Date: 11 Jan 1998
Another common explanation for the Burning Times is religious persecution. Witches were members of a Pagan religion and the Burning Times were the Church's attempts to destroy a rival faith. Margaret Murray popularized this theory, with her books on "the European Witch Cult". And when Murray's theories were disproven in the '70's, the theory fell with it. Today, it is only popular amongst Neo-Pagan authors.
It would take a book to describe all the shortfalls of Margaret Murray's "Witch Cult hypothesis". Rather than getting bogged down in that, I'd rather point out why it's extraordinarily unlikely that the Burning Times were the Church's attack on Paganism. Even if you assume that Murray's Witch Cult existed, there's no evidence that the Burning Times were a pogrom aimed at it.
First, the timing is all wrong. If Witch-hunting was Pagan-hunting, you'd expect it to be worst when either there were a lot of Pagans or the Church was particularly powerful. Neither is true. During the early Middle Ages, when much of Europe was still Pagan, Witch trials were virtually non-existant. Well, perhaps at that point the Church's position was still too tenuous -- it didn't have the power to attack Witches directly. Maybe. But when the Church was at the height of its power, in the late Middle Ages, there were *still* very few trials. The Burning Times did not happen in the Middle Ages. When the Church controlled Witch trials, very few Witches died or were tried. Things didn't become monstrous until after the Church's power was shattered by the religious warfare of the Reformation, when the Church lost its monopoly on Witch trials.
Second, the actors are wrong. The vast majority of Witches were killed by non-religious courts. The Inquisition and church courts usually killed about 1% of those accused; local secular courts often killed approximately 90%. If the Church was really trying to wipe out a rival religion, why were its courts the ones most likely to let a Witch go free?
Third, the Church said that Witches were not Pagan. Murray was not a medievalist or a historian; she didn't know a lot about the time period she was discussing. Therefore she was unaware of this very, very important fact.
When the Inquisition was created in the 13th century, several inquisitors requested permission to try Witches. Pope Alexander IV rejected their request, pointing out that there was nothing heretical about Witchcraft. It was not a religious crime, therefore it was not the Inquisition's business -- unless, of course, inquisitors found Witches who were Pagan or who "abused" Christian sacraments in their spells. But the Church would not assume, ipso facto, that a Witch was a Pagan.
In 1326, Pope John XXII reversed the Church's position and allowed the Inquisition to investigate Witchcraft. (This, to most scholars, marks the beginning of the Burning Times, even though the crazes and panics were several centuries in the future.) But again, he does not say that Witches are Pagans. He says that there are "many who are Christians in name only", who do things Christians should not do, like use the Host in their spells.
Early inquisitors did indeed find evidence of some Pagan Witches, people who worshipped "demons." Interestingly, the religion they describe bears little resemblence to Murray's Witch Cult. There is no Horned God, no sabbats, and most Witches are solitaries. But it took centuries for the Church to decide that Witches formed a huge Satanic counter-religion. As late as the 15th century, inquisitors still had great difficulty convincing people that Witches were a threat to the Church. Heinrich Kramer, the author of the Malleus Maleficarum, had his biggest Witch trial shut down by the Bishop of Innsbruck, because the bishop thought the inquisitor was much viler than the Witches!
Finally, there's the fact that early laws against Witchcraft only punished Witches who harmed people. "Incorrect religious beliefs" were not enough to condemn you until the very end of the Burning Times. In the beginning, there had to be injury to a person or property.
So, in summary, the Witch-hunting as Pagan-hunting theory is one of the weakest explanations out there. Even if you leave aside the question of whether or not Murray's Witch Cult existed, there's simply no evidence that the Church was attacking another religion.