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I write the biweekly “Beliefs” column for The New York Times and also report for The Atlantic, The Nation, This American Life, and elsewhere. I have four daughters and two dogs.

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Leaving Islam for atheism . . .



In my Times column yesterday, I wrote about ex-Muslims, in particular women who leave Islam, like Heina Dadabhoy (above). An excerpt:

Women talked about “coming out,” being open with their families, leaving “the closet” at a conference here this month. But the topic was not sexuality. Instead, the women, attending the third Women in Secularism conference were talking about being atheists. Some grew up Catholic, some Jewish, some Protestant — but nearly all described journeys of acknowledging atheism first to themselves, then to loved ones. Going public was a last, often painful, step.

Anyone leaving a close-knit belief-based community risks parental disappointment, rejection by friends and relatives, and charges of self-loathing. The process can be especially difficult and isolating for women who have grown up Muslim, who are sometimes accused of trying to assimilate into a Western culture that despises them.


The myth of the midwives’ witch-hunt

Were midwives singled out, or focused on, in the European witch-hunts? And if so, was it because they possessed “special knowledge” about birth control and abortion? That’s the question I set out to answer, after I came upon a provocative passage, one that struck me as implausible, in an otherwise excellent book.

First, let me say that as someone who studied history, in particular religious history, in graduate school, I got pretty well acquainted with the historiography of witchcraft, from John Demos to Lyndal Roper to Carlo Ginzburg and others. Although it was never my focus, I was interested in it (as indeed how could one not be?). And I was also very interested in the histories of women, gender/sexual minorities, and other marginalized people. So I am someone who likely would have come across the claim that midwives were a special focus of the witch hunts, if that claim were taken seriously by historians.

So when I read, in Roxane Gay’s new book Bad Feminist, that

[t]he politicians and their ilk forget that women, and to a certain extent men, have always done what they needed to do to protect female bodies from unwanted pregnancy. During ancient times, women used jellies, gums, and plants both for contraception and to abort unwanted pregnancies. These practices continued until the 1300s when Europe needed to repopulate and started to hunt “witches” and midwives who shared their valuable knowledge about these contraceptive methods ...

I was skeptical. (Note: the essay collected in Gay’s book was originally published in Rumpus in 2012, here). It sounded like a politically useful claim, useful perhaps for certain feminist narratives, but perhaps one that was made by activists, rather than scholars deeply knowledgeable of the source material (not that one can’t be a scholar and activist — one can).

But as I said, this was never my field. So I began to poke around. First, I gave some Twitter shout-outs to the author, Roxane Gay, and heard back from her and a couple other women, who told me enough to figure out, after a little research of my own, that the claim, or something like it, was probably first made by Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English in their 1973 pamphlet Witches, Midwives, and Nurses: A History of Women Healers. (Maybe the claim was made earlier or elsewhere; I am happy to be corrected. This post is quite preliminary.) Ehrenreich is a very fine journalist, but her training is as a biologist. English, like Ehrenreich a former editor of Mother Jones, is also a very fine journalist, but again, not a historian. That is not to say that amateurs can’t do excellent work (I’m an amateur in many fields I write in!). It’s just to say that they may have made leaps based on sources they understood imperfectly. And so I was unpersuaded by tweets like this one


Anyway, I decided to reach out to some scholars who really, really know this stuff. I started with my old Yale teacher Carlos Eire, one of the great scholars of early modern Europe. I wrote:

Carlos, am trying to fact-check a claim that it's “well-known” that persecution of witches and of midwives (if they too were persecuted?) were due to the special knowledge those women had of abortion techniques — because after the Plague, Europe needed to repopulate, so abortionists were targeted for special attack. A writer I know put this out there, and cited some popular writers to this effect. Any sense of how to check it with historians?


And he wrote back:

