Rod Dreher

While we’re talking about the unseen value of native religions, David Brooks reminds us in his column today that a big part of Haiti’s problem is voodoo. Excerpt:

Why is Haiti so poor? Well, it has a history of oppression, slavery and colonialism. But so does Barbados, and Barbados is doing pretty well. Haiti has endured ruthless dictators, corruption and foreign invasions. But so has the Dominican Republic, and the D.R. is in much better shape. Haiti and the Dominican Republic share the same island and the same basic environment, yet the border between the two societies offers one of the starkest contrasts on earth — with trees and progress on one side, and deforestation and poverty and early death on the other.
As Lawrence E. Harrison explained in his book “The Central Liberal Truth,” Haiti, like most of the world’s poorest nations, suffers from a complex web of progress-resistant cultural influences. There is the influence of the voodoo religion, which spreads the message that life is capricious and planning futile. There are high levels of social mistrust. Responsibility is often not internalized. Child-rearing practices often involve neglect in the early years and harsh retribution when kids hit 9 or 10.
We’re all supposed to politely respect each other’s cultures. But some cultures are more progress-resistant than others, and a horrible tragedy was just exacerbated by one of them.

(BTW, that Harrison book was funded by a Templeton grant. I’m really looking forward to working on these issues in our new online magazine.)
I’m reminded of the geopolitical writer Robert Kaplan’s comparisons of life among the poor of West Africa, versus life among the poor of Turkey. He went into this in some detail in his book “The Coming Anarchy,” which was derived from this 1994 Atlantic Monthly article . In brief, Kaplan said the culture of West Africa, which was shaped in large part by the kind of religion Brooks rightly criticizes, remained a place of anarchy and caprice. Compare that to Islamic Turkey, as Kaplan does in this passage from the magazine article:

Slum quarters in Abidjan terrify and repel the outsider. In Turkey it is the opposite. The closer I got to Golden Mountain the better it looked, and the safer I felt. I had $1,500 worth of Turkish lira in one pocket and $1,000 in traveler’s checks in the other, yet I felt no fear. Golden Mountain was a real neighborhood. The inside of one house told the story: The architectural bedlam of cinder block and sheet metal and cardboard walls was deceiving. Inside was a home–order, that is, bespeaking dignity. I saw a working refrigerator, a television, a wall cabinet with a few books and lots of family pictures, a few plants by a window, and a stove. Though the streets become rivers of mud when it rains, the floors inside this house were spotless.
Other houses were like this too. Schoolchildren ran along with briefcases strapped to their backs, trucks delivered cooking gas, a few men sat inside a cafe sipping tea. One man sipped beer. Alcohol is easy to obtain in Turkey, a secular state where 99 percent of the population is Muslim. Yet there is little problem of alcoholism. Crime against persons is infinitesimal. Poverty and illiteracy are watered-down versions of what obtains in Algeria and Egypt (to say nothing of West Africa), making it that much harder for religious extremists to gain a foothold.
My point in bringing up a rather wholesome, crime-free slum is this: its existence demonstrates how formidable is the fabric of which Turkish Muslim culture is made. A culture this strong has the potential to dominate the Middle East once again. Slums are litmus tests for innate cultural strengths and weaknesses. Those peoples whose cultures can harbor extensive slum life without decomposing will be, relatively speaking, the future’s winners. Those whose cultures cannot will be the future’s victims.

I am also reminded of stories my parents have told about conditions in our part of the world in their childhoods, which took place during the Great Depression and in its aftermath. Almost everybody was poor back then, mostly due to circumstances beyond their control. But some people had within themselves and their families a devotion to order, and an inner strength that guided them to keep order and self-discipline amid the material deprivation in which everyone lived. All they lacked was an opportunity to better themselves materially. When the economy recovered, and educational and other opportunities opened up, those families got ahead. Others, who lacked the religious and cultural values to prosper under opportune conditions, remained behind. Again, it wasn’t lack of opportunity that hurt them; it was culture — the choices they made, or rather traditions and ways of seeing the world that they accepted but did not question, which sealed their fates.
I think, for example, about the acceptance of single motherhood among teenage girls by the black community where I grew up (which was about 50 percent black). It was shocking to me as a kid to go to junior high and high school assemblies back in the early 1980s and see so many of the black girls in our high school with their babies. This was taboo in the white community, and was widely seen as an example of decadent moral fiber among our black neighbors. Now, you may bristle at our lack of generosity, but the undeniable fact was that the lack of taboo against unwed pregnancy, and the corresponding lack of cultural pressure for males who impregnated these girls to take meaningful responsibility for their children, had serious economic consequences for those young women, and for their children. I was talking about this with a friend who lived at the time on the margins of a major east coast city, next to a black neighborhood. My friend pointed out that for all the obvious Christian religiosity of the black community in her area, it had no discernible effect on the unwed motherhood rate. My friend had a dim view of the Christian religion as practiced by her black neighbors, saying that on evidence, they paid little or no attention to the sexual discipline mandated by Christianity — and it kept individual and communal lives in chaos.
I wonder, then, if religion, as practiced by my black neighbors growing up, was mostly a matter of emotional consolation amid the very real suffering and travails in their lives, as distinct from providing a firm and authoritative moral code to help them order their lives? I don’t know enough to say, but the question is a good one. On the contrary, we can think of examples of religion that is little more than moral codes, and downplays the emotional pain and confusion ordinary people live with. Still, people like the Haitians live with a lot of disorder, which causes them untold suffering, and which could to some extent be overcome by a change of mentality, including religious orientation. Again and again we’ve heard testimonials by Latin Americans who have converted to Evangelical Protestantism, who emphasize the positive change Evangelical Christianity has brought to their lives. For whatever reason, they report it has delivered them from a sense of fatalism, and made them feel empowered to change their lives for the better by changing their behavior. It is not clear to me why this is, and why they couldn’t have gotten this from Roman Catholicism. But there are lots of testimonials to this point; I’ve read them, and I heard it from a Mexican immigrant housekeeper we once had.
I’d be interested to hear from readers, of whatever cultural background, talking about what you’ve observed in your own communities about religion and behavior, both good and bad. At least among us believers, we have a tendency to think of religion as being a force for good in a person’s and a community’s life. But that’s hard to justify once you start going below the surface. The kind of religion one practices makes a huge difference in how the community lives — for better or for worse. I suppose it’s at least arguable that the Haitians would be better off at the Church of Christopher Hitchens rather than as followers of voodoo. The bad side of traditional religion, and its cultural harm, is something I’ve yet to see dealt with in Wade Davis’s work.

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