“Religion is bad. Just look all of those ridiculous and irrational things those Calvinist Christians did during the Salem witch trials.”
Have you ever heard something like this before? I wouldn’t be surprised if you had. It’s a common argument. To be honest, as a Christian, I have never really enjoyed spending that much time thinking about the Salem witch trials precisely because of how embarrassing and shameful was the behaviour of those professing to be Christians.
However, I have thoroughly enjoyed listening to a set of podcasts by Aaron Mahnke called “Unobscured” which tells the story of the events which took place in Salem, Massachusetts in 1692. I highly recommend it. The show is very carefully researched and uses a captivating form of storytelling. As the series drew to a close, Mahnke began to reflect on what caused the frenzied and tragic events of 1692. I braced for the worst.
“It was all the fault of superstition and religion. Thankfully now we have learned to trust in science and see religion for what it truly is…nonsense.”
This is what I expected to hear. After all, this is what I have heard countless times before. However, Mahnke’s conclusion was surprisingly different. Instead, he made three points that particularly arrested my attention.
- He pointed out that the events that took place in 1692 could not really be said to be a battle between religion and science for one simple reason…most of the leading churchmen involved in the witch trials were also men of science. In fact they were some of the leading scientists of their day. Of course, the witch hunt was religious in nature. However, if the events were a result of the failure of Christians to act in accordance with their virtues of justice and compassion, it was equally a failure of scientists to act in accordance with their claim to uphold reason and require evidence. The Salem witch trials were not a battle of science vs religion but a failure of both Christians and scientists.
- Mahnke also recognised that the Christians of Salem did at times make a remarkably positive display of Christian principles. One example was that of forgiveness. Many Christians lost loved ones because they falsely accused as being witches and unjustly executed. Yet remarkably, those Christians later forgave the false accusers and welcomed them back into the church. I find that to be extraordinarily gracious behaviour.
- Finally, Mahnke concludes that what went wrong was neither scientific ignorance nor religion but rather the lack of humility, compassion and kindness in human nature. He cites examples of similarly irrational and frenzied behaviour that continued into the present day and notes that all of our scientific progress has not helped solve the problem of human nature’s capacity for hatred and evil.
While Christians should certainly learn from the mistakes of our forbears, we should also be careful not to buy into the myth that the end of religious faith would solve the world’s problems. Human sinfulness remains the fundamental problem and there is no cure for sin but the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.