The Devil Part 2: The Church and The Reformation

And now, in our history of the rise and fall of the Devil and the rise and fall of the church, we come to the era of the Reformation, when the devil truly came into his own, both visually and theoretically.  Eventually the period of the 16th and 17th centuries would see a full blown period of witch hunting.  Thousands of men and women, but mainly women, were imprisoned, tortured, and/or burned at the stake for allying themselves with the devil, practicing witchcraft and attending Black Masses.  Such egregious practices are a demonstration of what secular people point to when they scoff at the statements of some scholars that religion is functional.  Much of this lecture demonstrates just the opposite.

During the Reformation, the established Catholic Church responded to threats from heresy, schisms, and social change in a hysterical manner which did not end until near the Enlightenment of the 18th Century.  Satan was seen, in this era of the Reformation, as the true prince of darkness, tempting people away from the holy ways of the church and teaching them to practice evil toward their fellow men.

At first the church was motivated by increasing its hold on the masses of people under its dominion.  Increased belief and fear of Satan did not come from what was falsely called, “A Tide of Satanism,” from below, from the common people, but from the church itself. 

Some official church hagiographies, venerating books about its saints and church fathers, maintain falsely that such belief in Satan and witches and the subsequent persecution of the ignorant, deluded, or independent, was a mass movement. 

The church was solidly behind much of the literature, the stories, the false allegations of black sabbaths by Satanists, and the fear. From the late 15th century, a so-called science of demonology developed and popular myths about Satan began to dissolve in its wake.  Such a “science” and belief process took about two centuries to flower in a deadly culmination, but it included some folkloric as well as scholarly elements.  The concept finally brought forth a terrifying human type of absolute evil who was a witch.  First the Black Sabbath was invented. Its particular practices were brought out by inquisitors who tortured the accused, and by lay judges, who were convinced of the good they were doing in the primordial conflict between good and evil, the devil and god.

The established church was coming under increasing pressure from interior and exterior threats.  The initial threats were from the attacks by heretics within its own ranks, as we have seen so many times this evening.  Now emerged The Waldensians, who wanted a return to Christ-like poverty and preaching of the gospels.  The followers of John Huss and John Wycliffe, in the 15th century, raised the fears of the church even more and it waged often unsuccessful crusades against these heretical groups.  Heretics, when apprehended, were jailed, hunted down and burned at the stake mercilessly, as were the remaining sects of the Movement of the Free Spirit. Huss was executed by the church, which merely strengthened the faith of his followers.

Then came a larger blow, a permanent one, to the Church Triumphant, the Protestant Reformation. In 1417, the Great Schism between the Western Church and the Eastern Church at Constantinople had settled issues of pontifical power and other doctrinal questions. 

The Waldensians had been taken care of by associating them with not only heresy but the devil and witchcraft. The Catholic Church was still in a precarious position concerning its hegemony.

The great Protestant reformers emerged at this time. Their attacks on the church ultimately created new established religions and carried their ideas beyond the boundaries of the establishment.  The 16th Century Protestant reformers did not challenge the church hierarchy on the devil.  Indeed we shall see they embraced the concept and the subsequent witch hunts were centered in German speaking areas which were more associated with Luther. Martin Luther in Germany, who began from within the church but was soon excommunicated, and later John Calvin in Switzerland, challenged the church on issues of superstition and the granting of indulgences (payments made to save people from hell) and other practices which had become corrupt.  Both reformers’ thinking was Scripture-based and brought back the idea of predestination. Predestination was the idea that people could not achieve salvation through church rites and good works, but only through divine grace.

The “reforming process” did not take long, because both reformers achieved many followers and founded new religions which were a serious alternative to the Catholic Church.

The language and logic of demonism was already in place and both sides used it to denigrate the other.  Luther saw the Pope as the anti-Christ and Catholicism as the “Devil’s Church.”  Each side believed, or purported to believe, that Satan, the father of lies, had deluded the other one.  The devil, they claimed, pretending to be an angel of light, was luring people from righteousness with false doctrines.

By the middle of the 16th Century, each side believed the devil had established his own church in Europe with demonic ministers as its clergy.  The devil had come a long way from being depicted in art, literature and dreams of people as a serpent, or grotesque dwarf.  We have seen how his image had assumed a human/animal appearance and how occasionally Lucifer was crowned as the king of hell in illuminated manuscript pages.  But now Satan had his own church and established hierarchy.

Intellectuals contributed greatly to the ferment and anxiety of the times.  There were 28 early treatises published which were devoted to witchcraft.  Such titles still originated with the Catholic Church.  Pope Innocent VIII in 1484 produced a papal bull in which he ordered German prelates to step up the hunt for witches who he claimed were very prevalent in their areas. And then appeared the decisive volume.  Two Catholic Dominicans drew up the first influential treatise on the witch hunt, called the Malleus Maleficarum, in 1487. The title meant the Hammer of Witches and was obsessive about the role of WOMEN witches.  Men were burned at the stake as witches, also, at this dark period, but the vast majority was composed of women. 

Muchembled does not find it a coincidence that such a concept of eliminating female witches arose in the Rhine Valley region, with some deviations in Switzerland, Austria and Northern Italy.  This area had already experienced the Waldensian heresy and the rival ambitions of the Pope versus the civil powers.  Suddenly it seemed as if Satan had broken free and was ravaging the land. But of course, the reality was that it was men who were bitterly disputing power and doctrinal matters in this hot bed of a corridor.

In addition, humanism and the arts from Italy were seeping into the Rhine and other areas, and these new forms of expression added to the skeptical, and at the same time, anxiety-ridden and seething atmosphere.  The Hammer of Witches spoke of the witches’ pact with Satan, the mark of the devil they bore somewhere on their bodies, and the pernicious activities of witches.  But the book did not mention the fictitious Black Sabbath which was a later invention. 

