Hart: Atheist Delusions–Chapter Seven

Chapter seven is entitled, “Intolerance and Persecution.” Something particularly important to note regarding this chapter and, in fact, the entire book is that Hart is not suggesting the Church was perfect, Christians were perfect, and every historical mistake or error ever made should be chalked up to secularists. However, regardless of single individuals or particular events in history, there is a sweep, a grain, a contour, a general drift that colors and makes up the whole. It is here, looking at the whole, where Hart challenges the story of modernity.

For instance, Hart addresses an area perennially brought up as an example of Christian intolerance and persecution: witch hunts. No one, Hart included, is saying that Christians or Church authorities were never involved in this violence or acquitted themselves in all ways well in this area. Of course they did not. However, one cannot take an example here and there and think he has in some way given the whole story.

For example, with witch hunts, Hart points out that this phenomenon doesn’t arise in the Middle Ages but in the early modern period of the late sixteenth century through the middle of the seventeenth. Over about a three century period there were indeed thousands of lives lost due to, or connected somehow with, the persecution of so-called “witches.” However, regarding this Hart writes,

As far as the church’s various regional inquisitions are concerned, their principle role in the early modern witch hunts was to suppress them: to quiet mass hysteria through the imposition of judicial process, to restrain the cruelty of secular courts, and to secure dismissals in practically every case.

Hart goes on to point out that it was the Church leaders who, when hearing of these superstitious tales of witches and so forth, would counsel their people to, basically, quit believing such nonsense. For instance, Pope Gregory VII (c. 1022-1264) “forbade the courts of Denmark to execute persons accused of using witchcraft to influence the weather or spread disease or cause crop failure.” Hart notes further that,

…it was the Catholic Church, of all the institutions of the time, that came to treat accusations of witchcraft with the most pronounced incredulity. Where secular courts and licentious mobs were eager to consign the accused to the tender ministrations of the public executioner, ecclesial inquisitions were prone to demand hard evidence and, in its absence, to dismiss charges.

Moreover, contradicting the story most atheists and radical secularists believe, it was the secular courts and governments whom those accused of witchcraft had the most to fear. Hart writes,

In many cases, it was those who were the most hostile to the power of the church to intervene in secular affairs who were also most avid to see the power of the state express itself in the merciless destruction of those most perfidious of dissidents, witches. Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), for instance, the greatest modern theorist of complete state sovereignty, thought all religious doctrine basically mendacious and did not really believe in magic; but still he thought witches should continue to be punished for the good of society.

Hart notes that Jean Bodin (c. 1530-1596) was an ardent supporter of burning witches at the stake and felt if they were not exterminated ruin would befall the nation. And, has Hart notes, Bodin was another great theorist of the secular state as sovereign in all things. Most interestingly, it is when the state begins to eclipse the Church that we see the intensification of persecution. Hart writes,

In 1542, the Concordat of Liege, promulgated under the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (1500-1558), placed the prosecution of sorcery entirely in the hands of secular tribunals. This was also, perhaps not coincidentally, precisely the time at which the great witch hunt began in earnest. More significantly, perhaps, some of the great early theorists of modern science and scientific method were believers in magic, and consequently were often willing to prescribe the prosecution of those who used it for maleficent ends. Rodney Stark is not overstating his case when he declares, “The first significant objections to the reality of satanic witchcraft came from the Spanish inquisitors, not from scientists.”

Almost as an aside another interesting facet to this whole area, to which Hart alludes above, is how the “rise of modern science and the early modern obsession with sorcery were not merely contemporaneous currents within Western society but were two closely allied manifestations of the development of a new post-Christian sense of human mastery over the world…after all, magic is essentially a species of materialism…”

Hart unpacks this aspect even further and I won’t spend much time here but the similarity between modern science and magic spring from the same motivation for control over a supposed autonomous nature through the attempt to harness latent forces within the material world.

Hart wraps up this chapter by noting again that none of this is to say the Church at that time was not complicit in the violence of early modernity. It was. For example he addresses the always trotted out Spanish Inquisition. Of course, even here, Hart notes how much of the conventional wisdom is just wrong. He writes,

For one thing, four decades of scholarship have made it clear that many of our images of the Inquisition are wild exaggerations and lurid fictions, that over the three centuries of its existence the Inquisition was far more lenient and far less powerful than was once assumed, and that in many instances—as any Spaniard accused of witchcraft had cause to know—it operated as a benign check upon the cruelty of secular courts.

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4 Responses to Hart: Atheist Delusions–Chapter Seven

  1. Burk Braun says:

    Very well, so who currently hosts an in-house < HREF="http://www.catholicculture.org/news/features/index.cfm?recnum=55627" REL="nofollow">exorcist<>, the National Academy of Sciences, or the Vatican?


  2. Burk Braun says:

    Incidentally, here is a < HREF="http://www.bede.org.uk/inquisition.htm" REL="nofollow">link<> for more background, and even from a sympathetic perspective, one can tell that Hart, as usual, tells only half the story at best.

    Why persecute heresy with burning people at the stake at all, pray tell? It seems a bit intolerant, doesn’t it? And of course the hand of the church/state can be lighter if the totalitarian system has already been in charge for hundreds of years, stamping out people’s freedoms long enough to teach the vast majority to bow their heads.


  3. Darrell says:

    All one can tell from the link you provide is that there is nothing significant as far as anything contradicting Hart. And how would one know someone is only telling “half” the story, when he doesn't even know the full story? Of interest, the writer notes: “Also, the inquisition had higher standards of evidence which tended to disregard the confessions of witches incriminating each other and inquisitors were markedly skeptical about some of the more fantastic stories of broomsticks and devils. The most famous case involved the release of 1,500 alleged witches held by the Spanish inquisition after an investigation by an inquisitor uncovered massive flaws and inconsistencies in the evidence.” Wow, you're right, that certainly contradicts Hart. ? And yes, why did secular courts and people like Hobbes and Bodin advocate persecuting heresy with burning people at the stake, pray tell? By the way, one of the fellows you link to has written a book you might be interested in entitled, “God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science”


  4. Burk Braun says:

    “.. it was the Church leaders who, when hearing of these superstitious tales of witches and so forth, would counsel their people to, basically, quit believing such nonsense.”

    Yes indeed, because they had much bigger nonsense for their flock to believe in.

    This post (and chapter) is built on a straw man, putting up witch hunting as a big target of the Catholic church when its intolerance was instead more religiously focused on heresy. Witches were as much a competitive superstition that needed to be tamped down, as a belief that priests shared in (as they do to this day) and offered to resolve with exorcisms, burnings, etc.

    Yet another example of the schizophrenia of fantastical beliefs.


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