Beliefnet News Conflates Paganism and Harry Potter with Witchcraft Killings

Beliefnet News Conflates Paganism and Harry Potter with Witchcraft Killings April 25, 2012

A good news blogger will often try to spot trends and underlying issues in the stories of the day, using the strengths of the format to make links, provide more depth, and uncover nuances overlooked in the big headlines. However, sometimes a writer will commit the car-crash equivalent of same, using keywords and lazy cut-pasting to score pageviews for his or her employer. I believe the second scenario happened on Monday when Beliefnet Senior Editor Rob Kerby carelessly conflated the recent Cornwall controversy over teaching Paganism in religious education classes with the troubling trend of witch-hunts and witch-killings in places like Africa and the Middle East.

A fear of witchcraft? In our enlightened age? According to Reuters, the British news agency, a woman from the island of Sri Lanka off the southern tip of India has been charged with casting a spell on a 13-year-old Saudi girl during her family’s trip to a shopping mall. […]  In Cornwall, England, the local council is defending its decision to include teaching children about witchcraft in religious education lessons. The Cornwall Council says that from the age of five, children should begin learning about pagan sites like Stonehenge and at the age of 11, pupils can begin exploring “modern paganism and its importance for many in Cornwall.” Critics say the council is offering “witchcraft lessons.” Witchcraft? Seriously? The United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund – UNICEF – says that tens of thousands of children in Africa each year are tortured and killed because of witchcraft. Blame is divided between local witchdoctors and Pentecostal churches that have led opposition to the witchdoctors.”

The whole thing is such a thematic mess that I really don’t know where to begin. Let’s start with the fact that he puts the religious police crackdown on “sorcery” in Saudi Arabia, and African witch-hunting,  in the same category as Cornwall making the teaching of modern Pagan religions an option in religious education courses, then veers into Harry Potter!

“In the west, witchcraft is trivialized with children’s books such as Harry Potter and Disney movies and TV shows that present it as harmless. However, the Vatican has called on African authorities to ban sorcery with rigid laws.”

Then, after careening back into stories on witch-hunting in Africa, he turns to instances of African immigrants in the UK abusing and killing children in the name of witchcraft, and somehow links this back to the Cornwall story!

“In 2005, Sita Kisanga was found guilty of torturing an eight-year-old in London, believing the girl to have kindoki. She told the court that, “Kindoki is something you have to be scared of because in our culture kindoki can kill and destroy your life completely.” But officials in Cornwall, England, say there’s nothing to fear. […] It seems that the politically correct Cornwall Council regards Christianity as no better than any other superstition.”

This spectacular exercise in lazy slander is capped by a lengthy quotation from  Catholic columnist Christina Odone, whose anti-Pagan screed I highlighted on this blog.

“God, Gaia, whatever: school children are already as familiar with the solstice as with the sacraments. In pockets of Cornwall, children will point out a nun in her habit: “Look, a Druid!” Their parents will merely shrug — one set of belief is as good as another. How long before the end of term is marked by a Black Mass, with only Health and Safety preventing a human sacrifice?

That’s how Kerby ends it, with that direct quote from Odone. I have seen stupid and bad reporting on modern Pagan religions before, but this mish-mash of different issues takes the cake. It gives the headline “what can the Third World teach the civilized world about witchcraft” a decidedly sinister ring. What, exactly, can the “Third World” teach us about witchcraft? That it should be outlawed, that witches should be hunted and killed? That kids shouldn’t read Harry Potter because witchcraft is serious business in Saudi Arabia? What?

One could easily do a paragraph-by-paragraph fisking of this piece, pointing out all the places where this story runs off the rails, but instead let me make a few simple points that Kerby doesn’t make in this bizarre “story.”

1. Sorcery persecutions in the Middle East are not the same phenomenon as witch-hunting in African nations. Both result in the killing of “witches,” but have different motivations and underlying causes.

2. Modern Pagan and religious Witchcraft traditions aren’t “trivializing” the practice of witchcraft, they are operating under a completely different cultural context and understanding of the term and its practice. Further, modern Pagans exist in the Middle East, and South Africa, places where witch-persecutions are happening. They take this problem very seriously indeed, and Pagans have even been seen as a possible solution in the problem of witch-hunting in India. To claim our faiths are “trivializing” witchraft is a slur, and an ignorant one.