It seems sadly ironical that the invention of printing in the middle of the 15h Century, which helped people to free themselves from the shackles of ignorance during the Dark Ages and was one of the most important factors for the spread of learning and civilization, was also used, and very successfully used, to disseminate materials that would increase people’s fears about Satan and his witches and was significantly conducive to the witch hunts of that time.

In Martin Luther’s final book, a series of woodcuts with his name affixed to each page,the Depiction of the Papacy, 1545, Luther is very clear about the Catholic Church.

 In a woodcut in the volume, the Pope is birthed by a demon and cradled by witches.  Another woodcut depicts the Pope and his accomplices hung from a gallows and devils clasping the executed prelates’ souls. Calvin, also, exhorted Christians to beware of “the old enemy,” and to be on guard from false beliefs disguised as true religion.

In addition to printing, many scholars see the problem of interiority introduced to people by the Protestant reformers as contributing to the loosening of church doctrine and the raising of anxiety.

The new religion encouraged looking into oneself and examining the inner person.  One could hear the voice of god inside, but one could also hear, and be deceived, by the demon.  Many people during this transitional era, were very fearful of the demon within.  The exterior props had been removed from Protestant believers.  Baptism of babies or converts had also traditionally been a rite of exorcism.  Most of the Northern countries removed the words of the exorcism from their doctrinal books, and eventually godparents stood in against the devil for the children until they were old enough to carry on their own battles.  Protestant communities lost the old comforts and protections they had- they no longer were allowed relics, sanctified objects or the saints who would intercede with them against the devil.  They no longer even had the saving work of the death mass.  They were left with faith in god alone to protect them from the prince of this world, Satan.

The Catholic Church, too, reacting to the changes going on in the world of faith, began to issue translations of the Bible and encourage inner contemplation. 

People were already aware and afraid of the devil speaking within themselves. Many historians of this era believe that with the religious props removed, people became ever more fearful, and some hysterical, concerning the devil’s wiles.  John Bunyan, the author of the popular Pilgrim’s Progress, 1678, wrote in a different volume about the devil’s temptations, which produced for Bunyan wicked thoughts that filled him with doubt and despair.

Interestingly enough, Darren Oldridge notes that “as a creature that targeted the mind, Satan himself was increasingly portrayed as a figure of psychological depth.”

As Oldridge comments, the demon that appeared to Faust in the German legend of 1587, and in Christopher Marlowe’s English play a few years later, was capable of self-reflection and remorse.  John Milton’s Satan in Paradise Lost, 1667, is a heroic, if perverse spirit, thoughtful and tormented.  Satan had become more human and nuanced at the very first stirring of the modern age.

Unfortunately, the age of Goethe, Shakespeare, Bacon, Montaigne and other geniuses did not see a drop in the parallel belief in the monstrous Satan.  Soon such anxieties would culminate in the hysterical and vicious persecution of witches throughout Europe, but particularly, as I mentioned earlier, in the German speaking countries.  Just as the Inquisition was waning, the war on witches was begun.

Historians trying to understand the currents of thought during the Reformation have discovered a great deal of anxiety concerning the body. 

People had to learn to control their animal passions and become part of the great, sacred mission of unifying Europe and spreading its culture.  The emphasis on the kissing of the devil’s buttocks during the fictional Black Sabbath or Mass was very symbolic of the preoccupation of “things” below the waist. There was an emphasis on the animal part of our nature that must be subdued.  People were expected to come together in this controlling myth that was used to cement the social bonds and worked to prioritize the emerging Western culture.  Anxiety about the body increased in prevalence, partly as a result of such exhortations from church and state.  There began to be more laws protecting marriage and punishing sexual transgressions more punitively. 

Adultery, bigamy, homosexuality, sodomy, debauchery, and so on could bring about a death sentence, although usually most transgressors were afflicted with public exposure and disgrace.

The dividing line between humans and animals became less distinct, too, at this time, whereas the demarcation had been more distinct at earlier periods in history. People became more afraid of hybrids and human women’s unnatural births of rabbits, eggs and monsters.  Of course such tales were fictions, but they had a large circulation in the society and a great deal of currency.  If humans gave themselves to animals, nature would be disrupted.  The fear of the voracious sexuality of women was expressed in tales of perverse acts. Witches mated with Satan, as well as ordinary women who consented to have intercourse with him.  The lithographs and pictures of Satan being worshipped by the unholy now frequently depicted him as part animal, with a tail, horns, and a bestial face. 

It is interesting that new scientific facts about the body, such Harvey’s work on blood circulation and other scientific discoveries, such as the invention of the microscope, did not put an end to such fantasies.  They were not effective against people’s believing and repeating, tales of human/animal coupling and the monstrous issue from those encounters. The result was more anxiety, which as we have emphasized, printing exacerbated as more people saw printed images of Mephistopheles.

Hieronymus Bosch, as well as other important artists, reflected the delights of sin in this world and their punishment in the torments of hell in the hereafter. Earlier, the humanists and the artists of the Quattrocento showed the human body unclothed and magnificent. 

The damned had been shown naked, but devils and demons were clothed.  Accompanying the witch fantasy, however, were images of naked witches, as the new era of the Reformation progressed. Such images were prevalent in German speaking countries, where as we have emphasized, most of the witch hunts took place.  The aged, naked witch was a fearsome sight.  All these factors set the stage for the great witch burnings to come.

The pressure for unison and coming together to ensure the triumphant culture of Europe was obviously not merely a response to the anxieties concerning the body, its animal nature, its relation to Satan and the devil within. The exigency was, most importantly, a response to a reality.  There was huge splintering in Europe at this period.  The religious wars were extremely divisive.  Not only the bodies and minds of people were in conflict, but there was also a split in the political/ ecclesiastical world, and the ensuing competition for the hearts and minds of men and women.  The message may have been one of unity, but Europe was splintered.  It’s no wonder that is seemed as if Mephistopheles were loose and rampaging in the world. 

