Religion Secularism

Two “strange world” observations

First, as Beth Erickson has already noted elsewhere on the network, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association has removed Mormonism from its list of cult organisations and offered a sort-of endorsement for Romney. From what I can recall of Mormon doctrine, this is quite plainly absurd, in that the Jesus that Christians think so significant is not at all the same Jesus that Mormons also think very significant. The Mormon Jesus is a man – the brother of Lucifer – who becomes a god through good works, instead of a child born of immaculate conception,  and divine from the get-go. For evangelicals, believing in Jesus is quite an important feature of salvation, but in order for this inclusion of Mormonism into the fold to work, the “Jesus” that you’re supposed to believe in would have to be quite a loosely-defined character.

So yes, as The Guardian puts it, this move by Billy Graham does “risk his legacy”. Of course, since the anti-Semitic diatribes on Nixon’s recordings were released, it’s a wonder that anyone can speak of his legacy at all without using scare-quotes. Leaving that aside, though, he risks his legacy not only for the faith-internal reasons that The Guardian’s columnist points out (that Graham risks alienating black liberal Christians, among other things), but also because whatever you think of the man (perhaps, that he’s overly materialistic), he’s at least been firm on representing a reasonably orthodox evangelical Christian line.

What I mean is that, while religion is increasingly being spoken of as being about values rather than literal beliefs in this or that aspect of the divine (as we saw, for example, in the recent RDFS survey on the beliefs of Christians in the UK), Graham has always appeared to be more of a traditionalist when it comes to beliefs. He’s resolutely anti-abortion and anti-gay marriage, which makes him a Republican favourite but also easy to square with conservative readings of the Bible. So in endorsing Romney, and being willing to recognise Mormons as roughly Christian, he’s actually sacrificing quite a firm political stance (in terms of the politics of religion, I mean), and siding with the more modern trends in religion (at least in the UK and US), where what you believe matters far less than some sort of nebulous concept of “being a nice person”.

Second, there’s something far stranger – a South African Labour Court has just ruled that being “badly tormented by [your] ancestors” is a legitimate reason to book time off work. When Johannah Mmelodi wanted to go to a course on traditional healing for a month instead of going to work, she was refused permission to do so by her employers. She attended anyway, and dropped off a note from a sangoma (witch-doctor/traditional healer) attesting to the torment-by-ancestors. The ancestors are, of course, dead. And yes, our Labour Court ruled that she couldn’t be fired, because “South Africa [is] a land of many cultures and that traditional Western culture could not be allowed to dominate the African culture of many of the country’s inhabitants”.

When your courts embrace cultural relativism to this degree, it’s cause for serious concern. The one glimmer of hope I’m holding on to is that the full judgement (which I haven’t yet had access to) makes some sense out of what seems a bizarre ruling. I’ll let you know once I do, but I can’t say I’m optimistic – we do take cultural sensitivity quite seriously here. And much of the time, we should – at least in civic life. The courts? I’m not so sure.

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.

2 replies on “Two “strange world” observations”

I think most psychologists and psychiatrists in SA use DSM-IV or ICD-10 for diagnosing mental disorders. DSM-IV already has a number of culturally specific disorders and complaints such as “Brain Fag” and “Koro”. I’m not sure about ICD-10. I’d be interested to know if there are any specific to southern Africa listed or if there will be with DSM-V.
Ukuthwasa, for instance, while perhaps not always an unwanted experience, can apparently be quite debilitating. I wonder if there are any mental health professionals in SA who have given sick notes for such culturally specific problems? Is it conceivable that a diagnosis for a culture bound syndrome might be given, treatment sought, medical aid claims made and so on? Fascinating! My initial feeling is that this has to be nonsense, but I’m not sure if I’m being prejudiced. If a mental health professional believes someone is delusional and books them off sick, is it the same thing as book them off sick when they believe they have been called by the ancestors to be a Sangoma and are experiencing a “creative illness”? How one measures whether distress is real and to what extent it causes a debilitating condition… seems to subjective in both cases.

Some very interesting issues indeed, Dassie. Though I imagine the distress is “real” in the vast majority of cases, even if it’s induced by some confusion or other. So, we could have the situation whereby it’s legitimate to book someone off work on the grounds of something they do feel, but wouldn’t in an ideal world (at least, my version of it). The courts are a related, but separate, question – should they be neutral on this? And as you say, is there a valid distinction to be made between various (culturally specific) forms of delusion here? Fascinating indeed, and you’ve highlighted to me that my initial reaction had some prejudice in it – I think I’m programmed to see certain classified disorders as more serious than others, perhaps on shaky ground.

On the DSM or ICD – I’ll want to re-look that now. Even though there are culturally-specific disorders listed, I remember them being synonyms, rather than unique disorders.

Comments are closed.