Christian Radio Fans the Flames of Witch Hunting

A few years ago, I wrote about the horrible “witch children” craze in Nigeria. Like the witch hunts that once swept through America and Europe, this one is fed by sects of fanatic evangelical preachers, inflamed by Western missionaries, that believe in a miracle-drenched, demon-haunted world – and teach that people, including children, can be possessed by evil spirits, and that the only cure is to torture or kill them.

One of the worst of the lot is a Pentecostal preacher named Helen Ukpabio, who claims, among other things, that any child who screams, cries or gets sick is a “servant of Satan”. She’s visited the U.K. to preach to friendly congregations, promising help to those being attacked by witchcraft or, bizarrely, by “mermaid” spirits. Human-rights groups like the International Humanist and Ethical Union have called on the UK government to ban Ukpabio from returning to the country.

It was in the context of this controversy that a UK-based Christian radio station, Premier Radio, posted this horrifying question on their Twitter page last week:

This is the most hideous example of the “just-asking-questions” meme I’ve yet seen. It implies that they’re not taking sides on whether children can be demon-possessed witches, but that they consider this an issue where reasonable people can disagree, and that we should thoughtfully weigh both pro and con answers.

I reposted their tweet and added a sarcastic note:

In the meantime, Premier Radio was being attacked by other rationalists on Twitter. Here’s what they posted in response:

That link goes to a page, “37 Bible Verses About Witches“, whose first line is the notorious Exodus 22:18: “You shall not permit a sorceress to live.”

Right after they posted that, they responded to me:

Obviously, the question arises: if you don’t condone killing, why don’t you, considering that you believe witches are real and that you follow a Bible which tells you to kill them?

It’s not clear what alternative “interpretation” they had in mind here. If you believe that witches don’t exist and that demonic possession was a superstition of an earlier age, then you’d have good reason to ignore the Bible verses about killing them. But Premier Radio’s spokesperson, as they just stated, does believe in witches. So why the disconnect?

They offered one more justification, which was the most unbelievable of all:

This is saying that dead and tortured children are a price worth paying for “spiritual healing” – that the manifest harm these witch hunters do has to be balanced against the wholly unverifiable, unmeasurable “spiritual” help they offer, as if one could cancel out the other. We’d never tolerate a surgeon who performed life-saving operations, but killed a patient on the table every once in a while, just on a whim. And these missionaries don’t even have the thin excuse of doing some measurable good, as that hypothetical surgeon could claim in his defense.

This story sums up every reason why I, as an atheist, object to religion as a destructive force. These ancient witchcraft superstitions, which by all rights should have been banished to memory long ago, are being kept alive in the modern era by people who have no excuse for not knowing better. And the overriding need to preserve those superstitions warps their moral compass, persuading them to judge intangible goods as more important than all-too-tangible evils.

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.

  • Crimson

    Had I seen their original post out of context I’d have assumed they were, albeit subtly, expressing their own incredulity at the idea of child witches. The rest of the exchange demonstrates my naivety.

  • TBP100

    As a rule, I’m in favor of people being allowed to travel where they wish, and to advocate for their beliefs. However, I think I might make an exception in the case of someone who advocates torturing children.

  • Ahab

    I’m shocked. Premier Christian really should have done its homework on witchcraft accusations — and all the violence and persecution that comes with them — before framing Ukpabio’s visit like this.

  • John

    A Christian organization not doing their homework? Not exactly what I’d call shocking.

  • Michael

    Although it’s not on the same level, some pop culture depictions seem like they can also be harmful. Last night “Salem” first aired on WGN, a fictional portrayal of the witch hunt which occurred there. Fiction, of course, means just that, but when it purports to tell the “real” story behind the actual events, and historical people, this gets problematic. The show depicts (spoiler) the Barbadian slave woman Tituba as a “real” witch. In actual fact, she was among those first accused of witchcraft, and named others as witches to save herself. Meanwhile, a fictional character who opposes the witch hunt hysteria turns out to be a witch himself, something real doubters were accused of. I understand the movie The Conjuring, (featuring two Catholic “ghost hunters” also based on real people) which was released last year, also implies there were “real” witches at Salem. To a lesser extent, works like Harry Potter also contribute, since they also depict witchcraft being real. While not all the witches are evil, the characters who are commit deeds as bad or worse as those alleged in actual witch hunts. Don’t misunderstand-I’m a fan of Harry Potter, and most people no doubt view things like this as fiction only. As we see here, however, some people take it *very* seriously. The historical message has been, rightly, that witches don’t exist and people believed to be were simply innocent victims. These portrayals implicitly alter it to “witches were real, but that innocent people were caught up in the witch hunt” something more similar to the 1980s’ Satanic ritual abuse craze-no one doubts pedophiles are real, but many of the accusations were fantastic, causing unjust charges and even convictions. This is a dangerous view in regards to witches, I’d say.

