TAG | superstition
- More from Bradlaugh on his health issues [NRO, earlier]
- Saudi Arabia: “Defense Lawyer Objects to Testimony of Genie Expert” [Lowering the Bar]
- Monkeys taught by scientists to use money; gambling and prostitution soon appear [ZME Science]
- Adam Smith prefigures Charles Murray on class and morality [Tyler Cowen]
- “There was even an Inquisition trial in Los Angeles in 1820″ [Chris Caldwell book review in Literary Review] And in the 1950s, not 1550s: “Dutch Roman Catholic Church ‘castrated at least 10 boys’” [Telegraph]
Writing in the Daily Telegraph, here’s Damian Thompson with a terrible story about superstition and murder in contemporary London:
A 15-year-old boy is tortured to death for witchcraft. In London. In 2010. And the private reaction of police and social workers? Quiet despair. It’s happened before and will happen again…The Metropolitan Police waited until after the end of the court case to warn us that children are being abused and murdered in increasing numbers in Britain because their African relatives think they are “spirit children” – that is, witches.
Also, children’s charities and campaigners “urged communities to report abuse and said social workers must be firmer in confronting abuse in immigrant groups”.
Let’s deconstruct that. Campaigners are making this appeal because African communities in Britain have been too slow to report this abuse. And social workers have soft-pedalled on the subject, despite the shameful record of their colleagues in the case of Victoria Climbié, an eight-year-old girl from the Ivory Coast who was tortured to death in 2000 by family members who believed she was possessed by the devil.
Victoria’s death could have been avoided if Brent and Haringey social services hadn’t turned a PC blind eye to her abuse. Victoria’s senior social worker, Carole Baptiste, was accused of “spending her time talking about God and her experiences as a black woman, rather than looking after the interests of the vulnerable”. She was found guilty by magistrates of failing to help the public inquiry.
A contact working in this field told me yesterday: “Social workers from African backgrounds are scared. First, because they may have residual beliefs about witches themselves. Second, because they don’t want to confront church pastors who make a fortune out of ‘exorcising’ children – often at the request of their parents.”
The Climbié and Bamu cases were atypical because they involved spectacular violence. But the charity Trust for London is talking nonsense when it says that “no faith or culture promotes cruelty to children”. In 2009, the African journalist Sorious Samura made a World Service programme about the slaughter of “witches” in Ghana. He walked up one hill in which, he reckoned, the bodies of tens of thousands of “spirit children” were buried.
An African organisation, Afrikids – one of The Daily Telegraph’s charity appeal partners – is trying to challenge this mentality. But it’s not easy, when the parents of a disabled or “strange” child believe it will murder the rest of the family. Samura asked the pupils of a Ghanaian primary school about “spirit children”. Most of them thought they should be killed.
Afrikids provides shelter for mothers who have run away with their child rather than allow the local “concoction man” to administer the appropriate poison – a daily occurrence in parts of Africa. Will it soon have to do the same in London?
Prof Jean La Fontaine is the anthropologist who exploded the myth of satanic ritual abuse. She’s based at Inform, Britain’s foremost academic cult-watching body, and certainly doesn’t think the abuse of “spirit children” in Britain is a myth. She is horrified by the rich African pastors who encourage these crimes, and adds: “We do not hear Christian churches raising their voices against the belief in child witches.”
As some regular readers may understand, I’m possibly not the best person around here to comment on religion, but, as I’ve mentioned before, the belief by some ecumenical sorts that all expressions of faith are, as expressions of “spirituality” (whatever that may mean), equally worthy of respect, is not an idea that should go unchallenged.
This story from the Daily Telegraph is an extreme case, but it makes that point. It is also a thoroughly good story in every sense of the word.
At just after 1.30pm on Thursday, Paul Apowida, a soldier with 1st Battalion The Rifles, marched on to the parade ground at Beachley Barracks, near Chepstow, to receive a campaign medal for his service in Afghanistan. Fresh off the plane from Helmand province where, as point man, he had led his fellow riflemen across some of the country’s most treacherous terrain, Apowida was wearing his Army fatigues and a green beret, proudly displaying the cap badge of the battalion. Not required – after a six-month-long tour – were three other things that had kept him safe: body armour, his rosary beads and his Bible.
