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Think Humanity is Good at Determining Truth Versus Fiction?: From the Witch Trials to QAnon

Image by Willgard Krause from Pixabay

Think humanity is good at determining truth versus fiction? History says otherwise.

“Christians are cannibalistic, incestuous, ass-worshiping magicians who practice dangerous superstitions,” writes J David Cassel in describing the us vs. them nature of the Romans’ thought toward early Christians.

So, what specifically did the Romans accuse the Christians of? Well, they said that Christians murdered babies and drank their blood.

He continued: “Christianity faced opposition from its inception. Its founder was killed, and its first major missionaries were martyred. But as Christianity spread beyond Judea, the nature of the criticisms changed. Rather than opposing Jesus’ teachings, most attacks against Christianity arose from ignorance and fear.”

Think humanity is good at determining truth versus fiction? History says otherwise.

Baker, Joseph E., ca. 1837-1914, artist., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In the 16th and 17th century, many tens of thousands of people were either hanged, drowned, burned at the stake, or stoned to death because they were accused of being witches, most notably in places like Salem, Massachusetts.

And what were some of the activities or horrible rituals that would be evidence of being a witch? Religion historian David Frankfurter wrote a book called Evil Incarnate. Frankfurter found that accusation number one was – you guessed it – eating babies.

In short, witches were accused by angry mobs of doing the same things that Christians were accused of doing by the Romans in previous centuries. Why? Well, evolutionary psychology teaches us that humans are hardwired to think there’s bad people out there.

In the Salem Witch Trials, there was no proof of missing babies. If babies were being eaten, wouldn’t someone notice their baby was missing?

Well, maybe the evidence is far away? They must certainly be holding dark rituals deep in the woods. Let’s torture them until they confess. But it’s a granny who is being accused of witchcraft. How is a granny traveling deep into the forest to eat babies? Well, she must be riding a broom, of course, and a legend was created to make sense of the illogic of a wild accusation.

Think humanity is good at determining truth versus fiction? History says otherwise.

The movie The Exorcist came out in 1973 and depicted a girl possessed by the devil. No one believed the mother, not even the priest will believe her.

The Exorcist was bracketed by Rosemary’s Baby in 1968 and The Omen in 1976, forming a sort of Unholy Trinity of films that presented a mythology of hidden cults of Satanists and the Antichrist and demons.

Americans were polled in the 1960s and only about a third of Americans said they believe in a literal devil. Now that number has doubled, illustrating that the Unholy Trinity shaped a lot of modern belief about about the devil for a lot of people.

In fact, directly after The Exorcist was released, lots of priests began getting inundated with calls saying, “I’m possessed, my kid’s possessed, my dog’s possessed.” The modern assumption is that belief in demons and devils was highest in the annals of yesteryear because people weren’t technologically advanced, didn’t understand medicine, or had mental illness.

Yet the evidence just doesn’t support that theory. We live in the most technologically advanced era ever, yet we are way more into demons, witches, and cults than we were 50 years ago.

Think humanity is good at determining truth versus fiction? History says otherwise.

Speaking of exhibiting an incredible paranoia, the economic reality of the 1980s meant that both parents were entering the workforce in record numbers. Whereas the mother may have previously stayed at home to greet the kids after school, it was increasingly a culture of “latchkey” kids who’d let themselves in the house, then were expected to entertain themselves for a few hours. Some–like me–would wander off to play in the woods.

Parents had unexpressed guilt about this and their worries about their kids being unattended would often come out sideways, driven by irrational fears and anxieties.

In addition to The Exorcist, the 1970s also featured a cultural rise of the Religious Right, organized by televangelists like William Stryker Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson of the 700 Club, which had tens of millions of viewers.

These televangelists from the Religious Right would consistently book fringe voices and conspiracy theorists and plug them over and over, normalizing them, much like Fox News does today. Suddenly, a single, isolated crazy was magnified until it felt like there was a crazy under every bush and around every corner.

And the Religious Right kept tossing chum out into those waters, hoping to bloody them up even more. It was as if anxiety was taking shape, starting to feel a little more tangible. Indeed, folks started to believe that literal demonic forces were swirling around them, a phenomenon stoked even further by books like Left Behind.

Says Religious Studies professor Joseph Laycock,

“Many Americans truly did feel the corrupting presence of an invisible force that seemed to be all around them, corrupting their children and undermining the values of the family. This anxiety was expressed in symbolic terms, and these symbols were mistaken for reality.”

D&D fans remember it being called the “Satanic Panic” and thousands of kids had their D&D books confiscated by anxious parents or educators. Already nerdy, the Satanic Panic pushed D&D players deeper “underground” for fear that they’d be ostracized for playing “the devil’s game.” Of course, this simply further deepened the misunderstanding and mystery of the game. 

I should know, the 80s tried to beat into my head that my beloved D&D was a direct shout out to Satan. Yet, lo and behold, most of my career I have been a pastor. I must have failed a saving throw along the way.

Think humanity is good at determining truth versus fiction? History says otherwise.

The human brain is hardwired for in-group / out-group. We’ve seen it all throughout history. During times of social upheaval, it’s our way of assuring ourselves that we’re on the right team.

Obviously the things that we’re doing must be the right way to do things. Our rationalization then becomes that our enemy is so awful they do everything that we do backwards. We’re the good guys and we protect babies. Those bad guys eat them.

But it’s just those neanderthals like ages past though. Right? The Babylonians and their accounts of demonic people, McCarthy seeing a Communist in every office, the Romans and the settlers at Salem. Moms afraid of D&D and Black Sabbath.

Is just them, right? Not us. We surely have our heads on straight. Yet we see the same phenomenon today, the rush to uncover enemies on social media, the type that mobilizes insurrectionists, radicalized by crazy tales of celebrities eating babies for their endocrine.

The insanity of QAnon is not new. If history has taught us anything, it’s that us humans aren’t good at determining fact versus fiction.


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