“If he wishes to find out whether she is endowed with a witch power of preserving silence, let him take note of whether she is able to shed tears when standing in his presence or when being tortured. For we are taught by the words of worthy men of old and by own experience that this is a most certain sign, and it has been fund that even if she be urged and extorted by solemn conjurations to shed tears, if she is a witch she will not be able to weep” From the Malleus Malleficarum, the classic study of Witch craft by Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger.
ne of the most difficult things to change in life is deeply held beliefs, which individuals accept as truth. Once individuals are convinced that something is true, they often hold on to it and their first impulse is to defend it, and see those who do not share it as opponents. At the moment, the world’s Rhino population are at risk of extinction because Vietnamese and some other Indo-Asians believe that rhino horn has healing power and can cure any illness. Because of this belief, they have killed all rhinos in Vietnam and currently fuelling the Rhino poaching in South Africa, which has put serious pressure on the rhino population. Even though there is scientific evidence demonstrating that Rhino horn is made of keratin the same substance our nails are made of, the Vietnamese still believe that Rhino horn is the magical medicine and are prepared to pay thousands for a small piece of it.
Many people are not good at remembering that something that is true today may change tomorrow with more knowledge and understanding. It also not commonly acknowledged that it takes special insight to re-examine what one holds as truth, something religion does not encourage because its exposes the falsity of some of its dogmas. Therefore, many people hold on to their religious beliefs in the name of faith, no matter how false, unjust, irrational or absurd. This is a state of mind Philosophers describe as pathological certainty and psychiatrists call overvalued ideas or delusion; depending on the degree of conviction with which the belief is held.
Some people who tried to change deeply held false beliefs in history came to ruin because those who benefited from the false beliefs felt threatened. Jesus of Nazareth himself was an example. It is often forgotten that his grouse with Judaism was the way they held, understood, explained and practised certain dogmas, which was really due to differences in understanding and attitude to a common beliefs. His ‘sin’ was that he tried to point out what was wrong with the attitude of his opponents. Socrates suffered the same fate; he was accused of corrupting the youth of Athens because he was teaching them to think for themselves and allow reason to inform whatever they accepted as truth. This tells us something about the evolution of societies, the role of beliefs and the need to learn from history that what is commonly believed may not be true and that the majority is often wrong.
Two of the greatest problems of Africa are religion and traditional mind-set that has no room for reason and empiricism. At the moment several injurious and false traditional and religious beliefs are still held in many African societies as true. This malady cut across social classes and educational attainment. They afflict the rich and poor, princes and paupers and the young and old. They stop enlightenment, divide societies and sow the seeds of intractable conflicts. They make people defend injustices and ignorance, and make enlightenment difficult. Plato examined part of these problems in the cave of ignorance, in his book the ‘Republic’, and today, we know more how beliefs can destroy reason and induce intolerance and bigotry, which sow the seeds of intractable conflicts in some minds.
The possession theory of illnesses which once held sway and was generally accepted has its origin in idea of witches and evil spirits, as espoused by Christianity and Islam with their doctrine of fallen angels, who became devils and evil spirits. During the renaissance, men began to question traditional wisdom and religious orthodoxies. This resulted in conflict between religion and men of reason. Christianity responded with witch trials and persecution of men of ideas: who were questioning its orthodoxies. Galileo was one of the victims of this period in history described as dark ages. After Christianity eliminated the ‘witches’ and heretics, it began to use the same attitude to address its own schism between Catholics and protestant, akin to the one between Sunni and Shia Muslim today. Today, we know that may illnesses once attribute to the devil, evil spirits or witches were cause by germs, or genetics or a combination of the two. Sadly, this ignorant idea that evil spirits, witches and the devil exist and make people ill, is still strongly held in many parts of Nigeria and the developing world. Unfortunately, religion is making it more difficult for Nigerians to be liberated from this ignorance as many of its orthodoxies seem to re-enforce a role for witches and evil spirits in the affairs of human beings.
Few years ago, I was asked to see a Nigerian family in a London Borough, which refused for a member with mental illness to be seen by mental health professionals. Instead of accessing free mental health care, the mother of this young lady was taking her to a church and prayer houses for the pastors to cast out the evil spirit because they believed that she was possessed by the devil and that the madness was caused by juju by relatives in Nigeria. The woman was adamant that her daughter had a mental illness and was surprised that I, a Nigerian who claims to be a Christian, do not believe in evil spirit theory of mental illness. Finally, I told her that what I was worried about was that, when I see the same thing in white people, they accept treatment and get better, but when I see it in Black people’ they tell me it is evil spirit. At that point, she asked me if white people suffer what her daughter was suffering and I answered in the affirmative. That was how I was able to persuade her to give up her long held belief and accept knowledge. She allowed access to her daughter and she was offered treatment and recovered and returned to her job. It happened that the daughter was suffering from schizophrenia and they have a family history of mental illness.
Belief in Witches, Wizards, Satan and evil spirits, is still very prevalent in Nigeria and many African countries. These supposedly malevolent forces are still believed to be responsible for problems science and enlightenment have provided answers in developed countries. I suppose it is time to say that these forces exist only in the minds of those who believe in them. The evidence people give for their existence has not withstood scrutiny. Nigeria must confront the ignorance of believe in, the devil, witches and wizards to develop.
