Regular readers know that I hold anthropologist Wade Davis in high esteem, as I’ve been quoting extensively and approvingly from his new book “The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World.” As one would expect, he excoriated televangelist Pat Robertson for musing that the Haitian earthquake may have struck because the ancestors of today’s Haitians may have made a pact with the devil. From a NationalGeographic.com interview:
But it’s not just televangelists who have a dark impression of Haitian voodoo. Why is that?
The thing about African religion is that it’s very dynamic and astonishing. To see someone possessed by the spirit and actually become a god and handle burning coal with impunity and cut into the skin and so on–your reaction is either fear or disbelief for those of us who don’t know our god in this direct way.
There’s no question that in African religion there are very theatrical displays of faith.
The reason you cut yourself or handle burning embers is to show that a person taken over by the god is a god and can’t be harmed.
Elsewhere in that interview, Davis explains that in voodoo, or Vodou, practitioners summon up spirits of ancestors or various gods from the vodou pantheon, and invite them to possess their bodies. From a purely anthropological point of view, there is no judgment to be made here; one simply observes. I can’t find the passage from “The Wayfinders” in which Davis articulates the point, but if I’m remembering correctly, he believes that the various religious traditions of the world are profound articulations of human experience — this, as distinct from ways of knowing and experiencing intelligent discarnate beings that actually exist. What I’m saying is that as I read him, Davis doesn’t think that vodou worshippers are actually being possessed by spiritual entities.
This looks quite different through Christian eyes — and you don’t have to be Pat Robertson (whose remarks were at the very least cruel and in very poor taste) to think so. Take a look at this photo essay (from the public radio program Speaking of Faith) of vodou worship in Brooklyn, and listen to the commentary by the American photographer who shot the worship event. She speaks of worshipers being “mounted” by spirits, likening spiritual possession to sexual intercourse, and says near the end, “I kept saying to my vodou friends, ‘Oh, I wish I could get mounted by a spirit,’ but that never happened.”
Now, if this were merely some sort of psychological phenomenon, I would still find it troubling. Why would you want to have that experience, even if it is artificial? I understand the desire to lose oneself in the transcendent — it’s a deeply human desire, and not one always to be rejected — but what is the nature of the particular transcendental experience you are seeking? Are they all the same? I do not subscribe to Pentecostal Christianity, but I understand the craving for charismatic experience, and I am generally not troubled by it — though I see the loss of self, however temporary, to be a potentially dangerous thing, psychologically and spiritually.
But as a Christian, I don’t believe this is merely a psychological phenomenon. I believe that the vodou entities are real — and malevolent. Despite the syncretism with Roman Catholicism vodou tries to accomplish, there is nothing authentically Christian about it, and I too would think that this religion draws spiritual darkness around its followers and their communities. That does not mean that it causes earthquakes, for goodness sake! But I think it’s a mistake to see vodou as benign or positive. Serious question: if what you see on that photo slideshow isn’t demon worship — demons defined as malign spiritual entities — from a Christian (or Muslim, or Jewish) point of view, what is?
And: by what criteria do we decide whether a particular religion is merely mistaken, or positively destructive or otherwise a bad thing? I doubt very much that there is anyone in this forum, atheist or theist, who believes that all religions are equally the same, in terms of morality. But how do you decide which ones are religions with which you can agree to disagree, and which ones are positively harmful? Is there a universal test, or will it always depend on the particulars of one’s own religious/metaphysical viewpoint?
If you disagree, please do so without being disagreeable. Let’s keep this discussion on the level of comparative theology and culture.
UPDATE: To frame it slightly differently, what I’m asking us to think about is the limits of religious tolerance — not in a legal sense (I believe those vodou worshipers in Brooklyn have the right to do what they do), but in the sense of passing negative judgment on the beliefs of others. And if this strikes you as always and everywhere a bad thing to do, then the fundamentalist Mormon polygamy cult in the American West has a friend in you. For almost all of us, the question is not whether or not to draw a line, but where.