Deadly Magic and Child Sacrifice

A Bungled Child Sacrifice

Child sacrifice in Uganda is epidemic. Read this BBC article at your own risk. The deadly magical thoughts bubbling around in the Uganda meme-soup are:

  • Killing a child in a magic ritual can bring wealth
  • Sacrificed human body parts buried on your property bring success
  • Animal sacrifice works but sacrificed children work better

So I ponder:  How do we fight deadly magical thinking?

  • We know that insecurity, both financial and physical, drive the human brain into religious/superstitious/magical thinking. So, prosperity may help. But even the Ugandan wealthy are paying for child sacrifices.
  • We know that a stable government with rule of law and justice can save lives but Uganda has an uphill battle on this front.  Yet without a stable government, real prosperity is difficult.
  • We know that superstitions and religious thinking decrease with education.  But without prosperity, education is difficult.
  • We know that worldviews and mental habits can alter how people respond to poverty, insecurity and injustice.  Worldviews are taught first in the home, then the community.  But if most of your friends, family and community have warped worldviews, it is difficult to escape.

Who is fighting the magical superstitious thinking behind child sacrifice? Ironically, Christians, whose faith is based on the efficacy of human sacrifice, are fighting child sacrifice in the Uganda. As an example, see the “Jubilee Campaign“.  Can magical thinking fight magical thinking? Is magical thinking inevitable and thus we need to use it when possible? Or should our goal be to rid magical thinking from human consciousness and nurture naturalistic worldviews?  Is there an easy answer?

Question to readers: What do you feel is/are the solution(s)?



Filed under Philosophy & Religion

23 responses to “Deadly Magic and Child Sacrifice

  1. I know that you think of Christianity as “magical thinking”. I would even agree that in many cases and strains, it is.

    However, there are degrees of magical thinking and degrees of superstitiousness. While Christianity has had its own bloody past and manipulation, it has also been in many places a stabilizer and, eventually, a source of social liberation.

    While Christianity can certainly be bent to awful means, such as Uganda’s virulent anti-homosexual movement, or the charges of “witches” in many parts of Africa, it can also promote the value of the otherwise “valueless” people in a society.

    It has the seeds of both destruction and liberation within it. And the soil it is planted in affects what those seeds produce. In places where the supernatural is considered a given and interacting with spirits and curses and witch doctors is “normal, ” Christianity can either blend in with these practices, or fight against them.

    It blends in with them when it validates the existence of demons, and witches, and the spirit world. All that happens is that the local people alter how they view these things, they simply rename the categories for their belief int he supernatural rather than completely revolting against it.

    Christianity fights against these things when it is present in its more boring, less charismatic, moral code mode….except for the homosexuality thing, which always seems to get so much attention.

    Christian missionaries have frequently tried to tie education to their missions, not only religious education, but general education. They have done a lot of good in many places.

    You could bemoan the fact that it doesn’t go far enough, that it still clings to the idea of the supernatural in theory if not in everyday practice, but you also can’t expect culture steeped in superstition and magic to suddenly become Enlightenment agnostics and atheists. It’s too far of a leap

  2. DoOrDoNot

    The first goal is to stop child sacrifice. If Christians are fighting it effectively, then lets support their efforts. An enlightenment wont happen overnight. Christianity first took hold in a world of superstitious thinking and enlightenment values followed long after. In the mean time, though oppression in the name of Christianity did take place, orphans were rescued by Christians from earliest times. It does have a track record of helping the helpless, even if imperfectly. They’ll be time to debate the need for Jesus as a sacrifice to humanity once children are no longer being sacrificed, imo. However, ultimately, the Ugandan population needs the political stability and education as well.

  3. @ terri :

    I agree with many of your points:

    (1) Different versions of Christianity contain different mixes of magical thinking.

