Desperately Seeking Satan: The Conservative Christian Smearing of Paganism in America
Tim Mitchell printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Thu Dec 20, 2007 at 01:33:58 PM EST

"Never attribute to Devil-worshipping conspiracies what opportunism, emotional instability, and religious bigotry are sufficient to explain."--Shawn Carlson, Ph.D.

In an ideal society that protects religious freedom, people have the right to choose which religion is best for them and criticize other faiths when those faiths infringe upon the rights of others. But what is the difference between a sincere argument against another religion and a smear campaign against another religion?

A news story about witchcraft that aired on a television station in Georgia last October was recently brought to my attention that obviously fits the definition of defamation. In this article, I will examine the story--the details, the structure, and so forth--and the negative stereotypes of paganism the story evokes, particularly the lingering impact of the Satanic Ritual Abuse (SRA) panic from the 1980s and 1990s. I will also examine how supposedly religion-neutral media can perpetuate these stereotypes in the face of contradictory facts without any sort of penalty. This is not to say that religion--ANY religion--cannot be used to justify the physical abuse of others in the name of fulfilling some kind of spiritual mandate. However, the number and persistence of unfounded accusations against pagan groups--unfounded accusations that have been made for centuries--deserve a closer look to understand the nature of religious intolerance and what can and should be done to stop it.

Witch Switching
The news story was broadcast by WTVM Channel 9 in Columbus, Georgia. On the Internet, the story is entitled "The Witching Hour" and it is attributed to reporter Jason Dennis; you can also access the video version of the story through a link on that page. While the story was originally part of a news broadcast, the text of the article on the Internet is mostly faithful to the broadcast version in terms of what language and quotes were used. "The Witching Hour", which aired on the holiday of Halloween, opens with this description: "On Halloween, some trick or treaters will be dressed up as witches, but there are some real witches in our area too." This opening sets up the story's context, that witches can be a play costume for kids or real people. It then goes on:

We talked to an atheist woman who practices witchcraft. ... We also talked to a Columbus woman who says she used to be a witch, involved in demonic rituals. She asked us to disguise her voice, face, and name. ... "You would offer yourself to satan by allowing yourself to be chanted over and to perform sexual favors," she told us. ... Rape, drugs, and sacrifices - all part of life as a witch, according to this Columbus woman, who says she used to be one. The so-called former witch says, at age 14, her high school sweetheart, part of a cult similar to Wica, introduced her to witches and warlocks. ... She described, "Blood sacrifice....you were beaten, if you didn't do as you were supposed to." ... She says there were mysterious rituals, late at night in the secluded woods at Flat Rock Park in the Midland area...and witch baptisms in the lake there, asking demons for power.

The quote above is taken ad verbatim from the article with no edits, including the misspelling of the word "Wicca". The story itself is cluttered with conflicting messages, not the least of which being that the Wiccan they talk to is referred to as being an "atheist" (?). However, before reporter Dennis quotes a single word from the practicing Wiccan, they talk to a woman who claims to be a former witch but supposedly left that faith due to a litany of vile, inhumane abuses. While this nameless victim may have been abused by her boyfriend when she was 14 (and/or by someone else at the same or another time), Dennis does absolutely nothing to offer any substantial evidence to prove that the nameless victim's claims are real--no interviews with her family or friends, or proof that she was even a witch at all at any time in her life. He does nothing in the early part of the article to differentiate the practice of Wicca with the abuse the victim supposedly faced. He reinforces it with descriptions such as, "Rape, drugs, and sacrifices - all part of life as a witch". He also said that the victim was part of a "part of a cult similar to Wic(c)a" but does nothing to say exactly how it is similar to and how it differs from Wicca (let alone giving it a name and the names of its members to prove that the cult actually exists), leaving the viewers to conclude that the practice of Wicca must involve rape, drugs and sacrifices for the sake of "asking demons for power".

To add an aura of authenticity to the victim's claim, the Dennis kept the accuser's identity anonymous, as if she were needed protection from some secret, organized pagan conspiracy--even though, as we later learn towards the end of the article, she never filed criminal charges against anyone. This segment of the video footage, where the victim's face and voice is altered, is shot in a church. This setting serves as a visual lead to the next segment of the interview:

"It made my hate for God even stronger because if there is a God, surely he wouldn't allow a woman to be tortured and put through this," she added. ... Five years ago, depressed and abused, she was on the way to kill herself at Flat Rock Park, then a friend invited her to Solid Rock, a church in Midland a mile away from the park. The ex-witch was never the same. ... "Lord, if you're real, can you, will you love me?," she said, crying and remembering what she said at the church that night, where the former witch says she committed her life to Jesus Christ. ... And in October, members of Solid Rock church have been praying against evil and blessing families at Flat Rock Park. The church calls it "Warfare Walks." ... "That dark side is real," Solid Rock pastor Jay Bailey said. "Satan has got ahold of their lives. We seek to break that claw off them, so they can discover the embrace of God's love."

