Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Suffer a Witch to Live

Akwa Ibom, Nigeria. The southern edge of West Africa. A reporter approaches two emaciated five-year-old twins and a small crowd gathers. "They are witches." Someone says. "Take them away before they kill us." Their disconnected mother looks on; arms folded, and walks away. These children are considered to be fortunate. Of the hundreds of Nigerian children branded as witches, these two were only abandoned. Sam Ikpe-Itauma, the gentleman who owns the shelter that takes in these two children has 131 in his care. The vast majority of whom have been severely beaten or maimed, in many cases by their own parents. If a child is discovered to be witch or possessed by a demon, an expensive exorcism can be performed. Some have acid thrown in their faces. Others are beaten, starved, burned, or bound with barbed wire. Some have nails driven into their heads. Some are buried alive. Some are tied to trees for several days. If the children survive this torture, they are often neglected and refused care by hospitals and schools and their families. They frequently die from their injuries or starve to death.
Nigerian Pentecostalism is unique due to the heavy emphasis on miracles. This incorporates many traditional African beliefs. It is a culture that has a long history of belief in evil spirits and black magic.Some of these atrocities are performed by parents who are simply too poor to pay for exorcisms. The price of an exorcism can be as much as 400,000 Niara ($2,640) exceeding the annual income for many Nigerian families. The reported goal is to elicit a confession, or to drive the evil out of the child. In a video of this interaction, the villagers claim not to know how to cure a child of possession. At least this is what they say to the white reporter holding a video camera. The children are blamed for any number of incidents including draughts, disease, unemployment, or unexpected deaths.
The Pentecostal movement spread to Nigeria in the 1920's having originating in Los Angeles 20 years earlier. Nigerian Pentecostalism now has 3.9 million followers, which is the 3rd largest on the globe behind Brazil with 24 million and the US with 6 million.
Early missionary work in Nigeria taught a literal view of scripture. These churches present an equation between faith and fortune. The inverse is that misfortune is due to lack of faith. In some American Pentecostal circles, it is preached that there are miracles taking place in Africa at this moment due to the incredible faith of the people. A Pentecostalism boom began in the 80's' and 90's partially related to a rising oil economy in Nigeria. This helped instigate a rise in Prosperity Gospel. With the new regime came the promise of not just healing of physical ailments, but financial reward. The charismatic leaders of such movements hold sway over immense audiences. Some all night prayer meetings boast 500,000 worshipers in attendance. One of the most recognizable, Enoch Adeboye, of the Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG):

“In Africa, prosperity means generally having a roof over your head and food to eat,” Synan said, adding that the prosperity message is also used negatively by some to promote the idea that Christians must give financially in order to receive God’s blessings.”

Many of these churches have evolved into “financial empires”. The phenomenon of Pentecostal mega-churches as businesses has spread around the globe in the last two decades.
Some of the most famous pastors claim to be able to identify possessed children through a process called discernment. The witches are always small children who are incapable of protecting themselves. Very rarely do you see a child who is old enough to fight back. Many of the branded children are infants. Helen Ukpabio, a pastor who enjoys celebrity status actually produces widespread DVDs depicting possessed children being commanded by Satan to eat the flesh of their parents. Ms. Ukpabio, a mother of 2, says in her book Unveiling the Mysteries of Witchcraft.

"If a child under the age of 2 screams in the night, cries and is always feverish with deteriorating health, he or she is a servant of Satan."

Anyone who has ever met a child under two know that these are symptoms of virtually every childhood illness. When met at a rally by protesters from the group Saving Africa's Witch Children, She compares her movies to the Harry Potter series and claims that the opposition is motivated by racism.
Pastor Joe Ita is the preacher at Liberty Gospel Church founded by Ukpabio. Who denies accepting money for exorcisms said,

"To give more than you can afford is blessed."

When asked about the abuse of children he replies:

"We are the only ones who really know the secrets of witches. Parents don't come here with the intention of abandoning their children, but when a child is a witch then you have to say "what is that there? Not your child." The parents come to us when they see manifestations. But the secret is that, even if you abandon your child, the curse is still upon you, even if you kill your child the curse stays. So you have to come here to be delivered afterwards as well".
This is a textbook example of magical thinking 1. The belief that unexplained events have a causal agent. 2. The belief that an individual’s choices/thoughts/feelings have a real effect on reality. Back to the video: (link above) the people are not able to articulate what can cure a child of witchcraft. Ita goes on to describe the method by which physical ailments are the direct result of witchcraft:

“We know how they operate. A witch will put a spell on it’s mother’s bra and the mother will get breast cancer. But we cannot attribute all things to witches, they work on inclinations too, so they don’t create HIV, but it you are promiscuous then the witch will give you HIV.”

This sounds insane to American ears until it is viewed as just another logical fallacy perpetrated by a religious leader. They recognize the connection between promiscuity and HIV, but still identify a causal agent and apply supernatural forces to the consequence of a disease. Compare this to the Christian “Just World Hypothesis” or the belief in divine justice. Imagine the influence a religious leader can have on a populace that allows these logical leaps. What strikes me about this statement is the pronoun “it” used to describe the child in question. Ita removes the humanity from the child, by calling he/she a thing. He makes the claim that the child is never really cured of the witchcraft, because that increases the chance that the family will re-connect with the child.
The Bible text does make mention of witches famously in Exodus 22:18 as well as multiple references to demons and demonic possession. In this case, religion is not implicitly to blame. It is the vehicle for greed. The leaders of this movement have recognized this belief system and have devised a way to exploit it. Infighting between competing churches led to individuals claiming that their rivals are in league with Satan to gain their healing powers. This only serves to increase the number of identified witches as the churches compete for followers.
This issue has not escaped international attention. The Akwa Ibom State Gov. Godswill Akpabio has stated that the reports of child abuse due to perceived witchcraft is exaggerated. He claims that the issue at hand is poverty and lack of education. No argument there. He also says that Akwa Ibom has enacted a law that prohibits anyone from stigmatizing a child by accusing them of witchcraft. He claims that this has solved the problem. At the time of the interview, (a year after the law passed) there have been 5 arrests and no convictions. I'm going to make the assumption that there are pre-existing laws in Nigeria that forbid child torture. When asking ourselves, how these atrocities could possibly be overlooked by local authorities, I remind you of the literally thousands of worldwide accusations of sexual abuse of children at the hands of Catholic priests. Many of these cases were referred to local authorities that allowed the church to look into the allegations internally. Essentially stepping aside because the institution in question is a religious one.

As I have said, religion is not to blame for the actions of these vile people who prey on children. That does not mean that religion should not be held accountable. These people use their dogma as a shield. Any criticism of the tenets can be redirected as an attack on God. The work of the devil in the guise of an American Blogger. As long as the so-called religious moderates tolerate extremism and fundamentalism, horrors like these will continue to happen. Sure, no self respecting religious moderate would condone the murder and maiming of children. They exist within the sliding scale that allows fundamentalists to operate. If a fundamental individual has the same beliefs taken to the extreme based on a literal interpretation of scripture, they are given a pass as a member of the in-group. This allows for a type of moral relativism because the theist can acknowledge that their own beliefs are fantastic, and therefore allow/condone fanatical beliefs because they can see the parallels. In this context, cognitive dissonance is small. Most religious individuals are capable of using reason and logic for all other aspects of their lives. The faith as an aspect of magical thinking exists in spite of its improbability (in some cases, this is celebrated). The theist will use reason right up to the edges of their faith. The conversation will begin when we can examine those edges.

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