This is one of those troublesome “facts” that don't really square with the historical evidence. Yes, some midwives ended up being tried for witchcraft, but not really because they were midwives or could perform abortions. Witches were rounded up for performing "maleficium," that is, harmful magic against their neighbors. Some midwives were herbalists too, and the line between herbal medicine and sorcery or magic/maleficium was very blurry. Sometimes midwives were rounded up along with bishops, tailors, milkmaids, and — you name it — a wide assortment of people, simply because in some of the massive witch hunts the accusations went out of control.
How did this “well known” fact become well known? Probably because some women persecuted as witches were midwives/herbalists. Did they perform abortions? We don't really know. No one knows how high or low the incidence of abortions might have been. Infanticide was much more common than abortions (which were extremely risky for the mother), and the most common types of infanticide were faked "accidents" such as smothering and drowning (oops I dropped the baby down the well ... or ... into the fireplace ... or I rolled over it in my sleep, etc...). It was also common for infants to be abandoned by their mothers, as still happens nowadays. This last type of infanticide, known as exposure, was most common. Most abandoned children could not survive, even when taken in by orphanages, where the death rate was astronomically high.
One of my current PhD students is writing her dissertation on infanticide in early modern Spain and she has found plenty of infanticide cases, but virtually no evidence of abortions. She has also found extremely few cases of midwives accused of infanticide or witchcraft.
Then — back to witchcraft — there was also the common belief that witches sacrificed and ate infants during their Satanic rituals. (I’m waiting for this tidbit to pop up in connection with the postponed Black Mass at Harvard).
The real fear behind witch persecutions was not abortion or infanticide, but the devil.  In our day and age it's hard to conceive of the devil and witchcraft as real, but in the early modern age, it was all very, very real.  Just as it's real to this day in Africa and parts of Latin America.  To attribute witchcraft persecutions to some top-down crusade against abortions is to misunderstand medieval and early modern culture and the power of belief at that time.


But that’s just one scholar. So I asked another, the eminent Robin Briggs of Oxford, who replied:


The short answer to your question is that no serious historian known to me gives the slightest credence to these preposterous claims. It is hard to imagine that anyone could get things more wrong than this! The great majority of accusations came from other people in the local communities, so the idea of a witch-hunt is very unhelpful for most cases, since it implies direction from above. Midwives are actually very uncommon among those charged with witchcraft.  In my own sample of about 400 richly documented cases from Lorraine there are only I think three midwives, for two of whom the charges had little to do with their semi-professional role.  Just one of them was supposed to have killed lots of babies, but you can hardly generalise from a singe case of that type.
If I remember correctly Ehrenreich took all her evidence from British and North American cases. In 1990 David Harley published a devastating article on 'Historians as Demonologists: the myth of the midwife-witch', in Social History of Medicine volume 3. [Oppenheimer note: see here.] Harley showed that almost all Ehrenreich's identifications were either highly dubious or plain wrong; the true number of midwives accused was derisory, indeed far fewer than necessary to match their numbers in relation to the population.
The chronology is also all wrong for the argument to work. The vast majority of trials in western Europe occurred in the period 1570-1630, in the final phase of the great population increase of the sixteenth century, which had by then led to a sharp decline in living standards. It is likely that many people tried to control fertility by the use of herbal medicines, precisely because too many children were becoming a problem for impoverished families; knowledge of those herbs was widespread, and nothing suggests that midwives took a leading part in advocating their use. It is also unlikely, in parenthesis, that they were notably effective, because people understood so little about appropriate dosage, or indeed the reproductive system itself.

