The Rejection of Pascal's Wager
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Witch Hunts

Perhaps one of the worst atrocities ever committed by any religion is the witch hunt that plagued Europe from the thirteenth to the eighteenth century. The death toll due to the witch-hunts in Europe is hard to estimate, the various estimates varied from between one hundred thousand to two million people. Phyllis Graham, a camelite nun turned atheist, was right when she said that "bearing in mind the small population of those times [the number of deaths from the witch-hunts] ... is well in proportion to Hitler's six million Jews." [1] We will leave the subject of witch-hunting with these words from J.M. Robertson:

If the merits of Christianity as a civilizing force are to be in any way determined by its influence in avoiding bloodshed; its record in the matter of witch-slaying alone serve to place it, in that regard, lower than any other creed. [2]

The Origins of the Witch Hunts

Fresh from the holy victory over the Albigenses, the Inquisition turned towards the other mortal enemy of religion, witches. The witch hunt of the fifteenth through the eighteenth century is a testament of a faith gone mad. Christianity and its world view was the main cause of this bloodbath. We find in the New Testament the denunciation of witchcraft by Paul:

Galatians 5:19
Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these; Adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, witchcraft...

Having determined that witchcraft was sinful, the Bible prescribed a method for dealing with witches:

Exodus 22:18
Thou shall not suffer a witch to live.

Surely this verse is a strong candidate for the passage in the Bible that has caused the most misery. [a] In other words it is telling Christians that witches should not be allowed to live. This Christian duty of witch extermination could not long have alluded the pious ones. With the Albigensian heresy extirpated by the Inquisition, the Roman Church decided to put the ecclesiastical tribunal to good use. Alhough there were already sporadic witch hunts and the execution of witches from the time of Pope Pope Gregory IX (c.1148-1241), it did not intensity until the papal bull of 1484. [3] And so it was in 1484 that Pope Innocent VIII (d.1492) issued the Witches' Bull which condemned witchcraft and ordered the punishment of witches. His bull declared the absolute reality of witches and it became a heresy to even doubt the existence of witches. To ensure that his bull was put into action, he appointed two inquisitors, Jakob Sprenger and Heinrich Kramer. They certainly had the necessary religious credentials, as both were Dominican monks. Furthermore, Sprenger was a great promoter of the rosary. [4]

In 1487, Sprenger and Kramer published the book Malleus Maleficarum (The Hammer of Witches), a theological encyclopedia on witchcraft. The book started with reasserting the biblical and traditional support for the reality of witchcraft. For biblical support, passages such as the two quote above were expounded on. For traditional support, the authors cited the authority of St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), the "Angelic Doctor". Aquinas had stated that unbelief in the existence of witches, who are "known" to have sexual intercourse with the devil, stems from the crime of atheism. It was an explanation most Christians as that time would have agreed with. Sprenger and Kramer added that unbelief in witchcraft by a Christian constitutes heresy and was punishable as such. In fact on the title page of Hammer, a statement reads: Haereses est maxima opera maleficarum non credere ("To disbelieve witchcraft is the greatest of heresies").

Having established the reality witchcraft, this gruesome twosome went on to describe witches and their crimes. Witches, they asserted, were guilty of copulation with the devil, assembling at sabbats, preventing the conception of babies and causing practically every conceivable misfortune: from hailstorms and loss of cattle and crops to causing illness and insanity. They then went on to describe how witches are to be detected, tried, tortured and executed. [5] Their method of detection deserves mention here. To detect witches the holy inquisitors recommended method was to first stripped the victim and shaved them of all body hair and a search made for the "devils mark". This mark, also known as the “witches tit” and is the supposed third nipple with which these women suckled demons. This tit could turn out to be anything, a mole, a wart or even the clitoris! When a suspicious mark is, invariably, found, it was tested by prickling with a sharp object. If the mark was found to be insensitive to pain, it was taken as proof that the “devil’s mark” has been found. [6]

Armed with the papal bull on one hand and the Hammer of Witches on the other, the Christian soldiers marched onward to exterminate another heresy. The witch-hunt was instituted almost everywhere in Europe: in Germany, France, Spain, Hungary, Italy, Switzerland, Sweden, England and Scotland; it even spilled over to the American colony, in Salem, Massachusetts.

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The Methods of Torture

The inquisitors throughout Europe put into practice the theory of Sprenger and Kramer. The methods used in the persecution of suspected witches were filled with unparalleled cruelty. Anyone accused of witchcraft is first ask to confess to the crime. Should he, or more often, she, refuse to confess (it never occurred to the inquisitors that an innocent person will refuse to confess), the suspect will be tortured until a confession is abstracted. And after the confession the victim is then tortured further to implicate others. Should, at any time, the victim retract the original confession, he or she is tortured all the more until the earlier confession is reaffirmed. Having confessed and named other witches, the accused is then burnt at the stake. If a person accused for witchcraft refused to confess to the crime after repeated tortures, he or she will be burnt at the stake anyway; if not for the crime of witchcraft, then for their stubbornness! [7]

A wide gulf separates the modern psyche from the events of the inquisition and witch-hunting. It is important to get an insight, a feel, of how much suffering the people accused of witchcraft went through. With that in mind, we will look at the events of the "trial" of Else Gwinner of the city of Offenberg in Germany.

