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"...children which lie, must go to their father the devil, into everlasting burning." -- Cotton Mather
October 17, 2009 4:24 PM   Subscribe

The idea of witchcraft is hardly new, but it has taken on new life recently partly because of a rapid growth in evangelical Christianity. Campaigners against the practice say around 15,000 children have been accused in two of Nigeria's 36 states over the past decade and around 1,000 have been murdered. In the past month alone, three Nigerian children accused of witchcraft were killed and another three were set on fire.
posted by orthogonality (67 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite

 
* sigh *
posted by Decimask at 4:35 PM on October 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


That is so goddamn horrible.
posted by Ouisch at 4:37 PM on October 17, 2009


Belief in witches ... what's the harm?
posted by benzenedream at 4:50 PM on October 17, 2009 [3 favorites]


benzenedream, to be fair, it doesn't look like there really is a harm in believing in witches when I follow that link. The harm seems to come from believing in something that requires you to persecute said possible witches.
posted by cjorgensen at 4:52 PM on October 17, 2009 [2 favorites]


Encouraged and funded by folks like Sarah Palin's church in Wasila.
posted by empath at 5:04 PM on October 17, 2009 [3 favorites]




"It is an outrage what they are allowing to take place in the name of Christianity," said Gary Foxcroft, head of nonprofit Stepping Stones Nigeria.

For their part, the families are often extremely poor, and sometimes even relieved to have one less mouth to feed. Poverty, conflict and poor education lay the foundation for accusations, which are then triggered by the death of a relative, the loss of a job or the denunciation of a pastor on the make, said Martin Dawes, a spokesman for the United Nations Children's Fund.

"When communities come under pressure, they look for scapegoats," he said. "It plays into traditional beliefs that someone is responsible for a negative change ... and children are defenseless."


Let's realize that a lot of traditional beliefs mixed with a misunderstanding/perversion of New Testament Christianity is what is happening here. Remember evil can and does act under the guise of "religion".
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 5:09 PM on October 17, 2009


evil can and does act under the guise of "religion".

No true Scotsman.

This is religion, just as Islamist suicide bombing is religion. And, to be fair, just as people running church food pantries are religion.
posted by ixohoxi at 5:13 PM on October 17, 2009 [18 favorites]


Previously: Child Witches
posted by twoleftfeet at 5:21 PM on October 17, 2009 [2 favorites]


This is horrible. I'm usually OK with people believing whatever they want, but that stops being OK when children get hurt because of beliefs.
posted by lexicakes at 5:25 PM on October 17, 2009


Let's realize that a lot of traditional beliefs mixed with a misunderstanding/perversion of New Testament Christianity is what is happening here. Remember evil can and does act under the guise of "religion".

Misunderstanding/perversion? Really? Care to explain Galatians 5:20, Revelation 21:8; 22:15; and Acts 8:9; 13:6?

How about Martin Luther's interpretation of Exodus 22:18:
On 25 August 1538 there was much discussion about witches and sorceresses who poisoning chicken eggs in the nests, or poisoning milk and butter. Doctor Luther said: "One should show no mercy to these [women]; I would burn them myself, for we read in the Law that the priests were the ones to begin the stoning of criminals."
posted by signalnine at 5:42 PM on October 17, 2009 [7 favorites]


NEW AFRICAN AID PLAN: More food, less faith.
posted by EatTheWeak at 5:46 PM on October 17, 2009 [4 favorites]


Martin Luther was also an antisemite, for what it's worth.

He got one BIG thing right(justification by faith) but a lot of other BIG things wrong.

Jesus is not down with hurting children, period. I simply would hope that, just as we don't classify all Muslims, for example, as suicide bombers or terrorists, we don't do something similar with this tragic story.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 5:58 PM on October 17, 2009


I simply would hope that, just as we don't classify all Muslims, for example, as suicide bombers or terrorists, we don't do something similar with this tragic story.

Well, fair enough—but by the same token, let's not pretend that this isn't part of religion.
posted by ixohoxi at 6:03 PM on October 17, 2009 [2 favorites]


Jesus is not down with hurting children, period.

Says you. These folks believe differently—and, as far as we or anyone else can tell, sincerely. It's not like he's going to stand in the town square and tell us exactly how he feels about it.
posted by haltingproblemsolved at 6:17 PM on October 17, 2009 [8 favorites]


I'm pretty sure Jesus never said his followers should hurt children, and I've read those books about him a few times. While I understand the No True Scotsman argument, if you're not Scottish, you really aren't a true Scotsmen.

What we have going on here might be consistent with some of the past history of Christianity, but it's strayed quite far from Jesus's own words, and I think that's a distinction worth making. Some radicalism is, in fact, a perversion or violation of the tenets of a religion, and people who are not violating those tenets should be able to say, yeah, that's not actually my religion.
posted by Astro Zombie at 6:23 PM on October 17, 2009 [3 favorites]


Incidentally, this is why religion makes for bad ethics when it comes to decisions that affect other people. If anyone had seen Abraham about to plunge his knife into Isaac, he'd have deservedly gone to prison.
posted by haltingproblemsolved at 6:27 PM on October 17, 2009 [2 favorites]


So you're saying the story of the sacrifice of Issac is he reason why these children are getting killed? Or are you just picking one tale out of many to condemn all religion everywhere?
posted by Astro Zombie at 6:32 PM on October 17, 2009


taken on new life recently partly because of a rapid growth in evangelical Christianity.

I see what you did there.

perversion of New Testament Christianity

And what you did there.
posted by DU at 6:33 PM on October 17, 2009


What we have going on here might be consistent with some of the past history of Christianity, but it's strayed quite far from Jesus's own words

A valid point, but that could describe most of the history of Christianity, maybe even starting with Paul.
posted by haltingproblemsolved at 6:34 PM on October 17, 2009 [3 favorites]


It sure sounds as if children in these communities are being scapegoated, perhaps for endemic poverty, domestic violence, and larger socioeconomic problems. In other words it sounds like it's possible the sudden outbreak in fundamentalist superstition is being fueled by larger social ills and insecurities, and not the other way around.
posted by HP LaserJet P10006 at 6:37 PM on October 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


They should use the Salem, Massachusetts model and turn the cruel injustice into cash.
posted by Mayor Curley at 6:37 PM on October 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


A valid point, but that could describe most of the history of Christianity, maybe even starting with Paul.

