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"Graciously bestow upon all men felicity, the summit of which is the knowledge of the Gods." [Julian, Oration to the Mother of the Gods]

Category Archives: African Traditional Religion

Catholic “Liberal” Paul Begala’s Vicious, Racist Slurs Against African Religions

“We (therefore) weighing all and singular the premises with due meditation, and noting that since we had formerly by other letters of ours granted among other things free and ample faculty to the aforesaid King Alfonso — to invade, search out, capture, vanquish, and subdue all Saracens and pagans whatsoever, and other enemies of Christ where so ever placed, and the kingdoms, dukedoms, principalities, dominions, possessions, and all movable and immovable goods whatsoever held and possessed by them and to reduce their persons to perpetual slavery.”
[The Bull Romanus Pontifex (Nicholas V), January 8, 1455. Full text here.]

For over five centuries, African slaves and their descendants have struggled to keep their religious traditions alive in the “New World”. They have prevailed in the face of unrelenting, and often murderously violent, efforts by their good Christian masters to “convert” them to the religion under whose aegis they were enslaved in the first place. The survival, against all odds, of vibrant religious traditions such as Santeria, Vodou, Candomble, and Palo, should be celebrated as an astonishing, almost inconceivable, achievement, and as a simultaneously humbling and inspiring monument to the indomitable spirit of these daughters and sons of Africa.

Sadly, however, instead of being respected and admired, the millions of 21st century adherents of African-Diaspora religions continue to face ignorance and derision from “mainstream” (that, is Christian) society. A case in point was the ugly, bigoted outburst by Catholic “liberal” talking head Paul Begala last Friday night (July 15) on CNN’s “Anderson Cooper 360” show.

Begala wanted to express his (justified) disgust for the idea that homosexuality is a disease, an idea apparently embraced by Michelle Bachmann’s husband, Marcus, who works as a “Christian counsellor” at a clinic that claims to be able to “cure” homosexuals and turn them into “healthy” heterosexuals. Here is how Begals chose to articulate his disdain for Marcus Bachmann’s homophobia:

“Well, his position seems to be, I will practice a crackpot theory if people ask me to practice a crackpot theory. What if somebody comes in and says, will you try Santeria or voodoo or astrology or any number of other crackpot theories? Would he adopt them?

“And that’s what this is. The notion that — first of all, they call it reparative, like your sexual identity is like a muffler or something. You have got to take it in the shop and repair it. It’s a crackpot theory and it’s bigotry.

[“Michele Bachmann Under Fire”, CNN transcript here]

Begala is a Catholic, the religion that gave us the Inquisition back in the Middle Ages, but that today is more well-known for harboring, and otherwise aiding and abetting, an international network of serial child rapists. And it was the Catholic Church that provided the religious justification for the African slave trade, which was seen as just another way of spreading their bigoted, crackpot “gospel”.

Witchcraft: Black and White in Color

“The logical conclusion of the idea of the demonic pact was the abolition of the traditional distinction between black and white magic. The power of the witch sprang from the demonic pact and was therefore evil, whether it was used for healing or harming.”

1. The Witch Hunts and the Christianization of the European Peasantry
For those unfamiliar with Christina Larner, the following is from the Forward (available here online) to Larner’s book Witchcraft and Religion, a posthumous collection of her writings published in 1984 (the Forward is by Alan Macfarlane):

At the time of her tragic death at the age of 49 in April 1983, Christina (Kirsty) Larner had already established her scholarly reputation in a number of ways. She was the foremost expert on the history of witchcraft in Scotland. She was thought to be one of the most important social historians of Scotland. Her work was one of the most interesting examples in the cross-disciplinary field of historical sociology. Finally, she had contributed significantly to legal history and archival history through her study of Scottish records and court processes. All this had been established on the basis of one book, Enemies of God, The Witch-hunt in Scotland, published in 1981, a duplicated Source-Book of Scottish Witchcraft compiled with Christopher Lee and Hugh McLachlan (Glasgow, 1977) a number of articles, unpublished lectures and an unpublished doctoral thesis ….

One of the striking features of Dr Larner’s work is a sceptical attitude towards simple and universal explanations. Yet, in the last chapter of Enemies of God, tentative suggestions are made concerning the necessary, if not sufficient, causes of the witch-hunt. The preconditions are a peasant economy, a witch-believing peasantry, and an active belief in the Devil among the educated. Four more proximate causes explain the specific timing of witch- hunts. First, was a judicial revolution, consisting of a shift from restorative justice’ (where the case is brought by the injured) to retributive Justice’ (where it is brought by the state), applying general and abstract standards. Second, there was the rapid development of printing and literacy. Third, what is termed the ‘Christianization of the peasantry’, that is to say the move from a largely animistic and ritual world to one where personal salvation and Christian belief became predominant. Finally, there was the rise of the Christian nation state. The witch-hunts coincided exactly with the period of the Godly state, when Christianity became the official ideology of the new-born nation state. The fruitful ideas hinted at towards the end of Enemies of God became central themes in the Gifford lectures which constitute the second half of this volume. Although these factors do not work particularly well in explaining English witchcraft prosecutions, they throw a great deal of light on the horrendous mass witch-hunts on the Continent.

