Halloween: a time when popular culture briefly flirts with the dark forces of witchcraft and indulges in fantasies of ghouls, spirits and demons. All harmless fun, of course, as well as providing a much needed boost to the income of the country's pumpkin-growers. Harmless, because nobody believes any longer that witches have real, supernatural powers which they use egregiously against the rest of us. Well, almost nobody. A Gallup Poll from as recently as 2005 revealed that 21% of Americans actually do believe in witches. That's over 60 million deluded, ignorant people.
Regrettably, such infantile thinking is not restricted to the Land of the Free. Just a couple of weeks ago, the police were called to investigate a disturbance only a few miles from my South London home where a group of adults were attempting to exorcise a demon they believed was possessing a young child. Although certainly unusual, child abuse of this type is not unique and was taken to terrifying extremes in the notorious case of the eight-year old Victoria Climbie who was tortured to death in London, at least partly because of 'witchcraft,' in the year 2000. Depressingly, the BBC has recently reported an increase in witchcraft and child abuse cases in the capital.
Europe has an unhappy history in the way it has dealt with the made up 'crime' of witchcraft over the centuries. Professor Owen Davis of the University of Hertfordshire estimates that between 30,000 and 50,000 people, mainly women, were executed after being found guilty in witchcraft trials between 1450 and 1780. We can be sure that no evidence of the 'harmful magic' supposedly practiced by these hapless victims was ever used to secure their convictions; rather they were sent to their deaths often as a result of confessions extracted under torture, motivated by a desire to find scapegoats for misfortune, or just plain malice.
Witchcraft in the middle centuries of the second millennium was no laughing matter.
But, from where did the judges draw their moral authority to condemn these vast numbers to death? As unpleasant and, perhaps, surprising as it may seem, they got it from the Bible:
"Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live" (Exodus 22:18 (KJV)).
This vicious verse does not leave any room for doubt as to how the God of the Bible expects witches to be treated. Not only does the New Testament fail to repeal this murderous command* but it too is full of stories of demon possession and exorcisms. Little wonder then that Christians throughout the ages, up to and including the present day, have found it easy to justify the cruelty handed out to witches. That such barbarism is commanded by his holy book brings shame upon the God who supposedly authored it. The fact that not all Christians are, at the very least, embarrassed and appalled by such immoral teaching, is a mystery that only they can answer.
How much suffering would have been avoided if, instead of inciting slaughter, the command had been, "Treat witches with kindness, for they can do you no harm. Love them that they may know the love of the Lord." With such a humane, dare I say Christian, alternative, those tens of thousands of lives would have been lived in peace, not ended with violence and, even now, thousands could live without fear. Needless to say, you'd think an omniscient God would have known that, and that a loving God would have wanted it.
The problem for Christians, I think, is that once they start admitting the absurdity of the nasty parts of their orthodox doctrines (witches, demons, Satan, Hell) then what's to stop them recognising the absurdity of the nice bits too (angels, Jesus, Heaven)? Nothing, I suppose, which is one reason why they don't do it, even though many of them probably don't really believe in the power of witchcraft any more than I do.
Soon after the last of the legal witch trials in Europe, the Spanish painter and printmaker Francisco Goya created an etching which contained the phrase, "The sleep of reason brings forth monsters." 'Reason' slept for too long while the monster of belief in the power of witchcraft and demons and Satan raged and, even now, she remains groggy. Time to wake up and put the monster back where it belongs, in the world of fantasy, where it can do no harm.
* Jesus himself says, "I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished." Matthew 5:18 (NIV). Now, even if Christians are content to find a contradictory interpretation of the words of Jesus here, and insist that the witch-killing law only applied in Old Testament times, they still have to explain why the God of the Bible once thought that the most loving way to treat witches was to kill them.
Paul Beaumont's debut novel A Brief Eternity was nominated for the Dundee International Book Prize and is available on Amazon and other retailers.