An article in the Guardian this morning discusses the limits of the reason of Sir Thomas Browne, a 17th century scientist. At one point, he gave testimony that helped lead a jury to sentence two women to the gallows for being witches. The writer, Roz Kaveney claimed
Browne was complicit in judicial murder because he regarded witchcraft as a real thing, because it was in scripture and in the news reports – when we praise his sweet reasonableness, we need to remember its limits.
Hold on. “Judicial murder”?
Since we “know” there is no such thing as witches, Browne was not only mistaken to believe in their existence, but he has blood on his hands for failing to have the perspective to question the prevailing wisdom of his day.
Shall we count the ways in which you and I have blood on our hands for failing to question the prevailing wisdom of ours?
Because Western culture elevates the freedom of the individual as the highest good, we are moving in moral directions that Browne’s society would have found appalling. We can now see glimpses in the modern West of a move toward the acceptance of infanticide in the name of individual choice. Euthanasia is legal in Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxemburg, and assisted suicide is allowed in Washington, Oregon, and Switzerland. Drone warfare has given us the power to kill without emotion or humanity.
All of these moral choices would lead a witchcraft-believing society’s collective jaw to drop. Where 17th century England believe its spirituality was a convincing explanation of the world, we in the modern West have given ourselves to an unmitigated reason that has no justification other than that it is reasonable. Their Spirituality led to religious wars and executing witches. Our Reason leads to robotic wars and executing the most vulnerable among us.
Ultimately, the reason we don’t believe in witches is not because we know they don’t exist (some people in our culture today claim to be witches). It is because we live in a time and place in which witches are implausible. Our culture has said witches don’t exist, therefore, we disbelieve in them.
That isn’t a reason. It is inertia. We don’t know our cultural assumptions are better than our forbears. We assume they are. That is not an argument. It is laziness.
Most of us don’t have a reason not to believe in witches. We simply let society tell us we don’t need to think about it. What other unexamined assumptions lead us to live the way we do? And if unexamined, are they worth having?