Below is an excerpt from Christina Larner’s essay James VI and I and Witchcraft, which makes up the first chapter in Witchcraft and Religion:

In primitive societies two types of witchcraft are identified: white witchcraft or the craft of healing, and black witchcraft or maleficium. This distinction was known to Roman law, and dominated all dealings with witchcraft accusations in Europe until the late fifteenth century. It is also common ground in most studies of contemporary primitive societies. Historians of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries however have to add a third witchcraft which existed only from the fifteenth to the early eighteenth century and which has no contemporary equivalent. It differed from the simple concepts of black and white witchcraft in its origins. Far from being an experience of village life, it was evolved by churchmen and lawyers from Christian theology, canon law, and certain philosophical ideas. It differed also in content. Christian witch theorists gave a central position to the idea of the demonic pact. The witch became a witch by virtue of a personal arrangement with the Devil who appeared to his potential recruit in some physical form. At this meeting, in return for renunciation of baptism, services on earth and the soul of the witch at death, the Devil promised material advantages and magical powers. In addition, an integral part of the Christian witch theory was that the witch did not operate alone. Witchcraft involved midnight meetings to worship the Devil, to receive his orders and to have sexual intercourse with him or his subordinate spirits.

The development of this theory in Europe, and its application in witchcraft trials, had a drastic effect on the rate of prosecutions. The change from the isolated local harrying of individuals to a widespread crusade against witchcraft, to a recognisable mania and persecution, began fairly abruptly in northern Italy and southern Germany in the late fifteenth century, and spread widely through the Continent during the following century. There are three main reasons why the introduction of the Christian witch theory had such a catastrophic effect. The firstis that it was developed by the ruling classes. If we except the traditional vulnerability of rulers to soothsayers and astrologers, there had previously been a fairly sharp contrast between village credulity and intellectual scepticism. Now the power of the local witch was heavily reinforced by the conviction of the authorities that her power was real and to be feared. At the same time, the capacity to punish her was intensified by the codification of the laws against witchcraft, both in canon law and later in the statute law of Protestant countries. The other reasons are connected with the theory itself. The logical conclusion of the idea of the demonic pact was the abolition of the traditional distinction between black and white magic. The power of the witch sprang from the demonic pact and was therefore evil, whether it was used for healing or harming. This meant that the village healer was as likely to be prosecuted as the local scold.
[pp. 3-4]

2. Christianization and the literal demonization of African Traditional Religions

In Africa, the traditional attitude toward magic has survived to this day. Like any other natural force, “spiritual power” (every African language has its own highly developed vocabulary for religion and magic) can be beneficial or harmful, and those who know how to work with such power can be responsible for wealth and progress or for disease and death. Richard Dowden has this to say on the subject of this “sense of spiritual power” in his Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles:

In Africa, every event has a spiritual cause or actor. Success in exams or football games, and disasters such as disease or death, all have agents, human or divine. There is no such thing as chance. Wealth and progress are obtained with the help of spirits or magic medicine. A Big Man has power, and that power cannot be challenged or questioned because behind his wealth or position lies spiritual power that enables him to accrue wealth and an important job. That sense of spiritual power is common to almost all Africa.
[p. 30]

While the naturalistic view of magic has persisted into the 21st century, it must now coexist uneasily with a new attitude that has been aggressively promoted by Christian missionaries starting in the 19th century. Richard Dowden has quite a bit to say on that subject:

Traditional African religions were denigrated by the European Christian missionaries and imperial rulers who frequently saw them as devil worship and tried to stamp them out. In West and Central Africa and in South Africa these religions or their offspring sects are strong and open, but in East Africa they are hidden, not spoken of in public . . . .

While Christianity teaches that only humans have souls, African religions hold that all objects, animate or inanimate, can be moved by spirits. Africa senses spirits in animals, trees and rocks as well as in people. So the river and the spirit of the river are one and the same. The spirit allows the substance to change, the person to become something else . . . .

Steve Biko, the South African writer and activist, wrote that religion in Africa was not a specialized function observed only on one day a week in a special building, but ‘it featured in our wars, our beer drinking, our dances and customs in general’. That is something the Western world has lost . . . .

Given the prevalence of traditional religion, it is strange that so few prominent Africans identify with it in public. How different from Japan where Shintoism — in many ways similar to aspects of African religions — is widely practiced. In Japan respect for the ancestors is expressed by millions of Japanese visitors to ancient temples to salute the ancestors. Many Japanese proudly display in their homes the souvenirs of the holy shrines they have visited. … In Africa traditional religion may be central to beliefs but its leaders and rituals still remain in the background . . . .