3. If Mr. Kerby truly cared about witch-killings he should look into how Christian missionaries in Africa helped make them possible. Evangelical Christian academics say that indigenous ideas and reactions to “witchcraft” and malefic magic have been “Christianized” (their term), creating deadly consequences the missionaries could not (or would not) understand. I think Western funding of witch-hunters is doing far more damage than Wiccans practicing their religion.

4. Every culture has stories, folktales, and fantasy version of magic and witchcraft. To say their modern equivalent, Harry Potter, have somehow “trivialized” matters in the Third World is absurd.

5. The Cornwall “teaching Paganism” story was a tabloid sensationalist mess that distorted the facts in order to sell papers. That it is conflated with witch-killings in the UK is simply insane. No, worse than that, it is a deliberate smear.

That this patch-work monstrosity of an article exists at Beliefnet, who employs a Pagan blogger, one who co-wrote a book on Pagan-Christian dialog, and could have easily clarified many of the mistakes and misconceptions at work in Kerby’s piece, damns this exercise in unfounded conflation even further. If Beliefnet had an ounce of editorial conscience they would pull this abomination immediately, or at least not spotlight it as “news.” Then again, if Kerby is a “Senior Editor” maybe the lunatics are running the asylum at Beliefnet.

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43 responses to “Beliefnet News Conflates Paganism and Harry Potter with Witchcraft Killings”

  1. This always infuriates me, but it is so common. I appreciate you covering this, and taking it apart as much as you can. This is nothing that a smear to make it all look as if Witchcraft is nonsense and unimportant. They basically want the answer to be that witchcraft is not real, therefore persecution is killing over a fantasy, and that no one should use witchcraft for anything. Beliefnet  is enough of a open dialogue, it should not be doing this, but it’s ownership is highly suspicious to be religiously neutral.

  2. Wow. I applaud you for even touching that article with a ten-foot pole. The various cultural realities of witchcraft are indeed intertwined carelessly by ignorant writers to the detriment of most parties involved. 

    However, I would say that many pagans themselves do not fully understand the cultural complexities of witchcraft beliefs in places like Africa and Asia, and sometimes exaggeratedly champion for the cessation of “witchcraft persecution,” equating it to the romanticized mythico-history of Paganism as a whole.  In cultures wherein witchcraft/sorcery beliefs are/were part of a tapestry of beliefs regarding spirits, deities, possession, divination and the like (as well as being part of the social fabric), we are unfortunately seeing both a Christianizing AND a Paganing, to some extent, even though the more vocal Pagan “advocates” are behind computer screens and not in the field.

  3. Thank you for the article. I’m quite appalled at such bad reporting on these issues; either on purpose to smear Paganism/Witchcraft/’anything and anyone different’ or through sheer ignorance … it just has no excuses! I’m angry now!

  4. Your car-crash analogy was a good one.  This reminds me of that old joke:  “I had to swerve all over the road before I finally hit him!”  Throw enough stuff at a wall, and surely something will stick.  But isn’t worrying about Harry Potter a little retro at this point?  Surely moaning about the current crop of fairytale-related movies and TV shows “glamorizing/trivializing evil” would have been a much more current reference.

  5. Apparently all comments on the article are being held in moderation. Which is a shame. I would have loved to read the responses from Bnet’s Pagan community.

  6. Mr. Kerby (which, according to Belief net, has “40 years in newspaper and magazine journalism….and authored, edited or ghostwritten more than 60 books” obviously doesn’t know a thing about Witchcraft or Paganism.  Perhaps he doesn’t WANT to know….only to spread propaganda.  Does he think people like Starhawk and Guy DiZerga are the same as Harry Potter or the so-called “witches” of indigenous people?  I would point him to a simple educational site like:

  7. If that piece (I went and read the whole thing & want a shower now) is actually being purveyed as “news” it has a glaring, overarching fault: lack of balances. No witches from  any continent are interviewed, only those who hate, fear, and/or denigrate witches. You are right, it’s a kitchen-sink collation, all from the same perspective. One cannot learn anything from the Third World with this shoddy kind of “journalism.”

  8. When I was in the news business, this kind of thing was called a “hatchet job.”

  9. Beliefnet has been a wasteland for at least the past two years. Almost all writers of any talent or depth have moved over here or elsewhere and what’s left isn’t worth the energy to type in a url or scroll a bookmark. 

