XFiles Weekend: On the morality of burning witches

(Book: Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis, chapter 2, “Some Objections”)

This week we wrap up Chapter 2 of Mere Christianity with Lewis’ somewhat feeble attempt to address the morality of witch-burning. Until a few centuries ago, it was a rather popular practice among Christians, and—well, let’s let Lewis speak for himself.

I have met people who exaggerate the differences [between different moralities], because they have not distinguished between differences of morality and differences of belief about facts. For example, one man said to me, ‘Three hundred years ago people in England were putting witches to death. Was that what you call the Rule of Human Nature or Right Conduct?’ 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 that 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 neighbours 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?

This is an amazing apologetic. Notice, he’s not quite arguing that Christians were doing the right thing by burning witches. He merely wishes to argue that we have made scientific progress, rather than moral progress, in ceasing to put witches to death. He ends Chapter 2 with the observation, “You would not call a man humane for ceasing to set mousetraps if he did so because he believed there were no mice in the house.” He’s neither justifying nor accusing the witch-burners; he’s merely arguing that we today are no better, because we would burn witches too, if we thought they were real.

Sadly, he got that part exactly right, at least as far as believers are concerned. There are Christian evangelists in Africa today who are spreading witch rumors and inciting people to violence against them, just like in the Old Days. Women and even children are dying, or being savagely tortured and/or driven from their villages, because Christians believe that “these filthy quislings” deserve it. Lewis is exactly right in saying that this morality shows no signs of being any better than that of the 17th century witch burners.

But let’s look at Lewis’ underlying assumption. He’s taking it for granted that everyone would agree that, if you believe in witches, the Right thing to do is to put them to death. He assumes that obviously real witchcraft would deserve the death penalty, and that this is true even today, even for believers like himself. Sure, there’s no such thing as a real witch, but if there were, why then fetch the rope and kindling boys! And be quick about it!

I’m going to disagree with Lewis on two counts. First of all, a civilized and just society should never penalize anyone for being the wrong thing. Justice, including the death penalty, must be limited to punishing people for doing the wrong thing. If a real witch used supernatural powers to murder someone, then society ought to accuse her of the murder, prove her guilty of the murder, and then punish her for the murder—not for being a witch. If she used magic to make it foggy so no one would see her flying around on her broomstick, you don’t burn her for being a witch, and you certainly don’t demand a death penalty for making it foggy at night, even if she really and truly did bring bad weather by magic.

The second and larger point centers around that crucial word “believe.” Lewis’ argument goes like this: We don’t kill witches because we don’t believe there are any. If we did believe they existed, then surely (or at least, Lewis is sure) we ought to agree with putting them to death. See anything missing in that line of thought?

What’s missing, obviously, is any consideration of the question of whether or not our beliefs were actually correct. The witch-burners of 17th century England believed they were putting real witches to death. According to Real Morality, was it Right for them to do so? That was the specific question that was asked of Prof. Lewis, and that is the specific question which he adroitly side-stepped and never answered. Yes, yes, it’s true that we now know there are no witches, but that means we also know that the people who got burned at the stake were, in fact, innocent. What does Real Morality say about murdering innocent victims on account of Christian beliefs, Professor Lewis? Professor Lewis?

Granted, this is an especially tricky question and it’s not surprising that Lewis would prefer to avoid it, because once you realize that Christian beliefs led to the murder of large numbers of innocent victims, the moral question becomes, “Who led the murderers to believe in killing witches?” Take a wild guess what the answer is.

Exodus 22:18 — Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.

Yup. We could also add the Old Testament prophets who praised King Saul for putting to death all the witches in Israel (except the famous witch at Endor). Even the New Testament lists witchcraft among the acts of the sinful nature. Christians believed in witches, and in killing witches, because the Bible taught these things as though they were true. Now the moral question becomes, “If you believe God’s Word, and act on it, are you morally guilty, or does the guilt belong to God?” If we know that the Bible can be wrong about life-and-death issues, can Real Morality ever allow us to act as though Scripture must necessarily be true?

Remember, too, that the witch-burners typically were not relying on the Scriptures alone. They first “obtained” a confession from the accused witch, and then executed her. Perhaps we should ask Prof. Lewis about the morality of using torture to elicit confessions from the accused? Assuming he gave a similar answer, he might say something like “if we really thought they were Al Qaeda supporters witches, surely we would all agree that if anyone deserved torture, then these filthy quislings did?” Once again, though, the justification is based on our own (possibly erroneous) belief, rather than the wrongdoing (if any) of the accused.

This is the problem with faith-based moralities, with moralities that are based on some unseen and unverifiable list of Rights and Wrongs. It’s too easy to punish people because of certain wrong beliefs on our part rather than any wrong behavior on theirs. And it keeps coming back to haunt us. Christians tortured suspected witches in the 17th century, but oh yes, we know better than that now, because there are no witches. But did we really learn, or are we just using the same 17th century moral rationalizations today, now that we want to hurt those we suspect of being terrorists?

And of course, Christians today are literally killing “witches” once again, in Africa, with support from American churches. And it all comes back to their failure to make significant moral progress since the 17th century. To be fair, the Bible does make it hard to advance beyond that point. How can one Bible-believing Christian credibly tell another Bible-believing Christian not to believe the clear teaching of the Bible, and not to obey its clear commandments? There’s just not a lot of room to maneuver without exposing certain doubts about the believability of the Bible.