One reason that African traditional religion and beliefs are hidden is that in many parts they are still associated with evil.Today hardly a week goes by without some report from Africa about witchcraft or the killing of witches. Africa’s local press is full of them, the details reported as factually as a politician’s speech or the football scores.
[pp. 312-318]

For more on Dowden’s book, here are three reviews:

The attitude of Christian missionaries to African culture has been, and continues to be to this day, little, if any, different from that expressed by Duarte Pacheco Pereira, a late fifteenth-century Portuguese explorer, who said of the Kingdom of Benin: “The way of life of these people is full of abuses and witchcraft and idolatry.” (D.A. Low, “Converts and Martyrs in Buganda”, in C.G. Baeta, ed., Christianity in Tropical Africa, p. 257)

Elizabeth Isichei, in her A History of Christianity in Africa, describes the view toward traditional African culture by late 19th century missionaries like this: “There was a natural tendency for those writing in missionary periodicals to stress the darker side of African society . . . . Some, both Catholic and Protestant, described African society as demonic.” [p. 82]

Isichei provides two quotes from the writings of missionaries as examples:

(1) “May many come willingly to labour in pulling down the strongholds of Satan’s kingdom, for the whole of the Ibo district is his citadel.”

(2) “All those who go to Africa as missionaries must be thoroughly penetrated with the thought that the Dark Continent is a cursed land, almost entirely in the power of the devil.”

Isichei also remarks on how the missionary attitudes toward African culture included even condemnation of the practice of building round houses instead of proper, Christian rectangular houses!

In a word, conquest and conversion taught Africans to systematically despise and reject every aspect of their own cultures. Not just their evil religion, whose priests were “sorcerers” and whose wise-women were “witches”, but their clothes, their food, their languages, their architecture, and so forth. They were also taught to hate their own leaders and elders, unless these were appropriately compliant both to the colonial authorities and to the church.

The unrestrained contempt of Europeans for African culture held steady, or even increased, throughout the years of colonialism. Isichei cites the 1949 case of “an exemplary Nigerian priest” (as he was described by the Irish bishop who wrote his letter of recommendation, in vain, as it turned out) who sought admission to a Cistercian monastery, but was refused not due to any personal fault or failing, but simply because no “coloured men” were allowed. [p. 87]

3. Summary and Conclusions

The word “Witch” has always been ambiguous, in that the range of its meanings has always included both (1) “wise women”, “cunning folk”, healers, soothsayers, and other practitioners of beneficial magic, and (2) those who are capable of and willing to use magic to cause harm to others.

To speak as plainly and as clearly as possible, if anyone claims that “Witch” has historically been synonymous with malefica, “evil-doer”, then the person making such a claim is either:
(1) woefully ignorant of the most basic facts well-known to every historian who has studied Witchcraft and Witch Trials in European history, or
(2) lying.

In the specific case of a professional historian who equates ‘Witch” with malefica (especially if said historian claims expertise in the subject of European Witchcraft and Witch Hunting) then this can only be seen as an act of scholarly malpractice, or of intellectual depravity, or, most likely, both.

And what is true of English is also true of other European languages, so that what has already been said about the word “Witch” can also be said about “Hexe”, “Strega”, “Sorcière”, “Bruja”, “Bruxa”, “Heks”, etc.

In non-European, or, more to the point, non-Christian cultures the same ambiguity is found. For example, those who are labeled as “Witches” by Christians in Africa may or may not be involved in harmful magical workings. They could just as easily be healers or fortune tellers as perpetrators of maleficia. In fact, those accused by Christians of practicing Witchcraft can, and often are, the very people who are sought out for magical protection against curses.

Today there are still some who try to equate Witchcraft with “attempting to harm others by magical means”, as Ronald Hutton has done and continues to do. All those who do so not only carry on a truly malevolent tradition based firmly in the ideology of the Christian Witch-Hunters of the past, but they also ally themselves with those today in Africa, Latin America and elsewhere who are actively engaged in that most virulent form of cultural genocide known as “Christianization.”

>"Travesty In Haiti": The truth about Christian missions, food aid, etc

>When being interviewed by Southern Baptist pastor Marty Duren (links below), Timothy T. Schwartz, author of Travesty in Haiti: A true account of Christian missions, orphanages, food aid, fraud and drug trafficking, was asked:

“What percentage of the orphanages in Haiti are being run legitimately?”

His answer? “I suspect none.”

Haitian human rights lawyer and activist Marguerite Laurent (link below) called Travesty in Haiti “the best book that’s been written by a foreigner on Haiti since forever.”

  • Review by Ezili Dantò “Ezili Dantò (colonially named ‘Marguerite Laurent‘) is a Haitian woman as inspired, guided, and directed by the strength, legacy and visions of the Haitian warrior goddess, Ezili Dantò.” [from her website bio]
  • Review by Marty Duren Marty Duren is Southern Baptist pastor who describes himself as “a bedrock theological conservative”.

  • Excerpt from Ezili Dantò’s review:

“Schwartz has rendered a service here not because there’s authentic value in being a foreigner’s FIELDWORK. For the sum of the parts do not equal the whole and being someone’s fieldwork is in itself a condescension. But Schwartz’s book reports on his own tribe’s corruption in Haiti and that, indeed, is of value to Haitians.

