Long gone are the days of burning witches at the stake – yet despite the inroads made by the scientific worldview since the Middle Ages, a new study reveals that over 40 percent of people may still believe in witchcraft. While the prevalence of these antiquated superstitions varies greatly between countries, the researchers identify several cultural, political, and economic factors that appear to encourage such beliefs.
Responses from over 140,000 people in 95 countries and territories were compiled into one massive dataset, allowing the study authors to paint a broad picture of the state of witchcraft beliefs across the world. Overall, 43 percent of participants agreed with the statement that "certain people can cast curses or spells that cause bad things to happen to someone.”
“A simple calculation based on the adult population data yields close to a billion believers in just the 95 countries in the sample, most certainly an undercount due to the sensitivity of the witchcraft question for at least some respondents,” write the researchers. However, they go on to explain that while some countries are a hotbed of witchcraft beliefs, others are home to a more rational population.
For instance, while only nine percent of Swedes said they found sorcery credible, 90 percent of people in Tunisia admitted to believing in witches.
Rather than simply writing off such convictions as mumbo-jumbo, however, the study authors seek to clarify and understand the social function of witchcraft beliefs. “Through the ages, the most obvious purpose of witchcraft beliefs has been to provide an ultimate explanation for unfortunate events in people’s lives and thus help with coping,” they explain.
Accordingly, they find that such beliefs are “correlated with exposure to certain shocks such as agricultural drought and unemployment.” The researchers also say that the concept of witchcraft helps to “maintain order and cohesion in the absence of effective governance mechanisms,” and is therefore “more widespread in countries with weak institutions.”
At the same time, however, they note that “these potential functions, or benefits, likely come at a steep cost of destroying the social fabric, contributing to anxiety and economic stagnation.”
Analyzing different approaches to combatting these harms, the study authors say that simply trying to educate people about the fallacy of witchcraft is likely to backfire. For example, they note that while a person might fully understand that diseases are caused by mosquito bites, that same individual may still attribute their chances of being bitten to witchcraft.
Similarly, the researchers warn against banning such beliefs, as doing so could heighten fears of potential witches being “let loose” and protected by the new laws.
The best approach, according to the study authors, is therefore to focus on building social institutions that provide greater security, protecting people from physical and economic disasters and thus reducing the need for witchcraft beliefs as a coping strategy.
The study appears in the journal PLOS ONE.