Well. Minister of Basic Education Angie Motshekga and I had a rather interesting morning. I was part of the group that drafted a charter on rights and responsibilities for religious conduct at schools, and today we (and other interested parties) gathered to discuss the charter, and to hear the Minister’s thoughts on “harmful religious practices” in schools.
Instead, what we mostly got was lessons in how many demons are out there, hungering for your kids’ brains souls, and how only Jesus can save them.
In light of events such as the death of Kirsty Theologo, who was set alight in what many described as a “Satanic ritual”, the Department of Basic Education has set up a “harmful religious practices task team”, charged with developing a charter of rights and responsibilities related to religious practices in schools and other learning centers.
Many of you would know my position on these “Satanic” murders (and other crimes) already, which in short asks us to make a distinction between confused kids, operating in a manner they think licensed by their (mis)understanding of “the occult”, and the many completely sincere, peaceful Wiccans, pagans, Satanists etc., who neither participate nor condone criminal acts such as these.
So when I heard about this task team, I requested that I be included, as I feared that regardless of the (completely appropriate) intent to keep schoolchildren safe, that the eventual charter might have ended up demonising anything other than the mainstream religions in an effort to do so, and also perpetuating misunderstanding of what they actually stand for.
Freedom of religion is for all, including those who subscribe to a religion you don’t like, and those who reject religion in its entirety. Likewise, the law applies to us all – and as I wrote at the time of the Harmse case, it might add little explanatory value to appeal to demons or saints when people do as Harmse did, because:
instead of reflecting on what they did in terms of simple or more typical motivations like anger, attention-seeking, and alienation, they may now start thinking more about nonsense metaphysics, and that could potentially lead them to further confusion and irrationality down the road.
So, a brief report back from Monday’s meeting of the task team, which I ended up chairing the bulk of when Mr. Njobe, the regular chair, had to leave early. First, context: this charter on rights and responsibilities is not aimed at changing what schools teach. As much as that needs attention, in that schools routinely violate the National Policy on Religion in Education, it falls outside our mandate.
What the charter aims to speak to is the conduct of religious organisations who work with schoolchildren in educational settings – so, religious organisations who speak at assemblies, run youth-preparedness classes, host summer camps and the like.
Second, for those interested in process, we’re going to workshop the draft we came up with on Monday by email, before meeting again in January. The draft that comes out of that will be the subject of consultation with interested parties in all Provinces. Then, the document goes to the Minister of Basic Education, before being discussed at a national consultative conference, scheduled for 12 February 2015. I’ll post updates on Synapses, and also on Twitter.
Lastly, some snippets of news on how the day’s proceedings went: firstly, I was rather alarmed to find that the draft document we had in front of us referred to “the existing South African Charter of Religious Rights and Freedoms” as a foundational document, and also quoted this charter extensively. Given that the charter in question has never been adopted officially, and is also a completely bonkers document, this seemed rather unfortunate.
However, I’m very pleased to report that once I informed the group that the document a) had no standing, and (b) was quite mad, it was quickly dropped in its entirety, as were the bulk of the quotes from it that had made their way into our document.
Then, the group was very supportive of a number of crucial insertions into the text that I proposed, which I’ll simply list:
frequent insertions of language referring not only to those of different faiths, but also to those who don’t have any interest in faith-based activities
the stipulation that parents need to consult with their children before putting them into or taking them out of faith-based activities
the rejection of any kind of proscription against blaspemy
that the right to “religious dignity” in no way prohibits robust debate and criticism
forbidding religious organisations from seeking financial support, or recruiting membership, from learners
and lastly, encouraging critical and free debate on matters of faith
There are also all sorts of problematic things that we agreed to delete from the draft charter, that I’ll not list here. These sorts of documents are never perfect, but as the saying goes, we should not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. And in sum, I think we had a good day, and I look forward to continued involvement with the project.
Decades 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.
This is a column about child abusers and terrorists, otherwise known as Catholics and Muslims. It’s important that I not speak to any Catholics or Muslims in the course of planning and writing this column, because it’s just possible that they might introduce annoying details that intrude upon the prejudices my column will play into.
Details they might introduce could include the fact that even if some Catholics were paedophiles and some Muslims terrorists, that fact would be a contingent rather than a necessary one. In other words, this means that you’re not obliged to be a child abuser by virtue of your Catholicism or a terrorist by virtue of being a Muslim.
In fact, it might well be the case that you’re explicitly told to not be those things. If you claim to be acting in accordance with that religion, many would be quick to point out that you harbour a misconception in that regard, and that you’re simply a child-abuser or terrorist, no matter how grandiose you think your motivations are.
It might also be the case that if a writer, or radio or TV presenter insisted on referring to those crimes as “Muslim crimes” or “Catholic crimes” that people would correct you, saying that a caricature is a lazy and inaccurate way to present a situation.