True. I just don't know what, precisely, will be the point of this thread if the some use it as another example of why all religion everywhere is bad, and religious people who aren't actively murdering children for being witches say, wait, that's not what we do, and then the No True Scotsman Argument gets tossed around, and then somebody talks about the invisible superhero in the sky, and so on. Can we just photocopy past discussions like that and insert it here?

We have a specific instance of something terrible happening, and I would value a discussion of that, and suggestions as to what we can do, rather than the same tired atheist vanguard vs. religious vanguard discussion that these threads often engender. Maybe it is all religion's fault. Maybe. But there must be something else to say on this topic.
posted by Astro Zombie at 6:41 PM on October 17, 2009 [8 favorites]


benzenedream, not to derail, but that's a damn handy website for a smackdown.
posted by tula at 6:41 PM on October 17, 2009




Or are you just picking one tale out of many to condemn all religion everywhere?

Oh, there's plenty of tales in the Bible where God kills or tells his followers to kill innocent children. Off the top of my head, try 2 Kings 2:23-24
And he went up from thence unto Bethel: and as he was going up by the way, there came forth little children out of the city, and mocked him, and said unto him, Go up, thou bald head; go up, thou bald head.
And he turned back, and looked on them, and cursed them in the name of the LORD. And there came forth two she bears out of the wood, and tare forty and two children of them.
posted by signalnine at 6:46 PM on October 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


So you're saying the story of the sacrifice of Issac is he reason why these children are getting killed? Or are you just picking one tale out of many to condemn all religion everywhere?

Missed this on preview. I only meant to condemn all religion everywhere as a way of deciding whom to kill and not to kill, whose dangly bits to cut off, which neighbors to invade, etc. Using faith as a basis for social norms ends up doing violence to both.

We have a specific instance of something terrible happening, and I would value a discussion of that, and suggestions as to what we can do, rather than the same tired atheist vanguard vs. religious vanguard discussion that these threads often engender.

I have to concede here. Sorry about the derail.
posted by haltingproblemsolved at 6:47 PM on October 17, 2009


Um. Here's the portion of St. Alia's comment to which I was responding (that's why I quoted it):

evil can and does act under the guise of "religion".

My point was merely that the phenomena described in this article (witchcraft, clergy, demons, ritual exorcism) do fall under the umbrella of religion, despite St. Alia's attempt to redefine them into another category. I made no claim about which religion they are a part of.

It's pointless to argue about what is or isn't "real" Christianity (or any other faith), because it's not an objective thing that can be measured. There are as many answers to the question "what is Christianity?" as there are Christians. Sure, there are various governing bodies which hand down official doctrines—and if you define "Christianity" as "the set of doctrines endorsed by a particular governing body", then yeah, you can say what Christianity is or isn't. But who actually defines Christianity that way? Official doctrine is an important, but ultimately rather small part of the phenomenon that is Christianity. Christianity is everything that is done by people who call themselves Christians. What other sensible definition is there?

I'm not claiming that all Christians (or all religious people) behave as reprehensibly as this. I just reject the notion that people behaving monstrously in service of clearly religious beliefs is somehow not "real" religion. The term "religion" does not imply (or preclude) ethical behavior (or any particular set of beliefs about what is ethical—I'm sure these people believe that they are doing the right thing). There are people whose religious practice includes feeding the homeless; there are people whose religious practice includes pouring acid down children's throats.

Suicide bombing (to take another example) isn't a perversion of true Islam, because there's no such thing as "true Islam"—suicide bombing is a part of Islam. Not necessarily an essential part (but, again, there is no essential Islam), and certainly not one to which all who call themselves Muslim subscribe, but to deny that it is Islam is silly.
posted by ixohoxi at 7:02 PM on October 17, 2009 [13 favorites]


After I posted it, I was a little worried my lead-in "sigh" might draw some ire. Reading this story (and hearing other stories like it) makes me feel like the dogs who have learned to simply lie down and endure as electric shocks are jolted through the floor of the cage I'm boxed up in. I know of nothing that I can do to shield these kids from the profoundly horrific situatioon they're in on the other side of the planet.

I mean, WHO THE FUCK SETS A CHILD ON FIRE?!?!!


Plus, the very first BBC reader's comment from pyramid termite's link:
"I don't believe in witchcraft but I know it exists. These guys have powers that can really send a chilling feeling down your spine! Among the Banyores of western Kenya, we have got a group of old men who can make rainfall! We have got groups known to purchase thunder and lightening to strike enemies/opponents to death."
I'm assuming there's some "lost in translation" effects going on here, but where the hell do you start?
posted by Decimask at 7:15 PM on October 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


I don't believe in witchcraft, but I know people who practice it.

(Technically, I could also say that I don't believe in Christianity, but know people who practice it.)

"If anyone had seen Abraham about to plunge his knife into Isaac, he'd have deservedly gone to prison."

This would be the jacket blurb for Fear and Trembling if it was sold in airports.
posted by klangklangston at 7:23 PM on October 17, 2009 [2 favorites]


The point of No True Scotsman is that it's a change in argument that's not valid, not the original argument. First you say, "No Scotsman would do that!" Then someone who would otherwise be considered a Scotsman does that. Now you say, "No true Scotsman would do that!" Not doing that, whatever that is, is not part of the definition of being a Scotsman, being born/raised in Scotland is. Legitimate debates can occur over if it's really being born or really being raised or really having ancestry that you can trace back that makes you a Scotsman, but those debates have nothing to do with that.

In this case, someone would say, "No Christian would murder a child." Then someone who is a Christian murders a child. Now people say, "No true Christian would murder a child." But not murdering children isn't a necessary condition of being a Christian, believing that Jesus is the Messiah is. People can have legitimate debates about what Jesus would say on the matter of child-killing, but I don't think it would make you any less a Christian in having a different opinion on the matter from others who believe that child-killing is wrong and that Jesus is the Messiah.