  • Shawn

    Back when I was a believer, we frequently had missionaries give talks about all the wonderful miracles that God was accomplishing in Africa – speaking in tongues, healings, and so forth. There is a strong current of belief in many Evangelical churches that God is active there in a way that he is no longer active in the US/Europe (the excuse usually given is that our degenerate secular ways have caused him to turn his back on us), and that there’s also a corresponding active Satanic presence there as well. Consequently, con artists like Ukpabio can find easy marks in Western churches who are ready to believe their BS stories. Of course that’s nothing compared to the damage they’re doing at home.

  • Korey Peters

    Well, God can’t do these sorts of miracles in America any more because too many people have smart phones and can record it (God’s allergic to video cameras, apparently). In order to keep this myth of “God is still doing miracles” alive, we must remove him to the least progressive, most isolated part of the world. You should see the crazy shit he’s doing amongst the penguins in Antarctica!

  • Wasserbuffel

    He does do “miracles” in America! See, he “cries” through trees.

    Ok, maybe it’s just a bunch of people worshiping aphid poop, but look how happy they are!

  • James Jarvis

    “We know witch doctors can cause harm, but they are also known to do spiritual healings.” This makes no sense on at least two levels. If you believe that witch doctors can perform spiritual healing this is clearly what the Bible would call sorcery and it is therefore forbidden. Secondly what do witch doctors have to “Christian” witch hunters?

  • Cylon

    I was going to post on that, too. And it seems Adam may have missed the switch there.

    “This is saying that dead and tortured children are a price worth paying for “spiritual healing” – that the manifest harm these witch hunters do has to be balanced against the wholly unverifiable, unmeasurable “spiritual” help they offer, as if one could cancel out the other.”

    No, actually it’s completely ignoring the problem of witch hunters and trying to make a point about something completely different, as James pointed out.

  • J-D

    Is Premier Radio an agency of Satan? just asking the question.

  • Adam Lee

    I suspect that was a mistyped word on their spokesperson’s part.

  • Adam Lee

    The documentary “God Loves Uganda”, which I recently watched, is another example of this trend. African anti-gay laws, like African witch panics, are motivated in large part by wealthy American churches that send missionaries there.

  • cipher

    And the overriding need to preserve those superstitions warps their moral compass

    Adam, you assume they have a “moral compass” to begin with. I insist they’re psychopaths. Someone who is perfectly comfortable with the idea of billions of human beings made to suffer eternally has no moral compass. This is an almost textbook symptom of psychopathy.

  • Jeremy Shaffer

    We would never condone killing.

    But f*ck if we can be assed to do anything to stop it!

  • 8DX

    Egads, I hope Justin Brierly is not this crazy … looks like the possibility of a “witch-hunting” Unbeleivable episode is slowly reaching 1.

  • Alex Harman

    I’d rather see Ukpabio arrested on arrival in the UK and sent to the Hague to be tried and imprisoned for Crimes Against Humanity than merely banned from traveling to the UK.

  • patrick.sele

    The question is
    whether or not the “witch children” are “witches” in the sense that the Bible
    uses this word or the Hebrew word translated in some Bible translations as
    “witch”. Just as with “slavery” one shouldn’t just look at the word and assume
    it means exactly the same we understand by the word nowadays.

    There clearly is no
    Biblical justification for the view that a child who screams, cries or gets
    sick is a servant of Satan.

  • GCT

    Because clearly we need to determine who the real witches are and kill them, just as we need to clarify that owning a person and being able to beat them to death (provided they don’t die right away) is actually a morally good system. Oh wait…no, it’s the opposite on both counts.

  • Walter Bernhard

    Never forget that it is we atheists who corrupt, wicked, selfish, and practitioners of subjective morality. Christians, on the other hand, are righteous and holy–never more so than when torturing and murdering people for imaginary crimes. After all, this is what their loving god will do for all eternity.

  • XaurreauX Pont DeLac

    This is beyond disgusting and repulsive.

  • kipper1951

    Thank go for atheists. You would think that we would be free from this sort of (very dangerous) nonsense y the 21st century. Non believers have thd oral advantage.