Witch Hysteria Is Alive and Well

One of the great tragedies of the human species is the violence and turmoil still happening in Africa. Africa is the continent of our origins, the place of our species’ birth, and the one place on Earth to which everyone now living can trace their ultimate ancestry. It should be a place of peace and human togetherness, an enduring and living monument to our past. Instead, the continent is still struggling to overcome the shameful legacy of colonialism and its own ethnic divisions, and much of it is mired in poverty, corruption, bloody warfare and rank superstition.

From the ongoing ethnic cleansing in Darfur to the scourge of AIDS which has decimated an entire generation, Africa faces many terrible problems that justly demand the compassion and assistance of the world community. Unfortunately, many of these problems continue to be exacerbated by harmful local superstitions. Whether it is the deadly rumor that sex with a virgin can cure AIDS, the ancestor-worship religions that oppose effective measures to treat preventable diseases, or the Christian churches that encourage HIV-positive people to forsake antiviral medicine in favor of holy water, Africa is all too persuasive an example (although by no means the only example) of how irrational religious beliefs cause harm to real people.

I now have another example to report: an article, Alleged African witches still outcast to camps, about “witch camps” in the nation of Ghana where people suspected of using sorcery are exiled from their friends and family to live lives of poverty. Most are women, but some are men as well. As is always the case in witchcraft accusations, the standard of proof is low to nonexistent: mere accusation is taken as the equal of guilt, and anything from bad dreams to rashes of disease to family quarrels to success that makes others jealous can bring on accusations. And it is not just native religions that cling to these superstitions, as reported by a professor at the University of Ghana:

Ironically, the rise in Ghana of charismatic Christian churches, with their focus on the fight against evil, has intensified fear and belief in witchcraft, even among educated people, Akrong said.

From the article, it seems that these people are merely being exiled, rather than killed as was the custom of past ages. This may be a marginal improvement at best, but at least it offers the hope that this injustice can be corrected and these innocent people returned to their families. Unfortunately, despite some citizens of the country speaking out against these harmful superstitions, there seems to be no reason to expect that such a thing will happen any time soon.

I do wonder if even the people who make these accusations truly believe them. After all, if a person really was a witch, able to invoke black magic to do harm to others, what good would it do to exile them to a different village? Couldn’t they continue to call misfortune down on their enemies from there, or are witches’ powers limited by distance?

The Ghanaian witch hysteria is an instructive reply to the often-repeated that it is presumptuous and arrogant to be an atheist since no one can really know that God doesn’t exist. If we follow that logic consistently, we should also believe that it would be arrogant to declare there is no such thing as witchcraft, and so maybe some of the people exiled to witch camps or burned at the stake, as was done in past eras, really did deserve such a punishment. This line of reasoning would require “keeping an open mind” about witchcraft and being open to the possibility that a lack of rainfall or a child’s illness really should be blamed on some outcast elderly woman using black magic to cause misfortune for others.

An atheist, however, has a clear and consistent reply to all these cases. The burden of proof always rests with the positive claimant, and unless the person who makes a supernatural claim can offer clear and convincing evidence of its truth – which no person throughout history has ever been able to do for any supernatural claim – then we are fully justified in treating all these claims as false. And as with many supernatural claims, the self-serving nature of these accusations suggests the real motivation behind them, with those who make them using the unprovability of the supernatural as a convenient excuse to avoid having to present evidence.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • SteveC

    I’m currently reading Dark Star Safari, by Paul Theroux, (I’m about 3/4ths of the way through it) who taught in Malawi in the sixties, and revisited africa, making an overland journey from Cairo to Capetown in 2000-something (I forget the year.) It’s pretty interesing. He talks about how things have changed since he was there in the sixties (mostly for the worse) and about what impact aid groups are having, etc. How to “fix” Africa is one hell of a hard question. Anyway, it’s a pretty good book, check it out if that sort of thing interests you.

  • Anonymous

    Africa today is pretty much like Northern Europe was after the Romans left – iron age tribes left with the concept of civilization but still just iron age tribes. It took a long time for that concept to eventually bear fruit. The problem in Africa is that they have modern weapons to fight their tribal battles and huge amounts of foreign aid for the, in many cases, corrupt leaders to stash away in their Swiss bank accounts at the expense of the people they’re supposed to be looking after.

