Once upon a time, the belief in witchcraft was about as common as the belief in using soap.
…how pervasive was belief in witchcraft in early modern England? Did most people find it necessary to use talismans to ward off the evil attacks of witches? Was witchcraft seen as a serious problem that needed to be addressed? The short answer is that belief in witchcraft survived well into the modern era, and both ecclesiastical and secular authorities saw it as an issue that needed to be addressed.
In 1486, the first significant treatise on witchcraft, evil, and bewitchment, Malleus Malificarum , appeared in continental Europe. A long 98 years later, the text was translated into English and quickly ran through numerous editions. It was the first time that religious and secular authorities admitted that magic, witchcraft, and superstition were, indeed, real; it was also a simple means of defining and identifying people who performed actions seen as anti-social or deviant.
Few doubted that witches existed, and none doubted that being a witch was a punishable offense. But through the early modern era, witchcraft was considered a normal, natural aspect of daily life, an easy way for people, especially the less educated, to events in the confusing world around them. – (source)
In many parts of the world, the belief in witchcraft is still very common.
“As might be expected, the older and less educated respondents reported higher belief in witchcraft, but interestingly such belief was inversely linked to happiness. Those who believe in witchcraft rated their lives significantly less satisfying than those who did not.
One likely explanation is that those who believe in witchcraft feel they have less control over their own lives. People who believe in witchcraft often feel victimized by supernatural forces, for example, attributing accidents or disease to evil sorcery instead of randomness or naturalistic causes.” (source)
another poll on beliefs in the U.S:
What People Do and Do Not Believe in
Many more people believe in miracles, angels, hell and the devil than in Darwin’s theory of evolution; almost a quarter of adults believe in witches
New York, N Y . — December 15 , 2009 —
A new Harris Poll finds that the great majority (82%) of American adults believe in God, exactly the same number as in two earlier Harris Polls in 2005 and 2007. Large majorit ies also believe in miracles (76 %), heaven (75%), that Jesus is God or the Son of God (73%) , in angels (72%), th e survival of the soul after death (71%), and in the resurrection of Jesus (70%). Less than half (45%) of adults believe in Darwin’s theory of evolution but this is more than the 40% who believe in creationism. These are some of the results of The Harris Poll of 2,303 adults surveyed online between November 2 and 11, 2009 by Harris Interactive . The survey also finds that: 61 % of adults believe in hell; 61% believe in the virgin birth (Jesus born of Mary); 60% believe in the devil; 42% believe in ghosts; 32% believe in UFOs; 26% believe in astrology; 23% believe in witches 20% believe in reincarnation (source)
Because there are so many benefits associated with freedom from superstition, it is not much of a tradeoff emotionally to go from a world of mystical phantoms to one of scientific clarity. It may be too intellectually challenging or difficult for a lot of people to get the opportunity to be exposed to scientific knowledge in the right way, at the right time in their life, but it seems that if they do seize that opportunity, they are happy with their decision. Of course, not everyone makes a decision to block out all religious or spiritual beliefs when they accept scientific truths, and even though there are probably more people alive today who believe in sorcery than there were in 1600, there are more people now who also believe in germs, powered flight, and heliocentric astronomy.
There is little argument that scientific knowledge and its use as a prophylactic against the rampant spread of superstition is a ‘good thing’. Is it possible though, to have too much of a good thing? Is there a limit to how much we should insist upon determinism and probability to explain everything?
The City Dark is a recent documentary about the subtle and not-so-subtle effects of light pollution. Besides new and unacknowledged health dangers from changed sleeping habits in people and ecological upheaval in other species, the show makes the case that the inescapable blur of light which obscures our view of the night sky is quietly changing our view of our own lives. The quiet importance of the vast heavens in setting our expectations and limiting the scale of our ego has been increasingly dissolved into a haze of metal halide. In just over a century, night-time illumination has gone from a simple extension of visibility into the evening, into a 24 hour saturation coverage of uninhabited parking lots, residential neighborhoods, and office buildings. The connection between the power to see, do, and know, is embodied literally in our history as the Enlightenment, Industrial Age, and Information Age.
The 20th century was cusp of the Industrial and Information ages, beginning with Edison and Einstein redefining electricity, light, and energy, peaking with the midcentury Atomic age when radiation became a household word and microwave ovens began to cook with invisible light rather than heat. Television became an artificial light source which we used not only as silent companions with which to see the world, but as a kind of hypnotic signal emitter which we stare directly into – the home version of that earlier invention which came into its own in the 20th century, the motion picture. The century which tracked the spread of electricity and light from urban centers to the suburbs ended with the internet and mobile phones bringing CRT, LED, and LCD light into our personal space. Where once electronic devices were confined to living rooms and cars, we are now surrounded by tiny illuminated dots and numbers, and a satellite connection is hardly ever out of arms reach.
A Life Sentence
In Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, he details the history of prison and the rise of disciplinary culture in Europe as it spread from monasteries through the hospitals, military, police, schools, and industry. He discusses how the concept of justice evolved from the whim of the king to torture and publicly execute whoever he pleased, to kangaroo courts of simulated justice, to the modern expectation of impartiality and evidence in determining guilt.