For a short while, especially in the Catholic countries, persecution of witches slowed.  The Catholic Church was preoccupied with containing the Reformation and never fully joined the witch hunts. Sales of the Hammer of Witches were very low after a time. But religious unease and rivalries, political tensions, and also disastrous harvests in Germany and Central Europe after 1560, the so-called “little ice age,” frequent outbursts of plague and in the context of the many religious wars, greater brutality among humans created a growing atmosphere of unease and hysteria. The stage was set for an increasingly ferocious persecution of witches.

Now worship of Satan was seen as a powerful anti-religion, with the devil at the head, with its own rites and worshippers.  I will briefly cover the great witch hunts which now resumed in a violent upsurge, as so much information has been printed and is available elsewhere.  Witches, believed to be in league with the devil, were seen to be an assault, a magical destructive one, against their victims.  This putative assault usually involved destruction of crops or farm animals, bad or destructive weather, and sickness to victims. Stories and pictures of the Black Sabbath frequently depicted Satan sitting on a throne, often as a male goat or dog.  The witches worshipped him with various gestures and postures and often with kisses to his anal orifice, which sometimes had a second face.  Many of the postures and offerings were inversions of Christian worship or perverse symbols. 

Ashes or umbilical cords of dead or murdered children were used in the ceremonies. There was one problem with the myth of the Black Sabbath.  It was completely untrue.  The Black Sabbath never happened, except in learned treatises and in the imaginations of some of the accused who had read or heard those accounts.  There is no evidence of some theories by contemporary scholars, such as Margaret Murray, that witches’ Sabbaths or covens did take place, as surviving pagan cults.  Any reports or theories about Black Masses have been thoroughly discredited.  Unbiased judges, only a few, found no evidence of them at the height of the witch hunts.

Generally loners, herbalists, the elderly and social misfits were accused. The inquisitors proceeded to inspect their bodies for the “Devil’s Mark.” Long needles were often stuck into the accused witch to see which spots did not bleed or feel pain. 

It is no surprise that most often the witch’s or devil’s mark was found. The accused witch might be thrown into the water bound; if she floated or did not drown, she was condemned as a witch and burned.  And that is a classic Catch 22!  The confessions were extorted from the poor women by torture.

Present day scholars explain that the trials and executions of witches reportedly in league with Satan were furthered by the level of belief in such superstitious phenomena.  Many of the intelligentsia in Europe were convinced the devil and witchcraft existed.  Learned men wrote the treatises that contained the framework of descriptions of witchcraft.  Some of these men were Jean Bodin, the political theorist, the Jesuit theologian, Martin del Rio and many others.

The skeptics, such as Johann Weyer, and Michel de Montaigne tried to introduce a pragmatic view.  They urged that restraint and evidence beyond torture should prevail in witch trials.  Both men believed the majority of the victims were not witches.  But both of them, whether from true belief in the devil and witchcraft or from fear of being accused of witchcraft themselves, concluded that the devil was real.

Weyer’s skeptical treatise argued that witchcraft was a demonic delusion and witches, so-called, were mainly deluded old women. Jean Bodin accused Weyer of being in league with the devil and said Weyer was a witch.  So it is likely many skeptics did not speak against the witch hunts out of self preservation.  Nevertheless, the practicality and common sense of men like Weyer and Montaigne eventually contributed to the waning of the witch hunts.

Wolfgang Behringer, in a 2002 essay entitled:”Witchcraft, Hunger, and Fear,” has written a masterful study concerning the reality situation of European society at the time of the witch hunts.  He has identified several important factors which we have already mentioned, but he has amplified them into a very cohesive argument. Weather, hunger and fear- I would like to become more specific this evening concerning the contributions of those three elements to persecutions of so-called witches.

 As we have mentioned before, the people accused were very often poor old women in villages, but others were accused as well.  What factors played into the hysteria? We need, I believe, to go beyond psychological explanations and also gender explanations. 

There was a reality situation playing out in the society that must not be ignored. The witch hunts happened in the real world, and Behringer describes what that everyday world was like for people in that era.

Weather magic was believed in very pervasively, especially in Central Europe.  H. Midlefort has shown just how important it was in Germany, as it was actually embedded in the law codes.  Interestingly enough, the church denied weather magic and even enacted severe penalties against it. But the belief, surviving from pagan times into the popular culture of the Middle Ages, was not easily gotten rid of.  The 1486 Malleus Maleficarum unequivocally accused witches of the ability to effect weather magic.  An influential preacher of the 1560’s blamed witches for hail damage to the harvest, calling for their persecution, for example.

The area of Central Europe was generally behind England and the Netherlands in its agrarian practices which were somewhat backward.

The area lacked large urban centers such as London or Naples and were chronically overpopulated. Its agriculture and economic system were based on vineyards and wheat, both especially vulnerable to climatic disasters.  When any failures due to poor weather happened, there was a general collective sense that the so-called conspiracy should be detected and punished.  In this, entire communities rose up and demanded justice from their local authorities. 

Many scholars have noted that such peasant beliefs, combined with the Christian demonology of the scholars who believed in the devil and witchcraft and wrote on the topic extensively, created a hysterical outcry for some type of justice. We have mentioned earlier this evening the contribution of the better educated in their writings to a belief in witches.

The populace could not conceive of a heinous crime such as weather magic to be the work of just one person.  No, it had to be many, it was believed, a veritable coven. Amazingly, it is on the record that communities acted many times on their own when faced with weak authorities.  They elected committees who searched out and administered justice to witches.

We must see these persecutions in light of the perception that the weather was unnatural.  The people were accustomed to manifestations of natural weather, but the changes they saw after 1560-1574, 1583-1589, and 1623-1628 were a different story.  Christian Pfister has identified and described the weather for those periods in Central Europe- he states that they were “cumulative cold sequences.”

