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.