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).
Then along comes Prophet (Detective) Lethobo. I don’t know why he includes “Detective” in his Facebook handle, but he does. Lethobo’s innovation in the game of exploiting the vulnerable is to spray them with insecticide, including spraying said insecticide in their faces.
This is not a joke, or at least it’s not funny, because the product in question (DOOM, or RAID for American readers) can cause demonstrable harm to humans (and insects, obviously, and as intended).
So how should we respond to these cases, and to the problem in general? I think that there is a case for regulation here, but I don’t support mockery of those who fall victim to charlatans. The reasons why people fall prey to these sorts of exploitations are myriad, but I’m pretty sure that we stand a better chance of helping them avoid this exploitation through being empathetic, rather than ridiculing them.
The charlatans themselves, however, are preying on people of good faith, who often simply lack the skepticism to separate religious claims made in good faith (even if mistaken) from those made in the services of reinforcing the cult-leader status of a particular charismatic priest.
The critique of Lethobo’s actions can, in fact, begin from a religious perspective, never mind the perspective of secular humanists (and atheists) like myself.
If you listen to Lethobo explaining what he does, you’d learn that he starts by putting demons into people, because (as I’m sure you know) they feed on flesh, and so become manifest when in a “host”. I’d imagine that even a Christian should be asking: how is it Biblically-supported to start with putting demons into people, seeing as that sounds quite a bit like necromancy, which is forbidden on more than one occasion in the Bible.
This fact alone should make us wonder about whether “informed consent” to this (potential) harm might be present in these parishioners. If he is pretending to be Christian, Lethobo is immediately making it clear that he is a false prophet and a charlatan.
So, self-regulation of religion (in other words, churches regulating themselves, and/or representative bodies for groups of churches regulating their sectors) is already apparently necessary, even if we don’t see the need for external (government) regulation.
On the moral issues, one important one, as mentioned above, is found in our response to these cases, and to the victims of this sort of abuse. A second one is in the dilemma of balancing a commitment to human freedom and agency with the question of when – if ever – paternalism is justified.
Besides libertarians, most people think liberty can justifiably be curtailed by making people wear helmets and seatbelts, because we think they underestimate risk and the negative consequences of poor choices. As mentioned above, the issue is informed consent: intervention is often considered permissible in cases of dimished capacity.
We don’t need to think people are “stupid” or “infantile” to think that they might have diminished capacity in these areas – we can simply accept the reality that poverty might result in poor educations and economic desperation, opening up the door for exploitation of this sort.
We also don’t need to engage in a slippery-slope argument regarding the harms of religion in general, or accusations that all religious people are “brainwashed” or somesuch. For many religious folks, religion is a matter of choice, and their congregations offer “what it says on the tin”, which is community, support, and reinforcement of faith without physical or mental abuse.
Yes, there are some analogies that do work. As I’ve argued in the past, an investigation into harmful religious practices must include discussion of infant circumcision, and it must include criticising the prosperity gospel, as well as the all-too-common homophobia, racism and sexism we sometimes see in churches.
But for all of these cases, why should religion not be treated in the same fashion as any other sort of organised gathering of people? Health and safety standards apply in a workplace. Constitutional rights are thought to apply in the home, in the school, and in the gym. If religion wants to be exempt from this, the response that comes immediately to mind is: check your privilege.
It’s not as if the state wants to get “into the weeds” of religious praxis. The point is simple: government is no less or no more competent to interfere here as in any other context, because all they would (ideally) seek to do is to protect the rights of parishioners.
While individuals can waive their rights to exercise some Constitutional protections (for example, the right to occupational freedom when taking a job), they cannot waive the indirect application of the Bill of Rights, such as the right to dignity in S10 of the Bill of Rights, or freedom and dignity in S12.
“Religious freedom” (Section 15) is not a value that trumps all others, no matter how important it might be to you, or to your church. The false impression that it’s sacrosanct is a hangover from a time before a secular, constitutional democracy, and we need to start changing and challenging these norms.
The CRL Commission have now released their report into harmful religious practices and the “commercialisation” of religion. As with the Hate Crimes and Hate Speech Bill, you still have time (until 28 February 2017) to submit your comments on what they have proposed.
They propose a structure for regulating religious bodies, and it seems mostly sensible, except for the fact that it appeals (on more than one occasion) to the “Charter of Religious Rights and Freedoms” which a) has zero legal standing, and b) is quite mad.
Go read it, and have your say (email [email protected]) if you care about these issues. And remember: We shouldn’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Some progress is better than none, so if there are low-hanging fruit available – like getting some regulation rather than none – I’d argue for plucking that fruit, even if inconsistencies and problems remain.
The CRL has, by the way, responded to the Lethobo case with this statement, which – given that they have no legal authority over him – is pretty much as strong as you could hope it to be.
To conclude, here’s the recording of a conversation I had on this matter earlier today, with Eusebius McKaiser on CapeTalk and Radio702.
Also published on Medium.