Burn the witch!

Originally published in the Daily Maverick.

witch1Gauteng education MEC Barbara Creecy recently did a superb job of name-checking existing policy while simultaneously ignoring it. On March 18, a new element of the Department of Education’s partnership with faith-based organisations (FBO) was announced: the development of an “Anti-Harmful Religious Practices strategy”.

The policy I refer to is the National Policy on Religion Education, a mostly superb document that appears to be routinely ignored, judging from the dozens of emails I’ve received from parents across the country, whose children are pressured to participate in religious (usually Christian) activities at public schools.

Kader Asmal’s foreword to that policy reminds public schools that they are obliged to be “neither negative nor hostile towards any religion or faith and … not discriminate against anyone”, and calls for “a profound appreciation of spirituality and religion in its many manifestations, …  but does not impose these”.

What, then, is an MEC for education doing endorsing a FBO initiative to “guide and protect learners from spiritual attacks”, making specific reference to the “harmful aspects of the occult and Satanism”? Three fundamental blunders are evident here, two of which constitute violations of the policy. The third is simple mindless populism, which no policy currently prohibits.

First, if we’re going to address the harmful aspects of religion – an initiative I’d wholeheartedly endorse – we shouldn’t do so by rigging the game in favour of one religion or a handful of religions over others. Regardless of the fact that South Africa is estimated to contain a (significant) majority of Christians, freedom of religion means that we should treat them all with an equally critical mindset, at least as far as government is concerned.

So, if we are to look at the harmful aspects of religion, it would be incumbent on us to consider not only possibly harms emanating from “the occult”, but also possible harms emanating from the two religions Creecy is partnering with.  Some Muslims might, after all, interpret An-Nisa, verse 34 to legitimise domestic violence: “As to those women on whose part ye fear disloyalty and ill-conduct, admonish them (first), (Next), refuse to share their beds, (And last) beat them (lightly); but if they return to obedience, seek not against them Means (of annoyance): For Allah is Most High, great (above you all).”

As for the Christian FBO’s, we can easily find examples of scriptures encouraging slavery or homophobia, the latter of which is a clear – and prevalent – example of a harm emanating from religion. I’d hope that the focus on Satanism and the occult doesn’t prevent Creecy and her FBO’s from reminding pupils to avoid those evils too. If your response to this is that the more mainstream religions are somehow different, you’re falling prey to the same mindless populist impulse Creecy is, as I’ll get to in a moment.

A broader inconsistency in how these harms (or alleged harms, in some cases) are being addressed is the legitimising of the concept of “spiritual attacks” at all. There are those of us who think the mere idea of a spiritual dimension to life (by which I mean a non-physical element to personal identity, rather than anything to do with meaning, wonder, transcendence and so forth) potentially harmful.

This is because of at least two reasons: first in giving young folk a very early and very seductive introduction to magic; and second in giving humans in general an excuse to treat each other and themselves less well than they could otherwise do. In believing that this mortal life is the only time I have, I feel motivated to make the most of it, and that certainly can’t include pleasing metaphysical creatures, seeing as there are more than enough creatures around me whose lives I can impact for better or worse.

These sorts of issues involve debating what the various religions believe, not only around aspects such as souls, but also in terms of their attitudes towards gender equality, sexual orientation and the like. This brings me to the second apparent violation of the policy – evident in the fact that neither is it the case that any representatives of Satanism or “the occult” were ever consulted, and nor is it the case that they form part of the FBO grouping tasked with developing a strategy that “should be aligned with department’s Education Religion Policy in Public Schools”.

I agree with Creecy that it should be aligned, which is why it’s peculiar for the representation she’s implicitly endorsed to have picked sides in favour of the mainstream religions, and specifically excluded the religions identified as presenting the largest threats to spiritual and other welfare.

Not being given the chance to defend yourself, while simultaneously being singled out as a threat, hardly seems in accord with the National Policy’s instruction that the state “must maintain parity of esteem with respect to religion, religious or secular beliefs in all of its public institutions, including its public schools”. Trash-talking someone, or in this case some religious beliefs, without giving them a chance to defend themselves provides evidence of something quite contrary to “parity of esteem”.

And third, Creecy and the FBO’s are talking trash. Some occult practitioners (and here I include those who speak to gods in prayer) engage in harmful behaviour, but it is untrue and unfair for us to generalise from a small sample, picked mostly in an effort to justify our prejudices, and to conclude that the entire religion was harmful.

If I were to assert that Christians are homophobes or that Muslims are misogynists by reference to various scriptures, I’d expect responses of the sort that claim texts are being misinterpreted, or that things have changed, or that “we’re not all like that”. This is because some folk pick one (plausible) interpretation and others pick another (plausible) interpretation of a text.

Well, let’s extend the same courtesy to other religions as you’d like extended to your own. The next time you hear about Kobus Jonker being hauled out to nod knowingly at a pentagram and a headless rabbit, perhaps try to remember rule 10 of the Satanic version of the 10 Commandments, which reads “Do not kill non-human animals unless you are attacked or for your food”.

The caricatures that atheists like myself are sometimes guilty of when it comes to the mainstream religions should not serve as an excuse for those mainstream religions to caricature the marginal ones. Instructions against things like rape and murder are prominent in the Satanic Bible, and just as Christians feel justified in disowning Pat Robertson or Errol Naidoo, we should grant Satanists the same privilege.

I’m not disputing that religion can cause harm, and more importantly in this context, that religions like Satanism can (indirectly) cause severe harms, through confused or alienated schoolchildren like Morne Harmse picking up on them as a vehicle for rebellion. So an anti-harmful strategy for religion is to my mind a sensible thing.

But in developing such a strategy, there’s no need to add to the harms by misrepresenting other religions, just because that fits into the caricature confirming the biases of the mainstream ones, and more notably, the biases towards the mainstream ones.

And, when we speak of spiritual harms – especially when we speak as government officials – we need to also keep in mind those of us who think it is the mere idea of spirits that gets this trouble started in the first place.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.