality, which was common in the church-inspired thinking of the day. This is further evident in some of the stories that were told of sex orgies with demons and other supposed sexual depravations that witches were committing. While most would laugh at stories of people having sex with demons now, it was taken seriously by many then, including top church officials.
Regardless of the extent and the causes, those who survived the torture, and often the only way to do so was to confess, were frequently executed. Not only did they have to die for a “crime” that the modern world considers laughable, but they were often barbarically burned to death (since that resembled the eternal fate they would be facing). While it will never be known how many accused witches were killed over the centuries of the hunts, the medium estimate is around 50,000.
Christianity and witches
Of course, to blame all of these atrocities on Christianity is not fair. Generally, the witch hunts and executions took place in limited areas of Christendom and in regions that were facing a lot of upheaval (often religious in nature). Other areas saw very few, if any deaths. In addition, most of the trials were carried out by civil authorities, and those accusing others of witchcraft often did so for reasons ranging from revenge to a chance to acquire the accused’s possessions.
First, there is the atmosphere that Christianity created in this most religious of times. Christianity had a huge influence on people’s lives, and there is no separating its teachings from the thinking of the time. The single-minded thinking it fostered was not conducive to dissent and rational debate. Heresy and witches were real and needed to be stamped out. Anyone who appeared different was suspect, and it was only natural to assume they were working for evil forces the church taught were everywhere. In a more open, tolerant and less fearful climate, which religion should be striving for, such a movement would not have taken off.
Secondly, even if Christian institutions at the time were not carrying out the majority of the trials, etc. directly, they certainly were behind them and could have stopped them. Pope Gregory IX in 1231 issued a bull that invoked the use of civil punishment as a tool against witchcraft. If divine guidance was making its presence felt, it was to support the persecution and not to stop it.
Finally, if there is any one line of text anywhere that made the atrocities of the witch hunts possible, it is in the bible. Exodus 22:18: Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live (note that “suffer” means “allow” in modern usage), was taken very seriously by those who persecuted witches. There is no way the atrocities could ever have been carried out to the extent they were, if at all, without those words.
Christianity has never owned up to the suffering these teachings caused. Those who suffered are long dead, but the horrible injustice remains.