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.