The beginning of this segment--along with referring to the practicing Wiccan as an atheist--reinforces the idea that paganism must involve hatred of the Christian god. (However, if the victim really did hate the Christian god because of his permitting the pagan torture of women, she should learn more about the Catholic Church-supported Magdalene laundries of Ireland.) How an in-progress suicide attempt is interrupted by an invitation to a church or why the victim's friend suggested a visit to a church and not to the police or a hospital is never explained by the victim or asked by Dennis. The article then shifts its supposed investigation of witchcraft to Christian pastor Jay Bailey's fight against Satan--and, in the context of this article, witchcraft by association--through his October/Halloween themed "Warfare Walks" where the anonymous victim's abuse supposedly took place. Apparently, Bailey's fight against Satan also does not include taking supposed victims of satanic activity to get legal help. According to the profile of Bailey on his Solid Rock Assembly of God Church's Web site, "He has been integrally involved in his community by serving as a police chaplain", so one would think he wouldn't have a problem with helping the anonymous victim interviewed by Dennis to press charges against her abusers and/or requesting a police investigation of the abusive activities taking place at Flat Rock Park. Thus, even though Christian fundamentalists oppose abortion even in cases of rape, they (like Pastor Bailey) don't seem to mind using unfounded accusations of sexual abuse by pagans as a means of expanding their ministries. (Coincidentally, there is another Solid Rock Church in Ohio that is home to the 62 foot tall "King of Kings" statue (a.k.a. "Touchdown Jesus") which dwarfs Bailey's Flat Rock Park satanic worship site Halloween blessing event as a tourist attraction.)

After this thumbnail tale of abuse, redemption and salvation, where evil and criminal activity is attributed both directly and indirectly to Wicca and witchcraft, Dennis finally interviews a practicing Wiccan:

But Cassonya Douglass doesn't believe in God. She's an atheist and says she was born a witch. She showed us how she stands up and reaches up into the universe, "to whatever god there is." ... Douglass says there's a lot of misconceptions about "witches," from characters in movies like The Wizard of Oz, because she doesn't wear a pointy black hat or have a green face or fly on a broom. ... Douglass, a proclaimed witch, also tells us, she doesn't do any blood sacrifices or commit crimes. ... "I have people going around doing like that (making cross sign), but sorry Christians, crosses don't do a thing for me," Douglas said. ... S(h)e believes in reincarnation, calls for power from the moon with a special dagger, and honors Isis, the Egyptian goddess of magic and earth. Douglass also leads psychic and pagan ceremonies. ... Douglass says, "Spells are no more or less than prayer that you're asking for something to happen."

To provide context, this story ran in the state of Georgia, which is part of America's "Bible Belt"; it is overwhelmingly conservative and Christian in its population statistics. In fact, Georgia is so conservatively Christian that its Republican governor, Sonny Perdue, recently held a Christian (yet "nondenominational") prayer service on taxpayer-funded property to pray for rain to end the state's recent draught. Thus, to introduce anyone in a news article the runs in Georgia by saying she "doesn't believe in God" and that she's "an atheist", along with being associated with crimes such as rape, drugs and sacrifice by being placed in the article after the anonymous victim and Bailey, is probably not going to be viewed sympathetically by the viewing audience. This is the second time in the article that Dennis identifies the Wiccan Douglass as an atheist, although Douglass NEVER IDENTIFIES HERSELF AS AN ATHEIST (!). Dennis himself comments that Dougless "honors Isis, the Egyptian goddess of magic and earth" (emphasis added), so he contradicts his own claim that Douglass is an atheist. It could be argued that Dennis believes that atheism only applies to the Christian god, the god Christians recognize as the only "true" god (as opposed to the goddess Isis); if so, that proves a pro-monotheistic, pro-Christian bias present in the article. Ironically, Dennis mentions that there are misconceptions about witchcraft but he says that Douglass makes that claim, not him, and that the misconceptions come from pop culture, not groundless criminal claims that have been leveled against pagans by other religions and in Dennis' own article.