“I took my rosary with me every time I went out on patrol,” he says when we met after the ceremony. “My rosary, my Bible and a picture of Jesus in my helmet. And, every time, at the end of a patrol, I thanked God for bringing me and my mates back safely.”
There are many brave soldiers serving in Afghanistan, but few have a background as unusual as Apowida’s. Born in a remote village in the semi-arid scrubland of northern Ghana, Apowida’s father died before he was born. When his mother died shortly after giving birth, the baby was considered cursed, deemed a “spirit child” – a child possessed by evil spirits who would bring misfortune on the entire community – and condemned to death by a soothsayer who instructed Apowida’s stepmother to feed him poisonous herbs. The belief in “spirit children” has a long, dark history in Ghana and, although there are no official statistics, is thought to have led to thousands of deaths.
But Apowida was rescued by a Catholic nun, Sister Jane Naaglosegme, who had been posted to his village to start a care home for “spirit children”. She nursed him back to health – he had already swallowed the herbs, but they had not proved fatal – and, eventually, after two further attempts on Apowida’s life, she sent him to a boarding school 800 miles away, in Tema, just outside the capital, Accra.
Not a natural scholar, he struggled in his classes but then went to art college, where he flourished.It was at this time, also, that he became the beneficiary of a new charity, AfriKids, set up in 2002 by a young, idealistic woman in her early twenties called Georgie Cohen (now Georgie Fienberg). Fienberg, who had worked with Sister Jane during a gap year in West Africa, had got to know Apowida on her regular trips back to Ghana and funded him through art college. In his last year of college, Apowida said that his mother had come to him in a dream and told him he should join the British Army. Britain – in the form of AfriKids – had done so much for him, she told him, that he should join to show his gratitude.
Fienberg agreed to become his legal guardian, and he moved to London, where he attended sessions run by British Military Fitness. He joined The Rifles in 2008.
Well, thank you Paul Apowida. And thank you Sister Naaglosegme, Georgie Fienberg — and Afrikids.
Close allies of Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, have been accused of using supernatural powers to further his policies amid an increasingly bitter power struggle between him and the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Several people said to be close to the president and his chief of staff, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, have been arrested in recent days and charged with being “magicians” and invoking djinns (spirits). Ayandeh, an Iranian news website, described one of the arrested men, Abbas Ghaffari, as “a man with special skills in metaphysics and connections with the unknown worlds”.
Discovery Channel is teaming with the Vatican for an unprecedented new series hunting the deadliest catch of all: Demons.
The Exorcist Files will recreate stories of real-life hauntings and demonic possession, based on cases investigated by the Catholic Church. The project includes access into the Vatican’s case files, as well as interviews with the organization’s top exorcists — religious experts who are rarely seen on television.
“The Vatican is an extraordinarily hard place to get access to, but we explained we’re not going to try to tell people what to think,” says Discovery president and GM Clark Bunting.
Bunting says the investigators believe a demon can inhabit an inanimate object (like a home) or a person. The network executive says he was initially skeptical when first meeting the team but was won over after more than three hours of talks.
“The work these folks do, and their conviction in their beliefs, make for fascinating stories,” Bunting says.
If the show’s first season is successful, the network hopes its partnership with the Church will pave the way for producers GoGo Luckey to take the series to the next level — joining Catholic investigators on live demon-purging ride-alongs.
Even if exorcism appears to have a more prominent place on the Vatican’s bill of fare than in the recent past, my first reaction was to think that this story was a hoax about as believable as, well, demons. It seems that my first reaction was wrong. This story is for real.
In a way this makes sense. Today’s Vatican has taken a distinctly traditionalist turn and demons have long had a role to play in many Christian cosmologies (if not one that I associate with the splendidly mild Church of England of my youth). What’s more, they make pretty good recruiting sergeants.