There were catastrophes of all sorts- constant flooding due to increased rainfall, damage to mountain forests, and damage to pastures due to more cattle grazing and grain cultivation. Hail storms increased- there was a popular fear of such storms and a firm belief that witches caused them.  Higher caloric intake and increased use of firewood became necessary.  There were meager late harvests.  By 1570, there was a major famine.  The area we are speaking of was generally, if backward, rather comfortable to affluent and it was shocked by such calamities.  After 1586, colder winters intensified, followed by cold, wet springs. 

In 1587, snow fell until mid July and began again in September.  This period, oddly enough, was punctuated by the defeat in 1588 of the Spanish Armada, due to storms as the ships sailed around Scotland and Ireland.  The failed invasion of England happened during the wettest year of that area of Central Europe during which there were public outcries for persecution of witches from communities whose harvests were destroyed. 

It is quite obvious that the witch hunts coincided with the weather events and were blamed on weather magic. What Behringer calls challenging social/historical events were taking place all over Europe, but especially the German speaking areas. There were crop failures and rising grain prices, changing structures of demand, market failures for manufactured goods, indebtedness, broken contracts, people let go from their employment, very poor nutrition among the lower classes, with the increased susceptibility to disease, and of course, famine.

Hunger, the second factor, was the result of inflationary crises.  Nearly every human relationship went wrong in such an age of societal and weather change. 

Almsgiving reduction was only its visible symbol- there was a breakdown in social relationships which led to village conflicts, which in turn frequently led to accusations of witchcraft. Existential security was threatened and such fears also led to the use of magical assistance as well as fear of magic- magic to recover lost objects, absconded spouses, love, and health and counter magic against witches.

The lower classes were tragically affected by the crop failures which led to inflation. 

Such inflation made it impossible for people to feed themselves and they literally starved in the streets during the crises in the heart of Europe. There was a pattern from 1580, which has been charted by experts, that shows a decisive decline in the standard of living in Germany. Wages for craftsmen also declined measurably and heads of middle class families could no longer support their children on one income.  Not surprisingly, the worst years have been found by scholars to coincide with the witchcraft persecutions.  

It becomes clear that we cannot take the witch hunts of that period out of context. 

They were partially brought about by very real societal conditions resulting from the disastrous weather conditions.  This, of course, is not an argument for such happenings being wholly mechanistically determined.  Even while we must take into consideration the historical constants during times of crisis, we must also look at modes of cultural perceptions. Such perceptions will often help determine people’s responses to tragic social and climatic conditions. 

Behringer maintains that the witchcraft persecutions of 1563 began in South West Germany, traditional home of the initial witch hunt which was conducted by the papal inquisitor, Heinrich Kramer, the co-author of the infamous Malleus Maleficarum.  The torturers employed in the South, at the beginning, came from the region around the Ravensburger persecution.  Before the early modern, cumulative conception of witchcraft, mass persecutions of witches, claim scholars, were unthinkable. 

There is additionally the question of so-called “history of mentalities.”  This term may be defined as expectorial and is not merely confined to individual views. The term “angst” is only reported in reports to merchants and other sources, in connection with extreme crisis years.  Elsewhere the term was not employed. Every year became worse for people. In 1586, the hungry poor lost most of any work they had been able to obtain and the practice of begging from door to door grew rapidly. The poor were literally in fear of death from starvation and disease.  The rich were afraid to go into public; they felt the anger of the people and were additionally infected with the spreading fear that was so corrosive to the society.

There was constant commentary concerning the decline of the world and its decay. 

Such talk of decline has been pervasive through all eras, but at that period it coincided with a grave reality situation and contributed to the growing hysteria brought on by actual conditions.  All such ills tended to be attributed to the will and deeds of “evil persons.” Evil personswas a euphemism at that time for witches.

So the people, using the authorities own demonological theories and judicial rituals to achieve a popular aim, forged an alliance with those authorities to exterminate the “evil persons” and end the scourge afflicting them.  The authorities were pressured by massive petitions and demands from peasant communities to intervene in the hunting out of witches who were causing these evils.  The people threatened vigilante justice and there was much unrest.  In addition, even in the cities, with the horrid social conditions existing at the time, there was unrest. 

While ordinary people went unemployed and hungry, speculators and others prospered from the misery of others. Such speculators hoarded grain to try to drive the prices up even farther.  Behringer cites sources from that era who described animosity against the rich and “unchristian utterings” against usurers leading to curses, and finally, to acts of malignant magic. 

The fears of the lower classes led to fears in the middle classes because many of the better off escaped inflation, and even profited from it, either directly through the rise in prices, or most of the time, using the material want of the laborers and workers to their own advantage.  The middle classes became terrified of retribution.

In addition, there was a hardening of social relations- limited access to guilds, ideological bending of norms by religious confessions, the disenfranchisement of oppositional groups, an almost maniacal proliferation of laws, a trend toward absolutist rule, and a criminal justice system that was very brutal against any crimes of violence, property damage and moral infractions.  The criminal laws accounted for over ninety percent of executions, in addition to executions for practicing magic.

Witchcraft was a common theme in many Protestant but also Catholic sermons.  Many of the clerics called for witchcraft persecutions, giving fuel to the peasant demands for the extinction of witches.  People had departed from the more worldly views of the Renaissance to take refuge in dogmatic, confessional, ascetic, other worldly religious principles that offered solace for a social situation perceived as perilous. 

A popular preacher’s sermons around 1563 cited the evil results of witches’ magic and claimed the people of Germany had given themselves over to the Devil entirely.

Infertility connected to witches was called up and used literally- witches were held responsible for crop failure, for human and agricultural infertility. There were bolts of lightning conversions on both sides, and the Catholic Church developed Marian State programs, invoking the fertility of the Virgin Mary.

We can identify enough correspondence between cyclic agrarian crises and conjectures of witchcraft persecutions that it is possible, says Behringer, to speak of a fundamental historical correlation.  The nexus of causality is based on four ideas or reports. First, witches were blamed for weather damage and crop failure.

