“A Sunday Morning Reading: Carl Sagan, Science and Witchcraft”
Originally posted on April 18, 2010 on my now-shuttered blog, Blue Lyon. It still holds up.
In The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (Ballantine Books, 1996), Carl Sagan stressed over and over again the need for science literacy, critical thinking and skepticism. We need not understand the finer points of each scientific discipline, but we need to understand the scientific method and how to apply it in our daily lives, as well as in our national and international policy-making.
Sagan also argued that ignorance of what-came-before can set us up to commit the same errors in the here-and-now. Understanding the past is key to living in the present and planning for the future. To not know our history and our human propensity for unskeptical thinking is to doom us to continually make the same mistakes, to never move forward, or worse, finish ourselves off as a species.
In Chapter 24, Science and Witchcraft, Sagan revisits the witch hunts of the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries that consumed Europe and America. The parallels in the following passage to today’s political environment are striking: Guantanamo, indefinite detention, military commissions-vs-civilian courts, National Day of Prayer, torture, the run up to the Iraq war, the prosecution of whistle-blowers, even the 2008 Democratic primaries. Sagan appears prescient. He wasn’t. He was just aware of history.
If we do not know what we’re capable of, we cannot appreciate measures taken to protect us from ourselves. I discussed the European witch mania in the alien abduction context; I hope the reader will forgive me for returning to it in its political context. It is an aperture to human self-knowledge. If we focus on what was considered acceptable evidence and a fair trial by the religious and secular authorities in the fifteenth-to-seventeenth century witch hunts, many of the novel and peculiar features of the eighteenth-century U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights become clear: including trial by jury, prohibitions against self-incrimination and against cruel and unusual punishment, freedom of speech and the press, due process, the balance of powers and the separation of church and state.
Friedrich von Spee (pronounced “Shpay”) was a Jesuit priest who had the misfortune to hear the confessions of those accused of witchcraft in the German City of Würzburg (see Chapter 7). In 1631, he published Cautio Criminalis (Precautions for Prosecutors), which exposed the essence of the Church/State terrorism against the innocent. Before he was punished he died of the plague – as a parish priest serving the afflicted. Here is an except from his whistle-blowing book:
- Incredibly among us Germans, and especially (I am ashamed to say) among Catholics, are popular superstitions, envy, calumnies, backbiting, insinuations, and the like, which, being neither punished nor refuted, stir up suspicion of witchcraft. No longer God or nature, but witches are responsible for everything.
- Hence everybody sets up a clamor that the magistrates investigate the witches – whom only popular gossip has made so numerous.
- Princes, therefore, bid their judges and counselors bring proceedings against the witches.
- The judges hardly know where to start, since they have no evidence (indicia) of proof.
- Meanwhile, the people call this delay suspicious; and the princes are persuaded by some informer or another to this effect.
- In Germany, to offend these princes is a serious offense; even clergymen approve whatever pleases them, not caring by whom these princes (however well-intentioned) have been investigated.
- At last, therefore, the judges yield to their wishes and contrive to begin the trials.
- Other judges who still delay, afraid to get involved in this ticklish matter, are sent a special prosecutor. In this field of investigation, whatever inexperience or arrogance he brings to the job is held zeal for justice. His zeal for justice is also whetted by hopes of profit, especially with a poor and greedy agent with a large family, when he receives as stipend so many dollars per head for each witch burned, besides the incidental fees and perquisites which investigating agents are allowed to extort at will from those they summon.
- If a madman’s ravings or some malicious and idle rumor (for no proof of the scandal is ever needed) points to some helpless old woman, she is the first to suffer.
- Yet to avoid the appearance that she is indicted solely on the basis of rumor, without other proofs, a certain presumption of guilt is obtained by posing the following dilemma: Either she has led an evil and improper life, or she has led a good and proper one. If an evil one, then she should be guilty. On the other hand, if she has led a good life, this is just as damning; for witches dissemble and try to appear especially virtuous.
- Therefore the old woman is put in prison. A new proof is found through a second dilemma: she is afraid or not afraid. If she is (hearing of the horrible tortures used against witches), this is sure proof; for her conscience accuses her. If she does not show fear (trusting in her innocence), this too is proof; for witches characteristically pretend innocence and wear a bold front.
- Lest these should be the only proofs, the investigator has his snoopers, often depraved and infamous, ferret out all her past life. This, of course, cannot be done without turning up some saying or doing of hers which men so disposed can easily twist or distort into evidence of witchcraft.
- Any who have borne her ill will now have ample opportunity to bring against her whatever accusations they please; and everyone says that the evidence is strong against her.
- And so she is hurried to the torture, unless, as often happens, she was tortured on the very day of her arrest.
- In these trials nobody is allowed a lawyer or any means of fair defense, for witchcraft is reckoned an exceptional crime [of such enormity that ll rules of legal procedure may be suspended], and whoever ventures to defend the prisoner falls himself under suspicion of witchcraft – as well as those who dare to utter a protest in these cases and to urge the judges to exercise prudence, for the are forthwith labeled supporters of witchcraft. Thus everybody keeps quiet for fear.
- So that it may seem that the woman has an opportunity to defend herself, she is brought into court and the indications of her guilt are read and examined – if it can be called an examination.