Really, I think the heart of the matter is the faithful are not a subset of the good, nor the good a subset of the faithful.
posted by ifandonlyif at 7:23 PM on October 17, 2009 [11 favorites]


To add to klangklangston's comment: Some people think you are judged on your good deeds. Killing your son isn't a good deed. Other people think you are judged on your faithfulness. Killing your son can be faithful. Being good is thinking that God won't stay your hand, so you don't try to kill your son. Being faithful is trying to kill your son because God told you to and nothing else matter. Who is better? People have wrestled with this idea before Kierkegaard. "Are things good because they are inherently good and so the Gods like them, or are things good only because the Gods like those particular things?
posted by ifandonlyif at 7:33 PM on October 17, 2009 [2 favorites]


The point of No True Scotsman is that it's a change in argument that's not valid, not the original argument.

in this case, the original argument is so western-centric, it's pretty much irrelevant anyway - basically, this seems like an attempt to view an african problem through a western anti-religious viewpoint

needless to say, no real understanding of the problem is going to be achieved by doing this
posted by pyramid termite at 7:35 PM on October 17, 2009


The flip side of this is when otherwise sane seeming people don't condemn literal witch hunts. I was dating a girl when George Bloomer came to speak at her evangelical church. She said some strange things, so I googled and saw his books, which make it pretty clear that he's not a well man. Neither she nor her church leaders seemed alarmed at the fact that he believes that when there are disagreements within a church it's because somebody is a witch using mind powers.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 7:40 PM on October 17, 2009


I saw this story a while back and it linked to video of villagers setting fire to those believed to be witches. They were in a trench and when they tried to crawl out, they were beaten with sticks and forced back into the trench. One man, flames flickering off of most of his body, seemed to prefer sitting on the edge of trench and waiting for the end to the beatings. A woman, also aflame, took her chances with the 100 or so villagers chanting and dancing and enjoying the cruelty to the 7 or 8 'witches' they were torturing. It was a community affair. I thought about linking to the videos back then, but decided against it. I've seen a lot of things in my day, and I'm not faint of heart; this was the most horrible thing I have ever seen and I wish I hadn't.

I don't think Christianty is, of itself, an explanation to what is going on there. It's something about us as human beings that's to blame.
posted by Mike Buechel at 7:50 PM on October 17, 2009 [3 favorites]


The idea of witchcraft is hardly new, but it has taken on new life recently partly because of a rapid growth in evangelical Christianity. Campaigners against the practice say around 15,000 children have been accused in two of Nigeria's 36 states over the past decade and around 1,000 have been murdered.

The article has one quote suggesting that evangelical churches are getting more involved in "witch" related activities. It provides no evidence that accusations of the practice of evil witchcraft are any more common now than they used to be. Having not shown that, it can't show that evangelicism is responsible for the increase. Surely it's a terrible thing that so many children have been accused and murdered, but the article doesn't prove or even support its anti-evangelical thesis. My understanding is that evangelical Christianity provides a context for a response to a continuing cultural phenomenon that isn't limited to Christianity, or even primarily Christian, but was also practiced under traditional African religion.
posted by Jahaza at 8:00 PM on October 17, 2009


Part of the problem is that, when you buy into Christianity, you've got this Old Testament stuff lingering around like a crappy childhood. The New Testament is simply not emphatic enough about the "Hey, I'm Jesus, this is the New Deal. Forget that old stuff, it no longer applies." approach — we are never quite sure what to ignore and what to keep. This leads to buffet Christianity, and some people pick out some weird things to put on their plate.

And simply discarding the Old Testament is not on the table. Who is comfortable with a God who is always right, but changes his mind? So you've got the whole witch thing available because of it (unfortunately, you can't even sell this as a translational deal and say, "They really meant 'poisoner of wells,' that's off the table). Plus, the area has a long-standing tradition of witch-believery, thus making Christianity just another handy excuse to do what they would like to do anyway.

For once, I'm giving Christianity a pass on this one.
posted by adipocere at 8:23 PM on October 17, 2009 [2 favorites]


It's something about us as human beings that's to blame.

The irony being that it is this very psychological insight into the human condition and the problem of evil that animates most of the great prophets, philosophers, religious thinkers, humanists, humanitarians: from Buddha to Socrates to Jesus to Gandhi.

If given a generous and sympathetic reading, these figures reveal a number of shared existential themes; one of which seems to say that in our capacity to commit cruelty, our preternatural destructiveness, our pride and egotism, our reckless inhumanity to one another, and our seemingly limitless ability to spread suffering, we humans are in desperate need of some genuine humility and compassion.
posted by HP LaserJet P10006 at 8:30 PM on October 17, 2009 [2 favorites]


An earlier study by Willis (1968) on cult activities among the Fipa of southwest Tanzania cites three sources of cultural stress leading to collective fear of witches: the generational conflict between progressive and traditional factions in villages, an economic strain owing to a land shortage, and religious differences between Christian and non-Christian. Richards's account of the Bamucapi, witch finders that originated in Malawi and spread to Zambia, Rhodesia, and Zaire, states that "economic and social changes have so shattered tribal institutions and moral codes that the result of white contact is in many cases an actual increase in the dread of witchcraft" (1935:330-332). [...] It has also been suggested that the recorded occurrence of pre-colonial witch hunts may also be traceable to social change and disorganization. (here)
posted by kid ichorous at 8:44 PM on October 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


This is horrible. I'm usually OK with people believing whatever they want, but that stops being OK when children get hurt because of beliefs.

Yeah, I'm with you.

Which is why I regard all religious education/indoctrination of children as child abuse.

A child is in no position to evaluate complex systems like religion, and make informed judgments about participating in a belief system. If a gay child is told that gay is evil and wrong, they are defenseless. Which is why, if you are going to partake of poison, you should do that as an adult - we wait until a person is 18 or 21 before we sell them cigarettes or alcohol. Or let them visit a bordello in Nevada. Or let them gamble or own a credit card. A parent who would force their child to do any of this would be engaged in child abuse.

