Dhe belief in witchcraft is not a holdover from the Middle Ages, it is still widespread in the 21st century. So far, however, it was unclear how widespread the belief in witchcraft really is worldwide.
A study by the American University in Washington DC has now examined this: 40 percent of respondents in 95 countries are convinced that witches exist; a surprisingly large number.
For belief in witchcraft is not confined to isolated communities. Even in the modern world, it runs through all socio-demographic groups within the countries surveyed. The probability of believing in witchcraft decreases with a higher level of education and greater economic security. On the other hand, in countries with rather weak institutions, conformist cultures and low innovation capacity, more people believe in witchcraft.
In Germany, 13 percent believe in witchcraft
For example, the idea that witches exist was lowest in Sweden, at just 9 percent, and highest in Tunisia, at 90 percent. Belief in witchcraft can also be clearly measured in Germany: In a representative telephone survey, 13 percent of respondents stated that they believe that “certain people can cast curses and magic spells that cause bad things to happen to someone”.
However, the global meaningfulness of the study is limited; some large countries such as China and larger regions in Africa and Southeast Asia are missing from the survey. According to study author Boris Gershwin, the reason is that the focus was on Christian and Muslim countries.
“Despite these limitations, our new dataset makes clear that, first, belief in witchcraft is a global contemporary phenomenon that is not confined to a few select areas, and second, that it varies significantly in prevalence both between and within a few world regions.”
Witchcraft explains calamities
Why do so many people still believe in witchcraft? Through the ages, witchcraft has been used to explain calamities, the study says. Even today, faith represents a coping mechanism in the event of an accident. This means that the traditional order within the communities can be maintained.
There are many supposed witches on social media, especially on Tiktok. The search term “witchtok” has 34.5 trillion views. However, these “Tiktok witches” have nothing to do with the witch image that still exists in most countries around the world. They can rather be classified under neopaganism, i.e. a current with various elements from ancient, Germanic and Slavic as well as pagan beliefs.
Belief in witchcraft thwarts developments
In another study, Gershman has already examined the connection between the belief in witchcraft and the erosion of social capital, i.e. the level of cohesion in a community. In it he describes how faith compels members of a community to conform to local norms, since any deviation can lead to prosecution. In his current study, he confirms this investigation.
The belief in witchcraft creates a close cohesion in the community. But this is forced out of fear. Fearful of being blamed themselves, people conform closely to local norms. For example, communities that believe in witchcraft are more xenophobic, biased and less trusting. This kind of forced conformity out of fear hinders the creation of wealth and the development and implementation of innovations. And destroy the social fabric of the community in the long term.
What is witchcraft?
Belief in witchcraft can have serious consequences, not only economically. Believers’ zero-sum thinking, that is, the belief that one person’s gain is always another’s loss, often underlies accusations of witchcraft: witchcraft is viewed as a method of achieving individual success at the expense of another community member. Witchcraft is an ability that people use to intentionally harm others through supernatural means.
In many places around the world people are persecuted as witches: in Tanzania it is mainly people with albinism, in Ghana some communities look to alleged witchcraft practices as the reason for the birth of a disabled child. The United Nations Human Rights Council published a resolution last year condemning the practices and attacks and calling for an end to them.
Anti-witchcraft laws are not helpful
However, Gershman is critical of rules and laws intended to prevent belief in witchcraft. Anti-witchcraft laws designed to prevent accusations and prosecutions are only superficially helpful, he writes in the study. Rather, the laws fuel the fear of witches, as they are considered freed.
Should education and the promotion of a scientific worldview be used instead as a solution to the problem? While that’s useful, it’s only superficial, says Gershman. Being disrupted by technological developments could increase concern among followers of the faith.
In order to successfully counter the belief in witchcraft, it is important to consider the culture at hand and to recognize when a community is ready for change. This is the case when belief in witchcraft becomes less relevant in a community, for example because local institutions are functioning and a social safety net is in place.