I remain mystified why The New York Times continues to use Tanya Luhrmann, an anthropologist at Stanford University, as a regular op-ed columnist. Although she may not be a believer, when she writes about religion she is devoted to explaining why faith is good or useful. When she says anything else, it’s mundane. But one thing she rarely does is to point out the dangers of faith.
There’s a small exception to this in her December 28 column, “When demons are real,” about African Pentecostal Christians’ belief in demons, but the bad stuff is outweighed by her explanation of why those beliefs are useful psychological tools.
Her subject is Ghana, the world’s most religious country (the Christian Science Monitor reports a poll showing that the percentage of nonbelievers is zero), with 70% of the inhabitants Christian and the rest of other faiths. Luhrmann attended one of the many all-night “revivals” in Accra, much of which involved excoriating demons, which those in attendance consider real. (Luhmann adds the frightening statistic that 57% of Americans also believe in demons.)
(By the way, if one included sub-Saharan African countries like Ghana in the worldwide positive correlation between religiosity and social dysfunctionality, the correlation would be even more striking, for sub-Saharan countries are both highly religious and highly dysfunctional.)
Luhrmann’s title should have been “When demons seem real,” but of course she doesn’t want to judge them as illusory. She is, after all, an anthropologist, and it’s presumably not kosher to pass judgment on such things. And besides, belief in demons serves a useful purpose (Luhrmann’s metier is always to point out the utility of faith).
J. Kwabena Asamoah-Gyadu, a professor at Trinity Theological Seminary in Legon, Ghana, argues that these churches have spread so rapidly because African traditional religion envisions a world dense with dark spirits from which people must protect themselves, and these new churches take this evil seriously in a way that many earlier missionizing Christianities did not. Indeed, I have been at a Christian service in Accra with thousands of people shouting: “The witches will die! They will die! Die! Die!” With the pastor roaring, “This is a war zone!”
Most of us know what this “demonizing” has resulted in: horrible killings, expulsion of children from homes, and so on, but Luhrmann barely mentions this. All she says is this:
But it is also true that an external agent gives you something — and often, someone — to identify as nonhuman. In West Africa, witches are people, and sometimes, other people kill them or drive them from their homes.
Yes, “sometimes” other people kill them or drive them from their homes. “Sometimes.” This is about as much of a downside as Lurhmann can muster (the other downsides of African Pentecostal Christianity include helping spread HIV and AIDS by urging the afflicted to go off their drugs, for God will cure them, and, in the past, encouraging the genocide in Rwanda).
Luhrmann goes on, helpfully, to tell us how demons can be useful even if we don’t believe that they’re real. The following lame discussion is unworthy of an undergraduate paper, much less a column by a professional anthropologist.
. . . One way to think about demons (if you happen not to believe in supernatural evil) is that they are a way of representing human hatred, rage and failure — the stuff we all set out to exorcize in our New Year’s resolutions. The anthropologist Gananath Obeyesekere, who grew up in Sri Lanka, got a Ph.D. from the University of Washington and, eventually, a job at Princeton, once remarked that all humans deal with demons. (He was quoting Dostoyevsky’s “Brothers Karamazov” — “In every man, of course, a demon lies hidden.”) The only question, he said, was whether the demons were located in the mind, where Freud placed them, or in the world. It is possible that identifying your envy as external and alien makes it easier to quell.
Do Luhrmann or Obeyeskere really think that the presence of real demons in the world is a viable question?
Finally, after downplaying the hundreds of murders and child expulsions done under a false belief in demons, Luhrmann raises what she sees as the really serious problems of such belief:
In an April poll conducted by Public Policy Polling, over one in 10 Americans were confident that Barack Obama was the Antichrist — and the Antichrist is, as it happens, associated with war in the Middle East. If those people think that demons are real, they don’t mean that Obama is misguided, confused or mistaken. They mean that he is real, inhuman evil.
That is a terrifying thought.
If those people think that demons are real. We don’t know that, but Luhrmann makes the assumption. But I seriously doubt that more than 10% of American think that Obama is “inhuman.” This is simply a lame segue between African demons and the President, a way to say something when you have nothing to say.