I just hope it’s better viewing than Ghost Hunters.
One New York Times journalist seemed surprised by this:
Those who might have predicted a few decades ago that the rise of science and technology would eventually blot out Thailand’s longstanding preoccupation with the supernatural can walk into one of the country’s thousands of 7-Eleven convenience stores. Amulets meant to protect and bring good luck sell next to breath mints. Horoscope books are mixed in with instant noodles and junk food.
There are YouTube channels devoted to fortune telling, home-shopping television shows hawking amulets and computer programs like “Feng Shui Master,” which is advertised as helping divine the future of gold prices.
Luck Rakanithes, a fortune teller who started out two decades ago dispensing horoscopes the old-fashioned way (face-to-face in a corner of an obscure Bangkok hotel) now runs a call center with a room full of fortune tellers sitting in cubicles and wearing headsets as if they were selling credit cards or offering tech support. They dish out celestial advice for 15 baht, or 50 cents, a minute.
Sounds a lot like America (or anywhere else, for that matter) to me…
The failure of Britain’s Conservative party to secure a parliamentary majority in the general election is a major disappointment. In a contest where every seat counted, one must (I suppose) even lament the failure of Tory Philippa Stroud to win election. Philippa Stroud?
The Guardian (no friend to the Conservative party admittedly) has the details:
The Conservative candidate who founded a church that tried to “cure” gay people by driving out demons failed in her attempt to become an MP. Philippa Stroud, the high-flying Tory hopeful who was tipped to take Sutton and Cheam from the Liberal Democrat Paul Burstow, was narrowly beaten into second place in a 73% turnout. The Observer reported on Sunday that Stroud, executive director of the Conservative thinktank the Centre for Social Justice, had set up an evangelical church in Bedford where homosexuality, according to former members, was ascribed to demonic influence.
“Demonic influence”, who knew?
The most interesting thing, perhaps, about this strange tale is the larger story lurking beneath it: the increasing presence of American-style evangelical churches in Blighty. They are yet another symptom of the waning of the established Church of England, a church traditionally bland, benign, and not too keen on chatter about demons. It will be missed.
The idea of the supernaturally flavored “near-death experience” (shining lights, angels, cheerily waving, long-dead relatives and so on) is one that seems to have been gaining traction in recent years. And that’s no surprise; they make for a good story and their generally reassuring message is in line with much of modern “spirituality”. For my own part, I’ve always assumed that these brief visions of the afterlife were the result of oxygen starvation or, perhaps, the general jumbling of the brain (to use a thoroughly unscientific phrase) that might be expected in the event of a possibly terminal medical crisis.
Here via the Daily Telegraph is another explanation:
…scientists believe they have uncovered the secret behind so-called ‘near death experiences’. Rather than a religious experience, as many believe, researchers think that the phenomenon could be a simple trick of the mind, caused by a chemical reaction in the body. People with high levels of carbon dioxide in their bloodstream were more likely to experience the visions, they found.
Previous research suggests that very high levels of the gas can trigger hallucinations in some people. Many people who have had the experience say that they saw bright lights, a tunnel, or even deceased loved ones beckoning them.
Dr Zalika Klemenc-Ketis, from the University of Maribor, in Slovenia, who led the study, said: “Several theories explaining the mechanisms of near death experiences exist. “We found that in those patients who experienced the phenomenon, blood carbon dioxide levels were significantly higher than in those who did not”. “Some earlier studies also showed that inhaled carbon dioxide, used as a psychotherapeutic agent, could cause near death- like experiences.”
Over at the Corner yesterday, I linked to Dorothy Rabinowitz’s fine WSJ piece on the involvement of Martha Coakley, the Democratic candidate in the Massachusetts senate race, in the persecution of the Amirault family, the true victims of a now notorious sex abuse trial. What Ms. Rabinowitz has to say is, as so often, a must-read. She concludes as follows:
Attorney General Martha Coakley—who had proven so dedicated a representative of the system that had brought the Amirault family to ruin, and who had fought so relentlessly to preserve their case—has recently expressed her view of this episode. Questioned about the Amiraults in the course of her current race for the U.S. Senate, she told reporters of her firm belief that the evidence against the Amiraults was “formidable” and that she was entirely convinced “those children were abused at day care center by the three defendants.”