“The book is a must read for anyone interested in hearing the truth about Haiti. Schwartz’s contribution is a guidepost to those working for charities, working in the development and foreign aid industries who accept corruption and mediocrity because it’s part of the status quo, “it’s a job.” It’s laughably idealistic to wish for accountability, honesty, grace and dignity from the folks at USAID, World Bank, the Christian missions and those “doing good” in Haiti for more than a-half century now, but if just a few people, if one person working in the human rights field who read this book began to re-evaluate and nixed the profit-over-people trend of these failed-State-making-organizations, the world, humanity would breathe that much easier …. the best book that’s been written by a foreigner on Haiti since forever.”

  • Excerpt from Marty Duren’s interview with Timothy T. Schwartz:

“It is not about developing Haiti. It is about developing US business interests; which is fine. Haitians don’t vote for US politicians. But the problem–and this is the point that I hope I make most forcefully in the book–concerns the organizations that claim they are working for the poorest of poor; it’s simply not true. They are working for the US, French, German, and Canadian special interests. And they all know this.

“These organizations are staffed by an almost uniformly good bunch of people. People who set out to help, who wanted to change the world, alleviate poverty, but they got caught up in the industry of aid and those dreams get swept away and replaced by hope for a salary raise, a pension plan, a promotion, better working conditions. This is where the biggest frustration comes in for me.

“Back in the US there is a whole different set of good people who are sending in donations and voting for these organizations, cheering them on. They are doing this because they think the money is going to help the poor and hungry and illiterate overseas. They aren’t donating money so that it can pay some other American or German a middle to upper class salary and pension plan or so the director of CARE can send his children to a $25,000 per year private school. They are giving that money to help the poor in other countries…and it just ain’t happening.

“These other good people, the NGO employees who are the recipients of most the aid, seem powerless to change things and then, as time and their careers progress, less and less disposed to try to change it.

“Yeah, that’s frustrating. But US policy, ideally, should focus on helping other countries develop. I can understand why it doesn’t since politics is politics and corporate interests tend to be first.

“My beef is with the civil/NGO sector. They are the ones we finance to defend and help the poor. They need to be held accountable. They need to do what they say they are going to do.”

>Interview with a Vodou Priestess (Mambo Rachel Beauvoir-Dominique)

>Rachel Beauvoir-Dominique earned a Ph.D in social anthropology at Oxford University. She is vice-Provost to research and chair of the Department of Anthropology and Sociology at l’Université d’Etat d’Haïti. She is a respected Mambo (Priestess) in the Haitian Vodou religion, and she is the daughter of Houngan (Vodou Priest) Max Beauvoir.

This interview was conducted in September of 2009 during an exhibition on Vodou at the Museum of World Culture in Gothenburg, Sweden.

Also check out this other interview with Sara Rénélik, Labelle Deesse Jr., and Labelle Deesse Sr.

>"We had no choice." Strategic syncretism in the face of Christianization.

>Below is a great interview [well, aside from some moronic blather from the interviewers] with Sara Rénélik, Labelle Deesse Jr., and Labelle Deesse Sr. They are all active in the Haitian Vodou community in Monteal. The interview was conducted in 2008 by CTV.

In the interview there is reference made to a film festival that had just taken place in Montreal. Here is a link to more information about that: Voodoo: Montreal Haitian Film Festival (2008). There is also reference to an art exhibit, and here is a link to that: Voodoo: Art, Mystery or Religion?

The reason I’m posting this video is because of the very frank explanation of why Christian elements have been incorporated, at least superficially, in Haitian Vodou, given by Labelle Deesse, Jr.

[0:20] Announcer: “Some consider Vodou to be an actual religion, but others call it witchcraft. Debra Arbec investigates.”

Debra Arbec: “To the uninitiated, images like these represent darkness, witchcraft, blasphemy. But for those who practice Haitian Vodou that’s the hollywood version …. [2:10] As a French colony, Catholicism was forced onto African slaves in Haiti.”

Mambo Labelle Deesse, Jr.: “We had no choice to combine the Catholics with our own culture, so we don’t get killed.”

>US Gov’t Funding Cultural Genocide in Haiti


Cultural genocide extends beyond attacks upon the physical and/or biological elements of a group and seeks to eliminate its wider institutions. This is done in a variety of ways, and often includes the abolition of a group’s language, restrictions upon its traditional practices and ways, the destruction of religious institutions and objects, the persecution of clergy members, and attacks on academics and intellectuals. Elements of cultural genocide are manifested when artistic, literary, and cultural activities are restricted or outlawed and when national treasures, libraries, archives, museums, artifacts, and art galleries are destroyed or confiscated.”

[David Nersessian, Rethinking Cultural Genocide Under International Law]

Abe Sauer has written an explosive expose on the predatory activities of Christian missionaries in Haiti since last year’s devastating earthquake: Our Government-Funded Mission to Make Haiti Christian: Your Tax Dollars, Billy Graham’s Son, Monsanto and Sarah Palin.

