Witch Hysteria Is Alive and Well

Witch Hysteria Is Alive and Well January 27, 2007

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.

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