    (2) Christianity has played a stabilizing role in many places and at many times — perhaps at a cost, but it may have been worth that cost given the options. (as I had hoped this post implied)

    (3) There are many flavors of Christianity

    (4) Anti-homosexuality is a barbaric side of many Christianities

    (5) The supernatural aspect of Christianity may be useful (as I hint) in Uganda to ironically fight bad superstitions and practices (child sacrificers).

    (6) Christians have done phenomenal good in many places including education, medicine, environment, politics and more.

    You also can’t expect culture steeped in superstition and magic to suddenly become Enlightenment agnostics and atheists. It’s too far of a leap …

    (7) Agreed — and actually, that was the hint I was trying to make in the post. But I did a poor job if you walked away thinking I was saying otherwise.


    I know that you think of Christianity as “magical thinking”.

    I think *parts* of *most* Christianity is comprised of magical thinking. As my diagram here shows, I think the religious mind is far more complex than such a simple generalization that it is mere superstition or mere magic thinking. Religion functions to culture morality, build community and more — much like your comment suggests. On this blog I hopefully avoid your accusation and qualify myself most of the time. I think if you look at my last paragraph, I did not generalize inappropriately.

    I enjoyed your comment Terri and feel you make great points. Thanx

  4. @ DoOrDoNot :
    As per my reply to terri, I agree.
    My final paragraphs question is meant to be rhetorical and stir conversation. At least it accomplished the later. 🙂
    Thanx for the comment

  5. Sabio,

    I didn’t mean to make it sound like I was arguing against your post. I was trying to head off commenters who would want to go on and on about the evils of Christianity ahead of time. 😉


    FYI…I’ve been trying to reply to one of your posts on your blog for the past few days and it won’t accept my comment. Not sure if it’s just my comment or if it’s just a general blogger issue.

  6. @ terri :
    Ahhhhh, you go Pastor terri, you go …. 🙂
    I just posted on DoOrDoNot’s blog and got accepted when I congratulated her on the 5K. Maybe you should stop linking to Viagra sites and such.

  7. “Maybe you should stop linking to Viagra sites and such.”

    Geez…what fun would that be?

  8. JSA

    Is anyone aware of any thorough investigations of how human sacrifice arises in these backwards tribes? I’ve read “Notes from a Mud Hut”, and it covers the topic very briefly, but it’s mainly just post-hoc rationalization from the current practitioners. What would be really interesting is a model for how an isolated group like this can even arrive at human sacrifice in the first place — what are the drivers and motivations, and how do they spread through society?

    This could shed some light on the ancient Jewish blood sacrifice cult, and would be interesting for expounding penal substitution theory.

  9. @ JSA:
    Human sacrifice is found in many cultures (as you know). Here are some thoughts.

    (1) From Wright’s book, “The Evolution of God”:
    pg 60, speaking of Polynesian Gods

    Elites also got lavish medical care. When a Tongan commoner was sick, priests might prescribe a modest curative sacrifice: cutting of the finger joint of a relative even lower in the social hierarchy. But for a chief’s illness, sometimes the only cure was to strangle a child.”

    Since blood gives life, it is not hard to imagine it containing magic. And taking if from lower status further cements power. Yet some kings sacrificed their own children because it competed with other kings as showing allegiance to subjects who he needed to fight battles for him. Having many wives and children, this probably was not a problem.
    Much like it is not a big deal for Yahweh to sacrifice a son who can just come back to life.

    (2) pg 76, the Aztecs realized the power of sacrifice. Human sacrifice was put forward as a means to give “the sun enough nourishment to keep fighting its way across the sky.” Thus order was maintained by the King who arranged for sacrifice. Further, this allowed the king to command troops to go about the risky activity of trying to conquer enemies so human bodies were available for sacrificing.

    (3) From Boyer’s book, “Religion Explained”
    p230 tells of the Gbaya tribe in Central Africa where boys are feign slain, then taken off for one year to return as men after a year-long initiation/transition into manhood. Dead seen as a transformative gateway.

