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Saturday, February 28, 2015

Steven Pinker and Michael Shermer, Please Tell the Truth about Friedrich Spee

Friedrich Spee by Martin Mendgen Source
Dr. Steven Pinker
Dr. Michael Shermer
Penguin Books
Henry Holt and Company


I'm writing to request that you retract what appears to be false material published in both the 2011 Penguin Book Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Dr. Steven Pinker and the 2015 Henry Holt and Company book The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity Toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom by Dr. Michael Shermer. I request that you remove this material from any future editions of both books, and that you insert accurate material.

Both books repeat an unsourced anecdote that misrepresents Father Friedrich Spee, one of the first and most influential opponents of the witch craze that seized Europe during the Early Modern Period. This misrepresentation of a long dead priest matters for several reasons.

Friedrich Spee was a human rights hero and pioneer. He risked his life for others.

Spee is a figure of historical importance. Understanding him is key to understanding the witch craze, a significant period in Western history.

Spee's work is highly significant today. His biographers consider Spee to be among the first influential authors to work out an argument against the use of torture to obtain confessions. Spee "ranks among the most important authors of his time." His work "was one of the first sustained, detailed attacks…against the witch trials and use of torture" (Modras 27).

Both Doctors Pinker and Shermer self-identify as representational of atheist reason and truth, as opposed to the alleged obscurantism of persons of faith. That both gentlemen have disseminated unsourced material from a non-scholarly book undermines their self-identification.

Both Doctors Pinker and Shermer self-identify as representing a new and improved, science-and-reason-inspired path toward better lives for all humankind. Father Friedrich Spee should be assessed as an ally, and celebrated, by those interested in human rights. He should not be denigrated and slandered with the use of spurious material and unscholarly methodology.

Both Doctors Pinker and Shermer repeat Charles Mackay's anecdote about Friedrich Spee in their books. As Mackay would have us believe, a humanitarian secular leader, the Duke of Brunswick, "shocked" by the witch craze, which, presumably, is being carried out by Catholic clerics, summons Father Friedrich Spee. The Duke demonstrates to Spee that torture does not work in the extraction of confessions. Brunswick does this by torturing an accused witch into implicating Spee in witchcraft. Spee has an Aha moment and puts an end to the witch craze. Dr. Pinker uses this anecdote to prove that the "Age of Reason" and a "scientific spirit" ended the witch craze. Dr. Pinker places the witch craze in the Middle Ages, as does Dr. Shermer. Dr. Shermer uses the same anecdote to "prove" the same point.

The anecdote is almost certainly false.

I wrote to Dr. Pinker and he was kind enough to reply. He acknowledged that he found the anecdote in a book that cited Charles MacKay's 1841 book Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. Charles MacKay was a Scottish journalist, not a scholar. Delusions is not a serious history of the witch craze. It was written in a popular and sensationalistic style. I found no footnote for the anecdote in my copy of Mackay's book. The reference librarians at the Cheng Library found no footnote for Mackay's anecdote in their copy of Delusions.

Dr. Ronald Modras, author of a biographical sketch of Spee that appeared in a scholarly journal, and author of several other works on Jesuits and Catholic history, wrote to tell me that he has read at least eight works on Friedrich Spee and that none of them mention Mackay's Duke of Brunswick anecdote.

I find no mention of Spee, witches, or torture in one online biography of the Duke of Brunswick (here).

At the height of the witch craze, Friedrich Spee risked his life in writing an anti-witch craze book, Cautio Criminalis. There is no evidence in Cautio Criminalis that it was inspired by any shallow trick of any Duke. Rather, as Modras writes, "The Cautio is not a calmly argued essay on jurisprudence. It is a shrill cry to stop a travesty of justice" (Modras 29).

Cautio Criminalis was inspired by Spee's experience. "I myself have accompanied several women to their deaths in various places over the preceding years whose innocence even now I am so sure of that there could never be any effort and diligence too great that I would not undertake it in order to reveal this truth…One can easily guess what feelings were in my soul when I was present at such miserable deaths."

Cautio Criminalis' argument against the witch craze is not the argument Doctors Pinker and Shermer want it to be. Both Doctors Pinker and Shermer repeat what has since been proven false: that increasing scientific thought ended the witch craze.

In fact Spee does not use a scientific disbelief in witches to support his case against the witch craze. Modras argues that Spee is like a modern-day opponent of the death penalty. Realizing that banning the death penalty outright might be unattainable, death-penalty opponents focus on issues like the high cost of death penalty cases, and the lower cost of life in prison.