  10. There are cultural complexities regarding witchcraft in these culture, but none that justify the torture and murder of teenage girls (or anyone) by mob justice or “exorcists”. 

  11.  I don’t think she’s going there  with her post, but simply that “love and light” views of magic/witchcraft is ignorant of cultural realities surrounding those terms. The term “witch” in Western Europe is a perfect example. It wasn’t until relatively recently that the term was even used to refer to a human, let alone a decent one. OE texts (can’t remember the name of it at the moment) described a witch as an otherworldly creature bent on attacking humans and their livestock, not a woman who does magic. That changed by the Middle Ages though.

    On top of that, it’s a loaded English term being applied to people that may share some characteristics all over the world, often superficial ones. That sort of application makes the concept skewed in translation as a result.

  12. That editor largely covers the intersection of Bircher politics and evangelical Christianity, taking on such weighty measures as whether Rick Warren is a stalking horse for the future global religon of “Chrislam”.  (Conclusion: probably not…) But I think this kind of article shows there’s a continuity of religious discourse between witch-hunting, spiritual warfare, and pagan-bashing.  Crusades historically start with the unbelievers at home, after all.

  13. Wow.  As other have noted, the key problem here is that the term ‘witchcraft’ is used differently in various cultures to mean different things.   Western civilization has come to equate it with either the fantasy Disney wicked witch or the contemporary Wiccan  (or now, Harry Potter!), but in these other parts of the world mentioned, the term is equated with malicious sorcery and black magic, and used to describe undesirable members of the community using magic to deliberately harm others.  And really, -none- of these definitions likely has anything to do with who might have originally built and used Stonehenge.  The overt lack of clarity with term usage in this piece is stunning.   I would suggest that Cornwall might to well to quantify and clarify their definition of the term witchcraft if they choose to use it in schools; ‘pagan’ might be simpler.

  14. meh…
    im actually more bothered by the ‘third world’ reference.
    you know what i mean?
    third world = primitive, backwards….

    havent seen any mentioning of this
    but not surprised.

    in my experience,
    modern pagans, both conservative and liberal
    still hold strong colonialist and racist notions
    toward magico-religious practices of non-western societies…

    have a discussion about any afro-latin religion or santisima muerte, etc on another forum populated by
    mainstream liberal pagans and you will quickly see all of these racist,
    colonialist, and just plain fucking idiotic attitudes and beliefs coming out…

    hence, im running away from the modern pagan community,

    used to be more active,

    but no thanks. 

    and funny that so many are not aware, or even notice this
    they will battle christian militants and conservatives
    but they dont notice that sometimes, they act just like those christians
    to folks like me, just because i dont practice a religion that was born
    in europe or in the usa.
    im just not civilized or enlightened as thou.

  15. Anondok, let me invite you to stick around The Wild Hunt for a while. You’ll find yourself in a venue that takes Santeria and African Indigenous religious just as seriously as Wicca and Asatru.

    Disagreement with the Beliefnet piece cited is not the same as disrespecting the Third World. The piece was riddled with journalistic errors including lack of balance in sources and orchestration of instances around a viewpoint rather than any underlying reality.

  16. “[…I]n these other parts of the world mentioned, the term [‘witch’] is equated with malicious sorcery and black magic […]”

    In fact, the term is not used at all in those other parts of the world. They all have local terms for “malevolent sorcerer,” and scholars from the Christian West *decided* that the proper English translation of those terms is “witch,” with all the baggage of the church’s millenial war against it. I daresay none of those scholars and linguists were consciously promoting Christian supremacism; it’s an example of how Christian memes soaked into every aspect of our society, and how it’s our constant task to expose and expunge them.

  17. Mia is right, I do not think I implied justification of violence in my comment, nor did I intend it. What I am getting at is that the ignorant conflation of indigenous witchcraft beliefs, Christian/Muslim witchcraft beliefs, Pagan Witchcraft beliefs and popular culture “witchcraft” (ie, Harry Potter) by lay readers/writers is a dangerous game, pretty much for all parties involved. The vast misunderstanding that occurs when we throw around the word “witch” mixed with all these different cultural contexts can be extremely detrimental, particularly to the cultures who have no voice in this discourse, the indigenous people whose longstanding witchcraft beliefs are being re-cast in a different light by the myriad of activists, missionaries, and armchair scholars who wish to “help” them. 

