Modern Myths 3: The Witch Trials

One of the big claims made by naturalists against Christians are the witchtrials. Like our other modern myths, the truth of the matter has grown somewhat over the years. So before answering the actual question lets set a few facts straight.

  1. There were not millions of people killed during the witch trials, and most of them were not women.

Various stories put the deaths at the witch trials at more than 9 million between the mid fifteenth century and the 17th century, most of them women, but this simply isn’t true. In total over about three centuries, there were no more than 100,000 total executions for witchcraft, and the number is probably around 60,000.[1] To put this in perspective, it took more than a hundred years for the witch trials to achieve as many deaths as the two years of the Great Terrors under Robespierre. Nor were woman more likely to be killed than men.[2] Often times, in the current mileu of society, this is linked to the belief in a primitive, egalitarian “witch cult” that was overthrown, and that this group was being suppressed. The entire idea behind these ancient goddess worship cults is itself a sort of modern myth, there is no evidence of such an ancient golden age in Europe,[3] and the idea that goddess worship leads to a more just society does not fit with the evidence either. The Athenians were committed to goddess worship, but their record on the rights of women is atrocious by any standard.

In a sense, then, the exaggeration of the numbers indicates we are firmly on the grounds of propaganda not well developed history.

  1. The Witch trials were not a product of the inquisition or the Religious courts.

            Often times, the religious courts or the inquisition are made the ultimate villains in the piece, but in point of fact, this is incorrect. The religious courts and the inquisition tended to be far more careful, and far more reticent than the popular witch fevers that spread during the time.[4] Nor was conviction an automatic death sentence, most people convicted of witchcraft by the religious courts were offered the opportunity to repent, and renounce the devil, with no long term ill-treatment; most accepted this offer.

The various witch-finders worked through the lay courts, which were often less educated, and less careful. Salem is a good example of this.

  1. The Witch trials may not have been religious

            Rodney Stark has argued that the Witch trials came about through the Church’s treating the professional sorcerers as competitors for their services. There is a certain amount of rationality to this proposal, Stark has asserted that the medieval church had a “church of power” opposed by a “church of piety” and there is a certain sensibility to this proposal given what we know of human nature. There are always those who see institutions as means of personal aggrandizement, whether religious, collegial or governmental.


There is something appealing to the Baptist in me, and my natural abhorrence of a state church in this suggestion. And yet, this is I think the problem, the proposal is too rational. If this was merely marketeering gone wrong, why were the better educated, but more self-interested religious courts less likely to kill a witch? The witchtrials happened in spurts and in outbreaks, and while there certainly were opportunists involved,[5] paranoia and hysteria are human traits that have been attached to many things other than the witchcraft by societies other than Christian ones. Similar things are true, for example, of fears involving Satanic ritual abuse in the 80’s which influenced both religious and irreligious groups based on poorly documented works. Similar things are true of the alleged[6] red scares of the fifties. There are examples from the ancient world, including theories about Jews and Christians that had little basis in fact, while the witch trials are examples of “inconsistent monsters,” and are abhorrent- they are all to sadly a result of human nature in this fallen world, not of Christianity.

[1]Rodney Stark, For the Glory of God, 202-204; Philip J Sampson, 6 Modern Myths about Christianity and the West, 136-8


[2]Rodney Stark, 211-214.


[3]Bruce Thornton, Plagues of the Mind Locations 3086-3719; Rodney Stark, 207-211.


[4]Philip Sampson, 138-42; Rodney Stark, 204

[5]Such theories are particularly rife in discussions of Salem, along with other discussions of possible hallucinogens in the crops.

[6]I say alleged because the declassification of the Venona telegraphs leads to considerable questions about this period of time, and it is now certain that the Soviet government did have numerous spies and agents in the US State department, including many brought before HUAC and Senator McCarthy’s committee. However, questions involving many in Hollywood, including Lucille Ball indicate that this process was not wholly rational, either.

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