Spee's concession to popular belief notwithstanding, his insights about what causes witch crazes are in alignment with contemporary scholarship.

"It all begins with superstition, envy, and calumnies. Something goes amiss, and people clamor for an inquisition. All the divine punishments described in the Bible now come from witches. God and nature are no longer responsible for any mishap; witches do it all" (Modras 32, summarizing Cautio Criminalis).

That a Roman Catholic priest writing in the height of the witch craze offered insights that mirrors the most modern scholarship contradicts the notion that people needed to evolve into, or be tutored by, atheists, or scientists, or twenty-first century moderns.

Spee briefly concedes what his readers probably cannot be disabused of – that witches exist – but then Spee argues that guilt cannot be adequately ascertained, and torture is too cruel and unjust.

Spee uses the tools of his Catholic faith to make his point to his audience. Spee uses traditional Jesuit argumentation style and Biblical citations. He cites the parable of the wheat and the weeds. Just as a farmer allows weeds to grow with wheat, and separates one from the other at harvest, God allows sinners to live out their lives (Matthew 13). Just so accused witches should be allowed to live, Spee argues, in order that people might avoid the serious crime of killing innocents. In risking his life to save others and to cleanse the soul of his church and his wider society, Spee was following the example of his Lord, Jesus Christ.

Spee's traditional, Catholic, Jesuit argumentation style, his graphic descriptions of the cruelty and irrationality of torture, and his Biblical references worked.

Where and when Spee's book was translated and read by leaders, the witch craze ended.

The pattern of Spee's impact was repeated throughout Europe. It wasn't science that ended the witch craze.

I asked prominent witch craze scholar Brian P. Levack, "What ended the witch craze?"

On February 21, 2015, Levack wrote to me, "I address this question at length in the third edition of my book, The Witch-hunt in Early Modern Europe, and at great length in my essay on the decline and end of witch-hunting in Witchcraft and Magic in Europe: the Eighteenth Century. This is a complicated issue, but my main argument is that the trials did not end because judicial authorities stopped believing in witchcraft but because they began to realize that the crime could not be proved at law."

In his other writings, Spee showed his special concern for women. He wrote a devotional book directed specifically at women's spiritual development. He used feminine metaphors for God. He was a brave and self-sacrificing man who entered primitive hospitals, malodorous, foul places he described in his writing. He died at the young age of 44 of an infection contracted while ministering to the sick.

Nowhere in the factual biography of Father Friedrich Spee does one encounter the silly anecdote deployed by both Doctors Pinker and Shermer to prove that ignorant Catholics required compassionate secular leaders to end the witch craze.

The old-fashioned, popular understanding of the witch craze runs something like this: In the Middle Ages or Dark Ages, the obscurantist, misogynist, all-male and omnipotent Catholic Church murdered millions of innocent, Goddess-worshipping wise women. Then the Enlightenment came along, people rejected religion -- especially Catholicism -- suddenly became very smart and scientific and atheistic, and stopped the witch craze.

Scholars have completely debunked everything about this narrative. The witch craze took place not, as Doctors Pinker and Shermer would have it, during the "Dark" or Middle Ages, but during the Early Modern Period.

In the real Middle Ages, the Catholic Church repeatedly rejected the concept of witchcraft. Societal stresses like the breakup of the Catholic Church during the Reformation, the Little Ice Age, and changes in the prices of basic goods and traditional patterns of almsgiving contributed to witch crazes.

The Inquisition actually sometimes suppressed local witch crazes. See, for example, Alonso de Salazar Frías, the witch's advocate, who was himself a Spanish Inquisitor, and who worked to stop the witch craze in his region. The demand for trials often came from below, from common people, rather than from church or secular leaders, and from women. Envy and petty malice was often the spark. Men as well as women were victimized.

In a metaphorical sense, witch crazes have never ended. During the Reign of Terror, devotees of the Enlightenment, dedicated to atheism and reason, managed to rack up a death toll in one year comparable to the entire number of witch craze victims over the course of three hundred years of trials.

We fool ourselves, and we squander an opportunity to learn how to be better people, when we rewrite the witch craze as something done by people wholly other who lived in a past we have overcome.

We benefit ourselves, and the cause of righteousness, if we recognize that the witch craze was carried out by people exactly like us.

We inspire ourselves to better things when we learn of lives like that of Father Friedrich Spee, what inspired him and what he accomplished.

Doctors Pinker and Shermer, please retract the unsourced and unscholarly anecdote you have disseminated and please change any subsequent editions of your books to reflect the true history, motivations, and impact of Father Friedrich Spee.