  18. You’re right about the translation issue, Mia. The same thing happens with many words that anthropologists come across in field work and have no direct translation into the anthropologist’s mother tongue; words like “shaman,” and “tapu/taboo” are taken from indigenous languages and used to describe other cultural phenomena which are *close* but perhaps not identical, and the word surely loses a lot of its cultural nuance in being applied in such a way. In the same way many of the English words we use to describe other cultural phenomena are flavored with our own nuances of meaning, thus casting a new light on the way something is understood, such as “witch,” “spirit posession,” and “gods”. 

  19.  Yes, of course other parts of the world have terms in their -own languages- to denote black magic users.  However, the term witch in the English language doesn’t have an original meaning of ‘nature worshiper’ either, so naturally, two different ideas using the same term are being unduly conflated here.  And, those cultures and peoples in question -do- use the term witchcraft to denote black magic -when- they are speaking English.  Obviously, though, the term doesn’t accurately describe practicing Wiccans, and this article has no business conflating the two ideas. 

  20. But it does include informal magick workers in early modern Europe, because the Inquisition went after them in that name. It doesn’t precisely connote “nature worshiper” even to those who take the name; it’s more about practice than theology. Of course there is plenty of overlap.

    The word “witch” was self-applied back when it was a lot more radical to be into any of this, in part in solidarity with anyone ever persecuted as a witch, in part to restore the good name of the woman helping people with herbs and spells. I’m not sure the community would make the same move today, but we have to live with it.

  21. Yes, but ‘Third World’ has a dated ring to it and has a pejorative connotation  to its use.  That was certainly part of the article’s rhetorical intention, I’m sure. 

  22. Dated indeed; the Second World (the Communist states) has been absorbed by the other two. I used it only because the Beliefnet article did. I suspect that that use was not with pejorative intent because the author’s point was that people in the Third World are wiser about witchcraft than people in the West.

  23. Thank you for bringing this essay to everyone’s attention. I am not a regular reader of BeliefNet and was previously unfamiliar with it. I do not know Kerby’s background, but perhaps he is evangelical? If so, he should avail himself of a new stream of good treatments of modern paganism by evangelicals, done in partnership with pagans, such as Beyond the Burning Times (which you mention), as well as the new book by Paul Metzger titled Connecting Christ, in which Gus diZerega has a responsive essay. The Kerby essay makes a case for the continuing need for education on various historical and cultural expressions of paganism, warnings on treatments that can lead to “satanic panics,” and the need for pagans to be part of the dialogue at the table of the world’s religions.

  24. I think its important to set the historical record straight with respect to the word “Witch”, especially since some notable historians, such as Ronald Hutton, have consistently and egregiously misrepresented this English word.

    “Witch” has always been ambiguous. It can refer to practitioners of malefic magic as well as to healers, diviners, mediums, etc. Just as “warrior” can refer to someone who is coming to burn and ransack your village, or it can refer to those who rush out to defend the village with their lives. Words associated with any kind of “power” often have this kind of ambiguity.

    No one has ever produced a shred of evidence to support the contention that “Witch” has ever, at any time in the history of the English language, been used only to refer to those who use magic to cause harm. And the same is true of Strega, Bruja, Sorcière, Hexe, etc.

  25. I know people from South Africa that have replied, I myself wrote through Beliefnets e-mail and the fact that most of the comments have not been shown and there has been apparently no comment back, would seem to mean censorship to me. I was noticing even the Wiccan section does not have a Wiccan in charge of it, and they are now about to lose their only Pagan blogger. There was concern when Beliefnet changed owner ship and the new owners were conservative Christian. Now it would appear that worry was more than justified and that the site no longer is worth going to. I even tried to sign in and found that after filling in my e-mail address and password that the send button would disappear every time I tried to press it.

  26. You aren’t in the wrong at all. The use of “third world” and “civilized world” really should have offended more people. 

  27.  The thing that makes the term “third world” clearly racist in this specific context is the fact that it is used in direct contrast to “the civilized world”. India, Iraq, Persia and Egypt are all part of the “Third World”, and they all were “civilized” long before the vast majority of Europeans ever were.