In the next segment of the article, Dennis returns to Bailey:

As for the prayer walks at Flat Rock Park, we asked Pastor Bailey if its a risk.
He responded, "We don't fear darkness, because as Christians, spirit-filled believers, we walk with the authority of God." ... "Anybody who does walks against negative energy is good," Douglass said, about the Warfare Walks. "But to fight against somebody just because they don't believe like you, now that's wrong....If he (the pastor) didn't have satan, who would you fight against?" ... But it's a new fight for the woman at the beginning of this story, a former witch and now Christian, who said, "We would always begin by saying, this is our night, the night belongs to us, but see god created the night and he's fixing to take it back."

The insertion of Bailey into the article right after Douglass is jarring, since it makes no direct connection to Douglass' comments. Furthermore, this return to Bailey put the evangelist in a heroic perspective, as if Bailey is risking his life by returning to Flat Rock Park because the supposed pagan cult that abused the anonymous victim--the cult that neither Dennis nor anyone else has proven to actually EXIST--might hurt Bailey and his followers in some horrible way. The quote from Douglass that Dennis uses after that makes it sound like Douglass is supporting Bailey and his work, by placing her statement, "Anybody who does walks against negative energy is good", right after Bailey. Yet her quote for religious tolerance is edited in a way that makes it sound like religious diversity is necessary so that Satan worship can exist.

The closing of the article is the most revealing:

For people who doubt her story, the so-called ex-witch says God and her friends know the truth. She hopes this inspires others. ... Columbus police tell us they're not aware of these incidents at flat rock park. ... As for the practicing witch, she's having a saence on Halloween, calling on spirits. As for religion, Douglass does not believe in hell. She also says not all pagans are witches and vice versa.

Here, towards the end of the article and after the viewing audience has been told such horrible stories about the alleged pagan rituals at Flat Rock Park and the Christian efforts to fight them, Dennis gives the anonymous victim, the only known victim of the ritual abuses, to prove her story AND SHE PROVIDES NO PHYSICAL EVIDENCE AT ALL that she was abused by a pagan cult or was even a witch at all. Even the Columbus police say that they are not aware of any ritual abuse taking place at Flat Rock Park, which means that in the eyes of the law no crimes were committed. So, after all the pagan criminal conspiracy claims that Dennis constructs remain unproven by the end of his own article. His closing comments about Douglass are not only anti-climactic, but even defeat the accusations made by others. Douglass does not believe in hell, which would logically rule out her participation in any Satan worship, and not all pagans are witches, which defeats the paganism = witchcraft = Satanism chain of association that Dennis clearly builds in the arrangement of his article. Then again, the article asks the average Bible Belt viewer to take the word of an abused ex-witch-turned-Christian and a Christian clergyman or that of a practicing "atheist" witch--and on the "controversial" holiday of Halloween no less.

It didn't have to be this way. Dennis could have just profiled and interviewed Douglass about her religion; instead, he inaccurately described her and selectively positioned her comments in a way that builds a case AGAINST her religion, even though none of the charges against her religion have been proven. True, Douglass does what she can to defend her faith, but Dennis had already set her up to be disliked by a conservative Christian audience--referring to her repeatedly as an atheist and placing her part of the interview after the anonymous victim lists her groundless criminal charges against witchcraft and Bailey, a Christian clergyman, affirms the connection between witchcraft and Satan worship. One can only wonder if Douglass was fully informed by Dennis of the kind of accusations were going to be leveled against her religion before her interviewed her. To further complicate matters is the uneven dichotomy between how Dennis portrays witchcraft, as if it can be both silly and violent. On the one hand, he mentions witchcraft as something kids can dress up as part of a holiday and a plot device for the kid-friendly The Wizard of Oz movie (complete with clips from that film in the broadcast version of the article); the Web page that carries Dennis' story even features cartoon bats floating around the page. In contrast, his article also portrays witchcraft as a form of worship that involves rape, drug abuse and "blood sacrifice" (a term that could be interpreted as animal sacrifice or murder, but Dennis never defines what "blood sacrifice" means in this context).

Yet the worst aspect of this story is that the anonymous victim was leveling criminal charges against paganism but instead of doing so through the criminal justice system, she does it through the local news media instead. The local news media is trusted by the communities it serves to deliver reliable and accurate news. If it reports news about a crime, it is expected by the viewer that the crime actually happened, that formal charges were filed, that court hearings will be held, and so forth. In this case, Dennis and WTVM willingly used their positions within the local media to aid the issuing to paganism accusations of violent criminal activity, accusations for the all the viewing public to see and believe because they are part of a broadcast of news, WITHOUT the support of local law enforcement--thus invalidating the legal ideal of "innocent until proven guilty". This is not news, it is character assassination of an entire body of minority religions. Such false, exaggerated accusations also belittle both the criminal justice system and the crime of rape, a crime that is still under-reported. This is not to say that the anonymous victim is question was not sexually abused in some way, but the fact that she still can't (or won't) identify her abusers and press charges against them indicates that WTVM--and her Christian peers at Solid Rock Assembly of God Church--are more interested in using her as a tool for anti-paganism than actually getting her proper psychiatric care and/or legal justice. What Dennis did is negligent, exploitative journalism of the worst kind, using false accusations to feed religious bigotry in a manner that should have, in a just world, resulted in Dennis' immediate dismissal and/or a hefty fine to be paid by WTVM.