Thank you.

Danusha V. Goska, PhD. 


  1. Brilliant. Highly educational. Thank you.

  2. A minor problem with the atheist mania to retroject their story into history is that it defames a lot of the people who we owe a great debt to.

    1. Peter I'm sure you know that Christopher Hitchens went after Mother Teresa and Maximilian Kolbe.

      Only a really sick man would do that.

  3. The most surprising thing for me is that someone would argue evolution through higher learning and understanding and ignore the rules of scholarship at the same time. It's sad when someone who's claiming to be falsely accused himself makes accusations without evidence other than rumor.He should know better than to play fast and loose with the truth... Nobody expects the the Spanish Inquisition, and he should not let arrogance blind his attempt at scholarly work, but people will have a voice.
    Thank you for setting the record straight and shining a light on this attempt at subterfuge.

    1. Otto you make very, very good points. True true true.

      Alas, I haven't set the record straight. This blog has what three readers? Shermer and Pinker have tens of thousands.

      Frustrating. But I had to say something, and you heard me, and I am grateful.

  4. Your post seems well researched and thoughtful. It appears that both authors, by relying on a secondary source, inaccurately reported the positive contributions of Friedrich Spee.

    On the other hand, is this a critical or central theme in The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity Toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom, which I assume you have read? (I have read other works of Michael Shermer but not this.) Do you agree with the notion that science and reason have improved the quality and quantity of truth, justice and freedom? Is this claim undermined by the errors about Spee?

    I think it is admirable that you have sought to correct a mistake about Spee, but you risk giving the impression that this mistake undermines the scholarship of the authors generally, or the thrust of their arguments.

    1. Thank you for reading and commenting.

      FWIW I wish I could respond to you by name.

      Anyway --

      I worked hard on this post. I also posted it on Facebook in order that friends could comment on anything I was missing. I am grateful to Liron and Karen who offered the most detailed comments. I think I made every change they asked me to make.

      I also sent it to Steven Pinker and Michael Shermer.

      Dr. Shermer asked that i not share his comments publicly, so I won't.

      Steven Pinker pointed out some disagreements, and I promised him that I will go back and make changes where it is necessary.

      in other words, I'm not playing around.

      You ask if this post is representational of The Moral Arc as a whole.

      I reviewed the entire book a few posts back. You can see that review.

      I saw too many places in The Moral Arc where this kind of problem occurs. Impressions are made that are not accurate.

      Further, this sort of thing occurs frequently in Atheist thought.

      Christopher Hitchens went after another priest, Maximilian Kolbe. Hitchens accused Kolbe of being an antisemite who was partially responsible for the Holocaust.

      Two scholars, one Jewish one not, had to take on the task of clearing Kolbe's name. Clear his name they did. A Jewish Auschwitz survivor who knew Kolbe also came forward. Kolbe in fact helped Jews when doing so meant death for a Pole. Kolbe was of course murdered by the Nazis in Auschwitz.

      It was easy for Hitchens to defame a little known Polish priest.

      It's easy to defame a priest from the distant past. Most of the scholarship about Spee is in German.

      The only reason I know about him is that I am teaching a class on witches this semester.

      If I were not teaching the class, and had not prepped for it, this anecdote would have raised alarms, but I wouldn't have had the previous reading to alert me.

      Pinker and Shermer should have been more critical of this source. It's an Atheist just-so story, an etiological legend. It deserves scrutiny.

      I think Pinker and Shermer are both nice guys who want to make the world a better place. I admire that.

      I think in their eagerness to find support for their theory, they grabbed the wrong material.

      I think they both could benefit from different methodology.

  5. From Leif:

    In the incident Pinker and Schermer refer to, the Duke of Brunswick graphically demonstrates to Spee that confession extracted under torture is unreliable. In Spee's presence, he forces an accused witch to name Spee as a participant in a witches sabbath.
    Charles Mackay's [Memoirs of extraordinary popular delusions. Volume II] retelling begins:
    'It is related of the Duke of Brunswick...', which usually indicates an apocryphal source.

    To interpret Mackay's anecdote as a 'reason versus faith' story is a bit of a stretch. We don't read anything about Duke of Brunswick's views on witchcraft, reason, or faith– only that he recognized torture as an unreliable method of extracting a confession. This is hardly a matter of religious belief.

    It would be quite interesting to learn where Mackay got his information. It sounds like a just-so story in which a persecutor experiences an epiphany. Without firm evidence, it's unfair to cast Spee as such. If the Duke of Brunswick could reach this conclusion through reason, Spee certainly could as well.