Ghastly consequence of belief in the supernatural

Two people in England have been convicted of the murder of a teenage relative whom they believed to be using witchcraft, and who drowned in a bath during a forced exorcism. The story of the boy’s final hours was so ghastly that the judge felt that the jury had endured enough to last them a lifetime and excused them from jury duty for the rest of their lives.

Before we dismiss these people as being some kind of weird cultists, let’s remember that belief in witchcraft is no more bizarre than belief in an immortal soul or ghosts or evil spirits or the devil, and that the Roman Catholic church still has an official exorcist who claims to have carried out 50,000 exorcisms.

As Voltaire said, “As long as people believe in absurdities they will continue to commit atrocities.”


  1. says

    I thought Voltaire said, “People who can get you to believe absurdities can get you to commit atrocities.” Am I wrong or did he say both of these at some point?

  2. Mano Singham says

    I have seen both versions and I think they come from different translations from the original French.

  3. AsqJames says

    While this type of incident is unusual and this particular case extreme and horrific, we should be aware that it is by no means unique.

    This 2005 article from the Churches’ Child Protection Advisory Service says “Project Violet, set up by the police to investigate ritual crimes has investigated 31 cases since 2000, only 5 of which have gone to Court.”

    Two things:

    1) This type of abuse is common enough for the Metropolitan Police to have a specific team dedicated to investigating it (elsewhere the Met themselves describe Project Violet as “the Met’s response to belief-based child abuse”).

    2) 31 investigations in less than 5 years is more than 1 every 2 months in London alone. That “only” 5 went to court says nothing about the other 26. Nor do we know how many cases the police never hear about.

    OK, a third thing: “only 5“? An organisation calling itself the Churches’ Child Protection Advisory Service is downplaying any level of criminal child abuse caused by faith? Hey, it’s only 1 belief-based child abuse prosecution a year. Nothing to get too worked up about then, right? Be sure and tell me what frequency you’d consider represents a problem won’t you.

  4. Dunc says

    During the discussion segment on this issue on last night’s Newsnight, they had three guests (a bishop, a priest, and another whose precise expertise I forget) who all agreed that it’s really very difficult to determine whether somebody really is possessed by evil spirits or not. It would have been hilarious in a different context…

    Somebody should produce a flow-chart for this sort of thing…

    Flow-chart for determining whether somebody is possessed by evil spirits:

    Start -> No, they are not possessed by evil spirits

  5. Hercules Grytpype-Thynne says

    There may not be a single “original French” version of the saying. Do a French-language Google for “Voltaire absurdite” and you’ll find both

    Tant que les gens croirent aux absurdités, ils continueront à commettre des atrocités [Mano’s version]


    Ceux qui pouvent vous faire croire à des absurdités peuvent vous faire commettre des atrocités [Ryan’s version]

    It’s not clear which, if either, version is correct, since this appears to be one of these quotes whose exact source is never cited.

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