Thursday, April 15, 2004

Bewitched, Bothered & Bewildered

In the course of writing all my recent religion posts, I came across an article in The Atlantic by Charlotte Allen pretty much debunking Wiccans' pretensions to antiquity. In addition to disputing the pagan origins of such Christian customs as Easter, the article brings up the the witch hunts that lie at the heart of the Wiccan (and much feminist) victimhood narrative/persecution complex.* There's a difference?

I don't want to discuss the witch hunts so much as I want to discuss their timing, which I think sheds a little light on the present upsurge of Islamic fundamentalist terrorism. Most of the witch hunts took place during a period from 1550 to 1630. In its history of witch hunts, (the Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance) notes that the advent of the printing press in Europe "enabled the wide distribution of Papal bulls and books on Witch persecution."

Much has been made of the concurrence of the witch hunts with the religious wars that erupted with the Reformation; the effect of the printing press on the Reformation has also been well-noted. The printing press, especially once coupled with the translation of the Bible into vernacular languages, broke the Catholic Church's monopoly on Christianity in Western Europe. Literate Europeans and those to whom they read were now able to interpret the Bible for themselves and consequently discovered how the late-medieval European norms they had taken for granted as Christian fell short of Biblical standards. I propose that, like the Reformation, the mid-16th century upsurge in witch hunts were in part a direct result of forces unleashed by the suddenly widespread accessibility of the Bible. The abrupt awareness of deviation from the Bible, as well as competition between Protestants and Catholics for the mantle of western Christianity, inspired many Europeans to purge any wayward influence from their lives, including women and men who failed to meet their newly elevated standards of devout conduct.

Such an obsession with purity, no matter what doctrine one applies it to, can quickly lead to totalitarianism, in the truest sense of the word. The Christian theocracy established by John Calvin in Geneva remade the whole of society and the state towards the single end of directing all men to God, doing away with anything that might distract from that end. Under the rule of ministers, Geneva banned figurative art, candles and incense. Unadorned, black robes replaced the ornate priestly costume of the Catholic Church.

The spread of Islamic fundamentalism is, like the spread of the Reformation, partly due to a communications breakthrough. The telecommunications revolution allows followers in any Muslim country from Nigeria to Indonesia with access to a television (and now the Internet) to see how their practice of the faith differs from those of other Muslims. Confrontation with the diversity of Islamic practice has lent credence to an antithetical notion of Islamic purity centered, in the Sunni world at least, on Gulf Arabs from the land where the faith was born and with whose culture the faith is inextricably intertwined. In the Shia world, Iran, for its part, has been trying since the 1979 Islamic Revolution to put an end to celebrations of the Persian New Year that pre-date Islam. Muslim groups in Britain have on multiple [find link to Leicester owl incident] occasions demanded the removal of public art. Given its unlikelihood, the stated ambition of the British Muslim extremist fringe to place Britain under sharia is sanguine yet somehow still terrifying.

*Though the witch hunts did occur, the number of executions is much lower than that claimed by Wiccans and feminists. Rather than zealously seeking out and doggedly hunting down the keepers of women's wisdom (Or should that be "womyn's wisdom?" No, "women's wisdom". "Womyn's 'wisdom'" is what you find on gender studies reading lists.), the authorities actually "disliked trying witchcraft cases and acquitted more than half of all defendants."