African Witchcraft & American Religion

Over at Live Science, Benjamin Radford stereotypically reports — with no irony and little thought — that “Belief in Witchcraft Widespread in Africa” is prevalent:

A new Gallup poll found that belief in magic is widespread throughout sub-Saharan Africa, with over half of respondents saying they personally believe in witchcraft. Studies in 18 countries show belief varies widely (ranging from 15 percent in Uganda to 95 percent in the Ivory Coast), but on average 55 percent of people polled believe in witchcraft.

The article has so many problems I am not sure where to begin.  Let’s start with Africa, which is the world’s second largest continent and has 1 billion residents living in 61 countries.

This means that the poll (n=18) surveyed less than a third of African nations (n=61).  You cannot extrapolate from this third to reach the conclusion that on average 55% of Africans believe in magic-witchcraft.  As Radford notes, the variation between countries is substantial, ranging from 15% in Uganda to 95% in the Ivory Coast.

Now let’s consider the terms “magic” and “witchcraft.”  Because magic and witchcraft always entails belief in supernatural beings or forces, coupled with the belief that humans can do certain things to influence those beings or forces, the alleged distinction between magic-witchcraft and religion is tenuous and often arbitrary.  Most anthropologists who have considered the matter reject any distinction between “magic” and “religion.”  One person’s magic is often another’s religion.

We can illustrate this issue by looking at some of Radford’s comments on the poll:

One likely explanation is that those who believe in witchcraft feel they have less control over their own lives. People who believe in witchcraft often feel victimized by supernatural forces, for example, attributing accidents or disease to evil sorcery instead of randomness or naturalistic causes.

A cultural belief in witchcraft has wider implications for Africans as well, from law enforcement to aid donations to public health. In Africa, witch doctors are consulted not only for healing diseases, but also for placing curses on rivals. Magic (or at least the belief in magic) is commonly used for personal, political, and financial gain.

This is a fairly accurate description of certain people in the United States and religious people in other countries; we can substitute terms to demonstrate this:

One likely explanation is that many Christians feel they have less control over their own lives. Christians often feel victimized by supernatural forces, for example, attributing accidents or disease to Satan, demons, and sin instead of randomness or naturalistic causes.

A cultural belief in Christianity has wider implications for Americans as well, from law enforcement to aid donations to public health. In America, priests and pastors are consulted for healing diseases, and in times of war God is called on to smite rivals. Christianity (or at least the belief in Christianity) is commonly used for personal, political, and financial gain.

Radford concludes his article by commenting that while “personal belief in magic and witchcraft may seem harmless, the actions some people take based on those beliefs clearly are not.”

I will conclude my post by observing that “while personal belief in religion may seem harmless, the actions some people take based on religious beliefs clearly are not.”

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4 thoughts on “African Witchcraft & American Religion

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  2. Ben Radford

    You wrote: “You cannot extrapolate from this third to reach the conclusion that on average 55% of Africans believe in magic-witchcraft. ”

    That’s so true… Except nowhere does it state that “55% of Africans believe” anything; the poll explicitly refers to SUB-SAHARAN Africa, and that’s why the survey was limited to less than one-third of African nations.

    You’ve created a straw man fallacy; did you really misunderstand, or were you intentionally misleading your readers? Either way, your comment about “little thought” is more than a bit ironic!

  3. Cris Post author

    I had forgotten all about this post, which is nearly two years old. After re-reading, I see that it is more than a bit intemperate and peevish. If I recall correctly, I was teaching a class on African ethnography at the time, and was frustrated by standard and stereotypical depictions of “Africa” in the western press. I just chanced on your article, and the whole witchcraft thing got me going — as if there is some kind of difference between “African witchcraft” and “Western religion.” Of course I don’t think there is much difference, which is what I was trying to say.

    This was the point of my post, and I’m not sure why I even mentioned the other stuff — probably just as a (cheap) way of discrediting before getting to the meat of the subject and the source of my frustration. I apologize and will revise this old post in the near future.

    Also, your work and website is quite interesting — I’ll have to drop in over there and take a closer look.

    Best,

    Cris

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