Gallup today (25 August) issued a press release showing that in 18 countries in sub-Saharan Africa in 2009 belief in witchcraft averaged 55% of adults aged 15 and over, somewhat higher than the 37% recorded in a similar Pew Center survey in 2008-09. Gallup further discovered that believers in witchcraft rated their lives worse (evaluative wellbeing) than those who did not.

This has prompted BRIN to dig out what we know about the extent of belief in witchcraft in contemporary Britain. Three relatively recent surveys seem relevant in this regard.

The first was undertaken by Gallup UK between 26 August and 8 September 2005 among a telephone sample of 1,010 adults aged 18 and over. Of these, 13% claimed to believe in witches, the same as in Canada but less than in the United States (21%). Whereas women incline to hold to most religious and supernatural beliefs more than men (for example, 44% versus 29% believing in haunted houses in the same poll), the figures were absolutely identical for each sex for belief in witches.

An Ipsos MORI telephone survey for The Times between 5 and 7 October 2007, in which 1,005 adults were interviewed, recorded 13% belief in witches and wizards. Breaks by standard demographics did not reveal any significant differences, but belief was notably higher among those who described themselves as spiritual (21%) or superstitious (19%).

Another Ipsos MORI poll, on this occasion for the BBC, and carried out by telephone among 1,070 adults aged 16 and over between 3 and 6 January 2008, discovered 16% believing in witches and wizards. The figure was slightly higher for women (19%) and considerably more for those from an ethnic minority background (27%). 

These British results are, therefore, pretty consistent. Like many alternative beliefs, they are probably fairly loosely-held and will not impact much, if at all, on people’s everyday lives. However, a recent (26 July) Channel 4 Dispatches programme on Britain’s Witch Children has highlighted evidence of a more disturbing kind of belief in witchcraft among some evangelical African churches in the UK.

The last in a line of Witchcraft Acts was repealed in 1951, one of the final prosecutions under them being of Helen Duncan in 1944, whose story is told in Malcolm Gaskill’s Hellish Nell: Last of Britain’s Witches (Fourth Estate, 2001).

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