Briggs goes on to note that the claim was, he thinks, driven by a political agenda,
... of the same kind that led to the crazy claim that 9 million women were executed. It is horribly unpleasant to think that perhaps 60,000 individuals were put to death as witches, 15,000 of them being men, but that is hardly in the same ball-park.
Finally, I asked Brian Levack, of the University of Texas. He also cited the Harley article, in writing that
[t]here is no question that some midwives were accused of witchcraft, mainly because infants often died during delivery and some parents sought to explain this misfortune by accusing the women who had performed the delivery of using magic to cause their death. Demonologists, who were more concerned with the diabolical as opposed to the magical aspects of witchcraft, claimed that midwives killed the unbaptized infants as sacrifices to the Devil. In 1990 David Harley wrote a revisionist article about the myth of the midwife witch in Social History of Medicine, 3:1-26,  showing how highly regarded midwives were in early modern communities and how the historical identification of them as witches has tarnished their reputation. Harley discredits the  claim that most accused witches were midwives, but the fact remains that some midwives were in fact accused of killing newborns by means of witchcraft. One of the most famous cases was that of Walpurga Hausmännin in Dillingen, which I refer to in my book The Witch-Hunt in Early Modern Europe (3rd ed, 2006). Lyndal Roper, who also minimizers the number of midwife-witches, explains their prominence in the historical literature by the fact that midwifery was one of the few occupations by which accused witches could be identified in the judicial record, whereas most accused witches, including healers, did not have “occupations." Midwives were in fact licensed in many communities. The claim that midwife-witches were trying to limit population growth was first  advanced by Gunnar Heinsohn and Otto Steiger in "Birth Control: The Political-Economic Rationale behind Jean Bodin's Demonomanie”History of Political Economy 31 (1999): 423–48.  This interpretation is implausible for many reasons, including the relatively small number of midwives who were actually tried for witchcraft and the unlikelihood that secular or ecclesiastical judges were concerned about repopulating Europe, a process that was well underway by the time witch-hunting became intense in the late sixteenth century. I don’t think Ehrenreich made this claim in her widely circulated pamphlet [Oppenheimer note: Levack is right — Ehrenreich did not]; she was concerned mainly with the conflict between midwives and the medical establishment.  But in any case, historians don’t give her argument much credence.
But, I wondered, perhaps Ehrenreich has noted these criticisms and has a reply? As it happened, I was at the Women in Secularism conference outside Washington, D.C., last weekend, and I bumped into Ehrenreich. I asked her about the claims she made in her 1973 pamphlet, specifically the claims about midwives and witchcraft, and she told me (this was in the lobby of the 2d floor of the Westin Hotel, for what it’s worth) that she hasn’t kept up with the thinking on this topic, and that maybe she got it wrong:
There were a lot of things we got wrong back then, at the time we were writing that pamphlet. The sources were so limited then compared to now. I haven’t kept up with the intervening 40 years of scholarship. I am not going to defend every point we’ve made. If some of the points have been superseded, then they’ve been superseded. For example, we portrayed it as a campaign by a monolithic church, when we now know it was tied up with the Reformation.
So that was interesting. Anyway, I have no dog in this hunt. It would be interesting if midwives were singled out among the persecuted. But it seems that, as best we know, they were not. For now, I am going to chalk this up to one of the many “historical” claims, like the claim that modern Paganism descends in an unbroken line from pre-Christian Goddess cultes, or like the claim that the Founding Fathers based the Constitution on Native American legal systems. Relatively harmless, unless we care about truth and accuracy. Worth correcting.

Dave Hickey has a new book, and nobody told me


This is the tale of being in Washington, D.C., and visiting this favorite bookstore, Bridge Street Books, in Georgetown ...



... where inside I met the self-described “Saturday night guy,” a poet named Chuck ...



... who chatted with me as I was browsing ...



... and then sold me a new book by one of my favorite writers ...



... the great essayist Dave Hickey, who has not published a collection of essays for many years, and then, in 2013, apparently with little fanfare, or with fanfare to quiet to have reached me from across the Atlantic, published this collection, seen above, in England, with a publisher called Ridinghouse. How one of our great essayists can publish a collection so silently, and without finding an American publisher, is mysterious.

But I am glad I found the book. I bought it, and left the empty space seen below:



Like father, like son, by Jesus


My Times column on Saturday was about conservative Christian colleges that pass leadership from father to son (that’s Jerry Falwell Jr., president of Liberty University, above). But what may be of more interest to my dear readers is the interesting exchange I had afterward with a reader who sent a gently chastizing note arguing that I had mistaken fundamentalists for evangelicals. He wanted me to call Falwell, Bob Jones, and Oral Roberts (three men of very different theologies themselves) “fundamentalists,” not “evangelicals.”

My position has always been that “evangelical” is the broader, more inclusive term, referring to any Protestant who believes it is incumbent on him or her to evangelize, spread the good news, do mission work — you get the idea. Thus Southern Baptists, Missouri Synod Lutherans, Pentecostals, some Episcopalians (especially “low-church” Episcopalians), some Methodists but not all, most black Baptists, independent “Bible church” Christians, fundamentalists of a Bob Jones University stripe, etc. — but not, by and large, members of the United Church of Christ, or more liberal Lutherans, or American Baptist Convention members (I am speaking in general, throughout), etc.

By this understanding, all fundamentalists are evangelicals, but not all evangelicals are fundamentalists. This, to me, is just linguistic sanity. Fundamentalists are evangelicals who, historically speaking, happen to subscribe to the precepts laid out in an early-20th-century set of pamphlets (the Wikipedia entry on this looks pretty good) ... but for our purposes, they are more likely to be total biblical inerrantists and literalists, and they have a separatist strain when it comes to the culture at large that many non-fundamentalist evangelicals don’t.

The problem is that many evangelicals want the media to call the far-right fundamentalists evangelicals “fundamentalists,” to separate them from more moderate evangelicals. Yet many of those fundamentalists think the term “fundamentalist” is derogatory. They may just want to be called evangelicals — or just “Christians.” So it’s a very loaded topic.

