The difficulties of addressing such "superstitious" evil on a societal level are immanently clear, and I don't blame the cultured deniers for marginalizing societal responses to spiritual matters. How would we even begin to treat or prosecute such evil in a liberal, pluralist society? What sort of protocol would be followed in which cases? Enough struggle has presented itself in managing religious education of children, feeding of the homeless, or campaigning for a political figure, setting aside entirely the question of demons! It seems that in most liberal cultures we have left behind, for better or worse, the age when society was equipped to address problems of a spiritual nature.
Discussion of the matter has not at all subsided, however. The canton of Glarus in Switzerland has just exonerated Anna Göldi, who in 1782 was the last witch to be executed in Europe. The story of Göldi sounds like it could come straight out of Nathaniel Hawthorne, complete with a respected magistrate attempting to hide his sexual relations with the accused. Whether or not Göldi was guilty of witchcraft (and those involved with her exoneration have certainly made a good case for her innocence), this was not the central point of the government's actions:
"This is to acknowledge that the verdict ensued from an illegal trial and that Anna Göldi was the victim of 'judicial murder'," the statement declared.
"Exoneration is to be more than a simple confirmation of innocence," it continued. "It has to set aside an incomprehensible, unjust state act and acknowledge a crass injustice and seriously false verdict."
On the other side of the Atlantic, the William & Mary Quarterly has in their latest issue offered a forum on Boyer and Nissenbaum's celebrated book Salem Possessed: The Social Origins of Witchcraft. The title suggests a similar concern as my own, yet completely transposed... witchcraft has a social origin at its root rather than itself being the root of various implications for social life. Not that Boyer and Nissenbaum fail to recognize any social import of witchcraft, but the entire phenomenon is socially rooted to begin with... it is Salem that is possessed rather than the witches.
To be sure, these demythologizing works are important in grappling with the reality of spiritual oppression in social life; a 17th century example might be the rejection by Increase Mather of "spectral evidence" as a legally valid means of investigation in the Salem witch trials themselves. But after the demythologizing task is completed, we must be sure that it has not done violence to our recognition of social life as imbued all the way down by spirituality, a social actor both benevolent and malevolent. I think that the rise of liberal politics in modernity has offered a needed caution against addressing spiritual aspects of social life with structures of government that are not equipped to engage them. The lesson may have gone too far, however, in making cultured deniers of us, simply as a result of the sheer inertia of the secularized narrative so often imbedded in modern social thought.