And are there negative consequences to such child abuse? How about fucked up relationship to sex and procreation and bodily functions (Catholic guilt, is famous, but kids of fundamentalist Christians or Muslims are hardly better off), just to start. One can assemble a long list of violent abuse, such as the tremendous psychological trauma (Jesus Camp), countless "cults" (cult=religion, except for numbers of adherents) which explicitly exploit children, often sexually or mutilate them. Can it be actually deadly? How many gay children or teenagers have been driven to suicide by the religious poison of homophobia which they, as children defenselessly internalized? Mind you I'm only talking about stuff that is officially sanctioned by the very highest authorities of a given religion. I'm not even talking about free-lance abuse such as the Catholic orphanages in Ireland unleashed on generations of children.

So yeah, I'm with you when you say religion stops being OK "when children get hurt because of beliefs", like all forced religious "education" of kids before the age of 18. It is child abuse, and should be banned and such parents should be sent to prison - exactly as we'd do if they forced their kid smoke, shoot up drugs or gamble - I'd love that, but yes, I know. Well, a man can dream, of peace and justice and no religion forced upon children.
posted by VikingSword at 9:12 PM on October 17, 2009 [2 favorites]


It is child abuse, and should be banned and such parents should be sent to prison

Who gets to decide which worldviews are kosher for parents to teach their own children? How confident are you that your worldview would be the chosen one, and not the prison-bound one?

Seems like a terrible idea, actually.
posted by jsonic at 9:38 PM on October 17, 2009 [2 favorites]


I realize it's tempting to make this discussion into a referendum on religion in the abstract, but it's important to remember that the particular incidents in question occurred in Nigeria--a country in which few if any of the readymade prescriptions for change (see VikingSword's legal argument) one might apply in America or Europe would make any equivalent cultural, economic, or legal sense. How we would deal with witch burning or cliterectomy or whatnot in the U.S. vs. how it might best be dealt with in Nigeria, are really two very different sets of questions.
posted by HP LaserJet P10006 at 9:39 PM on October 17, 2009


Jesus is not down with hurting children, period.

Jesus never said anything about hurting gay people or about same-sex marriage, either. But we still have a lot of people in the world speaking in his name, claiming he held hateful views he did not actually hold, so as to justify their own hate. So it goes.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 9:47 PM on October 17, 2009 [5 favorites]


Who gets to decide which worldviews are kosher for parents to teach their own children? How confident are you that your worldview would be the chosen one, and not the prison-bound one?

We manage to do it at public schools, don't we? Same deal, but extend it to home. We can keep it up to 18 - just as compulsory education does. Then, after 18... you're an adult, and can go to church or a bordello with dad - I wouldn't, but some may choose so.
posted by VikingSword at 10:01 PM on October 17, 2009


Jesus is not down with hurting children, period.

If I recall correctly, Jesus wasn't particularly fond of organized religion either. That's mostly what got him into all that trouble at the end, yeah?
posted by ZenMasterThis at 10:09 PM on October 17, 2009 [8 favorites]


A child is in no position to evaluate complex systems like religion

But take a step back from that. A child is in no position to evaluate complex systems like ethics or morality. Are you suggesting that parents shouldn't try to teach the difference between right and wrong? Or, if that is too big/vague, socially acceptable behavior? Don't lie, don't cheat in school, don't steal, stand up for yourself, for that kid who is getting picked on, etc. Children don't just come up with what we think of as good character on their own. It's learned behavior. It's indoctrination. Of course, children raised by people who have beliefs different from your own are more likely to develop opinions different from your own. I don't think that reasonably qualifies as child abuse.
posted by ActingTheGoat at 10:30 PM on October 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


In a lot of ways, I think "Evangelical Christianity" and "witchcraft" might be distracting here. As has been observed elsewhere in this thread, this points to a problem larger than Christianity and witchcraft, this points to a problem closer to the core of human malfunction - that problem being this unfortunate habit of ours to take comfort and look for solutions in *~MAGIC~*

Humankind has ever been searching for a better understanding of the complex world we live in and, has long worshiped a God of the Gaps - that which is beyond our understanding is attributed to a supernatural being and, as our understanding of the physical laws that govern reality expands, more and more of these supernatural beings find themselves unemployed. But discovering and understanding these physical laws is a gradual, painstaking process, so there's always going to be a certain attraction to the quick and easy "ODIN DID IT" explanation. Plus, there's plenty about reality we still don't fully comprehend, so there's still a job market for deities, albeit a smaller and more competitive one than in the boom times of paganism. That's how we wind up in a world where John Hagee and the Hubble Telescope exist simultaneously.

Not only is our world complex, it is beyond frightening at times, especially when you start wondering what happens when you leave it or why your time in it is so brutal and difficult. People hunger for answers and science doesn't have all of them, not yet. For many, the waiting is too much.

Now, the setting of this heartbreaking story is a region with crushing, widespread poverty. As the article says, 80% of Nigeria's population tries to live on $2 a day. Suffice to say, this is a population all too eager to hear answers regarding their conditions and how to improve them that are clear and direct, that leave aside the many, many, many inequities that must be corrected in global trade before they shall know prosperity and all the endless layers of complexity that this entails. As ever, the practical, secular path to security, well-being and understanding doesn't have nearly the gut-level resonance of the MAGICAL SOLUTION.

Take another look at some of those pitches the various churches were making to potential congregants: "Poverty must catch fire," "Pray your way to riches," and, according to the Winner's Chapel, you can take part in the process "Where little shots become big shots in a short time." It's understandable that people would respond to such promises, considering their conditions, but THESE ARE NOT PROMISES THAT THESE INSTITUTIONS CAN KEEP.

A hitch in a magical recovery plan requires a magical explanation. Blaming other supernatural forces for the failure of a supernatural initiative is one of the oldest tricks in the book. This is older than Christianity, older than formal paganism. This is the classic stall tactic of everyone and anyone who ever stood before the desperate and the bewildered and offered them comfort from beyond: "Don't look at me and my deity - look at those fucks over there and their unclean practices! Let's denounce/sacrifice/conquer/burn them at the stake so we can get our superstitious stimulus plan back on track!"

