(Detective) Lethobo: the Profits from Doom

Charismatic pastors have long been abusing the loyalty and faith of devout Christians, and I’m sure this happens in other religions also. In South Africa, though, we’ve recently heard of some quite bizarre examples.

Penuel Mnguni telling people they should eat snakes and Lesego Daniel making a sacrament of grass and petrol come immediately to mind. And then there are the more traditional forms of exploitation, like Pastor Mboro telling parishioners that he can get them to heaven for R 10 000 (or, secure them a VIP seat next to Moses, Abraham and even Jesus for R 30 000). Continue reading “(Detective) Lethobo: the Profits from Doom”

Mother Teresa and charitable criticism

Nobody should be surprised to hear that I’m an atheist (or an agnostic, depending on who I’m talking to). But for many a year now, I’ve deplored the lack of humanism displayed by many of my fellow atheists, expressed in a contempt for religion and the religious.

There’s no question in my mind that religion is not the ideal way to substantiate moral claims, or to create community, and especially not to resolve matters of empirical fact. Despite this, most religious people are just like the rest of us in wanting to live better lives and treat each other well, and much of the time, their religion is no obstacle – and even an advantage – in the quest to do so. Continue reading “Mother Teresa and charitable criticism”

Humanity before religion

Originally published in the Mail&Guardian.

Religion matters as much today as it ever did. It matters to a slowly but steadily increasing proportion of the world’s population, even though it is in decline in Japan, the United States, Vietnam, Germany, France and the United Kingdom. Everywhere else, religious adherence is increasing, with Pew Research data identifying Islam as the fastest-growing religion, expected to catch up with Christianity in 2050. Continue reading “Humanity before religion”

Concern for effective rhetoric versus tone-policing

This notion will hopefully strike most of you as obvious, but how we express ourselves matters, at least if you care for being heard. The examples you choose to make a point, and the style in which you deliver that point, can mark you out as either interested in discussion/persuasion, or as simply wanting to show your interlocutor that she is wrong. Continue reading “Concern for effective rhetoric versus tone-policing”

Religious freedom in the firing line

Gateway News, the ‘South African Christian News Portal’, is always a good place to find over-reaction, misrepresentation, and unfounded panic, for example this account of ‘militant atheist groups‘ that are (shock, horror!) trying to stop Joshua Generation Church from endorsing corporal punishment.

A recent Gateway News post by Adv Nadene Badenhorst, legal counsel of FOR SA, catalogues some of the ways in which religion will find itself “in the firing line” during 2016. But a cursory look at the cases cited reveals the opposite, in that it’s religious privilege that she’s concerned about, rather than religious freedom. Continue reading “Religious freedom in the firing line”

The Lord also needs good PR

Church of England logoAn amusing Sunday outrage (not an outrage to equal Cecil the Lion or anything – just a little one) today stems from the three leading cinema chains in the UK refusing to flight an advertisement that features the Lord’s Prayer, on the grounds that it might cause offence.

You can read about the ad (and watch it) on the guardian’s website, but it’s not the ad itself that I want to talk about. My concern here is the Church’s motivation for trying to place the ad, and their reaction to the decision not to flight it. The reaction includes:

The church warned that the move could have a ‘chilling effect on free speech’ and said it was at a loss to understand the logic behind the decision.

The logic behind the decision is quite simple. Sections 2.1.3 and 2.2.2 of Digital Cinema Media’s advertising policy (pdf) read as follows:

To be approved, an Advertisement must:
2.1.3 not in the reasonable opinion of DCM constitute Political or Religious Advertising;

2.2 For the purposes of clause 2.1.3 above, Political or Religious Advertising means:
2.2.2 advertising which wholly or partly advertises any religion, faith or equivalent systems of belief (including any absence of belief)

In other words, the advertisement was always going to be rejected, until the relevant policy is amended. The Church of England might not have known this, but once it was communicated to them, they would clearly have no grounds for complaint regarding the decision (which, per 2.2.2, would also apply to atheist advertising).

