What's The Harm?
I'm often asked, like many skeptics who get into discussions about "alternative" medicine, odd beliefs, or the paranormal, about what the harm is when people hold beliefs that can't be backed up by reason or evidence. With "alt. med" it is often easy to explain the drawbacks of the uncritical view - most people know someone who has had to deal with a very serious disease like cancer. Once you explain something inane like homeopathy and its history, most folks will agree that it is potentially dangerous.
A slightly more touchy area is the paranormal. When you talk to people about ghosts, for example, most who believe are not at all willing to give that up because it is so closely tied to a personal belief in the afterlife and religion. It's much deeper. While ghosts are still hip here, the stigma in the "first" world with regard to witches has dropped off to the point where you'd be hard-pressed to find someone who truly believes that people can cast spells and the like.
That is not the case in a place like Kenya. I would recommend reading this article and listening to the linked BBC radio show at the bottom called African Perspectives. It is disturbing to say the least to hear first-hand accounts of village elders being accused of witchcraft, beaten, and burned alive.
The The DEO (District Education Officer) of Malindi, Kenya (a small costal town about halfway between the borders of Somalia and Tanzania) was asked by the interviewer if she believes in witchcraft, to which she replied:
Witchcraft is there, even the Bible says in the time of Moses there were issues of witchcraft...I don't believe I can be bewitched because I believe in God and he is the one who is in control of the universe...This is a huge problem. When the people who are supposedly educating the population believe in nonsense, you end up with a whole lot of people buying into (obviously extremely dangerous) bullshit from a very young age. She apparently read the Bible closely because the only two times "witch" appears is in Exd 22:18 (the famous, randomly out-of-place, "thou shalt not suffer a witch to live" line, and also in Deut 18:10-12 which says:
There shall not be found among you [any one] that maketh his son or his daughter to pass through the fire, [or] that useth divination, [or] an observer of times, or an enchanter, or a witch, or a charmer, or a consulter with familiar spirits, or a wizard, or a necromancer. For all that do these things [are] an abomination unto the LORD: and because of these abominations the LORD thy God doth drive them out from before thee. (My bolding, here's the source)So being a witch, according to the damn Bible, should be handled by God himself, not by his followers. So sayeth the Book. Maybe she didn't read it all that closely after all.
The DEO said that there is a "witchcraft act" in Kenya that can fine or imprison people who accuse others of witchcraft. It, obviously, is not enforced with any sort of rigor, however, as there are videos of lynchings and burnings with no authorities in sight. Quite frankly, if the "authorities" are anything like the woman quoted above, you probably wouldn't want her there anyway.
This is the danger of ignorance. This is where it leads. It turns The Crucible into a documentary, only with more fire and agony and ending up with no village elders to consult in times of need. There is a telling part of the audio where a man tries to explain why villagers think the old people are witches; he says that at about 60 years of age, some physical changes occur in the population, one of which is that their eyes often turn a reddish colour - a side-effect of smoke from a particular wood used. That, plus wrinkled skin equals accusation and violent death. There is a perfectly reasonable explanation for the visible changes and yet no one is launching an education campaign, no one seems to be taking charge, and the elderly are being savagely abused and killed.
I'm not saying that this is going to happen in Canada anytime soon, but the fact that it is happening ANYWHERE in the world in 2009 indicates that something is horribly wrong with us. Beliefs can and do kill. Brutally.