Most explosive of all is the fact that these missionaries are directly funded by the United States government!

These missionaries are hell-bent on nothing short of a sweeping cultural genocide in Haiti. Vodou is practiced by as much as 80% of Haiti’s population, and represents a direct continuation of the religious traditions that the ancestors of Haitians brought with them from Africa centuries ago. US based, and US funded, Christian missionaries wish to completely eradicate this religious tradition, which lies at the very heart of Haitian society.

In addition to Sauer’s excellent piece, also check out these:

ALSO: “Exporting Faith”, a Boston Globe four part series:
(some background on how we got to this point)
Part 1: Bush Brings Faith to Foreign Aid
Part 2: Religious right wields clout
Part 3: Together, but worlds apart
Part 4: Healing the body to reach the soul

Finally, having cursed the darkness, let us light a candle or two:

Hat tip to Jason at the Wild Hunt!

>A Witch Burning in Ghana: How the role of Christianity has been obscured (Part One)

>In November of last year, Ama Ahima, a 72 year old Ghanaian woman, was brutally murdered by a mob who accused her of being a witch. After holding her captive and abusing her violently for hours, they doused her in kerosene and set her on fire.

Although there are some conflicting accounts, the main facts of the case are not in dispute. It is important to emphasize that the following have been agreed to by the accused themselves (a number of sources are listed at the bottom of this post):

  1. On November 20 Pastor Samuel Fletcher Sagoe accused Ama Ahima of being a witch.
  2. Sagoe gathered together a group of six people (including other members of his family) to “deliver” Ahima, that is to conduct an exorcism. Alternatively, this has been described as an effort to forcibly make Ahima “confess” through torture.
  3. The exorcism (and/or attempt to extract a confession) proceeded for several hours, until Ahima was doused in kerosene and set on fire.
  4. At this point a neighbor intervened and Ahima was taken to the hospital, where she died the following day.

Amazingly, an concerted effort has been made to obscure the role of Christianity in Ahima’s murder. Even more amazing is the fact that this has not only been largely successful, but at the same time many people have been convinced that African Traditional Religion, not Christianity, is to blame!

At first glance, this might seem to be an impossible attempt at full-bore Orwellian propaganda. After all, the accusation that Ahima was a witch was made by a Christian Pastor. The subsequent attempt to exorcise Ahima and/or force her to confess is in line with longstanding Christian traditional practice. Ahima’s execution by burning is also part of Christian tradition with respect to the punishment of witches, heretics and others accused of being in league with Satan.

But there is, already in-place and ready to go at a moment’s notice, a highly successful formula for damage control in situations like this.

  1. First and foremost it is insisted loudly and repeatedly that this kind of horrific violence is the sad result of the inherent ignorance and irrationality of Africans themselves.
  2. Then the role of Christianity is explained away by insisting that real Christians would never do anything like this, therefore what was at work was not real Christianity, but rather Christianity tainted by African ignorance and superstition.
  3. If further obfuscation is required it is then implied broadly, or, if necessary, explicitly asserted, that the Christians involved were “Pentecostalists” or “Evangelicals” and, therefore, not representative of modern, enlightened, well-behaved, “mainstream” Christianity.

These days, of course, it is not fashionable to present Christian apologetics openly and plainly. But that is just as well, since the whole purpose of this line of “reasoning” is precisely to obscure the role of Christianity in the first place.

Therefore the whole presentation, while primarily constructed out of the above three elements, is embedded within a master narrative whose theme is not the spreading of the Christian gospel to the Heathen, but rather the noble upliftment of ignorant savages out of their native state of mental enthrallment, in which their their poor deluded psyches are darkened by magical thinking, up, up to the bright new day of Modern Western Reason.

When properly “spun” like this, a glaring example of Christian mob violence, such as the murder of Ama Ahima, is turned into evidence that Africans are in need of more missionaries, more NGO’s, more “aid”, etc, and that this will be the caes until such a time, if ever such a time should come, that Africans are finally capable of thinking properly for themselves.

to be continued ….

Here are some of the media sources concerning this incident:

>Belief in Reincarnation in Sub-Saharan Africa

>From the 2010 Pew study on Religion in Sub-Saharan Africa. The following are the percentages, by country, of people who answered “yes” to the question: “Do you believe in reincarnation — that people will be born in this world again and again?”

Botswana 51%
Cameroon 43%
Chad 45%
DR Congo 38%
Djibouti 32%
Ethiopia 21%
Ghana 47%
Guinea Bissau 47%
Kenya 31%
Liberia 31%
Mali 28%
Mozambique 50%
Nigeria 37%
Rwanda 27%
Senegal 28%
South Africa 49%
Tanzania 32%
Uganda 51%
Zambia 17%

Consider this to be a follow-on to the post: A (very!) quick and dirty cross-cultural study of “supernatural” beliefs and experiences (with special attention to reincarnation).

