Heroes and Martyrs: Witch-Hunting and the Dangers of Scepticism
A further ennobling of the ‘rational tradition’ claims that the excesses of ‘delusional’ supernaturalism were opposed by heroic, and often ill-fated, rationalists whose mindsets were a historical precursor to our own. The struggle between humane rationalism and inhumane supernaturalism appears a constant of history and so legitimises the New Atheism itself. This chapter challenges these claims by examining the real histories of two sceptic heroes celebrated by Sam Harris for their opposition to witch-hunting. Johnstone shows that both Dietrich Flade and Friedrich Spee were misrepresented in the sources upon which Harris relies, that the ‘martyrdom’ of Flade was the result of complex local politics and that Spee’s rejection of witch-hunting was based in religious beliefs alien, and indeed inimical, to the scepticism of modern atheists.