The shift of punishment style from dismemberment to imprisonment reflected the change in focus from the body to the mind. The Reformation gave Western Europe a taste of irreverence and self-determination, at the same time, the monastic lifestyle was adopted throughout pre-Modernity. To be a hospital patient, student, soldier, prisoner, or factory laborer was to enter a world of strict regulation, immaculate uniforms, and constant inspection. Inspection is a central theme which Foucalt examines. He describes how an obsessive regimen of meticulous inspection and monitoring, and standardized testing reached an ultimate expression in the panopticon architecture. Through this central-eye floor plan, the population is exposed and personally vulnerable while the administration retains the option to remain concealed and anonymous.
Tying these themes of inspection, enlightenment, and illumination together with witchcraft is the concept of evidence. What could be more scientific than evidence.
late 14c., from Old French evident and directly from Latin evidentem (nominative evidens) “perceptible, clear, obvious, apparent” from ex- “fully, out of” (see ex-) + videntem (nominative videns), present participle of videre “to see” (see vision)
The Salem Witch Trials famously victimized those who were targeted as witches by subjecting them to what seem to us now as ludicrous tests. This gives us a good picture of the transition from pre-scientific to scientific practices in society. This adolescent point between the two reveals a budding need to rationalize harsh punishments intellectually, but not enough to prevent childish impatience and blame from running the show.
The idea of circumstantial evidence – evidence which is only coincidentally related to a crime, marks a shift in thinking which is echoed in the rise of the scientific method. As the mindset of those in power became more modern, the validity of all forms of intuition and supernatural sources came into question. Where once witchcraft and spirits were taken seriously, now there was a radical correction. It was belief in the supernatural which was revealed to be obsolete and suspicious. The default position had changed from one which assumed spirits and omens to one which assumed coincidence, exaggeration, and mistaken impressions. Beyond even the notion of innocent until proven guilty, it was the notion that proof mattered in the first place which was the Enlightenment’s gift to the cause of human liberation.
Few would argue that this new dis-belief system which brought us out of savagery is a good thing, but also, as Foucault intimates, we cannot assume that it is all good. Is incarceration really the human and effective way of discouraging crime that we would like to think, or is it a largely hypocritical enactment of a fetish for control? Does the desire to predict and control lead to an insatiable desire to dictate and invade others?
There have been many exposes on psychics and mediums over the years where stage magicians and others have run down the kinds of tricks that can be used to gather unexpected intelligence from an audience and use it to fool them. The cold reading is a way of cheating a mark into thinking that the psychic has supernatural powers, when in fact they have had an assistant look through their purse earlier.
Ironically, these techniques are the same techniques used in science, except that they are intended to reveal the truth rather than instigate a fraud. Statistical analyses and reductive elimination are key aspects of the scientific method, giving illumination to hidden processes. In neuroscience, for instance, an fMRI is not really telling us about how a person thinks or feels, rather they physiological changes that we can measure are used to produce a kind of cold reading of the subject’s experience, based on our own familiarity with our personal experience.
This is all fantastic stuff, of course, but there seems to be a point where the methods of logical inference from evidence crosses over into its own kind of pathology. The etymology of superstition talks about “prophecy, soothsaying, excessive fear of the gods”. The suffix ‘-stition’ is from the same root as ‘-standing’ in understanding. There is a sense of the mind compulsively over-reaching for explanations, jumping to conclusions, and rendered stupid by naivete.
The converse pathology does not have a popular name like that, although people use the word pseudoskeptical to emphasize a passionately prejudiced attitude toward the unproved rather than a scientifically impartial stance. The neologism I am using here, hypostition, puts the emphasis on the technical malfunction of the scientific impulse run amok. Where superstition is naive, hypostition is cynical. Where superstition jumps to conclusions, hypostition resists any conclusion, no matter how clear and compelling, in which the expectations of the status quo are called into question.
Tests in Life
Much of what is meant by witchcraft can be boiled down to an effort to access secret knowledge and power. The witch uses divination to receive guidance and prophecy intuitively, often by studying patterns of coincidence and invoking a private intention to find its way to a public expression. Superstition swims in the same waters, reading into coincidence and projecting their own furtive impulses outwardly. Beyond that, we talking about herbal medicine, folk psychology, and rituals mythologizing nature.
The goal of the science and technology is similarly an effort to extract knowledge and power from nature, but to do so without falling into the trap of magical thinking. Instead of making a pact with occult forces, the scientist openly experiments to expose nature. Along the way, there are often lucky coincidences which lead to breakthroughs, and challenges which seem tailor made to derail the work. These trials and tribulations, however, are not supported by science. If we adopt the hypostitious frame of mind, there can be no narrative to our experience, no fortunate people, places, or times, beyond the allowable margins of chance.
We have come full circle on coincidence, where we obliged to doubt even the most life-altering synchronicity as mere statistical inevitability.
In place of superstition we have neuroses. Our triumph over the fear of the unknown has become an insidious phobia of the known. Even to recognize this would be to admit some kind of narrative pattern in human history. Recognition of such a pattern is discouraged. The tests which we face are not allowed to make that kind of sense, unless it can be justified by the presence of a chemical in the body, or a behavior in another species.
A Way Out
For me, the recognition of the two poles of superstition and hypostition are enough to realize that the way forward is to avoid the extremes most of the time. Intuition and engineering both have their place, and the key is not to always try to squeeze one into the other. At this point, the world seems to be nightmarishly extreme in both directions at the same time, but maybe it has always seemed that way?
The challenge I suppose is to try to find a way to escape each other’s insanity, or to contribute in some way toward improving what we can’t escape from. With some effort and luck, our fear of the dark and insensitivity to the light might be transformed into a full range of perception. Nah, probably not.