What do demons, witches and aliens have in common?
In his new book, Demon Lovers: Witchcraft, Sex and the Crisis of Belief (University of Chicago, March 2002), Walter Stephens asserts that belief in such threatening beings has for centuries helped skeptics resolve doubts about religious doctrine and their faith in God.
Accused witches -- women who allegedly received evil powers from demon lovers -- were interpreted by theologians as living "proof" of the spiritual world, Stephens argues. The "reality" of witchcraft not only explained why bad things happened, but, through witches' alleged physical interactions with demons, also provided indirect proof of the existence of God. The twisted logic can be traced back to the early 15th century when theologians began writing the first systematic treatises on witchcraft, says Stephens, the Charles S. Singleton Professor of Italian Studies at The Johns Hopkins University.
"Without witches, some late medieval theologians were left facing their questions as to why bad things happen," Stephens says. "In their pre-scientific, biblically based world view, the logical alternative to witches and demons as an explanation of misfortune was a God not powerful enough to stop bad things happening or not good enough to try. Because theologians repressed that alternative, you find them justifying witch hunts. It's rather Freudian at bottom: the thoughts you refuse to think, you will act out in some violent, seemingly illogical way."
Though the theologians weren't aware of it most of the time, Stephens says their drive to prove the existence of witches and demons was really an effort to shore up their belief in God. If the existence of evil demons was provable, then the reality of angels, sacred spiritual mysteries like the sacraments, the stories in the Bible -- and ultimately the existence of God -- would be provable as well.
"Theologians wanted to believe in the reality of the spirit world," Stephens says. "Disagreements among Christians worried them as well, so, on an undeliberate level, they began to put two and two together. Sabotage by people who had physical interactions with demons was an attractive explanation of both evil and doctrinal uncertainty. The guys who wrote these treatises were not aware of using slander to prove a scientific hypothesis, but it is a reasonable analogy for what they were doing."
"Witchcraft persecution was the most dramatic phase of a crisis of belief in the supernatural that has lasted nearly a thousand years," Stephens says. "Today, fear of witches is strongest among Christians who need to protect their belief in the literal truth of the Bible and the literal existence of Satan. An example of this are the Satanic ritual child abuse scandals." But physical encounters with creatures from outer space are a New Age or post-Christian equivalent, Stephens says.
"Like witchcraft, alien abductions also supposedly involve bodily interaction with superhuman beings," Stephens says. "They also prove that 'we are not alone.'"
Demon Lovers is the culmination of Stephens's extensive study of theological writings concerning sorcery and magic. While historians have focused on sociological and political explanations of witch hunts, Stephens has pioneered the in-depth study of intellectuals' attempts to justify the practice.
"Witch hunting is not a story of the Dark Ages," says Italian literary critic and scholar Umberto Eco. "It lasted until the Age of Reason. Sticking rigorously to texts, Walter Stephens has written a work of high and fascinating scholarship on a story which has frequently inspired only legends and occultism."
To arrange an interview with Walter Stephens, contact Amy Cowles at 410-516-7800.
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