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BooksThe religious intolerance and the prudent hand of the secular state (2)

The religious intolerance and the prudent hand of the secular state (2)

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From the book “Atheistic Delusions” by David B. Hart

It is even more significant that some of the great early theorists of modern science and the scientific method believed in magic and were therefore often inclined to recommend persecution to those who used it for malicious purposes. Rodney Stark does not exaggerate when he states that “the first serious objections to the reality of satanic sorcery come from the Spanish inquisitors, not from the scholars.” We could even argue that interest in magic (though not in its malicious varieties) has been one of the main ingredients in the evolution of modern scientific thought. Undoubtedly, the rediscovery during the Renaissance of the Corpus Hermeticum [13] – this magnificent late antique anthology, which brought together texts from Neoplatonism, Gnosticism, alchemy, magic, astrology and religion – was of great importance for the formation of the ethos of modern science. . Francis Bacon (1561-1626), who did so much to define the inner rationality of the modern scientific method and who was such an energetic advocate of man’s “mission” to know and conquer the material world, is at least a continuation of the emphasis. , which the revival of Hermeticism places on the godlike rights of mankind above the lower levels of material creation, together with the alchemical tradition of decomposing the nature of the elements so that it may be made to reveal its deepest secrets. Robert Boyle (1627–1691), one of the founders of the British Royal Society, probably the greatest scientist of the seventeenth century and a pioneer in the study of air pressure and vacuum, was a student of alchemy and was firmly convinced of the reality of witches and the need to eliminate them. Joseph Glenville (1636–1680), also a member of the British Royal Society and a major apologist for his experimental methods, considered the reality of witchcraft to be something that could be scientifically proven. [14] Even Newton devoted far more energy to his alchemy than to his physical theories.

In fact, the rise of modern science and the obsession with witchcraft in Early Modernity are not just contemporary currents within Western society, but also two closely related manifestations of the unfolding of a new post-Christian sense of human domination over the world. There is nothing outrageous in such a claim. After all, magic is essentially just a kind of materialism: if it appeals to any factors beyond the realm of the visible, those factors are not supernatural — in the theological sense, “transcendent.” What can be said most about them is that they are simply extraordinary, or in other words, more elusive, more powerful aspects of the physical cosmos. Both Hermetic magic and modern science (at least in its most Bacon form) are equally concerned with the hidden forces within the material order — forces that are completely devoid of personality and morally neutral, and that we can learn to manipulate. and we aim at both noble and ignoble ends. In other words, both are engaged in the domination of the physical cosmos, the instrumental subordination of nature by mankind, and the continual increase of human power. Therefore, one cannot really speak of any belated triumph of science over magic, but simply of a natural replacement of the last of the first, in which the ability of science to complete what magic could only begin to become more and more obvious. Or rather, in the modern period, “magic” and “science” can only be distinguished retrospectively – according to their respective degrees of effectiveness. However, there has never been an antagonism between the two: metaphysically, morally and conceptually, they both belong to the same continuum.

As for the widespread fear of malicious magic and Satanism in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when treatises on demonolatry, possession, evil spirits, and night monsters spread at the speed of their imprint, [15] it is tempting to simply equate it with any of those annoying and inexplicable forms of popular enthusiasm, such as the charm of a UFO, a Yeti, a Loch Ness monster, or the Bermuda Triangle, that would be just a staple of the specific idiocy of the 1970s, as long as their the consequences were not so tragic and lasting. A better analogy for this would be the panic that gripped Roman society in the second century BC. as a result of the migration to Italy of the cult of Dionysus or Bacchus, when there were rumors of orgies in the dark ages, of women poisoning their husbands, of children of noble families involved in ritual murders. Bacchanalia were then banned, accusations against them secured by rewards and confessions extracted by torture, and thousands of executions were ordered. Leaving aside all analogies, however, it should hardly be surprising that the fascination with Satanists and witches in the Early Modern period must have arisen in those centuries when the Christian order in Western Europe was slowly disintegrating, the authority of the church with regard to the deeds of the peoples had weakened, and the old faith could no longer offer a sufficient sense of security against the dark and nameless forces of nature, history, and destiny. Just as the Christian faith in the transcendent God-Creator had once deprived magic of appearing in any way religiously or philosophically serious, appealing to mere superstition and simple craftsmanship, so the fragmentation of Christian Europe probably encouraged a certain a kind of magical thinking to re-emerge and slip unnoticed among the fears of this tragic and chaotic age. To what extent, however, all this is capable of representing any adequate “explanation” of the extraordinary atrocities and all manifestations of fanaticism in Early Modernity is impossible to say.

