Superstition is not culture

I’m not sure where this blog is going. To be honest this started as a way to organize some of my thoughts on some issues that I think are important, and a way to comment on some of the stuff I saw going on around me. It always blows me away whenever a friend or acquaintance says to me “I read your blog” – I never really imagined that anyone would bother to read the random cognitive ejaculations that I put up on the internet on a regular basis, at least not beyond my Facebook friends who creep my profile in the morning. However, a handful of people who are complete strangers to me read this stuff, which is a head trip for me.

Another way you know that you’re making it as a blogger is when people start sending you links to blog about. So I must give a hat tip to Fred Bremmer (who is certainly not a stranger to me) for bringing this article to my attention:

There is a great thudding taboo in any discussion of Africa. Western journalists and aid workers see it everywhere, yet it is nowhere in our coverage back home. We don’t want to talk about it. We don’t know how to. We smother it in silence, even though it is one of the most vivid and vibrant and violent parts of African life. We are afraid—of being misunderstood, or of sounding like our own ugliest ancestors. The suppressed topic? The African belief in spirits and spells and ancestors and black magic.

What follows is a dissection and examination of a serious problem in any culture, but one that is particularly pronounced in the continent of Africa – the role that belief in spirits plays in the quality of life of the people there. Those of us who are aware of European and Western bias and colonial arrogance are often loath to criticize the practices in other countries. After all, who is to say our ways are better than theirs? Isn’t it sheer paternalism on our part to presume to criticize another culture’s practices? Maybe we have something to learn from other ways of doing things!

Unfortunately, this line of thinking has paralyzed into a kind of arch-liberal refusal to even appear to criticize dangerous practices:

Soothsayers demand money for their “powers,” like the one who tells Naipaul that there are curses preventing his daughter from getting married and if he wants them lifted he’ll have to pay. It licenses bigotry. A community can announce that a malaria outbreak is due to the old women of the village waging witchcraft, and slaughter them. It licenses some deranged delusions. During the war in Congo, a soothsayer announced that you could be cured of HIV if you ate a pygmy. I visited a pygmy village where several men had “disappeared” as a result.

If your neighbour is about to feed his kids cyanide to “cleanse” them of “toxins”, is there really a virtue in standing aside and allowing him to do so out of some kind of misguided respect for his beliefs and his right to decide what is best for his kids? Should our oh-so-tolerant sensibilities extend to idly abetting murder? Of course not, and I can’t imagine any rational person suggesting otherwise. The debate is not, or at least should not be, about whether to intervene; it should be about how to intervene. Again from the article, contrast this approach:

Juliana Bernard is an ordinary young African woman who knew, from childhood, that claims of black magic and witchcraft were false and could be debunked. She told me: “If I can understand [germ theory], so can everybody else in this country. They are no different to me.” So she set up a group who traveled from village to village, offering the people a deal: For just one month, take these medicines and these vaccinations, and leave the “witches” alone to do whatever they want without persecution. See what happens. If people stop getting sick, you’ll know my theories about germs are right, and you can forget about the evil spirits.

Just this small dose of rationality—offered by one African to another—had revolutionary effects. Of course the superstitions didn’t vanish, but now they were contested, and the rationalist alternative had acquired passionate defenders in every community. I watched as village after village had vigorous debates, with the soothsayers suddenly having to justify themselves for the first time and facing accusations of being frauds and liars.

And this one:

On a trip to Tanzania, I saw one governmental campaign to stamp out the old beliefs in action when I went to visit a soothsayer deep in the forest. Eager to steer people toward real doctors for proper treatment—a good idea, but there are almost none in the area—the army had turned up that morning and smashed up her temple until it was rubble. She was sobbing and wailing in the wreckage. “My ancestors lived here, but now their spirits have been released into the air! They are homeless! They are lost!” she cried.

Once again, there is a clear right and wrong here – one of these approaches works and the other does not. If we, with the best of intentions, rush in to places and smash superstition to bits, we remove the symptom without addressing the cause. However, when rational discussion is allowed to take place, the dialogue and cultural understanding of these superstitions can change. This is not to say that we shouldn’t vigorously oppose superstition in its various guises or speak out against it whenever possible, but that mandating disbelief is just as dangerous as mandating belief.

This article is about Africa, but of course my response to it is not really. While I am concerned for my African brothers and sisters, I am not from Africa. I am from Canada, where our own particular brand of superstition rages apace. We can look to the African struggle against superstition as a model for our own (albeit down-scaled) problems here. Destroying the religious infrastructure is not only unethical, it is unproductive. What has to happen is that people are encouraged to think critically about all topics, and that the privilege that religion currently enjoys be removed.

Returning to Africa for a moment, I’m sure there are some bleeding hearts among my readers who are happy to decry my paternalism – who am I to pass judgment on another culture? I encourage you to read the following:

The final time I saw Juliana, she told me, “When I go to a village where an old woman has been hacked to pieces, should I say, ‘This is the African way, forget about it?’ I am an African. The murdered woman was an African. It is not our way. If you ignore this fact, you ignore us, and you ignore our struggle.”

It is equally paternalistic to say “well rationality and science are all well and good for us, but Africans should have to deal with superstition.” We have a moral duty to promote the truth as best we know it, and to instruct others in the use of tools that have been observed to work.

TL/DR: Those who fear being overly paternalistic when it comes to the superstitions present in other individuals and cultures risk being equally paternalistic on the other side when they ignore the consequences of doing nothing.

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