When rationalists join the mob

Here's a good Halloween topic: witches and witchcraft. An historian at Edinburgh University scotches some myths at the Guardian comment pages. 

Most witches were executed in the 16th and 17th centuries. There were about 50,000 of them. A quarter of them were men.


Julian Goodare warns us against thinking that witch-hunts were "really" about something else -- seizing money or possessions, for example: the evidence suggests otherwise. Nor were witches pagan leftovers. In fact, "witches and witch-hunters alike were Christians".

And though we might like to sympathise with the victims of witch-hunts by demonising witch-hunters, "There's little evidence that witch-hunters were considered wicked; many were considered pious."

Tantalisingly, Goodare ends by saying: "The moral certainties that lead people to break off ties of human kinship with their enemies for the greater good can be seen in action now, as much as then. Thus we learn that witches were people much like us – and so were witch-hunters."

In other words, we are dealing here with the ancient human tendency to scapegoat, defusing social tensions by a crowd or mob projecting onto someone 'different', and calling for their expulsion or killing. it is a well-known phenomenon, brilliantly analyzed and revealed by the Catholic thinker Rene Girard.

Here in the UK, one of the charges against the Catholic Church often made by secularists and humanists is that it "burned witches" in the Middle Ages. It was repeated today by a humanist in a 'Battle of Ideas' panel debate -- 'The Catholic Church: more sinned against than sinning?' -- at which I was one of the speakers.

There wasn't time to point out that this is an unjust accusation to make against the Church. The establishment of the Inquisition in Spain and Italy meant that witch-hunts were in those countries very rare. Witch-hunting was most likely to occur in isolated communities -- hence Salem.

But that doesn't mean the Church has always resisted or been outside the scapegoat mechanism. The late sixteenth-century Spanish Inquisition became caught up in nationalist hysteria about Jewish conversos backsliding. It is a shameful chapter in Catholic history.

But the deeper point is that scapegoating can occur at at any time -- but especially at times of uncertainty and anxiety; and even, and perhaps especially, among "enlightened", rational, humane circles.

That was my case in this afternoon's debate: that in the lead-up to the papal visit to the UK something very nasty and very irrational took over rationalist, humanist and secularist circles. So violent was the language, so bizarre the accusations, and so unjust were the charges against the Pope, I asserted, it seemed that an ancient, sacrificial ritual was being played out. (If you think I'm exaggerating, see this, this and this.) The Pope succeeded in uniting -- as only scapegoats can ("Pilate and Herod were united that day") -- groups who had almost nothing in common with each other, but agreed that the Pope was an "enemy" who should be "sent home".

Many of the humanists present at the debate agreed -- but others became angry and indignant at the suggestion that rationalists could have become part of an irrational, scapegoating mob. "We humanists believe in pluralism and tolerance and listening respectfully," one man said angrily. as if I had just insulted him.

Indeed, I said; which is why it should give humanists pause for thought that those principles could have been so quickly forgotten.

The important thing is to be aware -- as the Gospels show -- that, as Julian Goodare points out, both witches and witch-hunters look rather a lot like each other, and rather a lot like us. It is consciousness of our own tendency to meld with the mob that in the end saves us from the illusions of the mechanism. Or, put another way: it is denial of our own complicity that leaves us unable to resist it.

The Gospels reveal it. They unveil it. The revelation of it keeps (or should keep) Christians from falling into scapegoating -- or at least, not for long.

But where is the comparable safety fuse in atheism, rationalism and humanism?

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8 years 2 months ago
I recently had a conversation with a class mate I hadn't seen for years during a reunion weekend and we were sitting at a table reminiscing when he stated in a matter-of-fact manner that most wars were fought over religion.  It is a popular myth until one examines it.  Most wars are fought over resources and even those which seem to have a religious base when looked at more closely are fought over the desire for another's land or minerals or people.  I mention this because this acquaintance is a very well educated person and well meaning.  But was quite willing to 'scapegoat' religion for whatever reason.

I have spent a considerable time in the past on sites where evangelicals represent most of the commenters.  Several said they were taught all sorts of evil things about Catholics as part of their religious education.  It was quite an eye opener for them to deal with Catholics on this site because while the Catholics were in the minority the majority's stereotypes were being completely negated. 

On other sites I debated atheists and their response to challenges even gently offered is to demonize anyone who believes in God.  Few took a rational approach or would admit any rationality in religion.  It was one ad hominem after the other.  And I am being polite.

So this practice of scapegoating or denigrating is common practice in our society and we often see it amongst ourselves in debates amongst Catholics.


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