Recently, I read about a 15 year old boy from Akwa Ibom state who was alleged to be a witch and responsible for his father’s illness and bad fortune. The same or similar beliefs are held in other parts of Nigeria. He was set upon by some family members and suffered a broken head. Luckily for him, with the help of a charity, he is trying to rebuild his life and hold those who assaulted him responsible. This is the same part of the world which was once killing twins, until Mary Sellessor; an Irish missionary arrived with the light of knowledge and stooped it. Many ridiculous and harmful beliefs and practices still exist in many parts of Nigeria; including the ones that enables unscrupulous men exploit gullible people in the name of God, make some people to recommend prayer as solution to Nigerian political problems and institutionalised corruption, and Boko Haram to justify its atrocities.
These are evidence of the degree of ignorance in the Nigerian society and why Nigerians need the light of true knowledge, uncontaminated by dogmas, beliefs or traditions, if we will develop and assume our rightful place amongst the community of nations. These two stories demonstrate that the same circular and magical thinking, which sustains religious beliefs, belief in witches and wizards, and perpetuates ignorance; are alive and flourishing in Nigeria. This is why enlightened people continue to say that beliefs (traditional and religious) that are impervious to reason or attempt to dismiss what reason says about them with the writings of ancient books, are very dangerous. They ignore the fact that enforcement of religious or traditional beliefs on others, do not guarantee peaceful co-existence. They render believers and traditionalists unable to accept the rule of law, reason and evidence as the arbiters of what is right and appropriate to be believed.
It would therefore seem that Nigeria and many developing countries are yet to emerge from the cave of ignorance and continue to apply prejudicial presuppositions, where reflections are needed and dogmas, where discursive argument would be appropriate. It is difficult to understand why Nigeria is digging deeper into beliefs and religion, when the rest of the world continues to march towards knowledge, empiricism, tolerance, equality, morality and reason. We seem content to believe what our forefather believed, instead of answering the questions, which the limitations of their beliefs pose. We also seem unaware that every generation should have the same debate to see what new ideas are available to examine the same old concepts and that this is the way progress is made. Instead, we have simply carried on with the ignorance of our forefathers in the name of tradition and religion that restrict or deny the role of reason in the advancement of knowledge and faith.
We are content to work with the one sided view religion and traditional beliefs offer and come out with prejudiced position which pitches us against one another, imposes on us a very narrowly defined identities, leaves us with a restricted definition of truth, making hostility and conflicts inevitable; when a more encompassing understanding of the concepts we think religion has the only answer: will leave us better informed with more enlightened attitudes. There is urgent need to recognise that reason, the rule of law, morality, civility and knowledge, should override superstitions, religious and traditional beliefs and dogmas, if we will ever progress.
We seem not to know that a belief is dangerous, when it justifies the violation of individual liberty, justifies inequality, rationalise intolerance, explains away injustices , causes harm to others, sows the seeds of prejudice and ignores or resists what reason says about it. If a belief does not pass these tests, it is dangerous, no matter the ancient book, which justifies it or prophets who proclaimed it.
The question is why a rational mind should believe that another human being is a witch, or that a person who has no direct dealings with his business is influencing his fortunes. What sustains the beliefs in witches, wizards, evil spirits, angels, hell fire, heaven, paradise, Garden of Eden, Immaculate Conception and may religious dogmas, myths and traditional beliefs, which divide people, sow the seeds of conflicts, destroy peaceful co-existence contribute nothing to what sustains existence and leaves people with irrational and overvalued ideas of what happens after death?
Why do believers resist the subjection of these ideas to the same scrutiny which the ideas they use in their different professions were subjected? How can it be right to subject some ideas to scrutiny and exclude others? Why should we have a lower threshold for accepting religious ideas than scientific ones? What is belief? How does it originate? What is the aim of those who urge beliefs instead of understanding? What is the right way of establishing the truthfulness or the validity of an idea or concept? Who benefits when men hold irrational beliefs for which they are determined to live for, or if necessary, to die? Why is this state of mind very dangerous? Nigerians have to answer theses question to begin to understand the irrationality of ascribing to ideas men hold in their minds the ability to alter reality and their potential to retard development, perpetuate ignorance and destroy societies.
Ignorance is the absence of knowledge, just as darkness is the absence of light, which is why beliefs without room for reason, flourishes in backward and primitive societies. Education without enlightenment only validates ignorance. Hopefully, Nigerians will recover from our pathological certainties of knowing what is true without evidence, and begin to re-examine our religious certainties and traditional beliefs as other developed nations have done. God gave reason so that we can use to it examine what we accept as truth. Therefore, anything that excludes reason from what is accepted as true is dangerous and keeps people ignorant, divided and contentious. 'My people are indeed destroyed for lack of knowledge'
Of course, religious morality is great, but such morality can easily be taught without some religious mind dumbing irrational dogmas that make fools of many in the name of God. To have an effective debate or discussion on religious and traditional beliefs, people must be ready to accord all views equal value and judge them on the altar of evidence and reason , something the traditional and religious minds do not accept because they already know that what they have is the truth.
I hope that someday, the Nigerian renaissance will begin and religious orthodoxies and traditional beliefs would be put in their right and proper places so that we can have a society where no one would believe that young boys can be witches or that witches, wizards, evil spirits or Satan are responsible for things that have understandable logical or scientific explanations.