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One of the surest marks of a pseudoscience is that it stays forever the same, never altering its claims, even as the world changes around it and revolutions in our knowledge come and go. While science evolves over time, with theories becoming refined to more closely track the truth, popular delusions stay the same through the centuries, at most changing their outer robes to match the spirit of the times.

I wrote about this in a past entry in this series, in which the demonic succubi and incubi that were once imagined to haunt sleepers become, in the modern era, gray-skinned alien abductors. Today’s post concerns a different topic, and one that has likewise seen its manifestation mutate over the ages: the hysteria of alleged Satanic cults that subject children to horrific sexual abuse and violence. Some people claim to have been victims of these cults; some even claim to be ex-members. As always, Jack Chick provides a handy example of what a large number of Christians and other theists still actually believe.

But, as I said, many popular delusions update their outer trappings to match the times. This is also true of Satanic cult beliefs, which in modern times have taken on the form of secret conspiracies of pedophiles gathering to prey on children. The most infamous example is the 1980s McMartin case, in which a California family who owned a preschool were accused of hundreds of counts of sexual abuse of the children under their care. After a six-year trial and the expenditure of millions of dollars by the prosecution, the case ended without a single conviction. (This story was dramatized in the movie Indictment.)

The McMartin case in particular began with the allegations of one woman, later revealed to be mentally ill, who alleged that her son had been sexually abused by one of the teachers at the preschool. Taking her at her word, the police began a dragnet investigation that culminated with hundreds of children being interviewed by a California clinic, the Children’s Institute International. The CII therapists took the approach that abuse was certain and the only obstacle was getting the children to admit it. Under their guidance, children were peppered with leading questions; the therapists described what they thought had happened (“I know that the kids were touched”) and pressured the children to agree. When children denied those claims, they were told, “You better not play dumb”, or “I don’t want to hear any more ‘no’s”, and informed that many of their classmates had already told the truth. When they gave in, they were rewarded. Despite the bizarre nature of the allegations that emerged from this technique (sex with movie stars, sexual abuse taking place in hot-air balloons, one of the alleged abusers killing a giraffe in front of them), these videotaped “confessions” were presented as evidence at trial. It has since been discovered, and is now widely known, that leading questions and high-pressure interviews such as this can readily generate false memories and false confessions, even in adults, and much more so in suggestible children.

Most Satanic panics, including the McMartin case, share the attribute of extremely implausible allegations for which no physical evidence is presented. The scope of the imagined conspiracies is inevitably vast, with estimates ranging from 50,000 to an astonishing two million murders by Satanic cults in the U.S. each year. (As that article notes, the higher estimate would mean that the annual death rate from Satanic cults surpasses the number of U.S. deaths in World War II, Korea and Vietnam combined.) Abuse and crime on such a massive scale should be easy to demonstrate, and yet no undisputed Satanic cult has ever been broken up and prosecuted, no physical evidence of such astonishing allegations ever presented. As with other conspiracy theories, the absence of evidence is taken by true believers to simply be further confirmation of the conspiracy’s scope and power, even though the idea of such a massive cover-up being successful does violence to everything we know about human psychology.

What Satanic panics show, more than anything else, is the malleability of memory. In matters as important as this, we cannot rely solely on testimonial evidence: human beings are far too prone to tell untruths, to confabulate, and to unwittingly encourage others to do the same. The problem of sexual predators that molest children is very real, and all too common. But the idea of organized, underground cabals of devil-worshippers gathering to practice diabolical rites on innocents is a hysterical fantasy, nothing more. This kind of irrational overreaction only ensures that innocents will be unjustly swept up in dragnets of overzealous law enforcement, rather than targeting our legal resources where they are most needed to take on genuine predators.

Other posts in this series:

DAYLIGHT ATHEISM—Adam Lee is an atheist author and speaker from New York City. His previously published books include "Daylight Atheism," "Meta: On God, the Big Questions, and the Just City," and most...

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