“Witch-Burning” in Africa

I was contacted a week ago by the BBC World Service to comment on the findings of a survey conducted by the public theology think tank, Theos. The survey of over 2000 UK residents revealed that on average, 40% believe in ghosts, 70% believe in the human soul, 55% believe in heaven and 27% believe in reincarnation. I don’t know why everyone was so surprised by these figures. I had already predicted them in “SuperSense.” No, I am not psychic. It’s just that people are remarkably consistent when it comes to believing in the supernatural. The last Gallup poll in 2005 revealed similar prevalence of supernatural beliefs, haunted houses (40%), astrology (24%), communication with the dead (27%) and the possibility of witches (13%).  

What’s more, there is little evidence that the UK is any more “rational” than our American cousins as I give these percentages in the book. Yes, the UK is more secular than the US where 9 out of 10 people say then believe in God but we are no less susceptible to supernatural beliefs. As GK Chesterton allegedly commented, “When a Man stops believing in God he doesn’t then believe in nothing, he believes anything.”

That does not mean we should throw in the towel and give up on scientific education. Far from it. While supernatural beliefs may be inevitable that does not mean that they are always acceptable. Sometimes beliefs are used to justify cruelty and killings (see my earlier posts on ‘muti’ killings in Africa and the slaughter of albinos for their body parts). Those of you of a strong enough constitution may want to see the horrific and distressing footage of witch-burning in Africa posted on Hemant Metha’s  Friendly Atheist site but I warn you it is probably the worst thing you will ever witness. [I am updating this section as the video has already upset a number of you so I suggest you seriously consider whether you should watch it]

I have not posted this link to be morbidly gratuitous, but simply to remind me that supernatural beliefs are not just a trivial interest restricted to black cats and walking under ladders but rather a fundamental component of human behavior that leads people to some of the worst acts imaginable. In SuperSense I discuss other outrages such as the virgin-cure myth and cases of cannibalism that are equally based on supernatural beliefs.

With regard to the murder of elderly tribe members condemned as witches, commentators have accused religion and supernatural belief as being primarily  responsible for such acts but I question whether these acts are more to do with poverty and desperation in a lawless society or one that permits such behavior. Attacking the weak and vulnerable is a common terror strategy. In the West, we tend to have short memories when it comes to considering the worst chapter of human genocide in Europe. I wonder whether we would revert to similar practices if our society similarly deteriorated.

So while I think that belief in the supernatural is universal, that does not mean we have to tolerate the crimes against humanity done in its name. But it is better to know the extent of the problem and understand its true nature and origins if you want to prevent such atrocities.



Filed under supernatural

28 responses to ““Witch-Burning” in Africa

  1. “So while I think that belief in the supernatural is universal, that does not mean we have to tolerate the crimes against humanity done in its name.”

    I absolutely and whole-heartedly agree. And I appreciate the warning about the video, which I personally decided not to watch. But I think you’ve done the right thing in posting it, as so often horrific images like these are presented with little or no context to help viewers understand the reality behind them.

    And with regards to you being accused of pandering to supernatural beliefs, this is video is especially relevant. I’m thinking of the chapter on ‘Freaks’ and how arbitrarily levels of acceptability are determined by those with weak rationale. The fact that the atrocities committed in Africa are happening right now should really make *anyone* with vehement supernatural convictions squirm and make a lot of difficult comparisons to their own prejudices.

    Not going to happen, but as you say, no reason to stop trying to educate people.

  2. You know, the thing I appreciate about this blog is that you give people really important information in addition to amusing insights like Our Lady of the Dog’s Butt. That’s why I have just passed on The Honest Weblog Award to you because I’m one of those people who participate in that sort of bloggy chain letter because publicity is publicity, after all.

    Keep fighting the good fight.

  3. Maureen

    Hi Bruce,
    The video would have to be the most horrific thing I have ever witnessed. How can this be permitted to continue ? Where are all the cries of indignation and disgust?

  4. Arno

    “I wonder whether we would revert to similar practices if our society similarly deteriorated.” I don’t even wonder about it: we absolutely would, and, as a matter of fact, we have stood and watched less lethal versions very recently. Social psychologist Roy Baumeister, who wrote an absolutely brilliant analysis on the psychology of evil, describes this particular kind of evil as ‘idealistic evil’. With that, he means that the evil acts are done out of idealistic purposes. He also brands it as being the most terrible kind of evil, because it is the only one that will always claim that the goal approves the means – whatever the means are – and directly supports cruelty, which other forms of evil usually don’t really tend to do (being an absolute sadist being the only exception really). But ask any prisoner in Guantanamo Bay, or Abu Ghraib. They weren’t tortured by madmen or sadists. They were psychologically tortured (seems we learned something important from the witch hunts: hide the evidence of torture better) by people who were convinced that they were doing the right thing: they were battling terrorism and saving the lives of other people. But in truth, any kind of belief can be used to justify killings, as you mentioned. You don’t need a supersense, just someone different (enough) from you and an ulterior goal that is important to you and needs defending.