All of this is not intended to justify the institution of the Roman Catholic Church for its complicity in violence during this period or for its growing sharpness and paranoia that actually existed. All powerful institutions are afraid of a decline in their power. Nor does it aim to deny that the Late Middle Ages and Early Modernity were periods marked by a passion for the eradication of heresies, unsurpassed by the time of the imp. Justinian I onwards.

It is difficult, for example, to ignore the Spanish Inquisition, which occupies such a special place among the collective nightmares of Western culture. However, there are certain facts that even here need to be taken into account. On the one hand, four decades of research have made it clear that many of our conventional notions of the Inquisition are simply hasty exaggerations and sensationalist fabrications; that for more than three centuries of its existence the Inquisition had been far more condescending and far less powerful than it had once been thought to be, and that in many cases, as any Spaniard accused of witchcraft had reason to understand, – it acted as a beneficial brake on the cruelty of the secular courts. However, I think we will all agree that the Inquisition was – in principle always, and often in its actions – a nasty institution, that the first two decades of its activity in Spain were particularly brutal, and that the relative rarity of torture or the burning of the stake does not make either of these two practices less terrible. However, we must not forget that, in principle, the Spanish Inquisition was a matter of Crown policy and service, which was at the disposal of the state.

True, the founder of the early Inquisition was Pope Sixtus IV (1414–1484), but he did so under pressure from King Fernando (1452–1516) and Queen Isabella (1451–1504), who, after centuries of Muslim occupation of Andalusia, – are thirsty for any instrument which, in their view, could have helped to strengthen national unity and increase the power of Castile and Aragon. However, the cruelty of the early Inquisition and the corruption in its circles were so great that soon Sixtus IV tried to intervene in its actions. With a papal bull of April 1482, he uncompromisingly denounced and condemned the destruction of innocent lives and the seizure of property by the Inquisition (although, of course, he did not object in principle to the execution of actual heretics). However, Fernando effectively refused to recognize this bull and in 1483 forced Sixtus IV to relinquish control of the Inquisition to the Spanish throne and to agree to the appointment of the Grand Inquisitor by the civil authorities. The first person to receive this title was the infamous Thomas de Torquemada (1420–1498), an extremely strict and uncompromising priest, especially with regard to converts: those who had converted from Judaism and Islam to Christianity. and which he suspects of attachment to the teachings of their old faiths. By the time of his final restraint by Pope Alexander VI (1431–1503), he was already responsible for the expulsion of a large number of Jews from Spain, as well as in all probability for about two thousand executions of “heretics.” However, even after Sixtus IV handed over his powers over the Inquisition, he did not completely renounce his resistance to its extremes. In 1484, for example, he supported the city of Teruel after being denied access to the Inquisition, a revolt that was suppressed the following year by Fernando by force of arms. Both Sixtus IV and his successor Innocent VIII (1432–1492) continued to make sporadic demands for greater leniency from the Inquisition and to try, at auspicious times, to intervene on the side of the converts. In the next century, the Inquisition was often drawn into the disgusting national policy of “pure blood” (limpieza de sangre), of which no one was safe – not even a monk, a priest or an archbishop. There was some resistance to Spanish radicalism in Spain itself, and none of the forms of resistance deserved as much honor and was as uncompromising as that of the founder of the Jesuit order, Ignatius Loyola (1491–1556). Often, however, the relief from racist harassment, however weak or infrequent, was provided solely by papal intervention. [16]