Could you honestly imagine how the Vatican would react if a journalist for a national U.S. publication or news channel decided to do a profile of Catholicism that featured in the same article a devout Catholic and an ex-Catholic practitioner who left the faith because she was repeatedly molested by a priest, making it appear that sexual abuse is an accepted practice within the Catholicism? Or how would the Mormon Church react if a journalist profiled Mormonism by alternating quotes between a practicing Mormon (say, 2008 Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney) and an ex-Mormon who stopped practicing after she escaped an abusive, polygamist Mormon marriage in the backwoods of Utah? Of course, these hypothetical examples are not completely accurate, since in this case the charges of Satanic Ritual Abuse have never been proven while widespread sexual abuse in the Catholic church and clandestine polygamist Mormon marriages have been widely documented. There is much more evidence that conservative Christian groups, both past and present, are likely to accuse someone else of Satanism than abusive pagan ritual activity actually taking place, and yet it is the accused minority religions that have to defend themselves and not the questionable accusers. What kind of justice is this?

Abusing Satanic Ritual Abuse

To put the WTVM story into perspective, its charges of Satanic Ritual Abuse (as it is currently identified) should be explained in further detail. The Skeptic's Dictionary provides this description:

Satanic Ritual Abuse (SRA) is the name given to the allegedly systematic abuse of children by Satanists. ... Since the mid-1970s, there have been widespread allegations of the existence of a well-organized intergenerational satanic cult whose members sexually molest, torture, and murder children across the United States. In the 1980s there was a panic regarding SRA, which was largely triggered by a fictional book called Michelle Remembers (1980) by Michelle Smith and Lawrence Pazder, M.D. The book was published as fact but has subsequently been shown to be a hoax by at least three independent investigators. Pazder was Smith's therapist. Subsequent to their book, they left their respective spouses and got married. It is unlikely that Michelle ever suffered abuse and it is likely that Pazder knew this. It is likely that her reports of abuse were "the hysterical ravings of an uncontrolled imagination" (Allen and Midwinter 1990). Pazder coined the expression 'ritual abuse.' He was consulted in more than one thousand SRA cases and can take credit for contributing greatly to one of the largest witch-hunts in recent history.

Much like the case presented in the WTVM article, charges of Satanic Ritual Abuse have never been proven. As the Skeptic's Dictionary's entry also states:

No hard evidence of Satanic Ritual Abuse in North America has been found. ... A four-year study in the early 1990s found the allegations of Satanic Ritual Abuse to be without merit. The study was conducted by University of California at Davis psychology professors Gail S. Goodman and Phillip R. Shaver, in conjunction with Jianjian Qin of U.C. Davis and Bette I. Bottoms of the University of Illinois at Chicago. Their study was supported by the National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect. The researchers investigated more than 12,000 accusations and surveyed more than 11,000 psychiatric, social service, and law enforcement personnel. The researchers could find no unequivocal evidence for a single case of satanic cult ritual abuse.

In 1992, Kenneth V. Lanning, a Supervisory Special Agent at the FBI Academy who had investigated Satanic Ritual Abuse since 1981, published a report that likewise came to the conclusion that accusations of abuse by a supposedly organized, conspiratorial satanic cult are without merit. The report dismantles the outrageous claims made in Satanic Ritual Abuse, such as human sacrifice of large numbers of people and breeding of babies for sacrifice, and comes to the following conclusions:

The most significant crimes being alleged that do not seem to be true are the human sacrifice and cannibalism by organized satanic cults. ... Until hard evidence is obtained and corroborated, the public should not be frightened into believing that babies are being bred and eaten, that 50,000 missing children are being murdered in human sacrifices, or that satanists are taking over America's day care centers or institutions. No one can prove with absolute certainty that such activity has NOT occurred. The burden of proof, however, as it would be in a criminal prosecution, is on those who claim that it has occurred. The explanation that the satanists are too organized and law enforcement is too incompetent only goes so far in explaining the lack of evidence. For at least eight years American law enforcement has been aggressively investigating the allegations of victims of ritual abuse. There is little or no evidence for the portion of their allegations that deals with large-scale baby breeding, human sacrifice, and organized satanic conspiracies. Now it is up to mental health professionals, not law enforcement, to explain why victims are alleging things that don't seem to have happened.