What does this say about her candidacy? (Ms. Coakley declined to be interviewed.) If the current attorney general of Massachusetts actually believes, as no serious citizen does, the preposterous charges that caused the Amiraults to be thrown into prison—the butcher knife rape with no blood, the public tree-tying episode, the mutilated squirrel and the rest—that is powerful testimony to the mind and capacities of this aspirant to a Senate seat. It is little short of wonderful to hear now of Ms. Coakley’s concern for the rights of terror suspects at Guantanamo—her urgent call for the protection of the right to the presumption of innocence.
If the sound of ghostly laughter is heard in Massachusetts these days as this campaign rolls on, with Martha Coakley self-portrayed as the guardian of justice and civil liberties, there is good reason.
There are a couple of good books on the topic, but I’ve always been surprised about how little historians have had to say about the American abuse panics of the 1980s and early 1990s. They were in many ways a reincarnation of the witch trials of an earlier era, complete with junk science (the conjuring up of ‘repressed memories’ in particular) and religious hysteria (the belief in widespread Satanic cults) and, as such, a terrifying reminder of the persistence of irrationalityand superstition in the most advanced of societies as well, of course, as the willingness of the ambitious to exploit it.
But if the silence of the historians is striking, so was the reluctance of the politicians of that time to take a stand against what was an extraordinarily destructive phenomenon. Cowardice is also, it seems, a permanent value.
I was sympathetically reading this profile of the preacher of what the New York Times claims is New York’s largest church. The Rev. A.R. Bernard has built his ministry around the responsibility of men, according to the Times, a message that is desperately needed in East Brooklyn, the city’s poorest and highest crime area, where his Christian Cultural Center is located. Then I got to this:
He said he has seen some astonishing things. The first was a teenage girl who came to his storefront church and crumbled to the floor, convulsing. Her face turned blue, then green. She growled.
When he splashed holy oil on her forehead, he said, she spoke in a deep man’s voice and, though they had never met, referred to his wife and sons by name and said they were in danger. She bit a deacon on the hand, opening wounds; when Mr. Bernard touched her, she let go and the flesh was whole.
He said he visited one young woman at her house and saw her eat broth, then regurgitate nails. Real nails.
A possessed man punched a wall and broke his hand. Mr. Bernard said he sandwiched it between his and it healed.
He does not do exorcisms any more. They drained him. “Now I have staff,” he said.
(Note that reporter N.R. Kleinfield raises not the barest quiver of skepticism towards these claims, indeed, that he seems to revel in their preposterousness [I hope that my religious colleagues on the right would agree that they are patently preposterous]. Kleinfield’s fawning acquiescence in such delusions refutes yet again the alleged hostility of the mainstream media towards religion.)
Is this the compromise we have to strike—a means for affirming positive moral values in exchange for rankest superstition and ignorance? The greatest boon of religion, in my view, is the sermon. It is a formal, regular forum in which to shore up the values required for a stable, law-abiding society. Those values—patience, forgiveness, and self-discipline, among others–are not religious values, they are human values; religion merely appropriates them and claims them for its own. But secular society has not evolved a counterpart to the sermon in which to articulate and strengthen its core moral components. The watered-down sermons of the Unitarians and Universalists that I sometimes subject myself to on the radio on Sunday mornings waiting for the classical music to come back on are nauseatingly PC and puling. In comparison, the Lutheran kooks who go before the Unitarians, confidently explaining such mysteries as what happened to Jesus’ body in heaven, at least occasionally focus on ethical essentials when they are not demanding total, unequivocal faith in God as the only route to salvation.
We cannot assume that positive values are self-perpetuating and will take care of themselves. Families are their original source, but they may fail. I wish we could create a secular institution for regular moral tune-ups that appeals to reason, not fantasy.