Also, here is a handy map showing estimates for the degree to which there are “high levels of belief and practice” in African Traditional Religion in sub-Saharan Africa (reproduced from the post 200 Million African Pagans).

>Dear Paul Krugman: Voodoo is a religion, not another name for evil irrational bullshit.

>Everyone of a certain age well remembers the arrival into the English language of the phrase “voodoo economics“.

30 years later, though, isn’t it time for critics of “trickle-down” theories to decouple their economic polemics from religious invectives? Voodoo, you see, is a religion. In fact, it has at least as many adherents as Judaism.

Voodoo is more properly spelled Vodou, as is done in Haiti, or Vodun, as is common in West Africa. In the Western Hemisphere, Vodou is not only widespread in Haiti, but is also found, among other places, in the US states of Louisiana, Florida and New York.

In the Americas, Vodou is closely related to the Candomble religion found in Brazil, and the Santeria religion of Puerto Rico and Cuba. Like Vodou, both Candomble and Santeria are found elsewhere, including in many parts of the US. Most major American cities now have Botanicas, shops that cater to practitioners of Afro-Carribean religions generally, as well as to all sufficiently curious spiritual seekers, or just people interested in buying prayer candles, books by Alan Kardec, incense, etc.

In Africa, Vodun is just one of many surviving strands of African Traditional Religion. Benin, Togo, Nigeria, and Ghana all have large populations of adherents of Vodun. Estimates of the total number of practitioners of African Traditional Religion go as high as 200 million (or even higher), making it one of the largest religious traditions in the world.

It is especially galling to see fuck-the-poor/let-them-eat-cake economics characterized as “Voodoo”, when the fact is that Christianity, and this should hardly be news to anyone, is the religion most closely associated with the supply-side crowd.

So whatever value there might be in Paul Krugman‘s most recent editorial, titled “The New Voodoo”, everything that he says is irrevocably tainted by Krugman’s egregious callousness toward a religion he unthinkingly derides.

The most dangerous and pernicious forms of bigotry are those that pass as socially acceptable. And this acceptance is due to the fact that people are perfectly comfortable engaging in and perpetuating certain kinds of bigotry because, in their ignorance, they do not take the targets of their bigotry seriously.

Links related to Vodou and African Traditional Religion:

[the above image is from the Robson Khalaf’s blog Povo do Santo.]

>A (very!) quick and dirty cross-cultural study of "supernatural" beliefs and experiences (with special attention to reincarnation)

>1. According to to a 2009 study by the Pew Research Forum 65% of Americans “express belief in or report having experience with at least one of these diverse supernatural phenomena”:

1. reincarnation
2. spiritual energy located in physical things
3. yoga as spiritual practice
4. the “evil eye” and/or
that certain people can cast curses or spells that cause harm
5. astrology
6. having been in touch with the dead
7. consulting a psychic
8. having a ghostly encounter

Some of the more specific findings include:

  • 25% of Americans believe “the position of the stars/planets can affect people’s lives.”
  • 26% believe that “spiritual energy [is] located in physical things like mountains, trees, crystals.”
  • 24% believe in reincarnation.
  • 29% reported “having been in contact with the dead.”
  • 16% of Americans believe in the “evil eye” and/or that “certain people can cast curses or spells that cause harm.”

Most of the 65% who answered positively for one of these also answered positively for at least one other “supernatural” (Pew’s term) belief or practice. Almost 1 in 5 Americans (18%) answered positively for at least four of the eight beliefs and practices in Pew’s survey.

Pew also found that the number of Americans who have “ever had a religious or mystical experience” has more than doubled over the last six decades, going from 22% in 1962 to 49% in 2009. For white Evangelical Christians the 2009 number was a whopping 70%, and for African Americans, regardless of religion, it was 69%.

2. These results from American respondents are remarkably similar to the results that Pew obtained with their 2010 religious survey of people in Sub-Saharan Africa. In that study Pew asked Africans about 11 different beliefs and practices associated (according to Pew researchers) with African Traditional Religions. It was found that 25% of those surveyed reported “high levels of belief and practice” in ATR, despite the fact that many of these same Africans identified themselves as either Christian or Muslim.

Pew’s criterion for “high levels of belief and practice” was positive responses to 7 out of the 11 criteria that people were asked about. So we can very roughly ompare the 18% of Americans who responded positively to 4 out of 8 “supernatural” criteria to the 25% of Africans who responded positively to 7 out of 11 criteria. Such a comparison clearly indicates that Americans are not all that different from Africans in terms of propensity to non-Christian “supernatural” beliefs and experiences.

