Do You Believe in Witches?

If a building were to collapse and crush a man, would you blame a witch?

In the early 20th century, the Azande people of what was then British-controlled Sudan believed that witches or sorcerers caused almost every misfortune in life. And they believed that almost every death — whether due apparently to a falling building, a rampaging elephant, or a simple disease — was in fact a murder by magic.

Indeed, they believed that a witch’s spite and jealousy could inflict bad luck, harm, and death on other people — without the witch needing to cast any spells or even be aware that he or she was a witch.

You and I might be tempted to sneer at such “primitive” superstition. Certainly, the Azande represented an extreme case. But beliefs along the same general line — that our misfortunes are somehow caused by the ill will of our jealous enemies — are still exceedingly common.

Hardly anyone thinks they can explain, predict, or control the rain by appealing to the jealousy of witches or the actions of spirits.

Consider the price at the pump. Whenever oil prices rise, progressive commentators decry the greed of capitalists or speculators.

Natural Causation, Human Design, and Spontaneous Order

All over the world, in every culture, from time immemorial, humans have looked for a human or humanlike will or meaning behind everything from falling buildings to rising gas prices.

But over the last few centuries, the natural sciences have made enormous strides in changing the way humans think about physical events.

Even though no one knows for certain today whether it will rain in New York a week from now, practically everyone believes that the precipitation (or lack thereof) will be caused in a mechanical sense by something impersonal: convection currents,…