What most analyses of Satanic Ritual Abuse overlook is that accusations against pagans of sexual abuse and violence against others in the name of Satan date back to a much, much earlier time. Even though the term "Satanic Ritual Abuse" is only a recent development, everything this term stands for--unfounded paranoia, corrosive suspicion, religious bigotry--has been around for centuries. Of the sources that I've reviewed, ReligiousTolerance.org provides the best historical overview, stretching back centuries to the origins of accusations that are similar to Satanic Ritual Abuse. They point out that "The (Christian) Church used it against the heretics, lepers, Cathars, Knights Templar and Witches during the period 1000 to 1800 AD." Ironically, even though conservative Christians have applied these outrageous charges to non-Christians, ReligiousTolerance.org notes that the charges of abuse applied by Christians to pagans for centuries were at one time applied by Romans to the early followers of Christianity (!).

Unfortunately, ReligiousTolerance.org's analysis of Satanic Ritual Abuse falls short in analyzing how often Christianity applied charges of violent, satanic worship to non-Christian religions. For example, the quote above lists "heretics, lepers, Cathars, Knights Templar and Witches" as targets of Satan worship accusations, but it does not include specific non-Christian religions. It says that the Christian Church used the charges of Satanism against others from 1000 to 1800, but does not mention that the Church used it (or charges like it) before then as well, particularly against ancient Greek polytheists and the Saxons. Interestingly, the 800 year span of time that ReligiousTolerance.org mentions, 1000-1800 AD, coincides with Christianity's expansion across Europe, Africa, and into the Americas. During this period, indigenous religions encountered by Christian missionaries were rumored to practice rituals similar to those described in Satanic Ritual Abuse accusations, but ReligiousTolerance.org neither mentions this detail nor does it include Winston Churchill's repeal of Great Britain's last law against witchcraft in 1951--less than 60 years ago. However, the last person convicted of this "crime" in 1944, Helen Duncan, died in 1956 without being pardoned of the charges. Such a pattern raises a disturbing question: does the accusation of other religions of practicing Satanism an essential part of Christianity's expansion into new cultures and territory? On the basis of history, this would appear to be the case.

ReligiousTolerance.org's analysis also includes this observation:

There is evidence that the (Satanic Ritual Abuse) legend's target is shifting. During the 1980's, Satanists were almost exclusively blamed for the abuse. SRA promoters now realize that there are very few Satanists in North America - certainly not enough to create all the abuse that is supposed to occur. Seminar leaders and authors are now pointing at benign religious groups (New Agers, Quakers, small Christian and Jewish groups, Wiccans, etc.), at criminal gangs, at men's fraternal organizations, and at self-help/mutual support groups.

This quote suggests that Satanic Ritual Abuse accusations made against smaller religions, particularly non-Christian, polytheistic religions, is something new, even though history suggests otherwise. Some critics have questioned the Bush's administration's "War on Terror" as nothing more than a vaguely-defined scare tactic used to score quick and easy political victories. However, conservative Christianity's "War on Satanism" is much, much worse in terms of its breadth, longevity, the audacious amounts of groundless fear, bigotry and injustice it provokes, and the incalculable amounts of damage (both direct and indirect) that are inflicted upon the falsely accused. Wiccans have been trying for some time to dispel the stereotype that their faith involves violent, abusive practices, but this is a stereotype that conservative Christians are clearly intent on perpetuating. According to one Wiccan who raised Southern Baptist and was interviewed by The New York Times, "I would love to be able to say 'Accept us for who we are,' but I can't, mainly because of my kids ... I have a deep-seated fear that they (my mother or grandmother) will say, 'I can't be a part of this, you're raising your kids as evil.'"

False Witnessing for Jesus

While some may find these observations unfair to Christianity as a whole, it must not be ignored that the charges of Satanism made against others (especially pagan, non-Christian religions) are overwhelmingly made by conservative Christians, and usually for the benefit of Christian proselytization efforts--or, in the cases where so-called witches were actually put to death, for reminders to the public of Christianity's sizable political clout. Yes, there have been Christian-sponsored efforts that argue against Satanic Ritual Abuse, such as "The Hard Facts About Satanic Ritual Abuse" by Bob and Gretchen Passantino in 1992. Yet as Pastor Bailey's presence in the WTVM article indicates, there are still conservative Christians at large who are perpetuating accusations of Satanic Ritual Abuse to advance their own interests. Even ReligiousTolerance.org finds conservative, evangelical Christianity as a recurring, predominant characteristic in those who perpetuate the Satanic Ritual Abuse myth:

Many lecturers in the (Satanic Ritual Abuse) industry say that they were once Satanists or "black Witches", rose to a position of great power, engaged in horrendous rituals, converted to Evangelical Christianity, and then became an author and seminar leader. ... If SRA exists, then one would expect most of the authors and lecturers to have left Satanism as a "plain ordinary member." Some should have converted to mainline Christianity, to liberal Christianity or to a religion other than Christianity. Yet none fitting these profiles has ever been found.