Hell, they might even say that they – as Catholics or Muslims – feel offended at the misrepresentation, and that you’re undermining their efforts to fight the harmful stereotypes about them that are prevalent in much media. You might be called an Islamophobe, and whatever one might call the Catholic equivalent of that.
Satanists, on the other hand, are fair game. Even though we are ostensibly guaranteed freedom of religion by our Constitution, a minority religion like Satanism (and to a lesser extent, various Pagan religions) are almost universally a shorthand for evil – largely because what people understand by “Satanism” is exactly what Christians would want it to be.
In other words, media discourse (and therefore, public understanding) around Satanism is akin to reading a Tottenham Hotspur supporter’s analysis of Arsenal’s virtues (for those who don’t know football, this is sort of like asking a Soviet prisoner to recommend accommodation in the Gulag).
For a religion that exists in multiple forms in any case, understanding it through the lens of its strongest critic can never conduce to a sensible reading. And sadly, it’s exactly the Christian reading – with its concepts of “devils”, “evil”, and “sacrifice”, that give rise to confused and troubled kids deciding that it’s time to skin a rabbit or set fire to a friend, as happened to Kirsty Theologo.
The killers in this case say as much, citing a Christian text as inspiration for their deeds. Tellingly, they don’t cite any Satanic sources or doctrine, and the reason for this is blindingly obvious: they have absolutely no idea of what Satanism is, outside of the caricature of it that has been created by Christians, and then reinforced by a largely secular media.
And instead of talking to Satanists, those who report on these sorts of things tend to talk to clergy or the likes of Donker Jonker, whose career progression from Ghostbuster to homeopath would come as little surprise to those of us who’ve always found him about as reasonable as Deepak Chopra, or perhaps a talking parrot.
Or you’ll hear from someone who has lived through some personal hell involving drugs, or rape, or both – and who identified that trauma as owing to Satanism, simply because their abuser wore too much eyeliner and listened to heavy metal. Saying it doesn’t make it so, and we should be more careful to avoid harmful stereotyping of a minority religion.
Whether of the atheistic or theistic variety, sacrifices are a very uncommon ritual for Satanists. Where sacrifices are performed, they would be of non-human animals rather than people – behaviour that is fairly common in this country of ours. Contrary to competing propaganda, the members of the largest Satanic church (the Church of Satan) don’t even believe that Satan exists, so would have no reason to kill anyone to curry favour with Him.
Of course much Satanic discourse, and even some dogma, is in response to the characterisations of Satan in the Bible. Satanism as a religion (or a set of religions) would surely not exist without Christianity. But this doesn’t mean that all or any of the things Christians might say about what Satanists do or believe are true, or that there is any more reason for these views to be truer than any other views on the topic.
These distinctions are important for reasons other than simply avoiding hyperbole, and encouraging responsible journalism. Just as putting up with offensive speech is where we demonstrate our full commitment to freedom, respecting the most downtrodden religions is where we get to earn respect for our religion, if we have one.
Even more important, though, is the contribution sober discourse on these sorts of topics can play towards addressing genuine problems rather than fantastical ones. It’s not ideal to be living in a country where an MEC for Education can propose task-forces against “the occult”, because if it’s children with psychological issues you’re trying to help, looking for occult causes is looking in the wrong place.
Likewise, we waste time in courts, or in policing, when we entertain fantasies regarding supernatural agents being responsible for a tragedy. As soon as someone introduces those variables, it’s already clear that regardless of whether they need to be incarcerated, they also need counselling and/or medication. There’s no point in wasting court time hearing about it, though, unless the courts have some sort of deal with the tabloids that we’re unaware of.
This isn’t to trivialise the crimes committed in the name of Satanism in the least. It’s exactly because they are committed in the name of a confused understanding of Satanism that it’s important to address the confusions. Both so that we can more readily address the root causes of the crimes, and also for the same reasons that it’s wrong to stigmatise Muslims as terrorists.
After all, freedom of religion doesn’t mean you get a free pass on lying about your competition.
Gauteng 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.
In August 2008, an angry 18 year-old schoolboy in Krugersdorp killed a fellow pupil with an ornamental sword, bought by his father 3 or 4 years previous to the incident. The schoolboy, Morne Harmse, also attempted to kill a three other people during what some papers referred to as his “rampage”, including another pupil and two gardeners.
The reason I’m writing about this nearly a year after the incident is that sentencing is due to occur this coming Monday (see end of post for a correction of this date), and the newspapers are reporting that “expert witnesses”, including “occult crime specialists”, will be called to testify before sentencing. At this point, you’d be justified in wondering what the hell an “occult crime specialist” is, and how the testimony of one could possibly add value in a case like this (or any case, for that matter).