Witchcraft: affliction or religion?
A Nigerian cleric, Bawa Madaki, was recently arrested and charged with child trafficking. He is accused of exploiting 23 children between the ages of 5 and 20 he claims were brought to him for deliverance from witchcraft. The cleric says Jesus appeared to him on 25 June 2004 and blessed him with the powers to "cure witchcraft".
Nigerian Child Rights campaigner Leo Igwe has argued that "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. Witchdoctors force such children to drink potions (poison) or concoctions which can kill them or damage their health."
In an attempt to dissuade witch-hunts in Nigeria in 2009, two Nigerian Catholic Bishops 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." 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."
In response, the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) 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 practicing witchcraft and those claiming to find and cure witches."
How should actual self-identified Witches in South Africa, who seek to retain our right to continue to 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 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 as a religion 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. A New Zealand census recorded 2196 self-identified Witches (Wiccans) in 2001. 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. The number of US Pagans is estimated to be between 200 000 and 1 million (0.1% to 0.5% of the total population). A 2008 Pew Forum survey put "New Age" religious believers, including Neopagans, at about 1.2 million.
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
South Africans who already possess bias and express prejudice against Witchcraft will no doubt argue, and indeed have argued, that Witches who seek to rehabilitate existing negative stereotypes of Witchcraft are attempting to force a European perspective and context on black South African cultures who regard Witches as a source of evil and harm. This unfortunate cultural bias, one supported by the African National Congress and its alliance partners, may in practice deny caucasian Witches the right to dignity and equality.
In South African society existing legal, cultural and religious stereotypes and biases have already pre-determined, at least for the vast majority, a conformist negative social response to Witches and Witchcraft.
The unintended consequence of reinforcing institutionalized negative stereotyping against Witches and Witchcraft merely serves to reinforce the erroneous notion that Witches are indeed sub-human, unconscious of their evil influence, and always to be regarded with suspicion and loathing. Biased reporting on Witchcraft inspires prejudice against Witches themselves because such reporting reinforces, whether deliberately or unintentionally, generally espoused misconceptions and untruths regarding Witchcraft. When the group identity is defamed, individuals who share in that identity suffer a loss of dignity.
Discrimination and scapegoating based on the tacit acceptance of negative stereotypes have served elsewhere as the precursors to persecution, violence, and genocide. They can not and must not be ignored or dismissed as non-issues. The Bill of Rights must not be circumvented through an appeal to a non-existent right to maintain and propagate cultural, religious and racial prejudice against Witchcraft.
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.