Breaking The Spell Of Stone-Age Beliefs

Last July, Brendan Borrell attended the James Randi Educational Foundation’s 15th annual “Amaz!ng Meeting,” which he describes as “perhaps the world’s preeminent gathering of self-proclaimed skeptics, people dedicated to debunking and demystifying anything that smacks of the supernatural.” Borrell profiles Leo Igwe, a speaker at the convention who campaigns against witchcraft in Africa:

If any attendees know anything about Igwe, it is for his “Manifesto for a Skeptical Africa,” published on the foundation’s website in October of 2012. In it, he criticizes African societies for their inability to think critically about the traditional beliefs he calls “Stone-Age spiritual abracadabra.” He is in Las Vegas to talk about the resurgence of literal witch-hunts in Sub-Saharan Africa, and the rise of accusations lobbed at children, particularly in countries ravaged by conflict and where levels of education are low. While sorcery has always been a part of traditional belief systems in Africa, the stigmatization of children as witches seems to be a recent invention. In two Niger Delta states alone, Akwa Ibom and Cross River, there have been hundreds of documented cases of children being beaten, burned, beheaded, doused in acid or boiling water, poisoned, or buried alive. Like his self-righteous colleagues in the Western world, Igwe can be mocking and sarcastic, but he also knows he is on a deadly serious crusade.

During his talk, Igwe displays a picture of a Ghanaian man inside a thatch-roofed hut performing a traditional soothsaying ritual with seashells. As he pauses on the image Igwe declares, “Friends, these are the fakers. He uses cowries and throws them on the ground and is staring at them as if there is something he is seeing.” Igwe’s voice rises in pitch, volume, and tempo, and he continues in an exasperated tone: “He is seeing nothing! It’s fake!” There are a few chuckles in the audience, but mostly silence, as if no one is quite sure how to balance their skeptical instincts against their cross-cultural sensitivities. The soothsayer may well be a charlatan, but only Igwe had the right to ridicule him.