    When people start judging others as being evil, I tend to give them a simple scenario to think about.
    Ask yourself, if some group kidnapped your daughters and wife and threatened to kill them in two days, but one of their members (or at least you think he might be a member…) was caught and restrained and is currently in front of you, being unable to defend himself and claiming to know nothing (or just refusing to say something), while time is ticking away… What would you do? Would you start asking? Pleading? Screaming? When would you land the first blow to break that man’s will and make him talk? And when will you start using other means? After all, it is only a fingernail you are tearing out – that is nothing compared to the lives of your loved ones. Right?
    Now imagine that it isn’t your children that are under threat, but the land you live on, or the values that you hold dear. You don’t need to answer, but it is sometimes worth asking when we judge others for – what we believe are – evil actions.

  5. Disturbing stuff, Bruce.

    I’m not just referring to the horrific content of the video clip (which I decided to watch after much internal debate with myself – and to be honest, I’m glad I did, as it helps put things in context), but I refer to the whole issue of persecution and sadism when underpinned by superstition.

    Let’s face facts; we all know that such stuff goes on, but as we rarely get to witness it, find it easy to brush it under the metaphorical carpet. Out of sight, out of mind…and all that.

    The issue of how people can stand by and watch – seemingly with approval – is I suppose partly down to a herd mentality in that anyone stepping out of the protection of the herd is likely to meet a similar fate. Eventaully, perhaps, this at first fearful silence can become so ingrained that becomes the norm, and the herd get desensitised to what is actually happening.

    Who knows?… I’m a mechanical engineer, not a psychologist or a behaviourist.

    Duncanr put up a post on our blog earlier, regarding the psychology of torturers – albeit in a different context to this . Without wishing to brazenly advertise THE MAD HATTERS, try having a read ….


  6. poietes


    I have debated, and I don’t think that I can watch the clip. I appreciate the warning, though, because I probably would have just clicked on the link and then been horrified.

    It’s all well and good for me to talk about witches and superstitions, and the truth is that you are absolutely correct: there is a morbid, horrible aspect to such things that many people never consider.

    I agree with Arno: We absolutely would revert is society deteriorated. Having been in a very poor village in the Philippines years ago, I have seen what poverty does to the belief system: it opens the doors wide for bizarre things to enter, and once they enter, there is little to stop them from taking control of the more rational side.

    Even now, in our supposed civilized society, we see too many instances of how superstitions and belief systems can lead to incredible cruelty.

    And even though we sit here in our comfortable surroundings, opining on our computers, what would we do if faced with situations in which our loved ones were tortured? mutilated? I believe that violence is ingrained in homo sapiens, that we are only a disaster away from returning to our roots as killers in the name of survival.

    Is that statement taking it too far? I don’t think so. I think that somewhere in each of us resides a kernel of the barbaric nature that evolution has cultivated. After all, consider how males react to the rape of a female in their tribe, i.e., wife, daughter, mother. The first instinct is almost always to want retribution.

    Consider how females react to violence against their children. Again, that kernel of violence can rear itself under extenuating circumstances.

    I’m actually in the middle of a post about the U.S.’s policies on torture during the Bush/Cheney fiasco. I’m not delving too deeply, but it’s interesting how ‘civilized’ behavior was so callously thrown out the window, justified in the name of maintaining the peace. How different is that really from societies who burn witches? Same rationale, different methodology.

  7. As someone who is regularly mistaken for a witch thanks to my midnight garb, I’ll steer clear of the clip. I watched Bizarre ER last night because it was set in Norwich, and that was enough gore to last me until at least tomorrow.
    Thought providing stuff, BMH. And nice to see you back on a regular basis.

  8. pyu7P6 Excellent article, I will take note. Many thanks for the story!

  9. libtard

    I wonder whether we would revert to similar practices if our society similarly deteriorated. </

    No. There is reason why is this happening on some places and practiced by large majority, but it’s not politicaly correct to say it.

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  17. An interesting discussion is definitely worth comment. I think that you ought to publish more on this topic, it might not be a taboo subject but usually people don’t discuss such issues. To the next! Kind regards!!

  18. This would not happen in Ethiopia. Africa is not all the same

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