Here are the 11 criteria (7 beliefs and 4 practices) that Pew used in their sub-Saharan Africa survey:

1. belief in the protective power of certain spiritual people
2. the power of juju and other sacred objects
3. the evil eye
4. witchcraft
5. evil spirits
6. the protective power of sacrificial offerings to ancestors
7. reincarnation
8. visiting traditional healers
9. owning sacred objects
10. participating in ceremonies to honor ancestors
11. participating in traditional puberty rituals

The Pew Sub-Saharan Africa study also provides some data on what they call “intense religious experiences”, but this is approached rather differently from the similar sounding question addressed to Americans. In the US subjects were simply asked if they had ever personally had “a religious or mystical experience”, to which 49% answered “yes” (as already mentioned above). Here is how the Pew report describes their findings concerning “intense religious experiences” among sub-Saharan Africans:

Many Christians and Muslims in sub-Saharan Africa experience their respective faiths in a very intense, immediate, personal way. For example, three-in-ten or more of the people in many countries say they have experienced a divine healing, witnessed the devil being driven out of a person or received a direct revelation from God. Moreover, in every country surveyed that has a substantial Christian population, at least half of Christians expect that Jesus will return to earth during their lifetime. And in every country surveyed that has a substantial Muslim population, roughly 30% or more of Muslims expect to personally witness the re- establishment of the caliphate, the golden age of Islamic rule that followed the death of Muhammad.

Many of these intense religious experiences, including divine healings and exorcisms, are also characteristic of traditional African religions. Within Christianity, these kinds of experiences are particularly associated with Pentecostalism, which emphasizes such gifts of the Holy Spirit as speaking in tongues, giving or interpreting prophecy, receiving direct revelations from God, exorcising evil and healing through prayer. About a quarter of all Christians in four sub-Saharan countries (Ethiopia, Ghana, Liberia and Nigeria) now belong to Pentecostal denominations, as do at least one-in-ten Christians in eight other countries. But the survey finds that divine healings, exorcisms and direct revelations from God are commonly reported by African Christians who are not affiliated with Pentecostal churches.
[pp. 13-14]

Because the question of “intense religious experiences” was framed so differently in the two studies, any comparison must be approached with great caution. Nonetheless, a very general indication is given that in both America and sub-Saharan Africa “intense” religiosity is quite common.

Also, see this follow-up post with a country-by-country breakdown for belief in reincarnation in the sub-Saharan African nations included in the Pew study: Belief in Reincarnation in Sub-Saharan Africa.

3. Let’s also take a look at Pew’s 2006 10-country survey of Pentecostal Christians, with special attention to the results for the United States. Although this study was focussed on Pentecostalists, Pew also gathered data from “the general public” for comparison.

Pew’s multi-country Pentecostal study allows for more direct comparison between American and African individuals, although fewer African countries were included (there were a total of 19 sub-Saharan countries in the 2010 study, whereas the 2006 study included only three African countries: Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa).

The Pew Pentecostal study found that 64% of all Americans (from the “general public” — not just Pentecostalists) reported that they pray to God outside of religious services every day. The average in Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa combined was only slightly higher: 70%.

This might not sound especially “supernatural”, but prayer obviously and directly implies some belief in one or more Beings that one is praying “to”. Four other, perhaps more obvious, measures of supernatural beliefs are speaking in tounges, divine healings, receiving direct divine revelations, and either personally witnessing or participating in exorcism. The results for these are as follows (again it should be emphasized that these are results for the “general public” and not just Pentecostalists or Christians):

Frequent participation in Church services where speaking in tongues occurs
American 14% || South African 11% || Kenyan 19% || Nigerian 9%

Personally witnessed divine healings
American 29% || South African 38% || Kenyan 71% || Nigerian 62%

Personally received direct divine revelations
American 26% || South African 33% || Kenyan 39% || Nigerian 41%

Personal experience with exorcisms
American 11% || South African 33% || Kenyan 61% || Nigerian 57%

4. While we are at it, let’s look at the 2008 European Values Survey results on the question of belief in reincarnation. These numbers were already reported on in an earlier post, but here they are again, and now including Bulgaria, Cyprus (and Northern Cyprus), Czech Republic, Denmark, Georgia, Great Britain, Greece, Iceland, Slovak Republic, Slovenia, Sweden, & Turkey which were not included in that earlier post (and this still doesn’t include all countries surveyed):

1/3 or more believe in reincarnation
Latvia 41.9% (2.3M)
Lithuania 37.4% (3.4M)
Ukraine 37.1% (46.3M)
Iceland 36.2% (0.3M)
Russian Federation 33.0% (142.0M)
1/4 or more
Portugal 31.4% (10.6M)
Estonia 30.7% (1.3M)
Belarus 30.6% (9.9M)
Ireland 30.5% (4.4M)
Northern Cyprus 30.5% (0.3M)
Bulgaria 29.8% (7.6M)

