Freethought Week

Reposted from: Freethought Café by J.C. Samuelson

The following subject matter applied to last week. It appeared last Monday at the original site. Nevertheless, since October is sometimes considered Freethought Month, it still seems relevant.

Examination of a WitchThe death toll had been mounting for some time now. Just this month, eight more had been hanged, some of whom were respected members of the community. This troubled Reverend Mathers, who knew that at least some of the condemned must be innocent. It was clear that something more had to be done to quell the hysteria that had gripped the community or other innocent people would visit the gallows.

A few months before, shortly after the first hanging and upon a request for advice by the governor, Mathers, along with several other ministers, had signed a letter penned by Mathers' son urging the speedy prosecution of the accused. Yet the letter had also urged caution in the proceedings. The signatories, though they fully believed in the phenomenon the accused had been charged with, doubted the validity of some of the evidence being used at trial, and were fearful that it might result in the conviction of innocent people.

It had not been enough, even in spite of growing opposition to the trials among the colonists due to the increasing respectablility of the accused, and doubts concerning those claiming to be afflicted.

Consequently, Mathers wrote a pamphlet forcefully expressing his disapproval of the use of intangible, "spectral evidence" that had been so prominently used by the court. "Better that ten suspected witches should escape than one innocent person be condemned," he wrote, echoing the sentiments of English jurist Sir John Fortescue who, some two hundred years prior, had helped establish the presumption of innocence as a principle of English law. At least a dozen of his fellow ministers added their signatures and the pamphlet found its way to the desk of Mathers' friend, Governor Phips.

Shortly after this, Thomas Brattle, a Fellow of the Royal Society at Harvard who was among the most gifted in science of his contemporaries (even gaining a mention in Newton's Principia), penned a letter to an unknown correspondent that would quickly reach the desk of the governor, as had Mathers' pamphlet. In it, he expressed his admiration for the composure of those who stood accused, the inconsistencies of the accusers, and his doubts concerning "spectral evidence."

These afflicted persons do say, and often have declared it, that they can see Spectres when their eyes are shutt, as well as when they are open. This one thing I evermore accounted as very observable, and that which might serve as a good key to unlock the nature of these mysterious troubles, if duly improved by us. Can they see Spectres when their eyes are shutt? I am sure they lye, at least speak falsely, if they say so; for the thing, in nature, is an utter impossibility. It is true, they may strongly fancye, or have things represented to their imagination, when their eyes are shutt; and I think this is all which ought to be allowed to these blind, nonsensical girls; and if our officers and Courts have apprehended, imprisoned, condemned, and executed our guiltlesse neighbours, certainly our errour is great, and we shall rue it in the conclusion. There are two or three other things that I have observed in and by these afflicted persons, which make me strongly suspect that the Devill imposes upon their brains, and deludes their fancye and imagination; and that the Devill's book (which they say has been offered them) is a mere fancye of theirs, and no reality: That the witches' meeting, the Devill's Baptism, and mock sacraments, which they oft speak of, are nothing else but the effect of their fancye, depraved and deluded by the Devill, and not a Reality to be regarded or minded by any wise man." Letter of Thomas Brattle, F. R. S., 1692 from the Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia Library

With the increasing opposition to the trials, not only among the populace but also a growing constituency of respected ministers and scientists, Governor Sir William Phips ordered that the proceedings should cease. In a letter to the Crown dated at Boston, October 12th, 1692, Governor Phips wrote:

"...I hereby declare that as soon as I came from fighting against their Majesties Enemyes and understood what danger some of their innocent subjects might be exposed to, if the evidence of the afflicted perosns only did previle either to the committing or trying of any of them, I did before any application was made unto me about it put a stop to the proceedings of the court and they are now stopt till their Majesties pleasure be known." Two Letters of Gov. William Phips (1692-1693) from Famous American Trials

Later in the month, Governor Phips would dissolve the court that had been formed to prosecute suspected witches, release many of the accused from prison, and prohibit further arrests. In November, however, a new court was formed and more people were tried and condemned. Governor Phips refused to permit enforcement of the sentences, and in the following year he pardoned those yet remaining in prison for witchcraft.

It would be years before the rights of the accused would be restored and their names cleared. However, no one was ever held accountable for the false accusations that led to the executions, though a few of the accusers confessed to wrongdoing. Indeed, the same suspect that had been blamed for instigating witchcraft in Salem was also blamed for influencing the accusers to bear false witness - the Devil. Furthermore, Increase Mathers, the influential minister who helped to both foster and to bring an end to the trials, did not doubt the existence of the Devil, or of God, or of "spectral evidence." He based his objection on the notion that "spectral evidence" could be used by the Devil, taking the form of innocent persons to deceive the accusers.

Additionally, however notable Thomas Bratton's training, his standing among the scientists of his day, and his reliance on evidence may have been, even he seemingly believed the Devil to be manipulating the "effect of [the accusers'] fancye." In other words, he questioned the existence of "spectral evidence," but not the existence of an invisible devil.

It would seem that the light of reason, which led to the end of the witch trials, had been but a flicker and seen as through a glass darkly.

Nevertheless, in commemoration of the traditional date of Phips' edict, a member of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, David Schreiber, suggested that the week of October 12th be designated "Freethought Week." That was in 1992. Since then, the mayors of several cities and at least three governors have successfully been persuaded to adopt proclamations declaring a "Freethought Week" or "Freethought Day" for their communities.

It is therefore appropriate that the inaugural post for the Freethought Café should appear during Freethought Week, 2007. With superstitious thinking still the dominant force in society (and alarmingly, sometimes in government), it's important that we remember and celebrate the fact that rational thought is what saved the people of Salem Massachussetts from - and in spite of - themselves. Many different groups are still unfairly stigmatized today, either on the basis of belief, race, economic status, or other prejudices. Influential people want superstition taught as truth in our schools, and use its dogmas to promote and justify irrational policies or violence. Yet there is hope that ongoing efforts to raise awareness, promote critical thought, and end stereotypes will continue to bear fruit.

This October, do something to promote rationalism. Write a letter to the editor about Freethought Day/Week/Month and its implications. Declare your status as an advocate of reason; it may encourage others to know they are not alone. If you're part of a group, consider a group declaration, or hold a public discussion on the merits of science education, the dangers of dogma, or intellectual freedom and integrity. Do a good deed, practice random acts of kindness in your community, or donate to an organization promoting rational thought. Offer your services as a mentor to a young person. The possibilities are limited only by your imagination.

Next year, consider joining with others and asking local government officials to sign a declaration honoring "Freethought Day/Week."

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