Pagan Outrage Machine Fires Up in Response to Time Halloween Article

Pagans have demanded an apology for a Time magazine article that, according to a petition, compared witches to terrorists. The “inflammatory” part of author Jennifer Latson’s piece, which analyzes our current cultural fascination with witchcraft as demonstrated by shows like Salem and American Horror Story, as well as Disney’s Maleficent, seems to be the commentary from historian Emerson Baker, the author of A Storm of Witchcraft: The Salem Trials and the American Experience.

A petition, which has received nearly 5000 signatures, claims that the article endangers the Pagan community because it may encourage readers to “punish” witches “as they see fit.” On Twitter, Pagans have directed a torrent of criticism at Latson.

As a scholar of new religious movements, I am very sensitive to the way the media represents religious minorities, but in this case I don’t think Latson did anything wrong. When there are so many actual cases of Pagan groups facing opposition in the United States, as well as literal witch-hunts occurring around the world, I can’t help but feel that this backlash over a Halloween article amounts to tilting at windmills. The real motivation behind the online furor against Latson may be the opportunity to perform a religious identity centered around a history of persecution—all while sitting at one’s computer.

Baker suggested that America’s renewed interest in Salem might be a product of the war on terror which has been used to justify the erosion of civil liberties and a culture of spying on civilians. This, in turn, has caused Americans to identify with those killed in Salem. In other words, Baker claims we all feel like the victims of a witch-hunt. The point of contention arises when Baker explains how the Puritan belief that diabolical witches live among us serves a similar social function to the threat of terrorism. He is quoted:

Witches, like terrorists, “threaten to wipe out everything you believe in. If they could, they would overthrow your government, overturn your faith, and destroy your society.”

Baker is clearly referring to witches that existed only in the imagination of the Puritans, and not to actual people.

C.S. Lewis raises this very point in Mere Christianity, where he discusses arguments that Christians are immoral because they burned witches. Without defending witch trials, Lewis replies that we must distinguish differences of morality from “differences of beliefs about the facts.” He writes:

But surely the reason we do not execute witches is that we do not believe there are such things. If we did—if we really thought there were people going about who had sold themselves to the devil and received supernatural powers from him in return and were using these powers to kill their neighbors or drive them mad or bring bad weather—surely we would all agree that if anyone deserved the death penalty, then these filthy quislings did.

In other words, Lewis argues that Christian witch-hunters were not immoral so much as suffering from a delusion.

Both Baker and Lewis describe historical situations in which those killed were not, in fact, witches. Neither considered the possibility of people who actively identify with the label “witch.” The term “witches” used by Baker and Lewis is only a homonym with modern, self-identified “witches.” Adam Osborne, who created the petition demanding an apology, acknowledged this: “I understood the message they were trying to convey…but they were very unsuccessful…”

Baker’s comparison of the fear of witches to the fear of terrorists is important and shouldn’t be censured simply because it may offend self-identified witches. Again and again, across history and cultures, societies have formed an idea of an evil conspiracy and mobilized to hunt down the conspirators. The social forces that give rise to these conspiracy theories need to be studied and our understanding of them should be disseminated to the public. More than anyone else, those who feel they are the victims of moral panics should study the way moral panics work.

The response to this article is especially odd in light of the more tangible obstacles for Pagans and literal witch hunts around the world. This week a woman in Paraguay was accused of witchcraft and burned alive; last month a Nigerian witch-hunter sued The British Humanist Association for criticizing her methods; and in Saudi Arabia police have begun to track Twitter users suspected of spreading witchcraft. Going after journalists like Latson is not going to stop actual fear mongers from claiming that innocent people are part of occult conspiracies, and it’s certainly not going to affect persecution in Paraguay, Nigeria, and Saudi Arabia. So why waste the energy?

At stake in the outrage over the Time article is a religious identity constructed around the history of “The Burning Times” and a sympathy with the oppressed. In 1921, Margaret Murray published her book The Witch Cult in Western Europe, in which she asserted that witches had been practitioners of a pre-Christian goddess-centered religion that the Christian church attempted to systematically hunt down and destroy. Murray’s work was never taken seriously by scholars. Thousands were killed in witch-trials but there is little evidence that the victims were Pagans. Murray was also uncritical of confessions given under torture.

Nevertheless, Murray had a strong influence on Gerald Gardner, one of the founders of modern Paganism. Dianne Purkiss explains that Murray’s story is important to Pagans for its mythical significance rather than its historical truth. Similarly, Sabrina Magliocco argues that modern Pagans have constructed an identity for themselves by identifying with the marginalized and oppressed. This means that Pagans may have something in common with evangelical Christians, who have also been characterized as “embattled and thriving.”

Voices on both the left and the right have raised concerne that online discourse has become an “outrage machine,” in which controversies arise, generate storms of rancor on social media, and then are quickly forgotten. Outrage is, of course, necessary to mobilize reform in the face of injustice, but the Internet also makes it easy to resort to “slacktivism,” in which we can experience the satisfaction of fighting injustice while actually doing very little.