 There was a large argument concerning weather magic with some theologians opposed to the concept but not enough.  Second, illness and death multiplied in the wake of crop failure, especially among children, who were also held accountable as witches at times.  Third, latent conflicts emerged virulently due to resources shortage during the agrarian crisis and this increased the extremely strained social tensions. Fourth, witch trials provided positive feedback, leading to further accusations in the region.  Hartmut Lehmann has argued that the general phenomenon of witchcraft persecution should be viewed in light of the struggle to establish order.  The witchcraft persecutions turned out to be an extraordinary mechanism for resolving crises between authorities and the people. As Behringer states: The campaign against witches might be viewed as a metaphor. 

Its complex origins in climatic history, social history, and the history of mentalities, today understood as its major causes, were for contemporaries, reducible to three simple concepts: weather, hunger and fear.”

By the end of the irrational frenzy, some 30,000 to 60,000 accused witches were executed in Europe and North America.  Many had their property confiscated, as well.  75% of falsely accused witches were women.  Satan was indeed triumphant in such a shameful episode of religious persecution.

And then, belief in the devil began to wane.  It was not sudden, but in regions under the Parliament of Paris, Robert Mandrou has stated that witches ceased to be burned about 1630. We have been discussing the pressure exerted by the common people on local authorities to persecute witches just now. But it is important to keep in mind the fact that in the 15th and 16th centuries, European churchmen and statesmen tried to force citizens to believe in the images of a very frightening devil and a severe god who was his master.  Witch hunts were not singularly bottom-up manifestations.

In an age of religious wars and unsettled politics, people did get a sense of security from collective execration of the devil. We have mentioned the accord between the people and the authorities brought about by witch persecution.  But the accord was more extensive than that.

Such hatred of Satan and of his witches produced unanimity among governments, scholars, medical men, ecclesiastics and ordinary people.

Satan and the attendant fear and hatred of him seemed necessary for a collective agreement in a world with not many other universalizing visions.  We have just seen how essential the devil and his witches were to explain the sorry state of many of the European countries, from fragmentation of religion to crop failure.  Of course, we cannot know how many skeptics there were because as we have seen, to voice doubts concerning the reality of the devil was to bring down a charge of being a heretic or a witch.  You could be tortured, burned to death, and your family property confiscated.

 A kind of collective weariness finally began to take over this Europe, where underlying fear of social conditions bred the earlier collective hysteria which helped spur witch persecution and burning. That excellent scholar of the devil, Robert Muchembled, has assembled a catalogue of reasons for the waning of belief in the devil. I would like to address some of the most important reasons that Muchembled and other scholars have cited. See the bibliography at, The Devil, for the references.   Scholars point out that the rival political and religious entities began to reluctantly give up their pretensions of hegemony or superior strength.  In 1648, the peace of Westphalia produced two powerful but separate religious powers, Catholic and Protestant, and the matter was, at first on paper, and then gradually, by members of communities, settled. 

Satan declined as the agreement of Westphalia and the appearance of Catholic Jansenism (with its belief in predestination) as well as a vision of more peaceable relations between men and god and men with each other began to rise.

Then, in the late 17th century, a naturalistic vision of the world began to supplant the old supernatural outlook.  Such a material view of the world fed into the 18th century Enlightenment.  Descartes, while attempting to prove god’s existence, and while citing the possibility of an evil being that might deceive him about the world around him being real, helped give rise to skepticism with his intellectual reasoning.  Isaac Newton and Robert Hooke in science, and John Locke in psychology, did not reject god.  But now god was seen by intellectuals as the creator of the Universe, but whose plan and purpose was known, says Oldridge, through natural processes. There was little space or necessity for belief in the intercession of the supernatural.  Susan Nieman, the philosopher, states Enlightenment thinkers quietly gave up the idea of natural causes being considered evil, such as the Lisbon Earthquake of 1755.  Responsibility for human misery started to become less god’s responsibility and at the same time, became less dependent on the machinations of Lucifer.  Man and nature were given more responsibility for moral and natural evils.

During this same time span, however, John Wesley in England, and Jonathan Edwards in Colonial America retained belief in the devil.  But more and more, as science and empirical methods gained ascendancy, god and the devil lost importance.  Neither god nor the devil appeared central to the workings of the clockwork universe of the deists. 

The devil was more likely to be seen as carrying out his evil schemes through third parties, and this concept extended to the interior self of each person and the giving in to temptation. 

Christopher Marlowe’s play, The Tragicall History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus, 1592, focused on the hero’s attempt to overreach the limits of the human condition. 

The devil was much less important to Marlowe’s modern plot than the earlier narratives that placed emphasis on his wicked deeds. 

Satan had a small upsurge during the Romantic Era between 1800 and 1840. Shelley and other writers would equate Lucifer with Prometheus, the Titan in ancient Greek mythology who defied god to bring fire to mankind and was punished.  The devil became a kind of heroic rebel, a source of energy and creativity for Romantic painters and writers.  But Fyodor Dostoevsky’s great work, the Brothers Karamazov, 1880, depicts a reduced devil. The Russian novel’s atheist brother, Ivan, is tempted by a Lucifer who is rather shoddy and decrepit, poorly dressed and keeping up a false front of wisdom and power. He is a kind of seedy, fallen on hard times devil.  The atheist, divided within himself, falls prey to brain fever, a scientific explanation for his hallucinations rather than an expression of devil possession.

Even some of the religious were changing.  We have mentioned the Jansenists and their turn to predestination, but Catholic Jesuits began to embrace the earlier Renaissance concept of the truths of faith and the truths of reason or science. Newton, Locke, Descartes, Harvey, and Leibniz all claimed belief in god, but their thinking and discoveries began to answer the whys of this world and the hows of their workings.

The Enlightenment philosophers in France, Diderot, D’Holbach, D’Almbert, Voltaire and the others, many of whom were atheists and deists, were exceptionally fine proponents of the new world vision of reason, materialism and empiricism.  David Hume, the great philosopher of 18th Century Scotland and England, took skepticism to new heights and demolished belief in miracles for many intellectuals with his fine-tuned reasoning.