It's beyond depressing to see this completely predictable tragedy play out again in a place which has already endured far, far more than its ration of suffering, several times over.
posted by EatTheWeak at 10:37 PM on October 17, 2009 [6 favorites]


I disagree, EatThisWeek, that what's actually occurring in Nigeria (as in, the actual incidents described in the FPP's link) offers a neat little parable about the dangers of magical thinking. Frankly, it seems like you are guilty of your own wishful thinking by implying that if only people were more rational, they would stop burning children (or whatnot). Human acts of cruelty are ubiquitous enough the world over, and happen regularly enough without any element of magic or religion involved, that we can safely assume that where human psychology is concerned there is no magic cure.
posted by HP LaserJet P10006 at 10:53 PM on October 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


We manage to do it at public schools, don't we? Same deal, but extend it to home. We can keep it up to 18 - just as compulsory education does.

That's pretty insane. Also compulsory education does not last until 18 in the U.S.
posted by delmoi at 11:02 PM on October 17, 2009


Compulsory education laws vary by state. It's 18 in California.
posted by ryanrs at 11:27 PM on October 17, 2009


Frankly, it seems like you are guilty of your own wishful thinking by implying that if only people were more rational, they would stop burning children

Perhaps. I certainly believe that practical help would do this region a lot more good than a whole bunch of churches. Of the many troubling passages in the FPP article, one that really jumped out at me was: Churches outnumber schools, clinics and banks put together. Many promise to solve parishioner's material worries as well as spiritual ones. Were this reversed, if schools outnumbered churches, yeah, I can't imagine similar atrocities being committed. I can buy a father so frightened of some god that he'd be willing to pour acid down his own son's throat. I just can't picture him doing the same in the name of literacy or macroeconomics, you know?

We're in agreement, though, on your last point: there is absolutely no magic cure for the complexities and malfunctions of human psychology - just the slow, steady grind towards better understanding of ourselves, our world and our fellow humans.
posted by EatTheWeak at 11:34 PM on October 17, 2009 [2 favorites]


(oh, damn it - this bit: Churches outnumber schools, clinics and banks put together. Many promise to solve parishioner's material worries as well as spiritual ones. Were this reversed, if schools outnumbered churches, was supposed to be in quote-indicating italics.)
posted by EatTheWeak at 11:35 PM on October 17, 2009


We manage to do it at public schools, don't we? Same deal, but extend it to home.

It's not the "same deal" at all.

The First Amendment: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof..."

Public schools, as government agents, are bound by the first part. Thus they try not to endorse any particular religion. A parent's right to raise their own children with religion is protected by the second part.
posted by jsonic at 11:49 PM on October 17, 2009


It's not the "same deal" at all.

The First Amendment: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof..."

Public schools, as government agents, are bound by the first part. Thus they try not to endorse any particular religion. A parent's right to raise their own children with religion is protected by the second part.


You're making a legal point about present law. Correct. I'm talking about changing the laws. Like we do so often. Even at the constitutional level. If we can - through legal means - have parents not force their kids into casinos and teach them to gamble at an early age or into a bar drinking - we can do the exact same thing with churches of any religion. We can say - religion, any religion, is too dangerous for a kid to be forcibly shanghaied into before they have the requisite maturity of intellect. Yes, they will still be exposed to the spectacle of religion, just like they are exposed to the existence of liquor stores and bars and drunks, and so on. And yes, some parents will secretly defy the law and poison and abuse their kids with religion, just as some parents sexually abuse their kids or share drugs with them or whatever. There will always be lawbreakers. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't have laws protecting kids from mental or physical torture and generally abuse. I'm sure most people today would find that position absurd and an intolerable interference with parental rights, but once upon a time most people sincerely believed in and practiced physical punishment on the principle that "spare the rod, spoil the child"; today in many Scandinavian countries (and not only), a parent can end up in prison for act of any corporal punishment - you can't strike a child... yet, not long ago - heck, even today many still believe "I can do as I wish, and this is only my parental right to discipline my child physically. Just like back in the day, a wife was property of the husband (and perhaps still is in some cultures), and it was ABSURD to suggest that a mere woman can have equal rights to a man, and how dare you INTERFERE IN FAMILY LIFE!!!!UNO!!! Things change. There's no doubt in my mind, that one day - I have no idea when, maybe 500 years from now, or maybe 80 - the fact that you can poison your child with religion will seem insanely abusive and will be strictly outlawed.

But take a step back from that. A child is in no position to evaluate complex systems like ethics or morality. Are you suggesting that parents shouldn't try to teach the difference between right and wrong? Or, if that is too big/vague, socially acceptable behavior? Don't lie, don't cheat in school, don't steal, stand up for yourself, for that kid who is getting picked on, etc. Children don't just come up with what we think of as good character on their own. It's learned behavior. It's indoctrination. Of course, children raised by people who have beliefs different from your own are more likely to develop opinions different from your own. I don't think that reasonably qualifies as child abuse.

True, but you can teach morality and ethics without reference to religion, other than perhaps in historical terms. Schools don't teach people to steal either and they are secular. You can have secular - even atheist - parents who nonetheless teach their kids ethics and all the things you mentioned without the slightest need to poison their kids with religion. Are atheist households deficient in any way? Now, instead of 10% (percentage of atheists in the U.S.?), we can try to have 100% of the parents do it (some countries may have a jump on us, if there are already, say 50% or whatever, atheists). A secular upbringing doesn't mean every kid gets raised in exactly the same way - every parent has their own philosophy of child-rearing - the only thing these parents share is that they do it without resorting to religion... just as religious parents - there too are all kinds, and all they share is some religious framework.

Again, it's a pipe dream today and for the foreseeable future... if you want to be a pessimist, you might say "forever". But it's the same with world peace. It's still a laudable ideal - abolish legalized child abuse. We did it with child labor. Then with physical punishment. Maybe one day... Heck, call me a dreamer and optimist.
posted by VikingSword at 12:56 AM on October 18, 2009 [1 favorite]


You're making a legal point about present law. Correct. I'm talking about changing the laws. Like we do so often.

