About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Superstition can kill you

I just got back from a trip to Las Vegas, where the highlight was attending a Penn & Teller show. They are the magicians who have an entire tv series devoted to debunking the paranormal, appropriately called Bullshit! As a skeptic, one of the most annoying questions I get (and I’m sure P&T do also) is “why spoil other people’s beliefs? What’s the harm? Why are you so cynical?” (Note: skepticism is most emphatically not the same thing as cynicism, either in English meaning or in terms of the original Greek philosophical traditions.)

Well, ask the young woman that a couple of weeks ago was seized by some of her neighbors in Papua New Guinea, stripped naked, bound, gagged, and set on fire on suspicion of being a witch. She died a horrible and senseless death. This is not an isolated case in that part of the world (or in Africa). According to the local police more than 50 people were killed in the past year in two Papua New Guinea provinces because they were suspected of practicing sorcery. Anthropologist Bruce Knauft of Emory University has conducted a study according to which over the past four decades local families have seen a full one third of their adults killed violently, 90% of the deaths being connected to superstitious beliefs about witchcraft and the like.

Papua New Guinea is one of four Asian countries afflicted by an AIDS epidemics, but many villagers think it is witches, not the HIV virus, that spreads the disease (again, the same position held by many people, and even some governments, in Africa). Superstition is an easy “explanation” when the reality is either too difficult to comprehend or too hard to accept, but people are literally dying as a result of it.

But that’s the third world, right? Yes, but does witchcraft really sound that different from the practice of, say, snake handlers and speakers in tongues, right here in the good old U.S of A.? Do you remember Sarah Palin saved by a witch doctor? Moreover, plenty of people in the Western world die or get ill because they take homeopathic “remedies” (i.e., water and sugar) for treating serious conditions, for instance. And there is, of course, the psychological (and more often than not, financial) pain experienced by people whose grief and hopes are exploited by those who sell them instant Jesus cures, or tantalize them with the possibility of once again communicating with their loved ones.

That is why the work of the skeptic is not simply a matter of enjoying the intellectual challenge of exposing the frauds, or even the educational challenge of raising the world’s critical thinking abilities by a notch or two. It is work that helps reduce the exploitation of people’s fears for financial gain, power, or prestige. And it is work that may eventually save lives like the one of the innocent young woman who died in Papua New Guinea, yet another innocent victim of ignorance and stupidity.

P.S.: After writing the first draft of this column I went for a walk in my progressive and liberal neighborhood of Park Slope Brooklyn, where the average income and level of education are both very high (there seems to be an uncanny correlation between the two). In the elevator of my building I shared the ride with a woman from another floor. We made small talk about the Obama inauguration. I said we can hope for a better presidency this time around, to which she replied that we don’t need hope, we need to pray. You see, that’s the most important thing, period. She went on to explain to me that 9/11 was -- and I quote verbatim -- a “glorious day” because the whole nation joined in prayer. Oh boy, we really have a lot of work to do.


  1. I've read that in Zimbabwe there is a belief that having sex with an albino women will cure a man of AIDS. Not only does this not work, it further spreads the HIV virus and leads to rape.
    Also in Tanzania witch doctors kill and mutilate albinos because they can sell their body parts to make potions. Sounds crazy but over 50 albinos have been killed in the past year.

  2. As a country becomes economically better, people usually become more secular (Inglehart & Wezel, 2005). Why, in your opinion, is the US not the case?

  3. re: "...remember Sarah Palin saved by a witch doctor?"

    No. OMG! How did I miss that? Whew, did we dodge a bullet or what? Although, I'm still a little disappointed in all the God-talk at Obama's inauguration.
    In any case, keep plugging away MP. We can't blame people for not being sensible if we don't put some sense out there for them to see.

  4. Tsung-Jen Shih,

    There was a demographic analysis in the last issue of Free Inquiry (Dec. '08/Jan. '09) that speaks to your question. I don't recall the details, but I can readily say this: When it comes to economic well-being, the US is lumpy (i.e. unequal) enough that we shouldn't be surprised to find pockets of relatively high religiosity, which affects the national average. Also, the FI article I mentioned argues that the recent trend has been towards more secularism (although the current economic crisis may have a negative impact on that trend).

  5. "glorious day" ? She's "gloriously delusional".

  6. Speaking of the damage done by superstition in the US of A, don't forget the children injured and killed in exorcisms.

  7. I remember reading in "Demon Haunted World" about how many people were burned at the stake over superstitious beliefs for centuries. This was a long term "holocaust" were no one knows exactly how many people were murdered like the young woman you mentioned was. I guess things have not changed much for many.


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