Christianity and Witchcraft?

How can professing believers justify practicing African Traditional Religion?

You’ve probably heard that each of us has a worldview, a set of basic beliefs that help us interpret the world we live in, the problems we face, and the choices we make. But what you may not realize is that many people have multiple worldviews. Many of us operate from multiple, contradictory worldviews simultaneously. None of us are purely logical worldview-thinkers and actors.

In my last article, I discussed the challenges of ministering where witchcraft remains prevalent, and I mentioned the fact that many professed Christians in Africa (and around the world) remain devoted to witchcraft even after professing Christ, which may be surprising to those of us from the West. In this article, I want to explore the phenomenon of this continued devotion to witchcraft further by asking the question, “How do professed believers justify continued devotion to witchcraft in their minds and hearts?”

The issue at hand is what people often call “syncretism” or the mixing of two or more religious systems. However, this term is quite inaccurate and can result in a lot of misunderstandings of what we actually witness when people groups adopt a new system of beliefs and practices.

While missiologists have discussed this issue at length, I think the simplest way to describe what we see for the average reader is to talk about three ways people assimilate new belief systems into their lives.1 I’ll label these three ways: (1) mixing, (2) replacing, and (3) co-existing.

1. Mixing

Mixing is what the word syncretism refers to. It is the combining of religious systems. In this mixture, elements from multiple religious systems get put in a pot and combined together into a new religious soup. Most often, genuine syncretism occurs among polytheistic people, because the polytheist has no objections to the mixing of religious systems.

If there are many gods, then there is no end to the number of gods that a person might worship. This isn’t problematic until polytheistic religions encounter exclusivist monotheistic religions. In the Old Testament, Yahweh makes very clear that the Israelites were to worship him alone and reject the idolatry of the Canaanite gods like Baal and Asherah. Of course, they didn’t listen, which basically summarizes the problem of the entire Old Testament. More recently, archaeologists have found inscriptions at Kuntillet ‘Ajrud and Khirbet el-Qom that refer to “Yahweh and his Asherah.” It seems clear that the Israelites had mixed the religion revealed at Sinai with Canaanite polytheism, identifying Yahweh with the Canaanite creator god El who was the husband of Asherah. The result was that Yahweh joined the pantheon of Canaanite gods.2

Missionaries today continue to encounter this phenomenon around the world. There are Hindus, for example, who worship Jesus. They don’t believe in Jesus as the only begotten Son of the one, true God. They have adopted him as a god alongside their millions of other gods.

Among those devoted to African Traditional Religion (or ATR, what I usually simply call witchcraft), Jesus is often seen through the lens of an ancestral spirit. In ATR, the creator god made the world and then abandoned it. He is inaccessible. The spirits of the ancestors, however, are nearby and can be appealed to for help and guidance through ceremonies and charms. If you think of The Lion King or Black Panther, you won’t be far off. Mufasa tells Simba, “Just remember that those kings of the past will always be there to guide you.”

What happens when Jesus is introduced to people thoroughly devoted to ATR?  In some cases, the people group has accepted Jesus as one of the ancestral spirits, and while they may even recognize him as the greatest of the ancestral spirits or the one closest to the creator, he remains an ancestral spirit like their own ancestors rather than God the Son, “begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father,” as the Nicene Creed declares.3 As you can see, in this case, people haven’t accepted the exclusive truth claims of Christianity, but instead they have taken parts of it and mixed it into their native worldview.

2. Replacing

Replacing is quite different from the mixing of syncretism. In this style, the new religious system intentionally or unintentionally accommodates itself to the old religious system in an attempt to replace important elements of the old system.

The classic example of this is Latin American Roman Catholicism. When the conquistadors took over the indigenous kingdoms of Central and South America, they forced the indigenous peoples to adopt Catholicism. The result was that the indigenous peoples began to superimpose Catholicism on their indigenous religion, replacing their gods and spirits with Catholic saints. In the Andes, this meant that the goddess Pachamama was simply replaced with a “Pachamama-ized” version of the Virgin Mary.

In Africa today, most versions of pentecostalism and prosperity gospel preaching follow this pattern. In ATR, the creator and the spirits are only accessible through a powerful miracle worker, the shaman or witch doctor, who communes with and appeases the ancestral spirits. Through this miracle worker, people can seek benefits focused on this world. The concern of ATR is not eternal salvation but survival and prosperity in this life or revenge against one’s enemies.

Pentecostalism is the perfect substitute for ATR because these churches focus on a powerful individual often called the “man of God” (although sometimes it is a woman of God). This powerful individual can prophesy, preach, and heal. He stands as the bridge between the spiritual world and the earthly world, and while many pentecostals will acknowledge the need to believe in Jesus to go to heaven, their primary focus is on this world. If you follow the powerful miracle worker (the self-titled prophet or apostle), then you will find the road to prosperity and success.