    I think that only time will sort out Africa’s problems. In the mean time we can only hope that the Western democracies don’t go the way of the Roman Empire and another Dark Age fall over the Earth.

  • andrea

    The belief in “witches” is just more theist nonsense. “Suffer not a witch to live”. Anytime you can blame someone or thing i.e. Satan for your problems, it allows you to keep up the lie.

  • Alex Weaver

    The belief in “witches” is just more theist nonsense. “Suffer not a witch to live”. Anytime you can blame someone or thing i.e. Satan for your problems, it allows you to keep up the lie.

    And get rid of people you don’t like in a humiliating fashion that will slander their reputation in the community (and perhaps their families’ as well) forever even above and beyond their deaths, leave you with no risk of reprisal (as opposed to bashing their heads in with a hoe), and maybe let you get your hands on some of their stuff. This certainly seemed to be a major motivation for accusations of witchcraft in medieval Europe.

  • Shawn Smith

    One does not need to be living in Africa as a member of a “stone age tribe” to be a believer in the perils of Witchcraft. Laura Mallory, a resident of Georgia, is currently trying to have Harry Potter books removed from elementary schools for the reason they support Witchcraft. She brings up the usual tripe about how the nation was founded on Judeo-Christian principles, and that removing God and prayer from public school has caused all the social pathologies we see in schools today, from the Columbine massacre to teenage pregnancies, language crudeness, and violence. Sigh.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    I recently saw the documentary Jesus Camp (and intend to post a review soon). In one scene, a Christian fundamentalist mother advises her child that Harry Potter would have been stoned to death if he had been alive in biblical times. From the tone of her voice, it was hard not to get the impression that she was nostalgic for those bygone days.

  • Alex Weaver

    The child’s mother wouldn’t, by any chance, happen to have been wearing anything with a cotton-polyester blend, would she?

  • lpetrich

    I wonder if pedophilia has become something like witchcraft in our society — an especially heinous offense. However deplorable pedophilia may be, I wonder if much of the response to it goes beyond all reason.

    And I wouldn’t call the idea of sorcery having real effects “theist” nonsense — superstitious nonsense maybe, something metaphysically related to theism perhaps, but not necessarily theist nonsense. I’ve added the qualifier “having real effects” to distinguish between practicing sorcery and sorcery successfully doing something. Like the distinction between placing a picture of Mother Teresa on one’s belly and doing so successfully curing stomach cancer inside.

    -

    I think that it is worth noting that many “primitive” people had believed that nearly all sickness and death is due to malicious sorcery. Travelers in Africa had noted how common it was for Africans to do “witch smelling” after people’s deaths. These people had maintained belief in the sorcery theory alongside of awareness of other causes, like a collapsing granary or being attacked by an elephant that one was hunting. Of course, a sorcery apologist could claim that the sorcerer had cast a spell of “Sic ‘em!” on that elephant.

    So I wonder if there is something psychological involved, like whatever it is that causes some people to invent and believe in conspiracy theories.

    It may be due to a tendency to attribute intention even where no intention is present, a theory proposed for the origin of religion.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    I wonder if pedophilia has become something like witchcraft in our society — an especially heinous offense. However deplorable pedophilia may be, I wonder if much of the response to it goes beyond all reason.

    Believe it or not, I was strongly considering a discussion of that very comparison in this post, before I ultimately decided that the issue would be better served by a separate post of its own.

    I think it’s a good comparison in that both witchcraft and pedophilia have been considered crimes so serious that people didn’t think we even needed evidence to prove the guilt of someone accused of either of them. I had a chance to watch Indictment late last year, a fictionalized portrayal of the famous McMartin preschool case. It was astonishing how easily hysteria was drummed up in response to the mere possibility that children had been sexually abused, and how that hysteria prevented virtually everyone in the community from seeing the obvious evidentiary holes in the abuse story.

  • Leo Igwe

    Witchcraft is superstition. Africa should leave superstition and embrace science. Africa should abandon this dark age practice, this irrational and primitive belief and embrace the ideals of modernity and Enlightenment