  10. There was a study recently that linked pain with the reduction of guilt. Perhaps sacrifice, especially of something held dear, is a psychological, biological response?!

    The catharsis of pain and loss may cause a rebound effect of relief and euphoria which then is associated with violence?

    Not sure if it actually true, or not.

  11. @ terri
    Interesting study- thanx for the link! But I wonder about the conclusion: The strong emotional feeling of guilt might have blunted the sensation of pain. Much like fighters, sports players and soldiers in the rush of the battle often don’t feel injuries that would cause others to wince strongly.

    Perhaps the recalled strong emotional memory drew glucose away from sensory centers.

    But in light of that, other studies have shown how priming with memory of a wrong doing, increased hand washing. Baptizing away sin. Washed in blood, all the better. Blood of a human even better yet.

    Oh the foibles of the human brain!

  12. JSA

    To terri’s point, many studies have shown that people keep a sort of moral “balance” in their minds. If you simply have someone *imagine* voting for a black president, they are more likely to later prefer a white person for a job over an equally qualified black candidate. People who buy “green” cars leave the lights on longer, and so on. I suspect that religious beliefs about final judgment, karma, and reincarnation all arise from this instinct for good and evil to roughly balance out. So I can buy the idea that people instinctively feel that pain can make up for evil deeds.

    And it makes sense that this impulse would be hypocritically subverted by the powerful to exploit the weak (don’t sacrifice your own kids; sacrifice some poor person’s kids). Projecting this calculus to a sun god or other deity would also make sense.

    I suppose that is enough to make a compelling case for how sacrificial cults arise. I wish we had more information, though.

  13. Tim


    “The first goal is to stop child sacrifice.”
    DoOrDoNot nailed it when he said that. There are certain situations in which you act first and analyze later.The problem of child sacrifice in Uganda and elsewhere is horrific and if there were a way to impart an ‘ Oh I see now’ vivid realization of this horror to the perpetrators of these crimes, from ANY quarter, then this is surely the best first move, I would suppose. We like to think that some things are SIMPLY (JUST) understood.The distinction between jurisdictional law and natural law, which received it’s ( perhaps) greatest elaboration in ancient Rome, is instructive here. I read of an illustration where an imaginary Carthaginian parked his chariot illegally in front of the senate and when he pleaded that he was not aware that this was wrong he was excused- just this once. Later he killed a few people and created mayhem but when offering the same plea was sentenced as well as being laughed out of court. In a world where child sacrifice exists this distinction has somehow not been understood and it almost seems unbelievable! I would suggest we put geopolitics aside and just go in and kick some witch doctor ass but that may be wrong on several levels. I agree with Terri that Christianity has a track record of helping the helpless. Help from all quarters is needed for the children now and we can sort out the theology later. Informative post. Thank you for posting!

  14. @ Tim
    An important point to remember too is that Christianity has a very mixed record.
    You said,

    Christianity has a track record of helping the helpless.

    Terry said,

    Christianity has had its own bloody past and manipulation.

    I contend that all sorts of Christianities (there is not ONE Christianity) suppress (in the present) science, women, gays and preach exclusivism, nationalism and much worse. Christianity also has many active agents of harm also.
    It is a mixed bag.
    I don’t want that to be forgotten in this thread.

  15. CRL

    While spreading Christianity will certainly do nothing to end magical thinking, for the sake of Ugandan children, I, for one, think human life is worth replacing violent magic with nonviolent (okay, less violent) magic. Like many other believers, Christians have come down on different sides of the same issue (e.g. slavery.) Why? Because claiming to have God on one’s side tends to make people listen, especially if their eternal fate hangs in the balance. If Christianity can save lives, more power to it. While some nastiness may be spread along with it, this is considerably better than the status quo. The risk of leaving a new mess of religious extremism for the next generation to clean up is one we must take.