Note that these traits are very similar to the background and claims made by the anonymous victim in WTVM's story. Come to think of it, the accusations of Satanic Ritual Abuse that include that include the sacrifice of infants doesn't sound too far removed from fundamentalist Christian anti-abortion and anti-stem cell research rhetoric. The ReligiousTolerance.org description of the average Satanic Ritual Abuse lecturer also doesn't sound too much different than some of those who promote fundamentalist Christian "ex-gay" therapy.

Despite the fact that Satanic Ritual Abuse has been thoroughly investigated by psychologists and law enforcement professionals, the Satanic Ritual Abuse myth remains to the point of becoming--as ReligiousTolerance.org phrases it--an "industry". Lanning warns in his 1992 report that, "Satanic and occult crime and ritual abuse of children has become a growth industry. Speaking fees, books, video and audio tapes, prevention material, television and radio appearances all bring egoistic and financial rewards." Dramatic portrayals of Satanic Ritual Abuse are part of many Halloween "Hell Houses", a recent evangelical technique utilized by conservative Protestant churches in the U.S. (See the 2001 documentary Hell House for a detailed examination of this ministry practice.) Hell Houses and their ilk (such as Judgment Houses, Revelation Walks, and Tribulation Trails) further the confusion: they include Satanic Ritual Abuse, a crime that has never been proven to exist, with real crimes such as domestic abuse, gun violence and drug addiction, further blurring the line between reality and fiction. In fact, judging from its layout that makes a clear association between Charles Darwin's theory of evolution and the corrupt and violent behaviors of the modern world (such as gay marriage and birth control), the Answers in Genesis Creation Museum in Kentucky is just another variation of the Hell House attraction, except this time with animatronic dinosaurs.

Even the Catholic Church has recently been cashing in on the Satanic Ritual Abuse hysteria. Back in 1999, the Vatican issued its new exorcism guidelines--the first since 1614--to, according to CNN, "bring the church up to date with modern science" (?). Cardinal Jorge Medina Estevez, a Vatican official, was quoted at the issuance of these guidelines that "The existence of the devil isn't an opinion, something to take or leave as you wish ... (Satan) deceives men, making them believe that you find happiness in money, in power, in carnal desire. He fools men by persuading them that they do not need God and that they are self-sufficient." In other words, if you no longer feel compelled to worship the Christian god, you're actually being fooled by Satan and anything outside of the Christian faith is in fact connected to Satan. Furthermore, practicing religions that are not Christian are equal to the belief that "you find happiness in money, in power, in carnal desire". In 2005, the Vatican-linked Pontifical Academy "Regina Apostolorum" began offering a class on Satanism, black magic and exorcism to counter what the Vatican believes to be a rise in satanic activity in Europe, particularly in Italy, even though there is no substantial data to support this claim. For a detailed examination of Italy's recent satanic panic, see theistic Satanist Diane Vera's Web site, Against Satanic Panics. Vera makes a very insightful statement as part of her analysis of the conservative Christianity's view of what qualifies as "satanic":

Among Christians, including Catholics, an increased emphasis on demons and exorcism leads inevitably to an increased fear of all non-Christian spiritual practices. ... All the "We're not Satanists" disclaimers in the world will not stop conservative Christians from associating non-Christian spiritualities - especially the more "magical" spiritualities - with demons and/or with Satanism. Even in the eyes of those relatively few conservative Christians who are well-informed about the beliefs of Pagans, occultists, etc., these other spiritualities are necessarily tied to demons and to Satanism in the following ways: (1) All people who deal with spiritual powers other than the Abrahamic God are believed to be dealing with demons, at least unwittingly, regardless of whether they believe in demons, and regardless of whether they believe in Satan. (2) "Mind-expanding techniques are meant to reveal to people their divine power .... This exaltation of humanity overturns the correct relationship between Creator and creature, and one of its extreme forms is Satanism." (Jesus Christ, the Bearer of the Water of Life: A Christian Reflection on the "New Age", an official Vatican statement by the Pontifical Council for Culture and the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, 2003.)

Vera also makes some interesting predictions about how a worldwide satanic panic is possible in the near future.