They could think the policy wrong, or might find instances of it being applied inconsistently. But that isn’t what they are arguing. They are arguing that “the Lord’s Prayer is prayed by billions of people across the globe every day and in this country has been part of everyday life for centuries” – with the implication being that it can’t possibly be considered offensive.

I wouldn’t find it offensive to find myself watching an ad promoting prayer. Hell, sometimes it might end up being the best part of that day’s cinema experience. But it’s precisely to avoid having to cater for subjective notions of offence that Digital Cinema Media have made a blanket decision to avoid religious (and political) advertising.

But here’s the thing: the Church of England might also have been fully aware of the policy, and be leveraging this outrage for promotional purposes. After all, the guardian reports that “the advert is to promote a new Church of England website, JustPray.uk, encouraging people to pray”.

And what better way of getting great publicity for your website than to have it become a poster-child for a “chilling effect on free speech”?

Charlie Charlie, wherefore art thou?

Ferlon Christians, the Western Cape Leader of the African Christian Democratic Party, would have you believe that the problem with the occult – especially in schools – is that we don’t take it seriously enough. In fact, the problem is the opposite one – we take the occult far too seriously.

“We” take it seriously enough, in fact, that our Department of Basic Education, which sometimes can’t even provide textbooks or toilets to schools, are dispatching “officials to investigate‚ together with school authorities‚ the ‘Charlie Charlie Challenge’”.

For those of you who aren’t Error Naidoo or Harry Potter, you can catch up on what the ‘Charlie Charlie’ challenge is by watching eNCA’s “full investigation”. Alternatively, you can take my word for the fact that it’s a parlour game involving creating a yes/no grid, stacking two pencils on top of each other, and then freaking out when gravity causes the pencils to move.

The freaking out is as a result of the “successful” summoning of a Mexican spirit who is mysteriously called Charlie, in honour of the many thousands of Mexicans who are called Charlie. You ask Charlie a question, and then the pencils move to provide a yes or no answer.

And, the freaking out on the part of Mr Christians, the Department of Basic Education and Bored from Bonteheuwel, that frequent caller to talk-radio, is due to simple superstition and ignorance.

You’d think that schools and national Departments of Education would use this as an opportunity to teach basic physics, as well as truths about human psychology such as confirmation bias. Instead, we read of school principals saying that “any pupil caught playing it will be expelled”, and of school pupils reporting suicides and school walls collapsing as a result of this game.

Well, this is what happens when you take a perfectly explicable phenomenon and add wacko metaphysics involving demons and curses to your explanation of it, just as we used to do with something like the Ouija board.

Seriously, parents, Mr Christians and the Department of Basic Education – if kids kill themselves as a result of playing Charlie Charlie, it’s not a Mexican demon’s fault. It’s the fault of a worldview detached from reality, and an education system that tolerates and even encourages that worldview.

In other words, and to some extent, it’s your fault, and blaming imaginary Mexican demons makes as much sense as blaming Harry Potter would.

Here’s a Whatsapp message a friend forwarded to me, which is apparently being circulated in one school:

Parents, guardians and learners.
This is extremely important.
I have received a letter from a school today encouraging parents to speak to there children about the Demonic Game Charlie Charlie they are playing on the schools nowadays.

A grade 4 boy fainted while playing this game and his pencil started spinning. When he woke up the pencil was still spinning.

Then I received a Whatsapp message of an incident that took place in Tafelsig Mitchells Plain today regarding this Demonic Game Charlie Charlie. Some boys placed two pens across each other and called out Charlie Charlie. The pens started to spin by itself and stopped by pointing at one boy.

This boy just started to bleed from his head profusely. The condition of the boy is still unknown.

According to our Ulama and experts in Jinn, its a demon (very dangerous jinn) from Mexico moving around schools inciting youngsters to play this game in order to harm them. This could even result in their death. Plz inform as many as you can.

And, for more hyperbole, consider this official press statement from the aforementioned ACDP Provincial Leader, Mr Christians:

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Let them eat snakes: CRL Commission and the harms of religion

If part of your spiritual “healing method” involves having your parishioners strip naked, it’s pretty likely that you’re a charlatan. Not only in the sense that you’re selling fake goods – because that’s the case for most religious activity – but more importantly also in the sense that you know you’re doing so.