But at last we have an editorial comment by anthropologist Luhrmann! How terrifying it is that 10% of American think that Obama is the Antichrist! If the murder of large groups of Africans is as terrifying as Obama’s demonization, Luhrmann doesn’t tell us; she says onl that y “sometimes, other people kill them or drive them from their homes”
This is writing and thinking at its most mundane. Luhrmann’s analysis is superficial and her writing wooden. There is nothing in her piece that makes you think, and that’s because she really has nothing to say.
Why on earth does the New York Times pay her to churn out stuff like this? And why, if she’s an objective anthropologist who does not judge the social phenomena she observes, why does she pronounce the demonization of Obama “terrifying” but says nothing about the genuine harm that comes to demonized Africans? Does her moral relativism begin only at the U.S. border?
The commenters on Lurhmann’s piece are in fact much savvier than she is. Many of them point out the connection between poverty and superstition; even more note that demon-belief is one of the great evils of modern religion.
Here are three such comments:
- mirele, Mesa, AZIt’s hard for me to take this op-ed seriously when Ms. Lurhman [sic] barely mentions how “witches are people” and yet fails to acknowledge that there is a serious problem with children being called witches, forced out of their families and communities and sometimes even killed. This is not a small problem. BBC 3 broadcast a documentary last May called “Branded a Witch” and noted there are thousands of children kicked out of their homes because they were labeled a witch by these religious deliverance specialists. And it’s spreading into the United Kingdom and the USA. Witchfinder General Helen Ukpabio of Nigeria was supposed to spread her gospel of rooting out the witches in Houston in early 2012, but there was some controversy and no idea whether she actually made it there. But this stuff is HERE and children are suffering. Why did you not mention it, Ms. Luhrman?
- GAM, Denton, MD
I wish we could focus more on the sources of fear and desperation that empower such hate-creating, demonizing religion. Even discussing demons and evangelical tribalism in isolation, as this article does, only further empowers it by adding to our irrational fear …fear of the irrational. If you want to draw attention to hate-mongering religiosity, then please mention (at least) the societal conditions that drive people to demonize each other as an act of survival: ideological politics; a growing awareness of inequality through global connectedness; dwindling resources for an ever-increasing population; etc.
Organized religion can be a source of community and comfort, but can also provide justification for the oldest solution to society’s problems: tribal warfare. To evoke the emotional fear without also evoking the rational mind only makes the situation worse.
And the best one:
- Quodlibet, CT
Luhrmann’s religious/superstitious bias makes it impossible for her to be objective. For example, when she says: “People say that the boundary between the supernatural and the natural is thinner there”, she *assumes* that there exists a supernatural, and that its qualities can be measured and debated.
Is this the sort of medieval thinking that the NYT wants to promote?
All religious beliefs and behaviors are based on irrational superstition, despite Luhrmann’s efforts to convince us otherwise.
She rationalizes the beliefs or behaviors she encounters in order (it seems) to minimize their ridiculousness and align them more closely with Western Christian sensibilities. But when we lend credence to irrational beliefs, we also endorse the irrational behaviors they engender, and some of these are destructive. Is it OK to believe in demons? Sure, pray all night if you want. OK to believe in witches? No, because some people kill “witches,” even children. OK to believe in the word of an infallible god? OK, because the god says “thou shalt not kill,” OK to believe in an infallible god? No, because the god says “stone your child if he curses you.” Who decides what is OK or not OK? Luhrmann?
Why has this series of essays–most of which offer broad conclusions drawn only from anecdotal observations–continued? Even as opinion pieces, this series is not worthy of the NYT and its readers. Discuss religion? Yes, and with vigor! But surely we can do so with more depth and substance.
The New York Times counters its liberal columnists (Paul Krugman, Maureen Dowd) with conservative ones (Ross Douthat). Why doesn’t it offer a humanistic palliative to Tanya Luhrmann? For, in the end, Lurhmann’s puerile lucubrations serve only to perpetuate and justify the superstitions that keep the world divided and ridden with inequality.
Addendum: From the Oxford English Dictionary (which contains no entry for “soft peddle”: