Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Witch hunting

The Salem Witch Trials, held in 1692 in Salem, Massachusetts, were triggered by the hysterical reaction of a group of girls who claimed to be possessed.  They "cried out against" various members of the village, accused prominent townspeople of cursing them and "sending their spirits out" to torment them, and appearing in the form of a cat and a giant yellow bird.  Court proceedings were held, and such accusations were held as evidence.

In the end, nineteen people were executed by hanging for the crime of witchcraft.

Oh, but that was a long time ago, right?   We live in more enlightened days, right?


Yesterday an article appeared in The Swazi Observer, the primary English language newspaper in Swaziland.  It describes various goings-on in Mdzimba High School which sound amazingly like what happened in Salem Village in 1692.  The article, in all apparent seriousness, describes a plague of "demons" which have overrun the high school. 

"The children run away from invisible apparitions, which at times direct them to a nearby pool, where they claim to see a register with the name of pupils targeted by the demons," writes Fayana Mabuza, journalist for the Observer.  "At times, they claim to be instructed to drink water from the school tap, saying the instructions were coming from the school’s principal, Sgwili Dlamini.  They writhe around as if in agony while screaming loudly and if not restrained, they dash full speed to the pond where they return to inform others whose names they claim they saw at the pond."

Dlamini, perhaps out of fear because his name had been mentioned as being complicit with the demons, called in a pastor, Reverend Mdudzi Manana, who is a well-known exorcist.  He prayed for them, targeting individual children, "doing battle with the demons" -- and the situation calmed.

“Initially only nine were affected," Principal Dlamini said.  "I even sent them home advising their parents to take them to people who could treat such affliction.  They returned again with the situation having normalized. But towards last term’s closure it struck again.  When we opened this term the problem was still there and this time around it engulfed the whole school.  But we believe the prayers from this pastor will contain the situation as he has a track record of dealing with such things. Otherwise, since Monday he and his team have been fervently praying at the school, and we can only wish them all the success.”

Okay, you might be saying; that happened in Africa, in a place known for its superstitions.  These people share with the Puritans of 17th century Massachusetts a belief in demons, and under circumstances of stress or fear those beliefs can manifest as mass hysteria.  Then, the preacher gets called in to quiet things down, and once again -- because they believe -- it works.  And in this case no one got hurt, so the belief isn't really doing any permanent harm, right?

There are still executions in Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East for witchcraft.  Just last year, five people were burned alive in Kenya for "harming their neighbors by magic."  And given their belief system, it makes perfect sense.  As C. S. Lewis wrote, in Mere Christianity:
But surely the reason we do not execute witches is that we do not believe there are such things.  If we did - if we really thought that there were people going about who had sold themselves to the devil and received supernatural powers from him in return and were using these powers to kill their neighbours or drive them mad or bring bad weather, surely we would all agree that if anyone deserved the death penalty, then these filthy quislings did.
In 2002, a Barna Group poll showed that 34% of Americans think that Satan is a real, living being who can be invoked to cause direct harm.  39% believe in demons or other malevolent spirits, who can target particular people, places, or events.  Two years ago, Sarah Palin notoriously participated in a ceremony at her church, the Wasilla Assembly of God, run by an pastor who claims to have "driven out a spirit of witchcraft" from a Kenyan town.  American pastor Bob Larson, whose radio ministry is listened to by tens of thousands of people each week, claims that in the last twenty years, he has performed over 6,000 exorcisms in 90 countries.  

Belief is a powerful thing, and its influence doesn't seem to be affected by whether the thing believed in has any objective reality.  Furthermore, superstition and credulity are not the sole property of any country or ethnic group.   In recent polls, atheism and rationalism were on the rise in the US -- but so were the ranks of the extremely religious, devotees of fundamentalist, evangelical sects whose members are the most likely to believe in devils, possession, and supernatural evil.  (In the above-mentioned poll, 75% of Americans who described themselves as "born again" believed in Satan, demons, and the rest.)

There is increasing emphasis in political spheres on a candidate's beliefs.  Mitt Romney's Mormonism is "an issue," particularly amongst the two groups mentioned above -- atheists and evangelical Christians.  The Christian Right has become more and more vocal about demanding candidates who pass a religious acid-test, whose beliefs are in line with theirs.  This scares me, and not just because I'm an atheist, but because I know what belief can engender.  Recall that James Watt, Secretary of the Interior under Ronald Reagan, famously stated that the environment wasn't worth protecting because when the Second Coming of Christ occurred, "the Earth was going to be destroyed anyway."

It is an open question as to whether it is even possible for a political figure not to allow his or her religious beliefs to drive decision making.  Because of this, it is critical that we consider carefully before voting for religious ideologues.  If as generally rational and moderate a Christian as C. S. Lewis admits that the only reason we don't execute witches is because don't believe they exist, what will happen when we elect leaders who do believe in witchcraft?

I'll move to Costa Rica, that's what.

It boils down to one thing.  Anyone who believes they'd like to live in a theocracy hasn't actually lived in one.

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