Religion Skepticism

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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Politics Religion Secularism

Occult crime unit – offensive to common sense and to morality

The following piece was originally published on GroundUp, and is republished here with their permission.

Vampire CopsDecades after its formation, the Occult-Related Crime Unit (ORCU, founded by Kobus “Donker” Jonker in 1992) continues to waste public resources, misdirect police attention, and stigmatise young people who are by and large more misunderstood than malignant.

Amongst all the crimes that we can speculate police in this unit might have seen, there’s one we can be sure of – and it’s one that they are complicit in. The crime in question is against common sense and morality, and is vested in the reinforcing of a Christian evangelical “Satanic Panic”.

In the context of South Africa’s constitutionally-protected freedom of religion, restricting membership of a police unit to only Christians – and dedicating that unit to protecting a Christian version of reality – is itself worthy of special attention as an occult-related crime.

Because a unit can’t investigate itself, I’d ask the Minister of Police to consider funding a new Occult-Related-Related Crimes Unit, which I volunteer to lead. Our mission? To be ruthless in pursuing crimes related to simplistic, moralising, and religiously prejudiced views of crime, society at large, and especially the youth.

Even on the very fuzzy definition of “occult” used by ORCU, too few such crimes occur to merit the existence of a dedicated unit. But it is in the definition of these crimes, as well as the background metaphysics and psychology, that ORCU starts to appear just as spooky as the crimes and motivations ORCU exists to combat.

In response (I presume) to a fairly constant barrage of criticism on social media, the South African Police Service (SAPS) removed the web page that gave us our best insight into how a unit in a 21st-century police force is being guided by ideas from the Dark Ages.

But thanks to the Wayback Machine, we can see not only that “Child has an interest in computer” is a sign that said child might be involved in a cult, but also that this and other equally ridiculous diagnostic advice has remained unchanged since September 2004 (the archived page from then – the earliest date the page was captured – being identical to the one that was removed in November 2013).

I don’t mean to dispute that adolescents, and others, commit crimes in the service of motivations they themselves think of as occult. But when they do so, why is it that this motivation is singled out for special attention? We don’t have a jealousy-related crimes unit, or a greed-related, tender-related, BEE-related, or alien-related unit – even though all of these provide possible motivations to commit crimes, mostly with far greater regularity than the occult would.

Then, if we find that a crime is committed because the guilty party thought themselves under some supernatural instruction, we know full well what to do next: arrange for that person to get the psychological help they clearly need, alongside whatever other sentence is appropriate.

Diagnosis and treatment of this particular confusion is not within the typical police-person’s field of expertise, perhaps especially when that police-person is selected explicitly because they hold a competing – and no less bizarre, to some – set of metaphysical beliefs.

As mentioned above, we have freedom of religion in South Africa. You can be a Satanist if you like, and if you were refused employment on those grounds, the person refusing you would be acting illegally. Hell (sorry), refusing you entry into ORCU would probably be illegal too.

But because of the strongly Christian bias of ORCU, and government in general, you’d of course keep your exercising of freedom of religion to yourself. If you’re a child, though – especially a child unfortunate enough to have parents who take SAPS’s word for these things – you might find yourself described as a Satanist or cult member through no fault of your own.

The warning signs for parents include your using a computer, engaging in sexual activity, watching horror movies, losing your sense of humour and “rejecting parental values”. In other words, being a teenager is a warning sign. Make sure to only part your hair to the right, because “draping hair across the left eye” is another dead giveaway.

It’s also important that you avoid getting a nickname at school, because “phone calls from persons requesting to speak with someone other than your child’s name” is apparently a warning sign for parents that you’re being contacted by your “satanic/demonic name”.

The document also speaks of cults, that come in “religion-based, personality, or secular” versions. I can’t imagine what a secular cult might be, but suspect it has something to do with Idols, or MasterChef, given that cults can involve “unique games”, “dress codes” and “chanting and singing”.

More seriously: these attempted analyses of occult motive are premised in an occult view themselves, namely that of Christianity. The occult, and what is problematic about it, is being defined in a completely partisan way, by an agency of a Government committed to freedom of religion.

It is undeniable that some practitioners of any given occult view engage in harmful behaviour. It would nevertheless be untrue and unfair for us to generalise from those cases, concluding that the entire set of occult practises should be criminalised – especially if we do so from a position of known bias.

Lastly, the vulnerable group here is the youth, who are already besieged by insecurity around their identities. The ORCU document told parents – in a country where homophobia is virtually endorsed by the President, and corrective rapes a scourge – that “child experiences sudden gender confusion” is a warning sign of the occult.

It’s therefore not simply the case that ORCU is a waste of resources that could better be deployed elsewhere. The unit, and its core beliefs, are themselves so offensive to common sense and morality that one might call it a crime.

Daily Maverick Politics Religion

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.