Else Gwinner was arrested for witchcraft in the 31st of October 1601 after being accused of the crime by two women who were themselves convicted of the same. Both the accusations and their implication of Else were abstracted under torture. When she was brought before the inquisitor, Else denied the charges and asserted her innocence. She was told to spare herself unnecessary suffering and to simply confess her crime. She refused.

The systematic torture then commenced. The first torture was known as the strappado. Her hands were tied to her back and her wrists were fastened with a rope. With this rope she was repeatedly hoisted off the ground to solicit her confession. However, it succeeded only in making her unconscious. She was then sent back to her prison cell. A week later the strappado was again applied but this time with heavier weights attached to her body. The torture was repeated three times. On the third time, Else screamed in pain and finally agreed to confess. When they let her down she admitted to having sexual relations with the devil. Eager to know more details the inquisitors ordered her to be hoisted up again. This time even more weight was attached to her body. When they let her down, she retracted her confession and protested her innocence saying that she had lied earlier to escape the suffering.

Meanwhile Else's daughter, Agathe, who was also accused of witchcraft, had named her mother as a witch under torture. This increased the inquisitors' resolve to extract the confession direct from Else. She was then tortured with thumbscrews, another common equipment for torture. As the screws were tighten onto her fingers, she bravely protested her innocence, but the pain became so unbearable that she fainted. Every time she fainted, the holy inquisitors sprinkled her face with water to wake her up.

On the 11th of December 1601, fifty two days after the first torture commenced, she confessed to the crime of witchcraft. Her confession, however, was not enough for the inquisitors; they demanded that she named other witches. Her spirit broken, Else named two and promised to reveal more. However, two days later, she again reasserted her innocence and refused to make the final oath of confession. The inquisitors threatened her with further torture, this time Else remained steadfast and retracted the names of the two people she had implicated. On the 21st of December, the inquisitors ordered Else Gwinner to be burnt at the stake. She died, without finally confessing that she was a witch. [8]

The strappado and thumbscrews did not exhaust the ingenuity of the inquisitors. An eyewitness of the tortures, Johann Matthaus Meyfarth, wrote of the barbarism he saw in the prisons:

I have seen limbs torn asunder, the eyes driven out of the head, the feet torn from the legs, the sinews twisted from the joints, the shoulder blades wrung from their place, the deep vein swollen, the superficial veins driven in, the victim hoisted aloft and now dropped, now revolved around, head undermost and feet uppermost. I have seen the executioner flog with the scourge, and smite with rods, and crush with screws and load down with weights, and stick with needles, and bind around with cords, and burn with brimstone, and baste with oil and singe with tortures. In short, I can bear witness, I can describe, I can deplore how the human body is violated. [9]

A personal account of the physical and emotional pain that an accused person go through can be glimpsed from the following letter. It was written by a man named Johannes Junius, from the city of Bamberg, Germany, who under repeated torture had finally confessed to witchcraft. The letter was written for his daughter while he was awaiting execution.

Many hundred thousand goodnights, dearly beloved daughter Veronica. Innocent I have come to prison, innocent have I been tortured, innocent must I die. For whosoever comes into the witch prison must be a witch or be tortured until he invents something out of his head ... I will tell you how it has gone to me ... the executioner ... put the thumbscrews on me, that blood ran out at the nails and everywhere. So that for four weeks I could not use my hands as you can see from my writing ... Thereafter the stripped me, bound my hands behind me, and drew me up in torture. Then I thought heaven and earth were at an end; eight times did they draw me up and let me fall again, so that I suffered a terrible agony. The executioner said, "Sir, I beg you for God's sake confess something, whether it be true or not, for you cannot endure the torture which you will be put to, and even if you bear it all, yet you will not escape" ... [He then explained the confession he gave] Now my dear child you have all my confession, for which I must die. And they are sheer lies and made up things, so help me God. For all this I was forced to say through fear of torture which was threatened beyond what I had endured. For they never leave off with the torture till one confesses something, be he ever so good, he must be a witch. Nobody escapes ...[10]

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Germany was definitely the worst victim of the witch-hunt. In some districts of Rhineland, not a woman over forty was left alive. Eyewitnesses describe the crowded square in Wolfenbuttel as a "little forest"; some many were the stakes. In fact, in some areas, the inquisitors actually ran out of wood to make the stakes! To economize they resorted to burning a few witches simultaneously.

