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Thursday, February 16, 2012

More on Child Witches and Deliverance

I’ve been getting some interesting information on the activities of Helen Ukpabio, the “child witch” exorcist I mentioned recently, from Leo Igwe, until recently the International Humanist and Ethical Union representative for Western and Southern Africa. Leo is about to begin a three-year project to study beliefs and practices related to the idea that children can be possessed by demons and harmful to people and property . Not surprisingly, he is aware of events related to the “child witch” belief. He passed on a relevant Youtube piece, which you can see at as well as on Youtube.

The Youtube material is telephone interview conducted by Sahara TV interviewer Chika Oduah with Godwin Umotong,  pastor of the Houston church that plans to run a “mammoth deliverance” (group exorcism)  under the care of Helen Ukpabio. I found the interview somewhat difficult to understand (it has those video pauses where the sound vanishes too), but it did provide the information that the deliverance event, originally scheduled for March 14-25, has been postponed until May. Ms. Oduah asked some pointed questions about the whereabouts of the “mermaid spirits” that are named as a concern in the flyer for the planned deliverance meeting. She also pointed out that the crying in the night, feverishness, and deteriorating health --- symptoms that Helen Ukpabio says can indicate demon possession in toddlers--  could  well be symptoms of malaria. Umotong maintained that children can be initiated as witches, but denied that they could be witches from birth.

Pentecostal beliefs (as described in the work of Frank and Ida Mae Hammond and of Bill Banks) do include the idea that an individual may be demon-possessed not only from birth, but from conception. In the views of the Hammonds and of Banks, events such as conception in a spirit of lust, or the consideration of abortion by the mother or father, attract demonic entities who then “indwell” the developing child and can be expelled only through deliverance rituals. (Adopted children are especially likely to have these problems.)  Demon-possessed children may be ill-behaved and rebellious or rejecting to their parents, as well as showing learning disabilities or even physical disorders; these difficulties occur because of the demonic influences and cannot be cured except through deliverance.

The belief in demonic possession of infants and children has real dangers from the perspective of non-Pentecostals. Those committed to this world-view may avoid educational, psychological, even medical treatments that exclude demonic possession as an explanation of children’s problems. In addition, as I pointed out recently, there have been child deaths caused by deliverance rituals. The Hammonds and Banks, as well as other Pentecostal authors, assume that expulsion of demons is often accompanied by crying, screaming, and vomiting. These are all possible indications of harm being done, and if ignored may lead to greater harm or death.

 Nevertheless, the “child witch” accusations of Helen Ukpabio seem to be of a different order of magnitude than “ordinary” demon possession and deliverance beliefs. Although “witch children” may seem to overlap with the usual demon-possessed child in characteristics like stubbornness or lack of interest in school, “witch children” are also perceived as harmful to others, and even as plotting with other children and with malignant spirits to hurt people and property. The kind of harm they are thought to do may be as vague as “draining” health and happiness from adults, or  as specific as causing appliances and electronics to fail. In either case, these posited effects are common events with multiple causes, and are likely to occur from time to time in anyone’s life. If they have been blamed on a “child witch” and that child has been exorcized, it will be easy for adults to assume that further bad luck is due to the need for repeated and intensified ill-treatment of the child.

When I used to teach a course on history and systems of psychology, one theme of my course was that every religion contains within it a psychology, in the form of beliefs about the capabilities and obligations of human beings. For many people, their religious instruction or exposure is the only systematic study of psychology they will ever do--  although they may pick up various bits of information, from myths to factoids, in the course of their lives. Christian fundamentalists, including Pentecostals, use a psychology in which human beings are thought of as non-material entities temporarily inhabiting material bodies, and influenced by other non-material, supernatural entities of either a benevolent or a malevolent disposition. Although Christians reject the idea of reincarnation, they believe in the existence of individual entitities both before and after the life of the material body. These beliefs suggest that psychological events (learning, emotion, thought, affection) and related behavior are based on non-material causes and can be explained and manipulated by non-material methods. Those who share these perspectives would thus accept that demonic entities could affect both mental and physical health, and that treatment of such effects would involve getting rid of the demons. As demons or other supernatural entities are unconstrained by time or space, their effects or treatments need not resemble events in the natural world.

 Conventional psychology, on the other hand, like other modern science, assumes that psychological events emerge from events in the material body. Psychological functioning follows the laws of the natural world, so that, for example, events in the environment occurring before the development of the individual brain would not be remembered or responded to.  Neither could posited non-material events affect psychological functioning, whose basis is material phenomena that are part of the natural world.

Although Christian fundamentalists (Pentecostal or otherwise) do not necessarily accept the idea of “child witches”, their non-material psychology does offer potential support for this belief, and for the idea that tormenting such children could drive away harmful demonic entities.  Conventional psychology, which is generally accepted by atheists, agnostics, and adherents of the liberal churches, could not support these beliefs.

The contrast between these two positions is so great as to suggest a culture war, and indeed the Sahara TV interview between Chika Oduah and Godwin Umotong exemplified that contrast. It’s not a matter of Africa versus North America and Europe, but of two mutually-exclusive world-views. The rapid growth of the perspective represented by Umotong means that the clash between the two will need to be recognized in the near future. Leo Igwe’s researches in Ghana will help us understand whether the conflict can be resolved, or whether one belief system is going to prevail.


  1. There are bits of Ukpabio's "End of Wickedness" film online. This is so bizarre and crude.

  2. Formatting issue-- for a while now, the RSS feed has been hard to read. Posts look fine on the site, but for people who use an RSS reader, this is what it looks like:

    "I’ve been getting some interesting information onthe activities of Helen Ukpabio, the “child witch” exorcist I mentionedrecently, from Leo Igwe, until recently the International Humanist and EthicalUnion representative for Western and Southern Africa."

    I think you might be using Word to write the original post, and the run-together words are where Word put linebreaks?

  3. I am using Word, yes-- let's see if I can figure out what to do. Sorry--