A recent sensational interview with Colombia's Director of Police offers a lesson in the ease of superstition bleeding into state politics. Many in North America might easily balk at other cultural versions of the superstitious rhetoric normalized in our public debates, but there's a lesson here for us all.

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The man who sells newspapers in my barrio is an Evangelical Christian, and also a deeply angry person living in a lot of pain. He lost his wife to COVID-19, he spent the vast majority of his life barely making ends meet, and he attributes not killing himself to the knowledge that his god will send him to hell for eternity if he does.

We’ve had a few exhausting stand-offs over the last few months. I try to live in peace with my neighbors and be present with the needs of street folk, while he has acted as if it’s his role to “save” me, while also getting angry when he sees me supporting folks begging on the street. (He has no end of judgment for them, because these are the “before” parts of Evangelical conversion stories; there is no room for being present with “sinners” except to hurry them into reformation.) He often gets too close, corners me for too long, and otherwise leverages the fact that feminized people are strongly conditioned not to “make a scene”, to try to get his way.

There’s also the usual sexist component: he’s made it clear that, as a still somewhat young feminized person, I would be a good wife to “someone” if only I were religious. But even putting that nonsense aside, on a more fundamental level my existence is an affront to him simply because I do not treat his beliefs as universal truths. I’m perfectly fine with him believing as he pleases, and have emphatically told him as much, but my believing differently is untenable. Peaceful coexistence isn’t easy because my lack of belief in a god, heaven, hell, or things that go bump in the night is seen as a personal attack.

Sound familiar?

It might, to many secular folks in Anglo-Western cultures. But it helps sometimes to step outside the social contracts in which we live, and to see what adjacent versions of our “battles” look like elsewhere in the world. What do we share with people in vastly different cultural contexts? How much are today’s Western “culture wars” simply variants on a global theme?

Superstition as cultural norm

Colombia is a deeply religious country, where Catholicism reigns and the mountains run thick with superstitions interweaving Indigenous and African lore with Christian scripture. In consequence, although this newspaper-seller is exhausting at times, he’s also not without reason to be shocked by someone like me.

When I first came to Colombia, I made the mistake of laughing, while in the cowboy-rural plains of Montería, at a grandmother complaining that she hadn’t slept well because a witch had visited her in the night. The family I was staying with had looked at me with horror and confusion. And I was confused right back at them: wait, that hadn’t been a joke? That’s when I was told what was common knowledge among many devout Christians here: that witches exist, and that they fly through windows in the night, sit on people’s chests, and steal their breath.

Demons exist, too, of course, and other duendes, or mythic mischief makers.

Why wouldn’t they?

Does the Bible not expressly name the existence of demons and witches? Does it not warn against their presence and nefarious influence? Does Christ himself not converse with Satan when tempted in the wilderness, and does he not agree to the request of the demon Legion, to be cast into a herd of pigs?

When I translated the short stories of regional writer Tomás Carrasquilla, which were written at the turn of the 20th century, I was struck by one piece in particular, “Simon the Sorcerer”. This tale explores a child in a Spaniard-descended household struggling with what his Afro-Colombian, past-slave nanny tells him about witchcraft. The conclusion of the piece is as uneasy as the peace complexly kept by Catholics in many global traditions: yes, one has to believe in witches and demonic influences, because they’re right there in the Bible. But one also has to avoid becoming too fixated on their existence, because down that road lies idolatry and ruin.

It’s a complicated tension, but easier to study outside one’s original cultural context.

Was there no witchlore in Canada? No fear of immediate demonic influence?

Of course there was. I’d grown up hearing about the Satanic Panic of the ’80s in North America, when hyperactive imaginations led some mothers to make wild, life-ruining accusations about supposed rings of Satanic sex rings and blood rituals in local daycare and youth centers. When my family went on road trips to the Maritimes (a more religiously conservative neck of the Canadian woods), we encountered large Catholic families who considered Harry Potter to be the work of the Devil. When I was in high school, my closest Catholic friend told me about the much more extreme form of Catholicism her cousins practised, which involved training all their daughters for wifely roles free from the demonic temptations of modern life.

Now, too, a great deal of Christofascist rhetoric in the US is trading on the idea that certain forms of human expression are inherently demonic. And yet, many who credulously believe the North American variants of such religious superstitions would likely balk at other cultures’ versions of the same.

Yes, perhaps North Americans would resonate with some local tales, like the tragic case of six-year-old Maximiliano Tabares, who last fall was murdered by family members in a cultish belief that his sacrifice would help them find treasure in the mountains. (I wrote about similar “money rituals” in West Africa last year.) Or all the local stories about holy water with healing properties, and Catholic priests with special powers to similar effect.

But witches flying in the night to steal your breath while you sleep?

Obviously that’s a step too far, no? How “primitive” must a culture be, to continue to believe in such myths and legends?

Well, it’s a matter of perspective

Two weeks ago, the man who sells Q’hubo (Colombia’s version of The Sun or Daily Mail, yellow journalism hyping every violent death, sex crime, and similarly lurid bit of local gossip) stopped by the coffee vendor where I was taking a tinto on my morning walk. As much as everyone present tried to keep the conversation neutral, he leapt quickly into trying yet again to convince me of the existence of witches. This time, he had a fresh story he was sure would be a winner, about a massive cockroach that had shown up in his apartment, which he’d stabbed in the back. The next day, he told me, he saw his old neighbor in the hallway, favoring her spine in pain. The connection, to him, was obvious: clearly she was a witch, and she had visited him in the form of a cockroach the day before, to cause him distress.

