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Did scientific thought drive out belief in witches?

Flying witches

Sharpe argued that there is a general assumption that scientific rationalism and the experimental method defeated the belief system based on religion and magic. However, this cannot be true of the end of the witch persecution. Scientific thought had not spread far enough to provide a challenge to witchcraft beliefs by the 1680s. However, persecution was over long before the 18th century Enlightenment.

Sharpe challenged the standard text book view that there was a process of advancement from ignorance to rationalism, that began in the seventeenth century with the work of great thinkers such as Newton and Boyle and the creation of the Royal Society. The crucial elements that would have rendered belief in witches and demons obsolete were the scientific method and the spread of physics and Cartesian rationalism, originating in continental Europe

Sharpe claimed that the history of science has shown that changes in scientific thought and religious belief systems were not as great in the seventeenth century as is generally believed and that the spread of the new thinking was very limited.

Halloween Witch Face - the modern approach

Seventeenth century thought was much more a complex mixture of ideas, according to Sharpe. Even Newton, the model of the new scientific thinking, practised alchemy and was interested in astrology. Experimental methodology was neither completely developed nor put into practice as thoroughly as its proponents claimed. Both Newton and Boyle were suspicious of Cartesian rationalism as it seemed to leave no room for god. Many of Descartes ideas seemed unconvincing.

Hobbes, then known as a mechanical philosopher rather than apolitical theorist, ridiculed belief in witchcraft. However, his ideas were not popular. He was regarded as an atheist, his book Behemoth was banned and republication of Leviathan was prevented by the bishops.

Science or magic?

Other scholars, including Glanvill, More, Beale and Oldenburg, held beliefs in demons. More and Glanvill fused the new natural science with Anglican beliefs to argue the truth of witchcraft. There was debate between Glanvill and John Webster, who had published a sceptical book on witchcraft. Sharpe argued that this debate was not purely scientific. Rather it was a challenge to Glanvill and More's attempt to create an Anglican theology that accepted spirits and the devil. Webster's argument derived a theologically sustainable position of doubt from a reading of the bible, although he argued that natural science was the best source for explanations of spiritual phenomena. Sharpe argued that this debate showed the limited applicability of modern concepts of "science" to early modern thought.

For most educated people, the spread of scientific rationalism itself played little part in declining belief in witchcraft, except insofar as it rose from, and helped create, a general culture of increasing scepticism and willingness to question authority.