Austria 28.8% (8.3M)
Turkey 28.4% (74.8M)
Switzerland 28.0% (7.6M)
Great Britain 27.8% (62.0M)
1/5 or more
Finland 24.7% (5.3M)
Hungary 23.2% (10.0M)
Northern Ireland 23.2% (1.7M)
Spain 23.1% (45.6M)
Serbia 22.6% (7.4M)
France 22.6% (62.3M)
Sweden 22.6% (9.3M)
Bosnia-Herzegovina 22.4% (3.8M)
Romania 21.8% (21.5M)
Armenia 21.5% (3.1M)
1/6 or more
Slovenia 19.4% (2.0M)
Italy 19.2% (60.2M)
Albania 19.1% (3.1M)
Netherlands 18.8% (16.4M)
Germany 18.4% (82.1M)
Denmark 18.4% (5.5M)
Norway 18.4% (4.8M)
Czech Republic 17.6% (10.7M)
Cyprus 17.5% (0.9M)
Belgium 17.5% (10.7M)
Poland 17.4% (38.1M)
Greece 17.4% (11.3M)
less than 1/6
Croatia 16.2% (4.4M)
Slovak Republic 13.0% (5.4M)
Georgia 11.3% (4.4M)

Azerbaijan 7.1% (8.7M)

(These show what percentage of people answered “yes” to Question 31 on the 2008 European Values Study: “Do you believe in reincarnation?” Numbers in parentheses are total population for each country. Here is a handy link so that you can go and look up the data yourself. Countries in bold were not included in the earlier post tabulating these survey results on this blog. Countries in bold brick red were not included in the original version of this post and were added on 3/30/11)

5. “Why belief in reincarnation?” (in lieu of a conclusion, for now …)

One of the things that emerges from this quick and dirty cross-cultural study is that certain “supernatural” ideas and experiences appear to be quite resilient. Reincarnation especially stands out because it is found ubiquitously in all parts of Europe, in the US, and in heavily Christianized (and Islamized) post-colonial sub-Saharan Africa.

In his 2006 study of earlier European Values Study results (prior to 2008), Erlendur Haraldsson drew attention to the special status of reincarnation:

Why Belief in Reincarnation?

Let us not ask the question of why people believe in life after death for, every religion supports it; but rather why people believe in reincarnation. Reincarnation does not only go against the scientific view but also against the dominant religious view in our part of the world.
[Erlendur Haraldsson, Nordic Psychology, 58, 171-180. The full text is available at Prof. Haraldsson’s website.]

Therefore, belief in reincarnation provides us with a kind of psycho-spiritual marker of sorts, indicating the degree to which a significant portion of the population is able to resist sometimes quite intense ideological pressures.

In the specific case of persistent widespread belief in reincarnation in Europe, Haraldsson posits three different, complementary, explanations for this phenomenon: (1) the survival of (“indigenous”) pre-Christian beliefs, (2) the importation of (“foreign”) non-Christian beliefs, and (3) individuals arriving at the idea of reincarnation independently (Haraldsson does not use the words “indigenous” and “foriegn”, which are quoted in the “ironic” sense, not to indicate actual direct quotation):

It is easy to point to three factors that may have had an impact on how relatively widespread the belief in reincarnation is.

First are pre-Christian beliefs in Scandinavia as well as other parts of Europe. The ancient Nordic poems in the Poetic Edda were first recorded in writing in Iceland in the 13th century but stem from the pre-Christian era (Sigurðsson 1999). From their contents we can assume that the Scandinavians believed in reincar- nation. E. g., in the poem Helgakvida Hundingsbana it is stated that the female hero Sigrun was Svava reborn. In a commentary in the Poetic Edda we read: it was the belief in olden times that men were born again, but that is now called old women’s superstition (Hollander, 1928, p. 237).

There are even cases where arguments were made as to why a certain person was believed to be another person reborn. Some of them resemble rare cases of children who claim to remember a former life (Stevenson, 2003; Haraldsson, 2001, 2003).

Pre-christian literary sources from other parts of Europe tell a similar story. Plato discusses “metempsychosis” in several of his works (Phaedo 81c-82b, Phaedrus 248c-249b, the Republic 617d-620e, and Timaeus 41-42, 90c-92c.). Caesar writes in his book on the Gallic Wars (which took place in present-day France) “The cardinal doctrine which they [the schools of the Druids] seek to teach is that souls do not die, but after death pass from one body to another” (Caesar, Book VI, 14). Roman historians refer to a similar belief among the Germans (for example Appian of Alexandria: 1987-89). Celtic poems from pre-Christian Ireland contain stories of rebirth (Chadwick, 1955-56; Meyer & Nutt, 1897) similar to those in the Poetic Edda. These sources give us reasons to assume that belief in rebirth was common in Europe before Christianization.

Secondly, from the 18th century onwards Western and Asian scholars and religious leaders introduced Hindu and Buddhist religious scriptures and philosophies to Europeans and they received considerable attention (Zander, 1999). This was particularly the case in the 19th and 20th century when societies and movements were established in Europe that made the doctrine of reincarnation an integral part of their teaching.

Thirdly and lastly, some people may, when brooding on the question of whether some part of their nature survives death, intuitively have found reincarnation a plausible concept or possibility.
[p. 177]

The full title of Haraldsson’s paper is quite a mouthful: Popular psychology, belief in life after death and reincarnation in the Nordic countries, Western and Eastern Europe. As mentioned above, the pdf for this article is available for download at Erlendur Haraldsson’s website, which is very much worth a visit!