On its own, in North America, we might chalk such a story up to an individual with schizoaffective disorder or similar, but here the tricky part happened after this fellow had left, disappointed that I still didn’t believe him. The others in attendance, after all, were also good god-fearing Colombians who believed in witches and demons. They just did so in a slightly more acceptable, “modernized” way. So they were struggling now with the obvious mean-spirited paranoia of this man’s conclusion about his neighbor, but they also couldn’t bring themselves to say outright that some people didn’t change into animals to terrorize others. Hadn’t everyone heard a story like this in their youth, in their home village, at some point?

Their notion of “brujería” (witchcraft) was a background fact of their Christian faith, tacitly accepted without deeper reflection because it’s Biblical. The details of this belief set just got fuzzy and confusing whenever specific examples compelled them to hold this body of myth against contemporary, status quo knowledge about the material world and human capacities within it.

To make matters more complicated, mainstream publications also lend credibility to sensational superstitions. Monday’s Q’hubo offered a perfect example of this phenomenon, in describing the views of the director of Colombia’s police, General Henry Sanabria, perhaps the most ultra-Catholic leader ever to hold this office.

Screencap of the full page of General Sanabria’s deeply religious views around crime and criminals, as reported in Q’hubo, the self-proclaimed “most read newspaper in the country”.

I won’t translate the whole page, but there are quite a few choice components that matter not just because of their contents, but also because of the credulity of this publication’s massive readership. The headline reads “Exorcisms to catch criminals”, and in the upper right, the article starts as follows:

Virgins and crucifixes you’ll find by looking to any corner of the office of the Director of the Police, General Henry Sanabria. His strong belief in the Catholic faith was well known from the moment that President Gustavo Petro designated him for the highest post in this institution.

In an interview with Revista Semana, he spoke of recent security matters, but also strayed into the personal to speak of the divine even unto mysticism: exorcisms to halt the evil that exists in the streets. Below are parts of the interview that sparked controversy this weekend.

The first speech bubble, attributed to the general, then translates as follows:

The existence of the Devil is certain. I have seen him, I have sensed him… In the latest protests, [where] some 2,000 to 3,000 were in the front lines, there were ten [demons]. I took out my crucifix and put it on because behind every violent action there is the presence of evil. They picked up everything and left. The police looked at me. They did not dare ask me what had happened. Over the radio others told us, “They’ve caught us.” I arrived at the scene and raised my crucifix because I have an enormous faith. My faith is very large.

In the yellow box to the upper left, you also have a definitive number listed, leaping out at readers: 12,000. That’s apparently the number of police officers who have HIV, according to General Sanabria: the most cases of any public force (due, it’s implied elsewhere, to the proliferation of HIV in the LGBTIQ+ community).

And in the bottom right-hand corner, you have President Petro’s response:

This debate has to be viewed in two lights. First, there are the religious beliefs of [Sanabria] or anyone, which must be respected. In our country there is freedom of religion and we have said that we would never persecute anyone for their beliefs. The other is the separation that we must have between the functioning of the State and these beliefs, [and how] belief must not disrupt the constitutional goings-on of any public office. We are conscious of belief in general, but what we strive for is that these beliefs do not affect our norms. I believe that he has been respectful.

The whole of this interview was of course developed in other national papers this past weekend, but its presentation in the widely read Q’hubo, where so much of the general’s comments were taken at face value and even given authoritative placement on the page (e.g., how exactly the Director of Police has access to 12,000 personal medical files is never explored), offers a strong parallel to similarly sensational coverage in English-speaking cultures. Wild recent declarations, in particular, of the queer community and Satanic political conspiracies mounting an all-out demonic assault on (white) Western Christianity.

Granted, our versions of these wild conspiracies tend to fly through Twitter and other social media in the night, rather than sit heavy upon the hearts of informal laborers in Colombia through Q’hubo, WhatsApp groups, and regional talk radio.

But the overall impact is similar, and the greater danger might even be our own, in Western cultures where more of us can rest on the laurels of so-called technological advancement. Surrounded by myths of cultural superiority, it’s easy to presume ourselves less susceptible to the rhetoric of superstitious beliefs.

It helps sometimes to step outside the social contracts in which we live, and to see what adjacent versions of our “battles” look like elsewhere in the world. What do we share with people in vastly different cultural contexts?

Yes, ostensibly North Americans live in “more developed” countries.

But does that generalized claim mean all citizens are inoculated against our baseline humanity? Are we not all still human, and as such all worked upon by cultural cues?

I don’t believe in demons or witches that fly in the night. There is no Heaven or Hell in my cosmology, and no greater consciousness in the cosmos, divine or otherwise.

But long after I laughed at what I first thought was a grandmother’s joke about local witchlore, my life in Colombia, and the juxtaposition it daily provides with respect to North American Christian superstitions, continues to leave me wondering about the givens in my philosophies, too.

Yes, the General Sanabrias of this world, and the readers and news-purveyors who accept their religiously informed superstitions as holding at least a kernel of truth, give me pause as a humanist. The actions that stem from their beliefs are often antithetical to what I consider to be better approaches to improving human agency, and that poses a huge challenge in the secular-political realm.

However, to those who believe in such things, the beliefs themselves are so self-evidently true that many cannot even begin to imagine a world without them.

I wonder, then, how much remains to be unpacked in my own cultural givens.

Where are the “self-evident” truths still lurking in my own point of view?

And how far afield might I still have to go, if I’m ever to “exorcise” them, too?

GLOBAL HUMANIST SHOPTALK M L Clark is a Canadian writer by birth, now based in Medellín, Colombia, who publishes speculative fiction and humanist essays with a focus on imagining a more just world.