If you add making your parishioners eat snakes, and trying to have them eat rocks that you’ve transformed into bread to the mix, I think there’s no room left for doubt – you’re not only a charlatan, but you’re also an exploitative one, willing to leverage the desperation of others into personal financial gain.

Your name in this case is Penuel Mnguni, and you appear to have learnt these tricks from Lesego Daniel, who chose to make his followers eat grass and drink gasoline rather than consume snakes and rocks.

Mnguni was arrested for animal cruelty for feeding his congregation live snakes (which would apparently turn into chocolates – praise the Lord!), and later released on bail. But the examples of him and Lesego Daniel are perhaps two among many, and this possibility has led the Commission With An Improbably Long Name to launch an inquiry.

The Chairperson of the commission otherwise known as the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities (CRL Rights Commission) says:

We’re not saying that the commercialisation of religion is a bad thing, but we want to understand how and what it is,” said commission chairperson Thoko Mkhwanazi-Xaluva.

When churches start selling pap, T-shirts and water after services… or when people stop taking their HIV or blood pressure medicine because traditional healers say ‘drink my water, it will heal you’, and charge people for it, it becomes problematic.

We need to look at these various miracle claims and see what form of legal structure is in place.

And if any of you are wondering how you’re supposed to tell the difference between a miracle claim such as the one “whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3.16) and snakes turning into chocolates, the CRL Commission shares your concern.

If you listen to this interview with CRL Councillor Edward Masadza, you’ll hear that they are very aware of the need to “distinguish miracles from magic“, which sounds about as difficult a task as distinguishing acid from LSD to me.

But that’s partly because from a secular and skeptical point of view, all these sorts of claims sound equally implausible to me – and this brings me to the main point of this post. If we are going to investigate the potential harms of religion, “traditional” or “established” forms of it can’t get a pass on scrutiny.

For example, an earlier interview I heard on this topic was very concerned with the agency of the parishioners, and how they might have been duped rather than being willing participants in snake-eating or gasoline-drinking.

Yes, that’s a vital concern, and a concern I share. But if you are going to take that concern seriously, should the investigation not also include thinking about whether we should ban religious circumcision? An 8 day-old can hardly be a consenting party, after all.

Or what about the prosperity gospel of Ray McCauley and others, who encourage people to impoverish themselves in exchange for hypothetical future financial blessings from God?

But I don’t think the establishment churches have any reason to be concerned, no matter whether they endorse genital mutilation or financial exploitation. Because:

Mkhwanazi-Xaluva was at pains to explain that the investigation would be done in accordance with the SA Charter of Religious Rights and Freedom. She said they were not doing this to infringe on the constitutional right to freedom of religion.

Notice that Charter she mentions there? It’s madly conservative, and has absolutely zero legal standing. This is the second time I’ve encountered a government agency thinking that it’s official policy, but last time I was fortunately enough part of the conversation, and able to correct the misconception.

Despite this, the Charter is perceived to have standing, and investigations like the one the CRL is embarking on begins with the premise that religious practices need to be treated with a default attitude of solemnity and respect. And that’s not true – or rather, it shouldn’t be true – they should be as open to criticism, ridicule, and legal action as, for example, a gym should be for throwing out a member who makes a political statement.

At some point, South Africans will need to have a serious and long-overdue conversation about a different sort of privilege to the one we talk about every day – namely white privilege. And that is the privilege of religion, when set against documents like the Bill of Rights.

White privilege is real, even if the concept is itself sometimes abused to drown out criticism. Religious privilege is real also, and manifests in cases like a court allowing a church to fire a gay pastor after she married her same-sex pastor, or in student leaders being able to argue that homophobia isn’t homophobia if that homophobia stems from religious conviction.

Here’s Pierre de Vos with more examples and analysis of religious privilege in the law, in case you’re interested. But to get back to the CRL Commission: here’s hoping that they are objective in their work, and treat all religions with equal respect – but also that they respect agency, common sense, and sound ethical reasoning most of all.

[Postscript: this week’s episode of John Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight” is a natural fit on the theme of the prosperity gospel.]