For some, censuring an article about fictional witches may foster feelings of solidarity with those oppressed centuries ago, but this is not going to mitigate moral panic. In fact, silencing scholars like Baker will almost certainly empower the real witch-hunters.

20 Comments

  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    You and C.S. Lewis might be distorting things here. There is nothing wrong with witches selling themselves to the devil and receiving supernatural powers from him in return. The evil was the Christians who didn’t give them a fair trial on the murder charges.

  • robert.m.jeffers@lonestar.edu' Rmj says:

    You need to complete Lewis’ thought:

    “and received supernatural powers from him in return and were using these powers to kill their neighbors or drive them mad or bring bad weather—”

    He wasn’t concerned with their souls and Satan, he was concerned with their ability to kill, drive mad, or cause weather problems. None of which, he understood, was possible (at least if supernatural agency was involved in the first two), but assuming arguendo it was, then persecution becomes justified.

    It wasn’t possible, of course, so the persecution was not justified. A fair trial would have revealed that, but a fair judicial system would never let such charges come to trial.

    That and, while the witch trials were bad, even Cotton Mather had second thoughts about accusing anyone you disliked of practicing witchcraft. It became a way of gaining power over others, a problem certainly reflective of the “war on terror” today.

  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    Follow it through a bit and the deeper problem emerges. Christians are discriminating when they look at God as being better than Satan. They have no reason to see things that way, other than their prejudice.

  • jmmartin@grandecom.net' JamesMMartin says:

    Neo-pagani have been a part of the American scene ever since Salem, but in more meaningful and thankfully didactic ways. Mostly, the witches follow the cult of the Wise Old Women, who brought abortifacients to poor women, so it is not surprising to see Christian conservatives comparing them to jihadists, even today. This in itself is nothing but a patronistic reaction to the view that despite their claims that they love women, they have never properly adored them (in the spiritual sense of that word). The female is child, woman, and crone, and each phase is to be worshiped as the deity, Aradia, Hecate, &c. This is an insult to Chistianity’s solar phallic pale Galilean, helplessly nailed to a cross-timbers, itself a perversion of pagani belief extending from the Old Religion’s myriad use of nature in the form of trees, such as the pine to which Tammuz and Attis were impaled. The reason these Christian apologists don’t like witches is that they know their own faith is hardly more valid.

  • tojby_2000@yahoo.com' apotropoxy says:

    Satan is a powerful and crucial deity in the Christian/Islamic pantheon. Or, to put in another way, Jesus and Satan (or Allah and Satan) are mutually dependent for their identities and functions. Manicheaism’s hold on the imagination of western man is alive and thriving.

  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    The separation of Jesus and Satan in the Christian mind is causing them to discriminate against what they consider evil. Christianity will be a curse to the world until it ultimately ends. The good news is that seems to be in the process of happening. Christianity no longer has the tight control over its societies that it once had, and with each generation its control should slip away a little more.

  • anna.holloway@ou.edu' Anna M. J. Holloway says:

    I note that this putative rebuttal of the Pagan concerns and defense of Latson does not quote Latson or show the specific concerns. One of them is that here are two different uses of the term “witch” in American religions today. Wiccans use the term to describe themselves (male and female) and Wicca does not have a “satan” in their religion, nor do they (we) “sell” ourselves to any deity. American Satanism uses the term “witch” to refer to female members of the Church of Satan. This is a separate religion from Wicca. The TIME article seems to conflate the two, as do Lewis and other Christian apologists. There really is no reason one cannot be both Christian and Wiccan.

  • Dennis.Lurvey@live.com' GeniusPhx says:

    they are still stoning people for witchcraft and being heretics around the world. People in Nigeria are going to witch doctors for Ebola. These are beliefs they are born into and are reinforced their whole lives. The Puritans were hanging people here for witchcraft but it was happening all over the world. The Vatican put out a brochure on how to tell when someone is a witch.

    Christians treat lots of groups like they are witches today, atheists, anyone having to do with abortions, any judge who orders a cross removed from a city park, or any school board that stops a teacher from leading prayers in the classroom illegally. A student who sued the school and won to get a prayer taken off a gymnasium wall had to have police escorts to and from school for months because of christians on a witch hunt for her. Her whole family was threatened with death and rape by christians who wanted her to drop the suite.

    There is no such thing as a witch, but there are still witch hunters everywhere.

  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    Christians can only be good in opposition to evil. If you remove all evil, or define it as not evil, then you are also removing the capability of Christians to be Christian.

  • invidosa@yahoo.com' Invidosa says:

    The problem here is language and thoughtlessness. The quotes were badly worded and a bit ambiguous in comparing witches to terrorists. Also, personally I found the title to be a bit bothersome and sensational (“why witches on TV spell trouble in real life”) in that it give the implication of causality. The article in my opinion requires a second read through to understand what the authors are truely saying.

    What actually bothers me more is the thoughtlessness. The fact that no one involved with the article even considered the idea of modern day witches, and never thought to clarify the intention that they were referring to the word “witch” as it was historically understood versus what the word means today. This sort of cluelessness and our invisibility bothers me intensely.