  28.  I would agree with you that the term witch has more to do with practice, a magical one, than theology; witchcraft is a practice rather than a religion really, but the schools are proposing to teach about a religion, which some practice at Stonehenge, not teach magic ala Harry Potter (in which there was -no- religion).  I do realize the reasons behind why those who self-applied the term did so, but I do find instances such as these to highlight its being a poor choice to describe what they want to call a religion, because the word already carries so much cultural baggage.  It is almost like inviting an uphill battle; as if they weren’t going to struggle enough with practicing a fringe religion.  It makes these sorts of conflations hard to sort out for people who don’t have familiarity with this religious landscape, and creates the need for explanations we have to offer over and over again.  I’m sure those opposed to alternative religions would be up in arms over teaching them in their schools anyway, but the added confusion this terminology creates is really lamentable. 

  29.  My point is that it has been applied to those considered deviant somehow, both in ours and in other cultures, and now that there are is a religious group claiming this term, it throws its use into even further ambiguity, which results in this lamentable conflation of different ideas and uses for the same word.  Harry Potter and ‘witch doctors’ don’t have anything to do with Wiccans and Druids, but it is the latter they want to teach about in schools, not the former.  It is supposed to be a religious education class,  to learn about something, not a magic 101 class to learn how to do something.  I am agreeing with those here who have stated that the word is being misapplied in this article in the spirit in which (ha) the word is meant, because colloquial definitions are being parried instead of the intended usage, which is deliberately misleading its readers.

  30.  I’d actually picked up on that too, but hadn’t commented on it.  The article uses that reference to give the impression that magico-religious ideas from less technologically advanced or poorer peoples are less enlightened, and equates Europeans who want to participate in such a system as backward and ‘un-modern’ and insensible.  Funny, as they have not considered that modern Wicca and Druidism are contemporary European creations, much more modern than the Judeo-Christian religious complex.

  31. I live in a country where people accused of being witches (who have absolutely nothing to do with any kind of witchcraft) are brutally killed by mobs or sent into exile. Pagans and other people who do not belong to mainstream religions, along with murderers and other criminals, are labelled Satanists and/or witches whether they like it or not and are subjected to social prejudice. The reappropriation of the terms “pagan” and “witch” is effectively a form of
    human rights activism, replacing prejudicial negative stereotypes with
    positive, dignified meanings. Once the negative stereotypes have been
    eliminated, the words can no longer be used as weapons. 

  32. Helen: “The reappropriation of the terms ‘pagan’ and ‘witch’ is effectively a form of
    human rights activism, replacing prejudicial negative stereotypes with positive, dignified meanings.”

    And this really turns out to be less of a re-appropriation and more of a simple clarification.

    For example, all too often one hears the assertion that “Pagan” is a derogatory term referring to country bumpkins. In fact, “Pagan” also refers to Socrates and Pericles and Euripides, etc, as well as to all of the great civilizations of the ancient world and all of the greatest writers, philosophers, scientists, and political leaders of those Pagan societies. And this has been the case for as long as “Pagan” has been used as a religious designation. The simple fact is that Christians have always felt inferior to Pagans whether they have admitted this or nor, and the most well educated Christians have very often admitted this quite openly.

  33. thx baruch,
    i think i was jaded then…
    since it happened right after some discussions….

    some of us in the ATR community feel that we have double enemies: the abrahamics and the modern pagans….
    sigh…the irony.

  34. “and equates Europeans who want to participate in such a system as backward and ‘un-modern’ and insensible. ”

    discussing with some friends about our experiences. we realized something.
    if you are non-white and you are a member of a magico-religious tradition, folks are ok with it.
    it is like, ‘of course you (non-white person) believe in magic, gods, spirits, etc”

    if you are white and practice a magico-religious tradition, people react with the notion of, “but why? how come? you should know better!”

    as in, how can you, white euro, raised and born with enlightenment, modern medicine, modern science, democracy, civilization and so on…be interested in magic, dont you see you are moving backwards like those non-white folks?

    that explains the reason my non-white friends never get harassed over their magical practices.
    the whites, like me, all of the time….worse if you are involved in a latin or african tradition.

    the racism and the prejudice is so subtle, but it is there.

  35. If mainstream media won’t hire proofreaders why would they hire fact checkers? It is a complete travesty.

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