The Witch Children of Nigeria

The Witch Children of Nigeria December 17, 2007

I’ve written on several past occasions about how belief in malignant supernatural forces causes real harm to real people. There are examples of this from every region of the world, but some of the most wrenching are from Africa, where Biblical beliefs about demons and evil spirits still run rampant.

In January, I wrote about the witch camps of Ghana, where people suspected of using black magic to harm their neighbors are exiled as if they were lepers. In April, there were the Pentecostals of the Congo, who seek to cure mental illness by chaining sufferers to their beds and beating them to drive the demons out. Now, via the Guardian, there’s a story out of Nigeria that is far more heart-breaking and horrible than either of those.

Driving through the town of Esit Eket, the rust-streaked signs, tarpaulins hung between trees and posters on boulders, advertise a church for every third or fourth house along the road. Such names as New Testament Assembly, Church of God Mission, Mount Zion Gospel, Glory of God, Brotherhood of the Cross, Redeemed, Apostalistic. Behind the smartly painted doors pastors make a living by ‘deliverances’ – exorcisms – for people beset by witchcraft, something seen to cause anything from divorce, disease, accidents or job losses. With so many churches it’s a competitive market, but by local standards a lucrative one.

If this were merely a case of parasitic clergy making money by preying on superstitious people, exploiting the poor by charging exorbitant sums to chase away imaginary dangers, that would be bad enough. But this atmosphere of fanaticism has taken a far uglier turn.

But an exploitative situation has now grown into something much more sinister as preachers are turning their attentions to children – naming them as witches. In a maddened state of terror, parents and whole villages turn on the child. They are burnt, poisoned, slashed, chained to trees, buried alive or simply beaten and chased off into the bush.

This bold statement would be unbelievable if the story itself didn’t provide so many first-hand examples. There are numerous children quoted whose own parents, inflamed to frenzy by Christian preachers, have thrown boiling water and acid at them, who have left them tied to trees for days, who have forced them to drink poison. The children who are not killed by this torture are invariably driven out of their homes to live as homeless orphans in communities that despise and fear them and often attempt to kill them on sight.

As the Guardian article notes prominently, the fervent Christian beliefs of these communities have created the problem, not mitigated it. As with the similar cases from Ghana and the Congo, the spread of fanatic Pentecostal and evangelical sects who interpret the Bible’s verses about witches and exorcisms literally have given rise to this outrage.

…it is American and Scottish Pentecostal and evangelical missionaries of the past 50 years who have shaped these fanatical beliefs. Evil spirits, satanic possessions and miracles can be found aplenty in the Bible, references to killing witches turn up in Exodus, Deuteronomy and Galatians, and literal interpretation of scriptures is a popular crowd-pleaser.

And the local preachers who are enriching themselves by shattering families and killing children are not in the least bit apologetic:

Pastor Joe Ita is the preacher at Liberty Gospel Church in nearby Eket. ‘We base our faith on the Bible, we are led by the holy spirit and we have a programme of exposing false religion and sorcery.’ Soft of voice and in his smart suit and tie, his church is being painted and he apologises for having to sit outside near his shiny new Audi to talk.

…’To give more than you can afford is blessed. We are the only ones who really know the secrets of witches. Parents don’t come here with the intention of abandoning their children, but when a child is a witch then you have to say “what is that there? Not your child.”

This is a dramatic illustration of the “megaphone” hypothesis of religion amplifying both the good and the bad in human nature in equal measure. At one extreme, it can produce astounding acts of courage and self-sacrificing love. At the other extreme, it can produce hatred, xenophobia and superstitious fear so poisonous that parents can be turned against their own minor children. The flip side of charity and love toward those declared to be in the religious in-group is this savage treatment toward those declared to be in the out-group, and religion is all too effective at placing people outside that charmed circle, declaring them to be less than human.

The hatred and horror visited on these children by their faithful parents underscores the immorality of believing in a book like the Bible that contains such evil superstitions. Even if enlightened believers understand the verses about devils and witches for the savage and primitive falsehoods they are, so long as we promote this book as the word of God, those verses will always be there to be rediscovered by fanatics, with the results we have seen.

This tragic story is one more example of why atheists must work to spread reason and oppose faith in all its guises. Until the day when we can empty the haunted air and banish these pernicious beliefs once and for all, human beings will continue to suffer from the irrational ideologies that teach us to view others as agents of Satan and therefore undeserving of moral consideration.

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