    With that said, I think the demands for apology are an overreach and overreaction. We need to be more moderate in our response here and recognize the intent of the authors while also using this moment to increase the visibility and awareness of the truth of pagans. If we get hysterical and start shouting “burning times” at the drop of hat we make ourselves look like thin skinned jerks. Let’s save our outrage for truely oppressive moments (which certainly exist).

  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    We are doing what we can to try and show all religious concepts are trouble because when people believe in irrational beliefs, they usually end up doing irrational things. When it comes to religion there is no good and evil, only crazy.

  • tojby_2000@yahoo.com' apotropoxy says:

    🙂

  • talakaltes@gmail.com' Elizabeth says:

    The problem in my opinion is the word choices made in her article. It goes to separate our religion from the title of “Witch”. To use it to say they are seen as terrorists and are not real is to ignore the blight of those who use the term and validates all those who believe that the ones who practice that religion are crazy.

    The article is based on the assumption that Witches are only creatures in fairy tales and horrors that only plagued those in the past who did not know any better. That is not the case. While people fight to try to correct the issues and problems our religion faces it does not help when we’re being called evil or delusional. Which the article in question stems from the thought of.

    You do not know what it’s like to try and tell someone what you identify as and them think you’re crazy and attempt to tell you it doesn’t exist. If you did you’d understand the aggravation and the hurt that you experience when people think you forgot your medication.

    I read her article because I was curious if it would touch on how Witches in media bring about thoughts of what it is and isn’t, about how that affect how people dress up as Witches for Halloween. About how it can affect a persons real life because, for a lesser point, I do not just wiggle my nose and make things happen. But that didn’t stop a few stalkers who thought they were going to catch something out of a Harry Potter movie.

    This isn’t about not focusing on the right tangible problems. This is about how frustrating it is to try to work towards a world where someone isn’t going to be called because someone thought they were Witches, when the media (in this case TIME) is telling everyone we are either evil or make-believe.

  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    You should face some skepticism here on RD. Questioning is our nature. A rational analysis would show there are no witches with special powers, just as there are no saints who work miracles, dead or alive. Historically speaking, there is also no actual Jesus, and all the old testament people from pre-Bible times, everyone from Moses back to Adam also are not real. I guess you can say you are a witch as long as you don’t say that means anything, same as Christians can claim to be Christian as long as they don’t claim Christianity means anything. It might sound a little strange to put it that way, but if anyone tries to question it their beliefs will cause them no end to troubles.

  • gormanbud@earthlink.net' BeeSmart says:

    What is with this “we” business? Are you an official spokesperson for this site?

    If so I am not sure many individuals coming here are aware that the site’s take on religion is “When it comes to religion there is no good and evil, only crazy.”

    If so please say so!!

  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    It is a way to start a conversation. The point of religion is belief structures based on nothing other than apologetics of the belief structure. That is what needs to be discussed. Is there anything real to base it on? If we can deal with that issue, then we will be able to move forward and make some progress. It will be a long process, but that is where we must go. As long as religions point backwards toward a time when people were closer to God and had a higher level of divine guidance than people of today, they will be basing religions on what ultimately leads back to nothing.

  • polyearp2@gmail.com' Laurence Charles Ringo says:

    I don’t know what supposed”history”YOU’VE been reading, Mr.Reed, but it sounds like you’ve been slopping from the so-called”Jesus Seminar/Dan Brown pig trough. And aren’t you the same individual who was turning himself inside out defending Mormonism on another site?

  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    Regarding the other site, no. Regarding the Jesus Seminar pig trough, no. This history thing is from slopping at the trough of the New Testament. The issue is when does the New Testament say what? In the middle of the first century we find a lot of Christian writings from Paul. They show a heavenly Christ that Christianity was finding in old testament scriptures, plus their visions. There was no record of Jesus the man from Nazareth. Nothing about any of his teachings or miracles as found decades later in the gospels. In the last third of the century the gospels were written, each one adding more to the story. The final gospel, John, has the most impressive Jesus miracle, raising Lazarus from the dead after three days in the grave. Even though this was Jesus’ greatest miracle, it was unknown in the earlier gospels, and unknown in all the writings of Paul, but then everything from all of the gospels was unknown when Paul was writing. This is a picture of the Jesus story being invented over sevaral decades, all of them well after the time when Jesus was supposed to be living, and the best stuff was only in the last writings.

  • TransientToo@yahoo.com' pageroks says:

    Basically they are saying: there are not rally enough of them for us to care what the think.

  • The response to this article is especially odd in light of the more tangible obstacles for Pagans and literal witch hunts around the world.

    If you can’t recognize how Latson’s article contributes to the ignorance that leads to witch hunts around the world (including the U.S.), then why are you even writing this? By choosing the angle she did, and choosing to ignore the existence of real Witches and Pagans, she contributed to a deep pool of ignorance that exists around our religion and spirituality. What could have been a teaching moment, just became something infuriating and offensive. Some people will latch onto her statement that “witches aren’t real,” and have some serious problems when they meet a real Witch, and potentially cause problems for the Witch.

    Others will latch on to the comparison of Witches to terrorism, and tah dah: witch hunt.

    You seriously don’t see how this is a problem?

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