    Will we ever get rid of magical thinking? I doubt it. I remember, in my first atheist phase at the age of ten and eleven, thinking that today’s religions would go the way of Greek mythology. I realized later a massive flaw in my thinking: yes, Zeus and the crew have gone away, but who have we replaced them with? God, or at least, the tendency to build god, is certainly deep within us. Our brains are wired to survive, not to think, and it’s better to run from the wind than to skeptically stand still and get eaten. Beyond survival, I think a species with a sense of self and of past and future is likely to run across existential questions. Since simple, evolved brains think answers are more useful than questions, and cannot grasp the concept that, some day, we will not exist, we invent gods and philosophies to give our lives simple meaning, and cling to afterlives because we cannot accept death. While formal, strictly theistic religions may (key word, may) be on their way out, something new will come to replace them, and chances are, it will involve magic. Just look at how belief in horoscopes and ghosts have gone up, even while belief in traditional religion has gone down! So if we’re stuck with magical thinking of some sort, best we do damage control and make sure it’s the least harmful kind possible.

  16. CRL
    Did you cut a paste that from your blog? 🙂
    It was superbly written. I totally agree with all you said. Nicely done!

  17. I’m going to be off topic and a little pedantic.

    DoOrDoNot is a she, not a he. As am I.

    Sorry, I’ve just had that happen to me many times on blogs where people don’t “know” me and just assume I must be male because most of the other commenters are male.

    Feminist Public Service Annoucement is now over

  18. Tim

    To Terri and DoOrDoNot I extend a mea culpa. Perhaps we should use names rather than he/she. To Sabio I would concur that the Christian track record is a mixed bag, but my emphasis is on fixing the problem rather than fixing the blame. Let’s help the children and then argue theology. The ‘mix’ in the mixed bag is hardly an accurately measurable data set. The pro or con of the matter is settled as much by sentiment as it is by rationality. I find it interesting that you fixed on my single utterance as lacking balance while reserving comment on the real gist of what I was trying to say. Christianity will never be in a position where it lacks detractors; this has become a cottage industry. I am standing up for what I believe to be the case, namely more good done than harm. How could anyone, living in the current age think the other side (the more harm side) will not be heard? Lastly: I mistakenly credited Terri to have made the …”track record”… comment, when in fact it was made by DoOrDoNot

  19. Tim

    It’s not a big deal, really! I hadn’t had my coffee yet!


  20. Lots of good discussion here. I too support the idea of Christianity being useful in combating the more-deadly magical thinking. (Even though God almost made Abraham sacrifice his son Isaac for no reason other than it being God’s desire. Genesis 22 And even though God sacrificed His own son.) As others suggested, it would probably be more comfortable for most people to switch from one religion to another as opposed to going completely atheist. I’ve made similar cases in the past for Christianity being useful in promoting the freedom of speech in predominantly Muslim countries.

  21. @ The Wise Fool
    Glad you enjoyed. Good points. It seems like all commenters here basically agree. It seems the atheists who hate everything about all religions no longer read my blog. Smile.

    @ Tim

    I find it interesting that you fixed on my single utterance as lacking balance while reserving comment on the real gist of what I was trying to say.

    That is because I sometimes get lost about what you are trying to say. Thus, only the obvious stands out. If I get lost in a comment, I will try to reread it once but may give up if I still can’t follow the points. Sorry. I am a simple creature and do best with simple prose.
    I did agree with your point about kicking the witch doctor’s ass! 🙂

  22. CRL

    Perhaps I should put it there…

    I’m surprised I was able to write well, given that I was mentally tired to the point where I had trouble coherently ordering tea a few hours earlier (I was somehow rather slow to comprehend that $2 was less than $2.04, and that self-serve tapioca meant that I had to actually serve myself.) courtesy of chemistry repeatedly keeping me up until 2 am.

  23. DoOrDoNot

    thanks for pointing out my femininity! 🙂

    No problem. I’m sure the Star Wars reference in my moniker increases the likelihood that I’m assumed to be male. :0

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