How do we understand all these stories? Should we conclude from them that religion in itself brings death, or that intolerance is something that is intrinsically linked to “extreme beliefs”? Should we see these stories as evidence of a cruelty that is inherent in Christianity as such? Certainly none of the periods in the history of Western Christianity seems – at least not superficially – more attractive to anti-Christian polemicists seeking convicting evidence. However, it is obvious to me that the real lesson we need to learn is the exact opposite, and this lesson is about the violence inherent in the state and the tragedy that the institutional church has ever allowed itself to be involved in secular politics. that it ever became responsible for maintaining social order, national or imperial unity. To think of worshiping the gods and loyalty to the Empire as essentially inseparable was perfectly natural for pagan Roman society, just as it was natural for Roman courts to establish extraordinary inquisitions and execute atheists [17] as traitors. However, when in 385 the Roman emperor (or in fact the pretender for such [18]) executed Ep. Priscilla in Spain for heresy, prominent Christians such as St. Martin of Turkey and St. Ambrose of Milan protested, seeing in such an action a celebration of pagan values ​​and a specific kind of pagan brutality, and none of the Church Fathers ever encouraged or approved of such measures. . During the so-called In the dark ages, in fact, the only punishment for persistence in heresy is excommunication from Eucharistic communion. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, however, in times of the church’s unbreakable connection with secular power, when the papacy itself was a state and the Holy Roman Empire asserted its rights over the old imperial order, when new religious movements seemed more outspoken than ever subversive. for ecclesiastical and secular power, and the pillars of society seem to be shaken as never before, and chaos seems ready to come again, then throughout Western Europe heresy again becomes a felony. In honor of the Roman Catholic Church, however, it should be noted that it is not a leader in this regard: when, for example, in 1051 a group of Cathars (or “Manicheans”) were hanged by order of the often besieged Holy Roman Emperor Heinrich III (1017–1056), he had to bear the reproach of the bishop of Liège. For her eternal dishonor, however, the church abandons this approach. When the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II (1194–1250) issued laws ordering the surrender of all heretics to secular power to be burned at the stake, the institutional church’s agreement to this came without any visible sign of a troubled conscience. In the sixteenth century, however, little effort was needed in Iberia to remove the newly established Inquisition from direct papal control and to openly turn it into an instrument for strengthening the political, religious, and social unity of the national forces rising on the peninsula.

The long history of Christianity is astonishingly rich in majestic moral, intellectual, and cultural achievements, and many of them would never have been possible without the conversion of the Roman Empire to the new faith. However, this story is also a story of a constant struggle between the ability of the Gospel to change and shape society and the ability of the state to absorb any useful institution. However, if the injustices and violence in Western Christianity of the Late Middle Ages and Early Modernity were natural consequences of something inherent in Christian beliefs, if it is indeed true that the emergence of the secular state saved Western humanity from the dominance of religious intolerance, then which we will have to discover, looking back at the course of Western European history, will have to be a continuous, albeit twisted, arc: the decline of the golden days of the Roman imperial order, when religious violence was held back by the prudent hand of the state, to a long period of fanaticism, cruelty, persecution and religious rivalry, and then, after the gradual subjugation of the church, a slow return from the terrible brutality of the “age of faith” – to a progressive, more rational, more humane and less violent social structure. However, this is exactly what we cannot find. Instead, we note that violence increases in proportion to the degree of sovereignty claimed by the state, and that whenever the medieval church ceded authority in the moral realm of secular power, injustice and cruelty flourished. We also note that early medieval society, for all its deprivation, injustice, and deprivation, was in most cases far more just, generous, and (basically) peaceful than the imperial culture it inherited, and immeasurably more peaceful and even more generous (as incredible as it may seem to us) compared to the society created by the triumph of the nation-state in the period of Early Modernity. In this last example, I am not just talking about the violence of the “transitional” period of Early Modernity, on the eve of the so-called Enlightenment. The Enlightenment, viewed purely politically, was in itself a transition from an era of nationalist struggles in which states still considered it necessary to use religious institutions as instruments of their power to another era of even greater ones. nationalist struggles, when religious justifications have become obsolete, as the state has become a cult in itself and its power a single morality.


[12] Stark, R. Op. cit., p. 221.

[13] The texts in the Corpus Hermeticum (or simply Hermetica) are attributed to the syncretic deity Hermes Trismegistus and were written in the second or third Christian century in ancient Greek in Egypt.

[14] See: Burton, D., D. Grandy. Magic, Mystery, and Science: The Occult in Western Civilization, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004, p. 180-181.

[15] We could mention, among all the other works of Samuel de Casini, Bernard di Como, Johannes Trithemius, Martin d’Arles, Silvestro Mazolini, Bartolommeo di Spina, Jean Bodin, René Benoist, Alfonso de Castro, Peter Binsfeld, Franz Agricola and Nicholas Remi. For a comprehensive list of these authors, see: Brouette, E. The Sixteenth Century and Satanism. – In: Satan, London: Sheed & Ward, 1951, p. 315-317.

[16] See: Kamen, H. The Spanish Inquisition: A Historical Revision, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998, p. 28-54, 73.

[17] By “atheists” in this case are meant those who do not worship pagan deities, which accusation during the period of persecution was most often made against Christians.

[18] We are talking about Flavius ​​Magnus Maximus Augustus – usurper of imperial power in Britain, Gaul and Spain in the period 383-388.

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