Beliefnet News Conflates Paganism and Harry Potter with Witchcraft Killings

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  April 25, 2012 — 43 Comments

A good news blogger will often try to spot trends and underlying issues in the stories of the day, using the strengths of the format to make links, provide more depth, and uncover nuances overlooked in the big headlines. However, sometimes a writer will commit the car-crash equivalent of same, using keywords and lazy cut-pasting to score pageviews for his or her employer. I believe the second scenario happened on Monday when Beliefnet Senior Editor Rob Kerby carelessly conflated the recent Cornwall controversy over teaching Paganism in religious education classes with the troubling trend of witch-hunts and witch-killings in places like Africa and the Middle East.

A fear of witchcraft? In our enlightened age? According to Reuters, the British news agency, a woman from the island of Sri Lanka off the southern tip of India has been charged with casting a spell on a 13-year-old Saudi girl during her family’s trip to a shopping mall. […]  In Cornwall, England, the local council is defending its decision to include teaching children about witchcraft in religious education lessons. The Cornwall Council says that from the age of five, children should begin learning about pagan sites like Stonehenge and at the age of 11, pupils can begin exploring “modern paganism and its importance for many in Cornwall.” Critics say the council is offering “witchcraft lessons.” Witchcraft? Seriously? The United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund – UNICEF – says that tens of thousands of children in Africa each year are tortured and killed because of witchcraft. Blame is divided between local witchdoctors and Pentecostal churches that have led opposition to the witchdoctors.”

The whole thing is such a thematic mess that I really don’t know where to begin. Let’s start with the fact that he puts the religious police crackdown on “sorcery” in Saudi Arabia, and African witch-hunting,  in the same category as Cornwall making the teaching of modern Pagan religions an option in religious education courses, then veers into Harry Potter!

“In the west, witchcraft is trivialized with children’s books such as Harry Potter and Disney movies and TV shows that present it as harmless. However, the Vatican has called on African authorities to ban sorcery with rigid laws.”

Then, after careening back into stories on witch-hunting in Africa, he turns to instances of African immigrants in the UK abusing and killing children in the name of witchcraft, and somehow links this back to the Cornwall story!

“In 2005, Sita Kisanga was found guilty of torturing an eight-year-old in London, believing the girl to have kindoki. She told the court that, “Kindoki is something you have to be scared of because in our culture kindoki can kill and destroy your life completely.” But officials in Cornwall, England, say there’s nothing to fear. […] It seems that the politically correct Cornwall Council regards Christianity as no better than any other superstition.”

This spectacular exercise in lazy slander is capped by a lengthy quotation from  Catholic columnist Christina Odone, whose anti-Pagan screed I highlighted on this blog.

“God, Gaia, whatever: school children are already as familiar with the solstice as with the sacraments. In pockets of Cornwall, children will point out a nun in her habit: “Look, a Druid!” Their parents will merely shrug — one set of belief is as good as another. How long before the end of term is marked by a Black Mass, with only Health and Safety preventing a human sacrifice?

That’s how Kerby ends it, with that direct quote from Odone. I have seen stupid and bad reporting on modern Pagan religions before, but this mish-mash of different issues takes the cake. It gives the headline “what can the Third World teach the civilized world about witchcraft” a decidedly sinister ring. What, exactly, can the “Third World” teach us about witchcraft? That it should be outlawed, that witches should be hunted and killed? That kids shouldn’t read Harry Potter because witchcraft is serious business in Saudi Arabia? What?

One could easily do a paragraph-by-paragraph fisking of this piece, pointing out all the places where this story runs off the rails, but instead let me make a few simple points that Kerby doesn’t make in this bizarre “story.”

1. Sorcery persecutions in the Middle East are not the same phenomenon as witch-hunting in African nations. Both result in the killing of “witches,” but have different motivations and underlying causes.

2. Modern Pagan and religious Witchcraft traditions aren’t “trivializing” the practice of witchcraft, they are operating under a completely different cultural context and understanding of the term and its practice. Further, modern Pagans exist in the Middle East, and South Africa, places where witch-persecutions are happening. They take this problem very seriously indeed, and Pagans have even been seen as a possible solution in the problem of witch-hunting in India. To claim our faiths are “trivializing” witchraft is a slur, and an ignorant one.

3. If Mr. Kerby truly cared about witch-killings he should look into how Christian missionaries in Africa helped make them possible. Evangelical Christian academics say that indigenous ideas and reactions to “witchcraft” and malefic magic have been “Christianized” (their term), creating deadly consequences the missionaries could not (or would not) understand. I think Western funding of witch-hunters is doing far more damage than Wiccans practicing their religion.

4. Every culture has stories, folktales, and fantasy version of magic and witchcraft. To say their modern equivalent, Harry Potter, have somehow “trivialized” matters in the Third World is absurd.

5. The Cornwall “teaching Paganism” story was a tabloid sensationalist mess that distorted the facts in order to sell papers. That it is conflated with witch-killings in the UK is simply insane. No, worse than that, it is a deliberate smear.

That this patch-work monstrosity of an article exists at Beliefnet, who employs a Pagan blogger, one who co-wrote a book on Pagan-Christian dialog, and could have easily clarified many of the mistakes and misconceptions at work in Kerby’s piece, damns this exercise in unfounded conflation even further. If Beliefnet had an ounce of editorial conscience they would pull this abomination immediately, or at least not spotlight it as “news.” Then again, if Kerby is a “Senior Editor” maybe the lunatics are running the asylum at Beliefnet.

Jason Pitzl-Waters

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