Right, you're talking about changing the constitution to ban some types of religion, and bringing the government into the home to monitor what parents say to their children. Which is insane.

I have no idea when, maybe 500 years from now, or maybe 80 - the fact that you can poison your child with religion will seem insanely abusive and will be strictly outlawed.

80 years ago, people thought that it would be illegal to sell fruits and vegetables in the open air (rather then sealed in plastic or under glass), because of the germs.
posted by delmoi at 2:20 AM on October 18, 2009 [2 favorites]


ixohoxi: No true Scotsman.

Tiny, niggling point: it always annoys me when people bring up the "No True Scotsman" fallacy as if the form alone proved the fallacy. But it clearly doesn't; when a scientist is watching a stick, and the stick gets up and moves, he very rightly says, "no true stick would get up and walk away; that must be an insect." And if this happens again, he doesn't change his opinion about insects; he was right the first time, because he knows what an insect is and what a stick is. The "No True Scotsman" fallacy, when it's a fallacy at all, is really only a situation where people are willing to redefine something they identify with to eliminate characteristics they do not like. But it might very well be that someone has a correct idea of what a True Christian is – just as I can actually define what a "True Scotsman" is – and, while neither of those things really excludes being a bad person, it isn't at all a fallacy for me to use the words or the form. In fact, the "No True Scotsman" formulation is actually a rather sloppy formulation, and doesn't really describe a fallacy at all.
posted by koeselitz at 2:45 AM on October 18, 2009 [4 favorites]


What can an ordinary citizen in the U.S. DO about these abuses?
posted by agregoli at 7:43 AM on October 18, 2009


We have a specific instance of something terrible happening, and I would value a discussion of that, and suggestions as to what we can do.... Maybe it is all religion's fault. Maybe. But there must be something else to say on this topic.

It's really hard to have any other discussion of a single link about a sensational story of African "witchcraft" that gives no context for understanding how people come to these sorts of positions, but I'll give it a stab (with the caveat that while I am a scholar of "Africa", my speciality is in Ghana, not Nigeria, and I only tangentially study religion).

Think of the abortion debate in North America. We could boil it down by saying that much of the debate turns on people's ideas of when a human potential becomes a human being: is it conception? Birth? Sometime in the third semester? Views differ greatly, and this is not a question that can be settled rationally: whether you come to it from a religious standpoint or not, fundamentally a belief about what it means to be human and how a person comes to be a person must be invoked. However, most of us who grew up in the broadly Christian tradition of mainstream culture in North America believe that the human potential has become a human being by the time it is living independently of its mother's body. It is, at this point, a fully discrete social and legal entity, one that we refer to as a person.

Seing a newborn baby as a human being rather than a human potential is in part possible because of our ability to keep babies alive, even very weak and ill ones. We have a very low infant mortality rate. But imagine instead living in a situation in which the infant mortality rate is very high. A baby might seem much more like a potential person than a person in a situation where a lot of babies die. And indeed, there are many places in the world where a person goes through stages of personhood, where human potential is turned into human being more slowly than in modern, medicalized North America.

I've described this in an abstract and linear way, but of course the relationship between environment and belief isn't as simple as what I've described. Because, as I've said, interpreting when a human is a human is not a logical process. It can never be boiled down to an absolute and rational thing. That is why scientists, despite having a really detailed understanding of embryology, can't tell us definitively when humanity/personhood occurs. Only religious and/or moral/ethical frameworks can sort that out.

I think that one can understand the actions of witch hunters a little better if one considers that even though these are clearly children and clearly people to us, they may not be so clearly persons to the people involved. (And if you think it's horrifying that a society would be willing to consider some people to be not-people or to lose their personhood, I suggest you educate yourself a little about the treatment of mentally ill homeless people of North America.) Whether or not this, specifically, is the case for this situation (which as I said is not my area of expertise, and even if it was, the article gives no indication of which non-Chrisitian religions might be being invoked here), I wanted to bring this up to suggest that beliefs which may not be intrinsically harmful or irrational may in some circumstances become harmful to some people. We all have to decide, somehow, when a human potential becomes a human person in order to recognize, socially and legally, when an entity has the status of a human person, which is not intrinsically harmful or irrational; this can create situations in which some human potential is allowed to or caused to die which can certainly be harmful and irrational from the perspective of someone who sees that potential as a person.

So, putting that aside for a moment, I think the article is right to point to economic conditions as motivators, but it is unable to evoke the kind of uncertainty that exists when a tremendously rich country is filled with desperately poor people. Because this is what articles on Africa almost always miss: Africa is a rich place, full of both the kind of wealth that brings money and the kind of wealth that brings security (i.e. resources that can be sold and resources that can be used to meet people's needs for food and shelter). It defies explanation how one can sit in the middle of fields of gold and oil while suffering and struggling to get the little bit one needs to keep one going.

It defies explanation how sometimes the tiniest advantage rockets a person (and maybe their family) to wealth, while the people around them continue to struggle. One does not become wealthy (or secure) in Africa through merit, any more so than in North America, but it's so much more obvious that the path to security in Africa is linked to luck, advantage, and power. Much of this luck, advantage, and power are not readily seen; other times one can see that someone has become powerful at the expense of someone else. This, in combination with profound economic insecurity can breed fear.

So, into a world that is rational in its day-to-day moments but whose structure and processes can not be explained rationally, and into a world in which there are pre-existing notions about personhood that include witches, comes evangelical Christian ministries.

Now, I'm willing to believe that some of the missionaries that go to Africa are well meaning, but in my experience they propagate much of the worst Christianity has to offer. There have been a few distinct waves of Christian missions to Africa, and the relatively recent evangelical wave has caused a change in churches. Old established churches are struggling to keep members and changing their services to provide more of what evangelical churches provide (which is what the article refers to with it's comment about competition). Churches (in Ghana at least) were often rather rich as entities: they might take two or three collections during a service, a general collection for the church, a more specific one for a sick member or a charity, and a tithe of 10% of the income of whichever members felt they could do so. Churches provide a lot of the social security that we take for granted comes from our government. But churches are also big business in Africa, many of the largest buildings in a Ghanaian village or city will be churches, a monument of wealth surrounded by poverty.