Accusations of Satanism by conservative Christians have also included accusations against secular culture. For example, the earliest accusations of Satanic Ritual Abuse appeared roughly around the same time as charges were made by conservative Christians against popular fantasy role-playing games such as Dungeons and Dragons that such games lead to, among other things, Satan worship. For a detailed analysis of the charges against fantasy role-playing games, read Michael A. Stackpole's The Pulling Report. While most of the charges against these games were made during the 1980s and early 90s, these charges have changed over to the latest popular fantasy entertainment franchise: the Harry Potter series of books and related merchandise. The overlap between religious belief and secular entertainment suggests that the Satanic Ritual Abuse phenomenon co-exists with the Christian persecution complex (two halves of the same coin, so to speak), a complex that is personified in such topics as the so-called "War on Christmas". Both of the supposed conspiracies, the open liberal one and the secret satanic one, are part of what conservative talking head Bill O'Reilly would consider to be efforts "to break down the white, Christian, male power structure" in the United States.

In case you're wondering if modern-day accusations against non-Christian religions of violent and sexual misconduct as part of their ritual are limited to American and European countries, think again. Last spring, I came across an article entitled "'More than half' of Indian children suffer sexual abuse" on the TimesOnline.co.uk Web site. It's an article about a report released by India's Ministry
of Women and Child Development. In addition to the alarmist title of the article, the last paragraph is particularly searing. It says: "In some states, the (abuse) problem is linked to cultural traditions such as child marriage or making a child become a sex worker as an 'offering' to the gods." While no specific religion is named in this statement, it implies that Hinduism is responsible for religiously-sanctioned child prostitution because India is the homeland of the Hindu religion and it is still a predominantly Hindu nation. Making the accusation that people are turning their kids into sex workers as part of their religion is a pretty serious charge, and it reminded me of Satanic Ritual Abuse here in the U.S. I downloaded the Annual Report, 2006-2007, at the Ministry of Women and Child Development Web site and while I found a section devoted to child marriage I couldn't find a single bit of information in the report about forcing children into the sex trade for religious motives. Then again, depending upon how you view the current status of the Iraq War, you could say that the American President George W. Bush, motivated by his fundamentalist Christian beliefs, forced underage Iraqi refugees into child prostitution.

Mass Mediating Mass Hysteria

While conservative Christians exploit the unfounded charges of abuse against other religions for their own gain, it is also clear that the media is willing to play along with such deception. Popular talk shows of the time such as Donahue, Geraldo Rivera, Oprah Winfrey, and Sally Jesse Raphael played a large role in spreading the Satanic Ritual Abuse panic in the 1980s and 1990s. As the WTVM story indicates, the media are still willing to publish these false accusations even after the Satanic Ritual Abuse hysteria was debunked by both the psychiatric and law enforcement communities. Accusing minority religions--particularly those that can be labeled as being "pagan"--of faith-based violent and sexual crimes has been so commonplace in the Western world that it has become an entire subgenre of horror films such as Rosemary's Baby and The Wicker Man. For example, the charge of ritual abuses happening at Flat Rock Park in WTVM's story sounds very similar to the ritual abuse that took place at the Coffin Rock location in The Blair Witch Project movie. Scary films depicting minority, non-Christian religions as being abusive and evil are also popular in smaller, poorer countries. The stereotype of the evil pagan has become so pervasive that it stretches into "fact-based" (yet factually questionable) films such as The Exorcism of Emily Rose and Apocalypto. The accusations of mass human sacrifice by Satanists are very similar to Mel Gibson's historically inaccurate, exaggerated depictions of Mayan human sacrifice in Apocalypto. In case you are doubting the pervasiveness of the anti-pagan stereotype, be honest: how many of you non-pagans who are reading this article haven't suspected pagan groups of practicing some bizarre rituals akin to what Satanic Ritual Abuse charges imply?

It's all too easy to dismiss stories about secret satanic conspiracies as pure hokum, a shameless attempt by a local news network to cash in on a local equivalent to a Roswell UFO crash site. Sadly, this is not like reporting about modern legends such as Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster or Elvis sightings; these are very serious but unfounded criminal charges that have been reported through the news, not investigated by the police, and they have been used as motive for harassing very real people--the pagan community. Following the outline provided by StopBadTherapy.com, to charge someone with Satanic Ritual Abuse is to charge them with:

  • human sacrifice of babies, children, adolescents, and adults

  • cannibalism

  • animal sacrifice

  • marriages to "Satan" and "High Priests" of the cults

  • sexual and physical torture of all kinds of people of all ages</font>

If anyone wonders why liberals aren't gaining more ground in areas such as promoting the acceptance of evolution and tolerance of non-Christian religions, the pervasiveness of belief in Satanic Ritual Abuse among conservative Christians and the media's willingness to take this belief seriously might be a good place to start. Consider this: if the media aids the Christian Right's false charges of murder and rape against minority religions, then clearly the media won't be that effective when the Christian Right decides to challenge evolution with likewise false charges, to the point of linking Charles Darwin to the crimes of Adolph Hitler and the Nazis.