While many pentecostals will also fit with the co-existing system described below because they continue to practice elements of ATR, the point here is that the pentecostal churches themselves have accommodated to devotees of ATR by directly replacing elements of ATR with elements of their “Christian” system.

Many of us operate from multiple, contradictory worldviews simultaneously. None of us are purely logical worldview-thinkers and actors.

3. Co-existing

But neither of the above describe well what I most often encounter personally. I usually encounter people operating with two worldviews co-existing side-by-side, what can be described as operating from dual systems. Such people continue to be devoted to each of their worldviews for different reasons or for different purposes. They don’t mix the two. They are simply of two minds.

Of course, the very idea of holding to two contradictory systems simultaneously doesn’t make logical sense, but since when have you known human beings to live their lives according to the dictates of logic? We as human beings can live quite comfortably in the midst of contradiction.

A person who has co-existing worldviews may hold to orthodox Christian beliefs. For example, they may believe in the orthodox teaching about Jesus (to the degree that they’ve been taught it and understand it), and they may believe, at least intellectually, in the truth of the gospel. But, at the very same time, they will believe in the efficacy of the practices of witchcraft and its benefit for their lives.

To many who hold to dual systems, Christianity gives you the way to have peace with God and assurance of eternal life, but ATR gives you a way to deal with the problems you have in this life. People remain devoted to both systems for different purposes.

If a family member gets sick, for example, a dual system believer may begin by praying for the sick person and seeking medical treatment, but if the medical treatment doesn’t solve the problem and God doesn’t grant healing, then they will turn to witchcraft for a solution. Of course, they might even feel guilty for turning to witchcraft, but what else are they supposed to do? The situation is serious, and this is something they know has worked either for themselves or others in the past.

In the end, both systems remain intact, co-existing, and they both continue to be utilized for different purposes. If one doesn’t work, then there is always the other system to fall back on. Both are effectual for certain things at certain times, and what is important is not what is true or whether Christ is superior to the spirits. What is important is what works.

Check your eye

For those of us who come from cultures that have arisen from centuries of Christian influence, we can read the above descriptions with a certain level of self-assured pride. We might be tempted to think, “How could people be so unsophisticated or careless about their faith?”

We should remember the instructions of Jesus: “Hypocrite! First take the beam of wood out of your eye, and then you will see clearly to take the splinter out of your brother’s eye” (Matt 7:5). Some people wrongly believe Jesus means that we should never help the brother with his splinter. Rather, Jesus clearly says we should help our brother! He only reminds us to look to ourselves first before helping others.

In the West, our indigenous religion is materialism, the belief that only the material world exists. In materialism, the world is controlled by power, money, and expertise. Even as Christians, we struggle against our materialist instincts to one degree or another, and we tend to assimilate Christianity to materialism in one or all of the ways described above. 

We see the mixing of Christianity and materialism when we regard Jesus as an ancient sage with expertise for self-improvement, a Christian self-help guru. We follow the path of replacement when, going beyond voting for a candidate because we believe in his or her views or because they are pro-life, we actually seek political saviors who boast that they will use their power to “save Christianity.” We operate from co-existing worldviews every time we become anxious about our finances, forgetting that we should believe that God controls the universe rather than money.

If we reflect carefully on the ways that we in the West assimilate our opposing worldviews, then we will have a new capacity for mercy toward our brothers and sisters around the world, and if we can first see and then remove the beam in our own eye, then we will be able to lovingly help our brothers and sisters with the splinter in theirs.

  1. Roman Catholic missiologist Robert J. Schreiter gives a very helpful description of syncretism and dual religious systems in his work Constructing Local Theologies (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2015), but I think his explanation can be further simplified for the average person. I was alerted to Schreiter by reading Ian D. Dicks, An African Worldview: The Muslim Amacinga Yawo of Southern Malawi (Zomba: Kachere, 2012), who has an excellent discussion of what we see in Malawi. []
  2. See Ellen White, “What is an Asherah?” []
  3. Some so-called African theologians have have actually argued for this as an African Christology. For an overview and refutation of these Christologies, see Reuben Turbi Luka, Jesus Christ as Ancestor: A Theological Study of Major African Ancestor Christologies in Conversation with the Patristic Christologies of Tertullian and Athanasius (Carlisle: Langham, 2019). []
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Joshua Hutchens

Joshua Hutchens

Joshua Hutchens (PhD, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is a missionary to Malawi and president of Gospel Life. Before becoming president of Gospel Life, he served as a pastor in Kentucky. He is married to Stacy Leigh, and they have five children.

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