Do you believe in witches? Do you know anyone who believes in witches? If your answer to that second question is “No”, you may want to ask a few of your friends in person -- you just might be surprised by their answer. A new study found that over 40 percent of the people surveyed in 95 countries and territories gave an affirmative answer to a question about their belief in witches. With the world’s population at 8 billion, that is 3.2 billion people believing in witchcraft or 2 out of every 5. And before you say people in your religious group don’t believe in witches, the percentages are even higher among members of the world’s leading religions. Let’s take a look and the study and then decide if you need to change your answer.
“I see witch beliefs as the standardized nightmare of a group, and I believe that the comparative analysis of such nightmares is not merely an antiquarian exercise but one of the keys to the understanding of society. (Monica Hunter Wilson (1951))”
Economics Prof. Boris Gershman of American University in Washington, DC, opens his study, “Witchcraft beliefs around the world: An exploratory analysis” in the journal PLOS ONE with an appropriate and still timely quote from South African anthropologist Monica Wilson about why it is important today to research the belief in witchcraft. In a summary in Eurasia Review, Gershman notes that local and national governments have long taken notice and used the beliefs in the existence of people with harmful supernatural abilities as a means to control their citizens. A quick search for news stories about witches will find high concentrations of them in in certain countries and geographic areas – generally those with authoritarian leaders and strong beliefs in ancient religions. Generally … but not all. Gershman found there was a lack of data at the global level on witchcraft beliefs, hence that is where he focused his study.
“The data reveal that, far from being a remnant of the past limited to small isolated communities, witchcraft beliefs are highly widespread throughout the modern world. At the same time, there are significant differences in their prevalence within and across nations, and we explore this variation at the individual and country levels.”
Gershman began with a dataset compiled from surveys of more than 140,000 people from 95 countries and territories. The data was collected using face-to-face and telephone interviews conducted by the Pew Research Center and other professional survey organizations between 2008 and 2017, and the questions covered both belief in witchcraft and religious beliefs. The first big revelation was an eye-opener – Gersman’s analysis showed that 43 percent of the respondents said they believe that “certain people can cast curses or spells that cause bad things to happen to someone.” From here, he sorted the responses by country and the percentages varied widely - from 9% in Sweden to 90% in Tunisia. Russia had a witchcraft belief rate of 56% while Germany was at 13%. (A distribution map can be seen here.)
Among religions, the survey showed that 62% of believers in witchcraft consider themselves Christian and 27% Muslim. The obvious next questions center on why so many people today believe in witchcraft and what factors drive them to this belief.
“Guided by the key themes from the literature, our cross-country analysis focuses on the following four issues: 1) the role of witchcraft beliefs in maintaining conformity and self-governance, 2) their relationship to social capital, psychological well-being, and world outlook, 3) the link between witchcraft beliefs, innovation, and economic development, 4) exposure to misfortunes as a factor in sustaining witchcraft beliefs.”
The analysis of these issues broke down into some surprising patterns. At the national level, witchcraft beliefs were found to be substantially more prevalent in countries with weak institutions and low quality of governance. The belief was also strong in countries with high levels of cultural conformity and in-group bias. As trust in institutions drops, trust in supernatural powers rises – the study found that witchcraft beliefs go up with the erosion of social capital and the rise in antisocial attitudes and behaviors. That could explain the high levels of belief in witchcraft in countries with high crime rates and low confidence in local police forces … these tend to be areas where citizens turn to witches or priests to cast spells to catch criminals or reduce crime.
As quality of life decreases, witchcraft beliefs spread as people feel they have little or no control over their lives, their leaders, their jobs, the economy, providing for their families, etc. All of this leads to a drop in hope and rise in fatalism. The study found witchcraft beliefs high in countries with little opportunity for creativity or innovation, especially in economic development. All of these are considered to be misfortunes – whether they are accidental or human-driven – and feeling of misfortune lead to witchcraft beliefs. The study found that these patterns were strong and consistent across different countries on different continents with different cultures and histories.
While Gershman admits that the study lacks data from China, India, some African countries, and many from East and Southeast Asia, there is still enough to draw conclusions and make recommendations. Changes are obviously needed because beliefs in witchcraft inflict heavy social costs on women and are abused by many leaders as a means of control. Because of the abuse, Gershman recommends against anti-witchcraft laws which are often ignored or used to target certain genders, races or classes. While people with higher levels of education and economic security are less likely to believe in witchcraft, these beliefs were found to cut across social and demographic lines. Because changing these beliefs is difficult, they are often ignored or treated as trivial … and no culture or society responds well to trivialization. Gershman warns that direct attempts to eradicate witchcraft beliefs via laws or curriculum changes are most likely to backfire. Here is what he recommends instead:
“In communities where the fundamentals make witchcraft beliefs less relevant, that is, where local institutions effectively maintain order and a social safety net is in place to protect from adverse shocks, policies aimed at reducing the prevalence of witchcraft beliefs, and thus mitigating their costs, are more likely to succeed. The same approach to evaluating local fundamentals may be followed before considering development projects and other interventions in communities with a salient presence of witchcraft beliefs.”
Maintaining order and providing safety nets at the local level creates stability and comfort – the enemies of the belief in witchcraft. If you still think you don’t know anyone who believes in witchcraft or think “it can’t happen here,” look around at your local environment. Just like positive actions, negative ones also begin at the grass roots level. If you believe religion is the answer, don’t forget how many witchcraft believers belong to major organized religions. Finally, don’t hurry to blame the ‘witches’ – blame the leaders who force their citizens see them as the solution to whatever problems they believe they have.
There are no simple answers.