Furthermore, even though falsely and repeatedly accusations of pagan-based sex crimes and murder have no consequence for the accusers--such as damaging their own credibility among the public--these false charges have very real, tragic consequences for the accused. As reviewed by The Skeptic's Dictionary:

One of the more pernicious consequences of the SRA witch-hunts was that many cases involving accusations of child abuse slipped beneath the media's radar. For example, while the McMartin preschool case in Los Angeles received extensive national media attention, a much more extensive witch-hunt in Bakersfield, California, went virtually unnoticed. In the 1980s, the office of District Attorney Ed Jagels prosecuted 46 people in eight alleged molestation rings. Twenty-two of thirty convictions were later reversed, including that of Jeffrey Modahl. Eight had the charges dropped and eight plea-bargained to keep them from doing time in prison. One of those convicted died in prison. The rest served out their sentences. The last of the accused, John Stoll, served 20 years in prison before his conviction was overturned in May 2004. ... Prosecutors presented no physical evidence at Stoll's trial. None of the children were ever examined by doctors, even though some of the allegations included forcible sodomy. The case rested on testimony alone. According to four of Stoll's accusers--now adults--investigators (led by Velda Murillo, a social worker with the county's Child Protective Services) badgered them into fabricating stories of molestation, telling them that they could go home when they admitted that they were abused.

Groundless accusations of devil worship have even dogged companies such as Proctor and Gamble.

Setting the Record Straight

I've heard skeptics challenge believers of a particular religion to irrefutably prove the more fantastic, supernatural claims of their faith. This kind of challenge can be issued by atheists to theists, by monotheists to polytheists, or by monotheists to other monotheists. But what is happening in articles such as WTVM's "The Witching Hour" is much more worthy of attention by everyone who respects religious freedom. Entire systems of non-Christian minority religious beliefs are being tarnished in the public eye by false accusations of violent criminal activity and there is no recourse for them in our legal system to put an end to such repeated barrages of groundless accusations. You may shrug your shoulders and think to yourself, "So the Christian fundies are accusing Wiccans of Satan worship--what else is new?" But the point here is that this recurring, baseless character assassination of one religion by another shouldn't be so readily accepted by the general public if we truly are a culture that supports religious diversity and tolerance. In a fair and just society that respects and protects the legal freedoms of all religions, a society that many Americans claim we live in, THIS SHOULD NOT BE.

Smearing another religion through false criminal charges is not a religious practice, and it should not be defended as such. Framing someone else for a crime that he or she did not commit is a criminal felony. If blaming other people of other religious faiths for crimes that have not been committed is necessary for a particular religious faith to "minister" to others, then we are long, long overdue for a serious examination of what religious freedom really means. Likewise, feeling that pagans somehow deserve this negative stereotype and/or should just accept it is akin to asking black men to just accept it when the media portrays them as violent, drug-dealing criminals, or for gays to accept it whenever religious conservatives conflate homosexuality with pedophilia and bestiality, or for Jews to just accept being called such epithets as "Christ killers". For pagans in America to accept these unfounded charges without legal recourse shows just how lacking civil liberties are for religious minorities in our country.

I know many people--myself included--would like to believe that witch hunts were a thing of the past, a relic of the Dark Ages. WTVM proves that for some, the Dark Ages never ended. Don't let this injustice of yesterday ruin our freedoms of today.




Display:
I am interested in how the neo-pentecostalists fit in with spreading these sorts of rumors. There were real people who had their lives and livelihoods permanently destroyed due to false accusations of Satanic Ritual abuse.

The late Norman Cohn wrote a fairly good expose of European witch hunts in his book Europe's Inner Demons. It is a good reference text for anyone wanting to understand the psychology behind these moral panics. Unfortunately, they damage real people in their wake.

by khughes1963 on Thu Dec 20, 2007 at 09:34:02 PM EST


Thanks for this revealing story. It would seem that religious belief itself causes people to forgo reason when confronted with stories so bizarre they should be summarily rejected but, instead, are believed as a result of the superstition required to be a fundamentalist Christian in the first place. dci
off
by lackawack on Mon Dec 24, 2007 at 09:09:00 AM EST


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