There are most certainly people who see the wealth of churches and with specific, non-religious intention set out to make money by starting their own church. They play on people's fears, on their beliefs, and on the irrationality of power to create situations of danger that only they can alleviate. At a guess, the woman who performs non-violent free exorcisms is doing so from a genuine religious belief. The people who target vulnerable individuals and then bankrupt them are manipulating a social situation and a set of beliefs for economic advantage. Conflating those two things and damning them equally from afar does potentially more harm than good. In much the way that many Americans had concerns about Bush's government but were offended by non-nationals who attempted to join political campaigning, undifferentiated criticism from the North can have a galvanizing effect that makes internal dissent more difficult.

I think it's important to remember that Nigeria is a country of 150 million people. Even if the number of children attacked is high (and horrifying) in terms of absolutes, it's important not to assume that this is a common occurrence, or that it represents either a fundamental part of Nigerian belief systems or the most important threat to children's (and people's more generally) security.

I think that there are limited things that an individual can do to fix problems in Africa, particularly ones that are tangled up with beliefs and social practices, anymore than it was possible for Europeans to "fix" America's government. But there are ways in which our governments, and by extension, we, have contributed to the insensibility/irrationality of living a life surrounded by inaccessible wealth. And that is where we have a chance, perhaps, to do something so that the processes of power become more rational and thus more manageable in Africa.

So, if you want to do something, my suggestion is to start educating yourself about what kinds of restrictions international treaties put on African countries and get active with your government about things like debt forgiveness and fair trade. Because when governments have the freedom to create social safety nets for their people, people won't have to rely so much on churches for their security. And if wealth, and security, are spread around a little more easily, a climate of fear and danger will not be as easy to create. It may not be as satisfying as actually *doing something* that helps those children in particular, but it has far less chance of accidentally making things worse (I think).
posted by carmen at 8:21 AM on October 18, 2009 [21 favorites]


Wow, carmen, that was much better than the FPP article itself!
posted by EatTheWeak at 8:39 AM on October 18, 2009


If you want to fix Nigeria, my suggestion is legalize abortion.

PS -"Foxcroft, the head of Stepping Stones, said if the organization was able to collect membership fees, it could also police its members better." You can email him your bank details and in 4-6 weeks, your initial investment will be quadrupled as soon as his brother, a high Priest/local chief's assets are released by the bank.
posted by pick_the_flowers at 11:17 AM on October 18, 2009


Hey my toddler just learned that green means go and red means stop. Tomorrow we go to pick out a Ferrari.
posted by rahnefan at 11:30 AM on October 18, 2009


Hmm. Judeo-Christian religion certainly is a violent one, there's no question about that. Jesus brought a sword, not peace (in his own words). Anyone remember the plaque of the first born? That killed a heck of a lot of innocent children, didn't it? As did Sodom and Gomorrah. And the flood. Since Jesus is in three handy parts, don't you have to infer that he participated in all those acts? Or is the entire Hebrew Bible a wash, or what?

As I understand it, the coming of Jesus alters the laws, meaning you no longer have to get circumcised or avoid pork, but the history itself remains. Denying that history is a bit bizarre, if you're a true Christian.

If you teach people that this is "The Good Book" and everyone should turn to it for morality lessons, I don't know why anyone's surprised when violence breaks out.

That said: I'm not anti-religion at all. I'm anti-literalism. But if you're going to suggest that Jesus was a historical person, and that the story leading up to him is historical truth, and that the bible describes God's actual actions, you have a very bloody-thirsty, rather evil God. And that's something you're going to have to live with.

And you don't ever get to say, "no true Christian would harm a child." Because that would be demonstrably untrue.
posted by Hildegarde at 12:05 PM on October 18, 2009 [1 favorite]


Let me just say, by way of disclosure, I'm not an African but I live in Nigeria and have for several years, though I am not saying that makes me an expert, but I think it qualifies me as an informed participant in a conversation on this topic.

carmen, I think your post was great though I have some reservations about your suggestion that "personhood" may start later in Africa. That's the same argument that explains the reason why some naming ceremonies take place 7, 10, 40, etc. days after the birth of a child traditionally in many parts of Nigeria (I'm not so familiar with other African countries), right?

I'm not sold on it as it pertains to modern African life. I can remember meeting a very proud young mother at my mechanic's workshop once who was over the moon about her newborn. Couple of months later, I met her again and when I asked about the baby, she said, quite indifferently, he had died. Horrified, I asked her what happened and she said "He was not strong, and he died".

I could have interpreted that as her not having felt that her baby was a full human, but I didn't because it was obvious she was actually upset. I know many, many women who have suffered miscarriages (possibly due to botched illegal abortions which are extremely common) and who find that experience devastating, too. So I'm just not sure about that argument anymore.

As pointed out, Nigeria is a huge country and has many ethnic groups, all of which have their own approach to this topic. The phenomenon mentioned in the article is definitely more prevalent in the East, which is well known for infanticide - Mary Slessor, famed missionary, is credited with ending the practice of slaying of twins in the East a few decades ago. In Yorubaland (SouthWest), children are prized and treasured and babykillers are often lynched, even though the church industry is gigantic in that region. Hausaland in the North is predominantly muslim and even in the Bible Belt which runs through part of Hausaland, I doubt this kind of thing would fly.

Frankly, rahnefan, I think that legalizing abortion would solve a great deal of social and health-related ills in Nigeria. The current population, as carmen said, is about 150 million, almost half of which is under 18. Armed robbery is rampant, as is unemployment. As carmen also pointed out, meritocracy does not exist in Nigeria, corruption is normal. Saying "they should have a law about killing children because of witchcraft" is unhelpful because most police believe in witchcraft, or "juju" as it is known in Nigeria. Perhaps you read the BBC article about the goat held in police custody because he was believed to be a man? Ever read Freakonomics? I stand by my position that abortion would help this country.

