Rod Dreher

I was surprised to come across my own name in Samuel G. Freedman’s religion column this past Saturday in the NYT. Freedman wrote a piece saying that voodoo is misunderstood and unfairly criticized by Westerners. Here’s the part where he quotes me:

At a putatively more informed level, articles, broadcasts and blogs depicted voodoo as the source of Haiti’s poverty and political instability — not because of divine punishment, mind you, but because voodoo supposedly is fatalistic and primitive by nature.
“The kind of religion one practices makes a huge difference in how the community lives — for better or for worse,” wrote Rod Dreher on the Web site beliefnet. “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.”

Freedman’s piece then goes on to quote two or three academics saying that voodoo is misunderstood; one of them says (surprise!) that this could well be a matter of racism.
Sorry, but this is just shoddy. I am perfectly willing to entertain the idea that I have misjudged the content of voodoo, but Freedman contented himself to end his analysis by quoting professors who say voodoo gets a bum rap. OK, maybe it does, but let’s hear an argument for why voodoo is not what outside critics think it is. What does the voodoo worldview entail? Isn’t Freedman at least interested in the question — or would he rather just dismiss any criticism, or skepticism, of the voodoo way of seeing the world as an example of a bigoted mentality? Is this p.c. indulgence really the best the New York Times can bring to the complex question of religion and social dynamics in Haiti?
For far more insight, look to social scientist and Haiti expert Elizabeth McAlister, writing on the Immanent Frame blog. Excerpt:

Many disenfranchised Haitians I have interviewed about religion see secret deals with demons, magical pacts in the invisible world, and other immoral relationships as the cause of prosperity for some and the impoverishment of others. For local, informally educated actors, explanations for social change may lie in the unseen world of predatory spiritual transactions. Hungry and “hot” spirits can demand payment of life force in exchange for wealth. Some evangelicals go so far as to posit an originary pact with demons at a meeting of revolutionary slaves at Bois Caïman. Some Vodouists theologize Lucifer as the ruler of this world, a place left unattended by God in heaven. Michael Taussig, the Comaroffs, and many others have analyzed the ways that relatively powerless groups figure rapidly changing political and economic systems as “occult economies.” These occult explanations assume and reproduce the idea that real, causal power operates in a hidden realm, and that invisible powers explain material conditions and events. Haitians from Verettes to Cité Soleil spoke to me in this local idiom about relationships and dealings between local actors and global agents. They supposed secret machinations in the unseen realm to be the mechanism through which dominant groups wield power in order to produce wealth.

Ideas have consequences. You don’t have to be a believer in voodoo, Christianity, or any kind of believer at all to see that a society’s religious beliefs have a lot to do with the way they live, and thrive, or fail to thrive. I agree with Freedman on one thing: we haven’t seen nearly enough reporting and analysis of the role the voodoo worldview plays in Haitian social, political and economic dynamics.

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