Witchcraft: superstition or religion?


In October this year a 77-year-old South African woman accused of witchcraft was burned to death in Needs Camp near East London. [1] Three other family members were forced to flee their own community for fear of being attacked as well. Also in October, a 60 year old Nepalese woman, Somani Devi Sardar, was forced to eat human excreta for allegedly practicing witchcraft. [2] In Uganda two families in Mubende and Mityana district were attacked and driven from their homes after being accused of practising witchcraft. [3]

The United Nations was recently told that the killing of women and children accused of witchcraft was on the increase.Murder and persecution of women and children accused of being witches is spreading around the world and destroying the lives of millions of people, experts said Wednesday. United Nations officials, civil society representatives from affected countries and non-governmental organization (NGO) specialists working on the issue urged governments to acknowledge the extent of the persecution. [4]

In an attempt to dissuade witch-hunts in Nigeria, two Nigerian Catholic Bishops have asked the Synod of Bishops for Africa to “make a clear commitment to educating Catholics about the fact that, while the devil exists, witchcraft does not.” [5] Bishop Augustine Akubeze is quoted as saying “Witches do not exist and so the accusations are always false. Even worse, people have been known to accuse someone of being a witch just to settle personal squabbles. Witchcraft lacks any justification in reason, science and common sense but people continue to believe in it.”

The ‘witchcraft’ referred to in these articles as accusation, allegation and harmful superstition, exists only in the minds of those who believe that witchcraft is the embodiment of evil and that witches are responsible for misfortune, disease, accident, natural disaster and death.

“Children alleged to be witches and wizards are persecuted through torture and inhuman and degrading treatment, which sometimes leads to their death. Such children are starved, chained, beaten, matcheted or even lynched. At the churches, pastors subject children alleged to be witches and wizards to torture in the name of exorcism. Witchdoctor’s force such children to drink potions (poison) or concoctions which can kill them or damage their health.” [6]

In an attempt to end the persecution of innocent men, women and children, activists and intellectuals in Africa and Europe are denying the existence of witches and promoting the belief that witchcraft is an irrational superstition; offering science as a reason for many of the causes ascribed to the agency of witchcraft. Their position is not a new one.

In modern usage, superstition has a relatively clear sense. According to Collins Dictionary, it is ‘irrational belief usually founded on ignorance or fear and characterized by obsessive reverence for omens, charms, etc.'(a) Most contemporary definitions point to irrationality as the central characteristic of superstition, the term generally denoting beliefs or practices founded upon a faulty, non-naturalistic understanding of cause and effect. This notion of superstition is very much a product of the Enlightenment. Prior to the eighteenth century, superstition signified ‘bad religion’ rather than ‘bad science’.(b) [7]

The International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) has called on the Human Rights Council, the African Union and the African Commission for Human and Peoples’ Rights “to urge governments to do more through improved education and policing to eliminate the twin scourges of those practising witchcraft and those claiming to find and cure witches.” [8]

How should actual self-identified Witches in South Africa, who seek to retain our right to continue to self-identify as Witches, respond to the accusation of superstition against Witchcraft by Catholic Bishops on the one hand, and the call for elimination and suppression of Witches by the IHEU at the United Nations on the other?

Do we remain silent about our existence and risk the prejudicial characterization and suppression of our beliefs and magical practices, or do we advocate for recognition of our existence and for the recognition of our belief system as a bone-fide religion? Irrespective of whether you view our spiritual beliefs and magical practices as bad religion or bad science, Witchcraft remains and thrives in broad daylight.

In Australia, Paganism and Witchcraft in particular is the fastest growing religion. Census figures for 2001 indicate that the number of Witches who participated in the census stood at 9000 and the number of self-identified Pagans at 10 632. It has been estimated that in 2006 the number of Pagans increased to 70 000. [9] A New Zealand census recorded 2196 self-identified Witches (Wiccans) in 2001. [10] In the UK 30 000 Pagans participated in the national census (2001). It is estimated that a similar increase in the UK puts the current number of self-identified Pagans at 280 000. [11] The number of US Pagans is estimated to be between 200 000 and 1 million (0.1% to 0.5% of the total population). [12] A 2008 Pew Forum survey put “New Age” religious believers, including Neopagans, at about 1.2 million. [13]

In South Africa the number of self-identified Pagans, most of whom are Witches or Wiccan, is conservatively estimated at between 3000 and 5000. Official government Census’ have never listed Paganism as a census choice. It may be assumed that Pagans, who registered for the 2001 Census, were collectively lumped with ‘others’ under either one of these listed figures:
Other beliefs 283815 – No religion 6767165 – Undetermined 610974

For centuries Witches have lived in the shadows of other people’s religion; between the lines of mythology, folklore and deliberately constructed propaganda. In the 21st century, Witches don’t exist because superstitious folk believe in our existence, and we won’t disappear if people decide we are merely figments of their imagination.


[1] ‘Accused woman burned to death‘ by Xolisa Mgwatyu
[2] ‘Woman gets raw deal on witchcraft charge‘ by Ajit Tiwari
[3] ‘Families banished over witchcraft‘ by Luke Kagiri
[4] ‘Killing of women, child “witches” on rise, U.N. told‘ by Robert Evans
[5] ‘Bishops ask for action against belief in witchcraft‘ by Cindy Wooden
[6] ‘Leo Igwe on child rights in Nigeria
[7] ‘The Religion of Fools? Superstition Past and Present‘ by S. A. Smith
[8] ‘UN publishes IHEU statement on witchcraft in Africa
[9] The Census and the Office of National Statistics (UK)
[10] ‘Embracing the witch and the goddess: feminist ritual-makers in New Zealand’ by Kathryn Rountree
[11] ‘Voices from the Pagan Census: A National Survey of Witches and Neo-Pagans in the United States‘ by Helen A. Berger
[12] Adherents.com
[13] The Pew Forum

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