Imagine that the year is 1507, and life is difficult. Crops fail, good people suffer instantaneous and horrifying turns of bad luck, and even the children of royalty regularly die before they have taken their first steps. As it turns out, everyone understands the cause of these calamities: it is witchcraft. Not all witchcraft is at fault, of course—there are “white” witches who use their powers to heal—but there is no question that some witches have formed an alliance with the Devil. Happily, the Church has produced many learned and energetic men who are equal to this challenge, and each year hundreds of women are put to death for casting spells upon their innocent neighbors.
Imagine being among the tiny percentage of people—the 5 percent, or 10 percent at most—who think that a belief in witchcraft is nothing more than a malignant fantasy. Imagine writing a book arguing that magic spells do no real work in the world, that the confessions of bad witches are delusional or coerced, that the claims of good witches are self-serving and unempirical. You argue further that a belief in magic offers false hope of benefits that are best sought elsewhere, like from scientific medicine, and lays the ground for false accusations of imaginary crimes, leading to the misery and death of innocent people. If your name is Sam Harris, you may produce two fatuous volumes entitled The End of Magic and Letter to a Wiccan Nation. Daniel Dennett would then grapple helplessly with the origins of sorcery in his aptly named, Breaking the Spell. Richard Dawkins—whose bias against witches, warlocks, and even alchemists has long been known—will follow these books with an arrogant screed entitled, The Witch Delusion. And finally Christopher Hitchens will deliver a poisonous eructation at book-length in The Devil is Not Great.
What sort of criticism would these misguided authors likely encounter? In the following essay, I present excerpts from actual reviews of recent atheist bestsellers, replacing terms like “religion,” “God,” and “atheist” with terms like “witchcraft,” “the Devil,” and “skeptic.” Observe how much intellectual progress we have made in the last five hundred years:
“[None of these authors] takes time to consider contemporary [witchcraft] in the light of some of its most sophisticated and heroic practitioners…. Moreover, none of them ever put their weak, confused, and unplumbed ideas about [the Devil] under scrutiny. Their natural habit of mind is anthropomorphic. They tend to think of [the Devil] as if He were a human being, bound to human limitations… [These] authors pride themselves on how science advances in understanding over time, and also on how moral thinking becomes in some ways deeper and more demanding. They do not give any attention to the ways in which [magical] understanding also grows, develops, and evolves… It hardly dawns upon them that [witches and warlocks] have been, from the very beginning, in constant—and mutually enriching—dialogue with [skeptics]... The path of modern science was made straight and smooth by deep convictions that every stray element in the world of human experience—from the number of hairs on one’s head to the lonely lily in the meadow—is thoroughly known to [the Devil and his familiars] and, therefore, lies within a field of intelligibility, mutual connection, and multiple logics. All these odd and angular levels of reality, given arduous, disciplined, and cooperative effort, are in principle penetrable by the human mind… [Skepticism] cannot be true, because it is self-contradictory. Moreover, this self-contradiction is willful, and its latent purpose is pathetically transparent. [Skeptics] want all the comforts of the rationality that emanates from rational [sorcery], but without personal indebtedness to [the supernatural]. That is why they allow themselves to be rationalists only part of the way down. The alternative makes them very nervous.”
—Michael Novak, National Review
“What’s really bothersome is the suggestion that [witches] rarely question themselves while [skeptics] ask all the hard questions…. The [great warlock] Michael Novak’s book “Belief and Unbelief” is a classic in self-interrogation. “How does one know that one’s belief is truly in [Beelzebub],” he asks at one point, “not merely in some habitual emotion or pattern of response?” The problem with the neo-[skeptics] is that they seem as dogmatic as the dogmatists they condemn… But as Novak argued—in one of the best critiques of neo-[skepticism]—in the March 19 issue of National Review, “Questions have been the heart and soul of [conjuring] and [divination] for millennia.”
—E.J. Dionne, The Washington Post
“The danger is that the aggression and hostility to [magic] in all its forms… deters engagement with the really interesting questions that have emerged recently in the science/[necromancy] debate. The durability and near universality of [witchcraft] is one of the most enduring conundrums of evolutionary thinking… Does [spell-casting] still have an important role in human wellbeing? ... If [sorcery] declines, what gaps does it leave in the functioning of individuals and social groups?... I suspect the New [Skeptics] are in danger of a spectacular failure. With little understanding and even less sympathy of why people increasingly use [the evil eye] in political contexts, they’ve missed the proverbial elephant in the room. These increasingly hysterical books may boost the pension… but one suspects that they are going to do very little to challenge the appeal of a phenomenon they loathe too much to understand.”
—Madeleine Bunting, The Guardian
“If [magic], by definition, exceeds human measure, the demand that the existence of [the Great Horned One] be proven makes no sense because the machinery of proof, whatever it was, could not extend itself far enough to apprehend him. Proving the existence of [the Devil] would be possible only if [he]... were the kind of object that could be brought into view by a very large telescope or an incredibly powerful microscope. [The Devil], however—again if there is a [Devil]—is not in the world; the world is in him; and therefore there is no perspective, however technologically sophisticated, from which he could be spied. As that which encompasses everything, he cannot be discerned by anything or anyone because there is no possibility of achieving the requisite distance from his presence that discerning him would require. The criticism made by [skeptics] that the existence of [Satan] cannot be demonstrated is no criticism at all; for a [Devil] whose existence could be demonstrated wouldn’t be a [Devil]; he would just be another object in the field of human vision. This does not mean that my arguments constitute a proof of the truth of [witchcraft]; for if I were to claim that I would be making the [skeptics’] mistake from the other direction. Nor are they arguments in which I have a personal investment. Their purpose and function is simply to show how the [skeptics’] arguments miss their mark and, indeed, could not possibly hit it.”
—Stanley Fish, The New York Times
“Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on [witchcraft]. Card-carrying rationalists like Dawkins, who is the nearest thing to a professional [skeptic] we have had since Bertrand Russell, are in one sense the least well-equipped to understand what they castigate, since they don’t believe there is anything there to be understood, or at least anything worth understanding. This is why they invariably come up with vulgar caricatures of [conjuring and divination] that would make a first-year [sorcerer’s apprentice] wince…Dawkins rejects the surely reasonable case that science and [witchcraft] are not in competition on the grounds that this insulates [witchcraft] from rational inquiry. But this is a mistake… while [belief in magic], rather like love, must involve factual knowledge, it is not reducible to it… Because the universe is [the Devil’s], it shares in his life, which is the life of freedom. This is why it works all by itself, and why science and Richard Dawkins are therefore both possible. The same is true of human beings: [the Devil] is not an obstacle to our autonomy and enjoyment but, as [Aleister Crowley] argues, the power that allows us to be ourselves. Like the unconscious, he is closer to us than we are to ourselves. He is the source of our self-determination, not the erasure of it. To be dependent on him, as to be dependent on our friends, is a matter of freedom and fulfillment. Indeed, friendship is the word [Crowley] uses to characterise the relation between [the Devil] and humanity…The mainstream [witchcraft] I have just outlined may well not be true; but anyone who holds it is in my view to be respected, whereas Dawkins considers that no [sorcery], anytime or anywhere, is worthy of any respect whatsoever. This, one might note, is the opinion of a man deeply averse to dogmatism. Even moderate [occult] views, he insists, are to be ferociously contested, since they can always lead to fanaticism…Such is Dawkins’s unruffled scientific impartiality that in a book of almost four hundred pages, he can scarcely bring himself to concede that a single human benefit has flowed from [the belief in magic], a view which is as a priori improbable as it is empirically false.”
—Terry Eagleton, London Review of Books
June 26, 2007