Another writer, at great danger to himself, reported that "In Germany especially, the smoke from the stake is everywhere." In that country alone, between 1450 and 1550, about one hundred thousand people were burnt to death at the stake for witchcraft. The relentless pursuit of witches there continued unabated into the seventeenth century. In a period of ten years, between 1623 and 1633, six hundred witches were burned in Bamberg. And in Würzburg, within roughly the same period, about nine hundred witches were executed. The majority of the victims were women, though some men and children went to the stake as well. [11]

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Admission of Error by the Roman Church

It must have seemed to believers that all of Christendom was afflicted with the terrible curse of witchcraft. Women, under torture, were confessing, among other things to having sex with the devil, to have bore him monstrous children which they fed on flesh of babies and to have given their soul to the devil. However, it never occured to the pious inquistors that it is precisely their method of torture was responsible for creating those confessions. The victims eager to relief themselves of the unbearable pain simply confessed to anything the inquisitors wanted them to! [12]

Then something very strange happened. In 1657 the Congregation of the Holy Office announced that, for a very long time, not a single case of the witch-hunt trials had been conducted properly. In other words, it had admitted that the millions of people who had died under the witch-hunts were innocent! Yet, not a single word of apology came from the Roman Church. [13]

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The Protestant Witch Hunts

It would be a mistake to assume that the Roman Catholic Church was solely responsible for the witch-hunts. The Protestant churches persecuted suspected witches with no less zeal than the Catholics. Eschewing papal infallibility, they turn to the concept of the Bible as the ultimate arbiter of truth. And the Bible, as we have seen, clearly spells out the sinfulness of witchcraft and the necessity of imposing the death penalty on witches.

The main figures of the Protestant reformation, Martin Luther (1483-1546) and John Calvin (1509-1564) were staunch advocates of witch-hunting. Luther believed that witches should be burned even if they harmed no one, since they made pacts with the devil. He was personally responsible for at least four witch burnings in Wittenburg. The case for Calvin was simple, as he himself said on one occasion: "The Bible teaches us that there are witches and they must be slain ... this law of God is a universal law." [14] Another prominent Protestant, John Wesley (1703-1791), the founder of the Methodist Church, wrote that anyone who denied the reality of witchcraft was:

in direct opposition not only to the Bible, but to the suffrage of the wisest and best of men in all ages and nations ... Thus giving up of witchcraft is in effect giving up the Bible. [15]

The protestant lands burned at least as many women for witchcraft as the Roman Inquisition burned men for heresy. The numbers executed as witchcraft by the Protestants were not inconsiderable. In a ninety year period, between 1590 and 1680, 4,400 people were executed in Calvinist Scotland for witchcraft.[b] In Anglican England, for a comparable period, 1542-1736, at least a few hundred people suffered the same fate. While most of those executed were women, even here men were not spared as well. When King James (1566-1625) met with a storm on his return voyage from Denmark, a Scottish physician was accused of using witchcraft to generate the tempest. He was tortured and finally burnt at the stake for witchcraft. [16] In Protestant Scotland, the last legal execution for witchcraft happened in 1722: an old woman was burnt at the stake, accused of turning her daughter into a pony and riding her to a witches sabbat. [17] As late as 1782, witches were still being burnt in Switzerland. The Protestants in New England were not to be left out as well. In the last decade of the seventeenth century, at least twenty people were executed for witchcraft in Salem Massachusetts. [18]

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a.The other strong candidate Matthew 27:25. See the section on anti-semitism.
b.Modern estimates are lower that these figures. Professor James Sharpe, a British historian, estimated the number of executions of alleged witches to be "probably more than a thousand." [The Scottish Witchhunt in Context, by Julian Goodacre (ed)Manchester University Press 2000: p. 182]. Another historian, Brian P. Levack, estimated the number executed to be between 1000 and 2000 [Witch Hunting in Scotland: Law, Politics and Religion, Routledge 2007 p.1]. Despite the general "write-down" of the numbers exectued, these still represent a horrific number of people killed especially when we take into account the lower levels of population at that time..


1.Graham, The Jesus Hoax: p112
Harris, Cows, Pigs, Wars and Witches: p178
Haught, Holy Horrors: p73
2.Robertson, History of Christianity: p207
3.Haught, Holy Horrors: p73
4.Graham, The Jesus Hoax: p112
Harris, Cows, Pigs, Wars and Witches: p187
Haught, Holy Horrors: p73-74
Knight, Honest to Man: p90-91
Livingstone, Dictionary of the Church: p558
Ranke-Heinemann, Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven: p229,238
5.Harris, Cows, Pigs, Wars and Witches: p187-188
Knight, Honest to Man: p90,94
Ranke-Heinemann, Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven: p153,227,229-230
6.Haught, Holy Horrors: p76
Bailey, Massacres: p42
7.Harris, Cows, Pigs, Wars and Witches: p179
Knight, Honest to Man: p91
8.Harris, Cows, Pigs, Wars and Witches: p180-181
9.Ibid: p182
10.Knight, Honest to Man: p92-93
11.Bailey, Massacres: p43
Knight, Honest to Man: p91-92
Ranke-Heinemann, Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven: p230 Rosa, Vicars of Christ: p261-262
13.ibid: p265
14.Johnson, A History of Christianity: p309
Knight, Honest to Man: p91
Robertson, History of Christianity: p207
15.Knight, Honest to Man: p95
16.Johnson, History of Christianity: p310
Robertson, History of Christianity: p207-208
17.Haught, Holy Horrors: p78
Knight, Honest to Man: p95
18.Haught, Holy Horrors: p78,124

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