Where was there room for the devil when Diderot and D’Almbert ‘s monumental Encyclopedia discussed all the known facts about nature and other topics and its writers were most of the known intellectuals of the day?  Thinkers no longer had the time or inclination to pore over Devil’s Books and many churchmen also abandoned such profitless reading.  We will be discussing the Enlightenment and what it meant to unbelief in an upcoming lecture.

Jeffrey Burton Russell discusses the Latitudinarian movement in England in the late 17th and early 18th Centuries.  This faith was belief that the so-called harmony of the cosmos proved the beneficence and omnipotence of the deity.  Theological elaborations, states Russell, such as original sin, redemption, resurrection, and of course, the devil, were now seen as encumbrances to a Christianity that the Latitudinarians believed best traveled light.  Deism held that god exists and created both the cosmos and its laws, that he and his order and laws can be seen in nature; and people serve him best by leading constructive and moral lives.

There were economic currents that were rapidly taking place as well, that helped displace superstition.

Muchembled notes that Western Europe stopped witch burning when the trade that would form its prosperity in the 18th Century began to develop and expand. People began to leave smaller, provincial towns, and large, trade-filled cities began to grow.  Leora Auslander notes that “people exist through their things, and a new consumerism was now in its infancy.” Supply and demand was becoming the economic winner and Satan did not meet the new requirements. 

There was a growing love of luxury by ordinary citizens as well as the wealthy. Among most people who could afford it, there was an increased use of stimulants such as chocolate, tea and coffee.  There was more sexual freedom. Relations between people and other people and people and their own bodies were changing. 

 Hygiene was introduced and respected.  There was more medical knowledge and less death. The image of Satan became once again, as in earlier centuries, confused and vague.  He was invoked to help people find treasure or prepare love philters.  Jeffrey Burton Russell aptly calls him the “Disenchanted Devil.”In our contemporary world, people are even more hedonistic and less fearful.

In 1859, Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species would help drive out belief in god and the devil, as the book contained the recognition that species arise through biological evolution. As Oldridge points out: “ … the theory of evolution had two major effects: it undermined the doctrine of the Fall in the Garden of Eden and thus removed the devil from his primal role in history; and it provided an alternative account of human evil- as the residual effect of our animal nature.”

Thomas Henry Huxley, the Victorian biologist, began to champion moral education to counter our primitive impulses. Sigmund Freud and other thinkers in the 20th Century showed people the demon within. Biology and psychology, rather than sin, explained wickedness; and the devil became more excluded from human affairs, explains Oldridge.

I shall, for a few minutes play, quite appropriately, devil’s advocate this evening and discuss the obdurate presence of the Devil, even in our modern world.

One cannot, as the modernity dawned, disregard Satan’s literary entrance into our cultured cities around the world.  The last years of the 19th and the early years of the 20th centuries saw the splendid writers who gathered in Paris and were devotees of debauchery and rebellion.  Baudelaire recited the Litanies of Satan, and then a prayer to Satan in his Flowers of Evil, 1861.  “Glory and praise to you Satan, in the heights, of Heaven, where you reigned, and in the depths of Hell, where vanquished, you mutely dream!”  He was followed by Arthur Rimbaud, whose A Season in Hell, 1873, is still a must for literature students and others who aspire to high culture.  Mallarme, the poet, would cry: “Heaven is dead!” J.K Huysmans wrote La Bas, or Down There, 1891, in which he describes in some detail satanic masses, at that period.  One does not know for sure if there really were satanic masses or cults or if Huysmans was inventing them.  There was a passage about stealing a consecrated host and defiling it by urinating and/or defecating on it.  One can believe that the pious were horrified, while the skeptics enjoyed the fine writing and perhaps merely smiled at the rather overblown tributes to Satan. 

Huysmans, by the way, later became a Catholic convert, so it seems he needed to believe in something, whether the Devil, Jesus or God may not have mattered.  The idea of the poet maudit, the damned poet, was an image to keep up, however, rather than any of these literary authors embracing Satanism in reality.

There was a brief fascination with the Devil in the music world around the 1970’s and 1980’s, with the Rolling Stones “Sympathy for the Devil,” 1968, gaining a great deal of popularity. 

Such an interest in the occult did not survive long and can be considered more of a fad and source of artistic inspiration than any serious commitment to, or worship of, Satan.

Charles Manson was an alleged admirer of Satan, and some say he still is. In 1969, he and the unfortunate people he had persuaded to view him as a leader, murdered the film director, Roman Polanski’s, wife, Sharon Tate, and other people in the Polanski home.  However, such a crime had little to do with Satan and more with mental illness.

Despite waning belief in the devil, the 1980’s was an unfortunate period of hysterical allegations of “satanic ritual abuse.”  The difficulty with such allegations and tales is their tenacity.  They abide with certain sectors of Western society, particularly American and England.  In 1980, a woman by the name of Michelle Smith described horrifying rituals that took place in her childhood in Canada. In her book, Michelle Remembers, she insisted that she had been assaulted physically and sexually by a Satanist cult, that she had been rubbed with the blood and body parts of murdered babies and so on.  Her psychiatrist, and co-author, Lawrence Panzer, and Michelle later married. 

The book had tremendous success and made the writers several hundred thousand dollars, which at that time was a great deal of money.  Denials of the volume’s credibility came almost at once, and by 1990, the story was pretty thoroughly discredited. 

Unfortunately, Michelle Remembers spawned other imitations and helped generate hysterical tales from either alleged victims or fearful citizens. 

The book was never made into a movie, thankfully, because Panzer had made claims that the Satanists who abused Michelle were associated with the Church of Satan, which he said predated the Catholic Church.