I can back it up more, if you're interested.
posted by pick_the_flowers at 12:18 PM on October 18, 2009 [1 favorite]


My comment had nothing to do with abortion. Not touching that one.

I was making a (weak, I guess) statement about whether leaders or evangelicals should be so hasty to deliver sensitive doctrines (with historically violent interpretation) to peoples that might not be ready for it. You don't give a kid a sports car and you don't give the freshly baptized sermons about killing witches -- especially not there, evidently. My point being that it's not Christianity that should be blamed for this, it's the attitude "convert 'em all, let God sort 'em out."
posted by rahnefan at 6:17 PM on October 18, 2009


ixohoxi: It's pointless to argue about what is or isn't "real" Christianity (or any other faith), because it's not an objective thing that can be measured.

That's ridiculous. I could just as easily say that it's pointless to wonder what the nature of up and down quarks are, since to my eye they really aren't objective things which can be measured but rather completely abstract. Just because you don't believe that there's any definition of 'Christian' beyond 'someone who claims to follow the teachings in a set of books referred to as the New Testament' doesn't mean it simply isn't so. Reductio ad 'I don't want to have to think about it' is not a valid form of argument.
posted by koeselitz at 11:20 PM on October 18, 2009


Hildegarde: Hmm. Judeo-Christian religion certainly is a violent one, there's no question about that. Jesus brought a sword, not peace (in his own words).

But that's just a silly reading of the New Testament. Context isn't meaningless, you know. The Christ did bring a sword – in the sense that he cut off the world from the brutal, repressive pagan faiths that had held grip on Europe for a thousand years before – and it's clear that that's what he was talking about since he professes in the same passage to have come to commit the ultimate sin in the eyes of those pagan faiths by destroying the familial faith when he says: "I will turn son against father and father against son." Simple "let's cut the heads off of babies because it's great fun" violence is clearly not expressed or implied, and only someone reading even more selectively than these latter-day heretics who dress themselves up as 'evangelicals' could see it that way.

... Anyone remember the plaque of the first born? That killed a heck of a lot of innocent children, didn't it? As did Sodom and Gomorrah. And the flood.

There are things in the world that aren't easy; one of them is the problem of getting rid of evil in society. Of the things you list, I can say that the killing of those in Sodom and Gommorah was not only clearly justified by any moral standard but redundantly so; the whole discussion between God and Abraham concerning "gee, it would be nice if we could save the city if there were even a few good people there" makes that clear, and while I might not have the balls to do it myself it's at least feasible to consider wiping out a society that believes in rape of strangers for fun and amusement. (Let's keep in mind that Sodom and Gommorah weren't destroyed over anything like homosexuality but rather because everyone in both cities fully supported their rapists.) As for the flood and the plague: if you can't see the metaphorical and symbolic sense in which a cleansing of society makes sense, well... but I suspect you can. More below.

As I understand it, the coming of Jesus alters the laws, meaning you no longer have to get circumcised or avoid pork, but the history itself remains. Denying that history is a bit bizarre, if you're a true Christian.

Then you are claiming that most religious people throughout history have been either bizarre or not 'true Christians.' You should know that the authorities who are perceived as 'orthodox' in both the Jewish and Christian faiths - the Church fathers through to St Thomas Aquinas on the Christian side and Rabbi Moses Maimonides (the greatest Rabbi of the Jewish tradition) and Yehuda Ha'Levi on the Jewish side - have all stated that the Torah is in large part metaphorical. That's just tradition: the book is metaphorical. Maimonides, in certain passages which form the foundation of modern Judaism, is at particular pains to point out that anyone who believes that certain parts of the Torah are literally true (specifically, those parts which talk about God as a big, happy guy with a body and a beard and a jolly red nose and what have you) is not a true Jew. St Aquinas concurs with him. In arguing this Maimonides points out that it would be somewhat insane to claim that the Torah is literally true since it actually starts with two completely contradictory creation stories.

In fact, the idea that the Bible is literally true from cover to cover is a modern innovation introduced by relatively insane backwoods American 'christians' who wouldn't know their ass from a hole in the ground if it jumped up and bit them.

If you teach people that this is "The Good Book" and everyone should turn to it for morality lessons, I don't know why anyone's surprised when violence breaks out.

Come on now; isn't that obviously simplistic? To claim that a book that discusses violence is actively encouraging violence? You may as well claim that video games cause crime; or, to use my own particular favorite example, you may as well worry aloud that letting high school students read William Faulkner novels is certain to lead to a rise in the rate of incest.

And you don't ever get to say, "no true Christian would harm a child." Because that would be demonstrably untrue.

It's only 'demonstrably untrue' after you explain to us your magical formula for identifying a true Christian. I'm still waiting.
posted by koeselitz at 11:43 PM on October 18, 2009 [2 favorites]


In response to

"We have a specific instance of something terrible happening, ... Maybe it is all religion's fault. Maybe. But there must be something else to say on this topic."
AND
"What can an ordinary citizen in the U.S. DO about these abuses?"

If you want to help protect "child witches" in the specific states discussed in Nigeria, you can go to the Stepping Stones Nigeria website and donate, sign their petition for better government protection, or just help spread the word. Seriously, it's not hard to figure out how to help if you're really interested in this tragedy.

FYI, pick_the_flowers misinterpreted the quotation he used: "Foxcroft, the head of Stepping Stones, said if the organization was able to collect membership fees, it could also police its members better." Stepping Stones is NOT a church. Foxcraft was referring to a shady religious group when he said "the organization" was not being transparent about membership - not referring to his own group that is helping to protect the accused witches and shame the priests who are doing it.
posted by ATXile at 7:10 AM on October 19, 2009


In fact, the idea that the Bible is literally true from cover to cover is a modern innovation introduced by relatively insane backwoods American 'christians' held by a basically insignifigant number of people even among American fundamentalists who wouldn't know their ass from a hole in the ground if it jumped up and bit them.
Even if they say that, they usually mean something different than you do by "literally".
posted by Jahaza at 4:45 PM on October 19, 2009


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