- Even though she denies these charges and satisfactorily answers every accusation, no attention is paid and her replies are not even recorded; all the indictments retain their force and validity, however perfect her answers are to them. She is ordered back into prison, there to consider more carefully whether she will persist in obstinacy – for, since she has already denied her guilt, she is obstinate.
- Next day she is brought out again, and hears a decree of torture – just as if she had never refuted the charges.
- Before torture, however, she is searched for amulets: her entire body is shaved, and even those privy parts indicating the female sex are wantonly examined.
- What is so shocking about this? Priests are treated the same way.
- When the woman has been shaved and searched, she is tortured to make her confess the truth – that is, to declare what they want, for naturally anything else will not and cannot be the truth.
- They start with the first degree, i.e., the less severe torture. Although exceedingly severe, it is light compared to those tortures which follow. Wherefore if she confesses, they say the woman has confessed without torture!
- Now, what prince can doubt her guilt when he is told she has confessed voluntarily, without torture?
- She is therefore put to death without scruple. But she would have been executed even if she had not confessed; for when once the torture has begun, the die is already cast, she cannot escape, she has perforce to die.
- The result is the same whether she confesses or not. If she confesses, her guilt is clear: she is executed. All recantation is in vain. If she does not confess, the torture is repeated – twice, thrice, four times. In exceptional crimes, the torture is not limited in duration, severity, or frequency.
- If, during the torture, the old woman contorts her features with pain, they say she is laughing; if she loses consciousness, she is sleeping or has bewitched herself into taciturnity. And if she is taciturn, she deserves to be burned alive, as lately has been done to some who, though several times tortured, would not say what the investigators wanted.
- And even confessors and clergymen agree that she died obstinate and impenitent; that she would not be converted or desert her incubus, but kept faith with him.
- If, however, she dies under so much torture, they say the devil broke her neck.
- Wherefore the corpse is buried underneath the gallows.
- On the other hand, if she does not die under torture, and of some exceptionally scrupulous judge hesitates to torture her further without fresh proofs or to burn her without her confession, she is kept in prison and more harshly chained, there to rot until she yields, even if it take a whole year.
- She can never clear herself. The investigating committee would feel disgraced if it acquitted a woman; once arrested and in chains, she has to be guilty, by fair means or foul.
- Meanwhile, ignorant and headstrong priests harass the wretched creature so that, whether truly or not, she will confess herself guilty; unless she does so, they say, she cannot be saved or partake of the sacraments.
- More understanding or learned priests cannot visit her in prison lest they counsel her or inform the princes what goes on. Nothing is more dreaded than that something be brought to light to prove the innocence of the accused. Persons who try to do so are labeled troublemakers.
- While she is kept in prison and tortured, the judges invent clever devices to build up new proofs of guilt to convict her to her face, so that, when reviewing the trial, some university faculty can confirm her burning alive.
- Some judges, to appear ultrascrupulous, have the woman exorcized, transferred elsewhere, and tortured all over again, to break her taciturnity; if she maintains silence, then at last they can burn her. Now, in Heaven’s name, I would like to know, since she who confesses and she who does not both perish alike, how can anybody, no matter how innocent, escape? O unhappy woman, why have you rashly hoped? Why did you not, on first entering prison, admit whatever they wanted? Why, foolish and crazy woman, did you wish to die so many times when you might have died but once? Follow my counsel, and, before undergoing all these pains, say you are guilty and die. You will not escape, for this were a catastrophic disgrace to the zeal of Germany.
- When, under stress of pain, the witch has confessed, her plight is indescribable. Not only cannot she escape herself, but she is also compelled to accuse others whom she does not know, whose names are frequently put into her mouth but the investigators or suggested by the executioner, or of whom she has heard as suspected or accused. These in turn are forced to accuse others, and these still others, and so it goes on: who can help seeing that it must go on and on?
- The judges must either suspend these trials (and so impute their validity) or else burn their own folk, themselves, and everybody else; for all sooner or later are falsely accused and, if tortured, all are proved guilty.
- Thus eventually those who at first clamored most loudly to feed the flames are themselves involved, for they rashly failed to see that their turn too would come. Thus Heaven justly punishes those who with their pestilent tongues created so many witches and sent so many to the stake . . .
[ . . . ]
The witch hunt mania is shameful. How could we do it? How could we be so ignorant about ourselves and our weaknesses? How could it have happened in the most “advanced,” the most “civilized” nations then on earth? Why was it resolutely supported by conservatives, monarchists, and religious fundamentalists? Why opposed by liberals, Quakers and followers of the Enlightenment? If we’re absolutely sure that our beliefs are right, and those of others wrong; that we are motivated by good, and others by evil; that the King of the Universe speaks to us, and not to adherents of very different faiths; that it is wicked to challenge conventional doctrines or to ask searching questions; that our main job is to believe and obey – then the mania will recur in its infinite variations down to the time of the last man. Note Friedrich von Spee’s very first point, and the implication that improved public understanding of superstition and skepticism might have helped to short-circuit the whole train of causality. If we fail to understand how it worked in the last round, we will not recognize it as it emerges in the next.