This puts Lewis in an even more insecure position, morally speaking, because not only does he fail to condemn witch-burning on moral grounds, but he does acknowledge that “God’s Word” is wrong about witches being real. That means the Scripture is factually wrong about at least some life-and-death moral issues. Lewis’ purported and invisible Real Morality thus becomes a standard that we cannot obtain even by divine revelation. Lewis claims that we all know we fail to keep this Moral Law, but how could we know whether we’re keeping it or not, if even the Bible itself cannot reliably tell us what it is?

All that Lewis has left, in the end, is some kind of subjective, mystical perception of Right and Wrong, an inner sense that boils down to “whatever seems right in my own eyes.” It’s dressed a little fancier, and it’s a bit pretentious, in that it presents itself as something engraved on our heart by God Himself, but bereft of both a real-world standard of morality and a reliable Scriptural standard, it’s the only standard he has left. The believer has no alternative but to accept his own personal opinions of right and wrong as the sole measure of Real Morality.

Maybe that’s why Lewis is so popular: he gives people a way to view their own personal morality as “coincidentally” being the same as Universal Moral Law, thus allowing them the pleasures of self-righteousness without the burden of having to live by someone else’s rules. Not a terribly high-quality ethic, but damn clever marketing, eh? No wonder so many modern apologists choose him as their patron saint.

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Posted in Atheistic Morality, Unapologetics, XFiles. 7 Comments »

7 Responses to “XFiles Weekend: On the morality of burning witches”

  1. Ben Says:

    One interesting response to Lewis would be a question: if scientific improvement is the reason we don’t burn people for suspected witchcraft anymore, then why do many Christians not like the idea of Harry Potter because it “promotes witchcraft”? If something doesn’t exist, then surely there can be no harm in promoting it.

    Oh, wait a second, my irony metre is spinning.

  2. mikespeir Says:

    I think your reasoning here is pretty ironclad. I do wish you’d remove the struck-out “Al Qaeda supporters”, though. I realize you’re trying to be ironic, but you’re basically giving your reader an excuse to go off an a tangent at that point–and miss your point. Bible-believing Christians will greedily seize that excuse to derail the logical progression here. There will be quibbles like, “But Al Qaeda supporters actually exist,” and so forth. Then the discussion will degenerate into considerations about whether we ought to torture Al Qaeda supporters and…well, you know how it goes.

    Just my, probably unwelcome, two cents.

  3. pevo Says:

    “Maybe that’s why Lewis is so popular: he gives people a way to view their own personal morality as “coincidentally” being the same as Universal Moral Law, thus allowing them the pleasures of self-righteousness without the burden of having to live by someone else’s rules.”

    Excellently said. If I might add, without the burden of having to actually work at developing a consistent morality, holding one’s self to that morality, and spending countless hours studying the world to help avoid making mistakes about what is real and what isn’t.

    These are difficult things. Being moral is a chore.

  4. Hunt Says:

    “Maybe that’s why Lewis is so popular: he gives people a way to view their own personal morality as “coincidentally” being the same as Universal Moral Law, thus allowing them the pleasures of self-righteousness without the burden of having to live by someone else’s rules.”

    The moral of the story, if you will, is that we humans have an incredible capacity to rationalize and compartmentalize our behavior. I think this applies to all of us, and it’s one of the reasons why if you want to live “a moral life” it requires that you keep your antennae out and continually reevaluate your own behavior — because we can so easily trick ourselves into believing we’re acting correctly when we ain’t. I remember hearing of a priest who was interviewed about having sexual liaisons with mistresses and was asked why he didn’t divorce his wife (he was Eastern Orthodox, I guess). He answered that the Church would forbid it. So here’s this guy living in total moral contradiction, yet somehow he’s making it fly in spite of the cognitive dissonance. The most extreme example here is the Nazi Wannsee Conference, where Nazi leaders hit upon the “final solution.” They didn’t propose it as a means to go down in history as monstrous mass murderers. They thought they were doing the morally courageous thing and would be remembered for a thousand years for their heroic decision. Such is our capacity to entertain moral insanity and actually convince ourselves that it is really doing the right thing.

  5. Hunt Says:

    pevo, I hadn’t read your comment before commenting. Interesting that we both had pretty much the same thought.

  6. pboyfloyd Says:

    “…surely we would all agree that if anyone deserved the death penalty, then these filthy quislings did?”

    I think he’s playing to his base here. This is the common thread that the Abrahamic religions have, “You are with us or against us.”

    This is, in their view, the Absolute Moral Standard by which they condemn atheists, gays and Muslims.

    Lewis likely feels that he is cloaking this overview in this worst-case scenario, “What if the ENEMY were supernatural?”.

    I wonder if cl would imagine Lewis being affronted by the notion that his sacred morality is reducible to a childish ‘with-us-or-against-us’ paradigm. I suspect he would. And would not speechless affront be a suitable rebuttal…(hehe)

  7. Scotlyn Says:

    I’m a newbie, and have just read the whole of your excellent series to date on “Mere Christianity.” Thanks.

    I disagree with Mikespeir on the reference to “Al Qaeda supporters.” I think your point is exactly right. We have permitted ourselves to torture them, and gain confessions which more than likely are false, for who they are, not for what they may have done. On this score, what is notable about so many of the alleged witches burned as well as the alleged Al Qaeda supporters interned in Guantanamo is their extreme youth!