When these remarks were reported to Anton LaVey, who had founded the Church of Satan in 1966, LaVey threatened to sue, and talk of a movie stopped.  Some psychiatrists and other mental health workers began to treat and take seriously tales of so-called survivors of ritual satanic abuse.  Repressed memories of these putative survivors were said to emerge during therapy and ritual satanic abuse was taken seriously in some quarters.

The most egregious case to emerge was the Kern County, California Child Abuse Case of the 1980’s which accused day care workers and others in the area with ritual satanic child abuse.  Prior to the start of the Kern County child abuse cases, several local social workers had attended a training seminar that fore grounded satanic ritual abuse as a major element in child sexual abuse, and had used the now-debunked memoir Michelle Remembers as training material. The case grew and ultimately some thirty-six people were sent to prison. Thirty-four of them had their convictions overturned after spending prison time and were released.  Two people died in prison.

 If such horrific nonsense was able to occur in the last years of the previous century, perhaps the horrors of the Reformation witch hunts become a little easier to understand. 

James R. Lewis, in The Oxford Handbook of New Religious Movements, 2003, wrote that Michelle Remembers “must be treated with great skepticism, not least because literally all the charges involved seem drawn from accounts of West African secret societies from the 1950s, imported to Canada.”

I hasten to add that such West African societies’ existence is quite likely a fiction, too.  Most of the stories of such cults have been thoroughly discredited. 

In 1993, the British government published an enquiry into 84 cases of alleged ritual abuse, which ended with the fact that there was no evidence of any such organized Satanism in the U.K. Kenneth Lanning, an in the investigation of child sexual abuse, has stated that pseudo-Satanism may exist but there “little or no evidence for … large-scale baby breeding, human sacrifice, and organized satanic conspiracies”.

He continues: “There are many possible alternative answers to the question of why victims are alleging things that don’t seem to be true….I believe that there is a middle ground — a continuum of possible activity. Some of what the victims allege may be true and accurate, some may be misperceived or distorted, some may be screened or symbolic, and some may be “contaminated” or false. The problem and challenge, especially for law enforcement, is to determine which is which. This can only be done through active investigation.

I believe that the majority of victims alleging “ritual” abuse are in fact victims of some form of abuse or trauma.”  Lanning explained that hundreds of cases had been investigated and no satanic ritual abuse had been found.  After such investigations, many convictions were overturned.  Shades of the witch hunts! 

However, many people continue to believe in satanic cults and a very small group of therapists occasionally warns us of the dangers of such groups.  The reports of secret cabalists have spread as far as New Zealand and Israel.

The sociologist, Jean La Fontaine, who has written about alleged satanic abuse, has this to say in a report about the investigations: “People are reluctant to accept that parents, even those classed as social failures, will harm their own children, and even invite others to do so, but involvement with the Devil explains it.”  We might be psychologically reluctant to come to terms with the fact that ordinary, or normal, parents would sexually or physically abuse their children.  Perhaps believing the devil is behind it is easier to live with.

There has been an unfortunate development in England, and that is the spread of African Pentecostal churches.  Many young people have been accused of witchcraft and have been forced to undergo exorcisms.  Some have died. These Christian churches encourage the notion of witchcraft both in Africa and in England. There has been a rapid growth in African churches in the UK. According to UK Church Statistics, 670 Pentecostal churches opened between 2005 and 2010, taking the total to 3,900 – that figure is expected to rise to 4,600 by 2015. As a result, authorities fear that “witch-branding” is on the increase. It seems that Satan is still alive and well in some societies.

Investigators dealt with a dozen cases of ritualized abuse recently, and said the national figure was likely to be far higher.

As for Africa, particularly Central Africa, many adults are accused of sorcery as well as children and young people. They are frequently murdered.  The Pentecostal churches are definitely playing a part in this hysteria, offering exorcisms and receiving money for their “work.” 

Here is a UNICEF report on the situation: Children Accused of Witchcraft,’ a new report from UNICEF’s Regional Office for West and Central Africa, uses anthropological studies and reports from aid agencies to shed light on accusations against children.

According to the report, accusations seem to arise from ‘multi-crisis’ situations and usually affect children who are already vulnerable.

“Many social and economic pressures, including conflict, poverty, urbanization and the weakening of communities, or HIV/AIDS, seem to have contributed to the recent increase in witchcraft accusations against children,” said UNICEF Regional Child Protection Adviser Joachim Theis. “Child witchcraft accusations are part of a rising tide of child abuse, violence and neglect, and they are manifestations of deeper social problems affecting society.” I was struck while researching contemporary reports of witchcraft and their relation to dreadful societal conditions in Africa, how the same correlation existed during the height of the infamous historical witch hunts in Central Europe.

Michael Cuneo has written an interesting volume on exorcism and he has found that Protestant clergy who conduct exorcisms “see themselves as agents of counter-secularization.”

He further maintains that “practice among Catholics is linked to theological conservatism.”  We must note here that both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI may be classified as theological conservatives and both popes have confirmed the notion of a real, not a metaphoric devil. Benedict XVI commended the work of exorcists ‘in the service of the Church,” and that is a quote. The Vatican also supported a six day seminar on the practice of exorcism in 2011. 

Nevertheless, despite the clergy’s best efforts, recent years have seen a lessening of the stories of ritual satanic abuse, possibly due to several factors in the West.  The first is that they have been pretty thoroughly and publicly discredited. 

The second is that the emerging 21st Century has been plagued with severe financial crises in many sectors of the world, particularly in the United States and Europe.  The current devils appear to be the financiers, bankers and mortgage companies.  Finally, the bombing of the World Trade Center Twin Towers in 2011, and the discovery of subsequent plots against the West, have turned the attention of people to the reality of an ongoing war with terrorism, and away from imaginary demonic cults.

There are still many theologians who will not retreat into the comfort of claiming Satan is a metaphor.  Alvin Plantinga, arguably the most formidable of them all, has maintained that demons may be responsible for much of the physical evil in the universe. If you will refer to, What is Atheism- Arguments for and against the Existence of god, you will see that Plantinga has difficulty explaining the physical evils that happen in the universe, such as earthquakes, tsunamis and so on vis-à-vis an all powerful, benevolent god. 

