This is a wake up call to skeptically minded people in Papua New Guinea. This is a call to action- a call to become active and involved in transforming the society; a call to become visible, to discard the garb of passivity and anonymity and don the robe of social engagement. From the recent news and reports, there is a tendency to think that the country of PNG is a nation of stone agers, of barbaric people who are trapped in the past, of unrepentant witch believers and blind adherents to blind magic and sorcery. Of course the scale of murders and abuses in the country is appalling and horrifying. It is indicative of the prevalence of the belief in the occult. But sorcery related abuse is not unknown in human history or in other parts of the world.
Like other societies in the world, PNG is diverse, comprising people who entertain different opinions and views. Surely all PNGuineans do not profess the same belief in the same way.
PNG may actually be dominantly christian or witch believing, but there are hierachies of belief and unbelief. There are those who doubt, question or disbelief. Though they may not doubt or question aloud; though they may not be organised or visible in the country’s demography. The doubters and disbelievers in PNG exist and constitute part of the population. I am strongly persuaded that there are people in Papua New Guinea who do not believe in sorcery or in the alleged powers of the occult and the supernatural. There are people in Papua New Guinea who are ashamed of the wave of sorcery related murders, and the underlying mindset. There are PNGuineans who think that such misconceptions and killings should not be associated with the PNG of the 21st century. There are rationally minded people in the country. There are critical thinkers, philosophers, scientifically tempered persons who regard sorcery as superstition, as lacking any basis in reason, science and common sense. Surely these enlightenment minded individuals are few. They may be an invisible minority but they are right there in PNG. So there are people in Papua New Guinea who are skeptics or who are skeptical about sorcery related claims. There are people in PNG who are suspicious or doubtful of allegations of witchcraft or of malevolent magic.
So, will the skeptics in PNG now stand up? This is because now is the time to be counted. Now is the time to make their voices heard. This is the time to apply skeptics’ rational compassion to dispelling the looming dark age in the country. This is the time to put the skeptical resource at the country’s disposal as it grapples with the problem of puripuri.
Ending sorcery related murder in PNG requires not only the prosecution and punishment of perpetrators or the protection of the rights of women, but also a change of mindset- reorienting the mentality of the people. This is because sorcery is 'a problem of the mind'. Sorcery is based on a mentality that imputes magical agency on any instance of evil or misfortune. And magical agency evokes panic, anger and revenge sentiments. Proactive skepticism is needed to help the people of PNG realize their mistaken ideas, notions, associations and imputations. It will help bring an end to witch hunt and other superstition related abuses in the country.
Leo Igwe, as a member of the International Humanist and Ethical Union, has bravely worked for human rights in West Africa. He is presently enrolled in a three year research programme on “Witchcraft accusations in Africa” at the University of Bayreuth, in Germany