For a useful analogy: Modern Orthodox Jews would like the more separatist and more hostile-to-modernity Jews to be called “ultra-Orthodox” or haredi (Hebrew for “trembling”), to emphasize the modernists’ relative modernity, hipness, sanity (they might say). But ultra-Orthodox Jews, like many other Jews, would often like to be called just Jews, or maybe Orthodox Jews, or “Torah Jews.”

Anyway, here is my reader’s and my email thread, edited for easier consumption: He began:

Dear Mr. Oppenheimer,
Although you call them "evangelical schools," Liberty University, Oral Roberts University, and Bob Jones University are all fundamentalist rather than evangelical institutions.
Why do you suppose it is that even an informed author such as yourself tends to confuse evangelical and fundamentalist Protestant Christianity so easily?  Perhaps you could write a future column about that.


I wrote back:

Fundamentalism is a subset of evangelicalism.


He wrote:

I can see why you would think so.  After all, evangelical and fundamentalist Christianity are both theologically conservative.  Still, I believe you are not correct, and that evangelicalism and fundamentalism are separate and distinct.
Evangelicalism arose in the 1940s, in reaction to what some conservative Christian theologians believed to be a lack of social action on the part of fundamentalist Christianity (cf. publication of Carl F. H. Henry’s landmark The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism in 1947).
Another major difference between evangelicals and fundamentalists is that the former tend to be less literal in their interpretation of Scripture.  For example, fundamentalists believe that God created the world in six literal days, i.e. 24-hour periods.  Evangelicals tend to think of the seven-day creation framework in Genesis as a literary construct that should not be taken strictly as a single calendar week.


And I wrote:


Don't get me wrong: you are absolutely correct that, sociologically speaking, "fundamentalist" is often used to refer to the subset you are talking about, and other "evangelicals" are often seen as a contrast. But "evangelical" is the broader term ... and if one is referring to conservative Christians who take spreading the gospel seriously (as many mainline churches no longer do), "evangelical" is a very safe term for them all. It's true that, say, Wheaton grads must hate being grouped in the same word as Bob Jones grads, but that doesn't mean there isn't a broad word that applies to them both. (Indeed, some of these groups often resent sharing "Christian" with them.)

These terms are fuzzy, claimed by some groups but not by others, or by some groups some of the time, or by observers not in these groups.

But look, we could do an experiment: call some people at Bob Jones or Liberty and ask if they are evangelical Christians! And let me know what they say...


I’ll let you know if he takes me up on that. Meanwhile, what do you think?


Vegetarian sexual predator?



Today Salon ran a troubling piece critical of my recent column on vegetarian Iron Man yoga dude Sri Chinmoy. It begins this way:

The guru, Celia Corona-Doran recalls, asked her to strip and perform lesbian sex with another follower while he watched. Corona-Doran, called “Suchatula” while at the Sri Chinmoy Center—which offers free meditation classes and cultural events with the aim of “uplifting the human spirit,” according to its website—spent her entire adult life committed to the cult and felt compelled by guru Sri Chinmoy’s request for “total surrender.” Her conflict was so great that it shattered her faith. After trying to fake it, she refused to participate and instead confronted Guru. She was told to “forgive, as Chinmoy forgave,” in a twisted conflation of their collective sins and victim blaming. She was crushed, but Chinmoy died just a short time later in 2007. After another conflicted year or so, Corona-Doran left the Chinmoy family forever, set adrift at 40.

That doesn’t sound good, does it? And as one who recently devoted many months to writing an ebook about the horrific sexual abuse perpetrated by another bald Asian immigrant who got big in the ’60s and had a fondness for the ladies, I am not one to take this lightly. I hope people will check out the allegations in Edwin Lyngar’s piece.

One question that we should all mull over, though, not in defense of Sri Chinmoy, nor in defense of myself as a reporter, but simply to be intellectually rigorous. Most of the recent coverage of Sri Chinmoy, mine included, has been about his followers and the enduring community of which they are a part. Is there any evidence that any of them are sexually prurient or coercive in the way that some accuse their founder of being?

One critic of Sri Chinmoy says that after my column, "It’s far too late, because someone in Nebraska has read the article and is ‘inspired’ by it.” But too late for what? If that Nebraskan reader goes off to meditate with Sri Chinmoy followers, is she at risk of sexual victimization? Perhaps. But it’s also possible that Sri Chinmoy was abusive in certain ways without creating a culture in which his followers were predators, too. If we learned Abraham was a sexual predator (play along with me here — he was a bigamist), it wouldn’t mean Judaism today is sexually dangerous.

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