His fallback position of late has been that demons of some kind, who have free will, may be responsible for such ills.  He does admit that such a notion is somewhat implausible. But he continues to maintain, and I quote: “Satan and his minions … may have been permitted a role in the evolution of life on earth, steering it in the direction of predation, waste and pain.”  So now Satan and his minions have been permitted a role in evolution.  Apparently Plantinga believes he has solved the difficulty of not only evil, but also of evolution.

I do not believe secular people will find his contribution to the discussion of evil or of evolution to be either rewarding or enlightening.

The secular community will not find the well-known Carl Braaten’s SinDeath and the Devil, 1989, collection of essays on the devil, sin and death salient either. Sin, death, and the devil, called “the unholy trinity” by Martin Luther, are the classic biblical tyrants. Far from being pessimistic, eight recognized theologians take care to affirm God’s victory over the “diabolical forces that oppress humanity-a victory continually realized through the proclamation of the gospel and the sacraments of the church,” according to the publishers’ blurb. Lest we begin to think Braaten too optimistic, however, let us look a little more carefully at his published statements.  Braaten believes that if we do away with the devil, we truly risk undermining the entire faith edifice.  He says: “True Christianity is stuck with the Devil… If believing in the existence of the Devil offends, if it is a stumbling block, that is really not unlike everything else in the Christian system of belief.”  Indeed.

 He explains that there is danger in viewing Satan merely as a metaphor, thinking the devil is a symbol of evil rather than a personal spirit.  One can then apply such thinking to god, reducing him to no more than a metaphor for goodness.  Indeed again! 

There is also the more sophisticated, if equally non salient work of the philosopher, Gordon Graham.  He seems to have connected some of the difficult to account for incidents of evil in the modern world, such as murder not totally brought on by mental illness or influence from violent media, with recent New Testament scholarship. His conclusions are rather puzzling.

Graham argues that the inability of modernist thought to account satisfactorily for evil and its occurrence should not lead us to embrace an eclectic postmodernism, but to take seriously some unfashionable premodern conceptions–Satan, demonic possession, spiritual powers, and cosmic battles.

He would like modern people to take up the burden or at least the understanding that we have a moral duty to struggle to resist evil.  If we refer to the New Testament’s cosmic narrative, he believes that there will be more embrace of moral behavior.  Needless to say, he rejects naturalism and humanism, finding them inadequate to explain evil.  Why Graham thinks the devil notion is salient is inexplicable.

Nevertheless, the trend of most philosophers, psychologists and social critics is to see notions of the devil as metaphorical. 

Primo Levi, a fine writer and survivor of the Nazi death camps, believed that some Germans merely succumbed to the pressure of an evil environment, not having the ability or strength of character to withstand it.  The ability to withstand so-called cultural norms, then, may be seen as an inhibitor to performing evil.  The psychologist Roy Baumeister subscribes to the concept that people embrace the concept of pure evil.  Such a notion purports to believe that there are persons who want to wreck other people’s lives and cause misery, suffering and death from the pure joy of wreaking havoc.   Such persons are thought to be social outsiders and are portrayed as such by the media, even when the facts do not agree with such a picture. They are described as haters of goodness, maintains Baumeister, hungering for its destruction, and thus the same as Satan. We distance ourselves from the evil acts performed and “tacitly” confirm our own goodness.  

Notice how the media and others describe such behavior as inhuman, when of course, it is all too human and frightening to contemplate.

Johnny Awaad, a theologian, Mary Midgley, the author of Wickedness, 2001, and a great many thinkers in the present day do not subscribe to a personal Devil.

They think of Satan in metaphorical terms. Andrew Singleton did an interesting study of evangelical Christian groups in Australia in 2001.  He found that the stories they told each other of encounters with the Old Enemy, such as demonic possession and sleep paralysis, validated their faith because it confirmed their role in the struggle against cosmic evil. 

Sharing their stories confirmed their assumptions and bound their communities together, as well as reifying that their Christian beliefs are eternally true and valid.

Andrew Delbanco, who does not believe in the devil, has an interesting point of view.  He is a cultural theorist and in the Death of Satan, 1995, he affirmed his belief in evil. He apparently thinks that the metaphoric devil is everywhere and nobody knows where to find him, as he says.  He states that we lack an adequate language to make sense of atrocities, despite a compelling need to do so.  He is afraid that we are lapsing into a tendency to silence and inaction in the face of evil.  I cannot agree.

 As with religion, despite rumors to the contrary, the devil is in rapid decline. Many of the religious in the present day try to focus on a positive god and have discarded the notion of the devil and hell, while retaining god and heaven.  About 14% to 20% of United States citizens are no longer members of an organized religion, while Europe and other parts of the world have seen a large rise in atheism. 

Satan continues to thrive in conservative Catholic and evangelical communities, as we have seen, but in the mainstream sectors of society, he is no longer feared or thought about. It is true that he is sometimes still revived as terrible and fearsome in horror films and books, but film goers are just as apt to see diminished or comic versions of Lucifer.  There are web sites that list the many films concerning the devil. The devil has been reduced to taking a place among vampires, werewolves and superheroes in the popular culture of the 21st century, all charming and/or frightening fictions, but perceived as just that by most citizens- fictions.

The concept of the devil has suffered the same fate as religion. As belief in one wanes, so does belief in the other.  I will close this evening with an echo of what better thinkers and scholars have understood and what the majority of modern people intuit:  if there is no proof of the devil, there is no proof of god.  They are both dead.  Rest in peace, Mephistopheles.

Video of Lecture: The Devil, Part 1, The Church and The Reformation

The Devil, Part 2: The Church and The Reformation

Video of Discussion: The Devil, Part 2, The Church and The Reformation

Discussion: The Devil, Part 2: The Church and The Reformation


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