The Bible and the Witchcraft Delusion

Kirk Straughen

(Investigator 119, 2008 March)

Belief in the power of witches and witchcraft is a delusion common to most societies, both past and present; and although the characteristics, practices and powers attributed to witches varies from culture to culture, broadly speaking, the core belief is that these occultists have the ability to heal or harm, to bring fortune or misfortune by supernatural means.

That the Biblical authors were prey to this belief is starkly illustrated by Exodus 22:18 which, in the Revised Standard Version, unequivocally states that: "You shall not permit a sorceress to live."

Is executing those suspected of practicing witchcraft sensible? Is magic so effective and dangerous that its practitioners must be put to death? Before we attempt to answer this question, let us examine the core belief that underlies all occult practices — the concept of the spell:

"The most important element in magic is the spell. The spell is that part of magic which is occult...and in an analysis of any act of witchcraft it will always be found that the ritual centres round the utterance of the spell. The formula is always the core of the magical performance." (Page 73 in Malinowski, Bronislaw, Magic, Science & Religion, Anchor Books, New York, 1954)

I will not belabour my readers with a lengthy exposition on the absurdity of magic's core belief, for it should be self evident to persons of average intelligence that magic will not work because nature is non conscious, and therefore cannot respond to spoken words of any kind, nor is it possessed or controlled by animistic forces that can do likewise.

Belief that witches are dangerous because they can harm others using magic is nothing more than superstitious nonsense, but when people believe in such things the consequences can be truly terrible, as the persecution, torture and burning to death of thousands of innocent women during Europe's witch craze clearly shows:

"A belief in witchcraft appears in almost all societies, but the reaction to supposed witchcraft in Europe between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries is without parallel. Basing their action on the biblical text "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live (Exodus 22:18), the Protestant and Catholic clergy burned perhaps as many as 500,000 people to death during this period." (Page 411 in Robertson, Ian, Sociology, Second Edition, Worth Publishers, Inc, New York, 1981)

Some of my readers may think all this is purely academic, that witchcraft has no relevance to the world of the 21st century, and there is no danger of past atrocities being committed in the name of religious superstition. Sadly, tragically, this is not the case at all:

"The Bible enjoins believers not to suffer witches to live. So today, Pentecostal churches, with their literalist approach to the Bible, are championing a neo witch hunt in Africa. In 2003 at least 25 people suspected of being witches and wizards were clubbed or hacked to death in Akwa Ibom State in Southern Nigeria. The killings started after some members of the Christian churches accused their congregation's parents and relatives of allegedly practicing witchcraft ... So Christians in Africa torture, persecute and kill those alleged to be witches because their Bible tells them so." (Igwe, Leo, Witches and Africans, page 39 in The Skeptic, Vol. 27, No. 4)

It's a truly terrible situation in Nigeria. Deluded evangelical pastors are fanning the flames of hatred, fear and ignorance, which have lead to the deaths of hundreds, perhaps thousands of children. Below are excerpts from an independent online article, which I suggest my readers peruse in full.

"In a maddened state of terror, parents and whole villages turn on the child [accused of witchcraft]. They are burnt, poisoned, slashed, chained to trees, buried alive or simply chased off into the bush ... Although old tribal beliefs in witch doctors are not so deeply buried in people's memories, and although there had been indigenous Christians in Nigeria since the I9th century, it is American and Scottish Pentecostal and evangelical missionaries of the past 50 years who have shaped these fanatical beliefs. Evil spirits, satanic possessions and miracles can be found aplenty in the Bible, references to killing witches turn up in Exodus, Deuteronomy and Galatians, and a literal interpretation of scriptures is a popular crowd pleaser."
(McVeigh, Tracy, Children are Targets of Nigerian Witch Hunt,

Although African belief in witchcraft predates the arrival of Christianity, it is clear that certain churches aren't helping things by bolstering this superstition with their own pernicious and Medieval delusions. To close this article, I'll leave you with a quotation from the French philosopher, Voltaire, who summed things up succinctly when he said that "men will cease to commit atrocities only when they cease to believe in absurdities."