Tuesday, January 26, 2010

From Satanism Libel to Blood Libel: This Time, It’s Coming from Haitians

The right-wing evangelical defamation of Voodoo does not end with the misrepresentation of the Bois Caïman gathering as a Satanic pact: it includes the accusation of the ritual sacrifice of human beings, and the propagators of the libel include Haiti’s ambassador to the United States.

In doing the research for my blog entry “The Right-Wing Evangelical Libel against Haiti,” I was reminded at times of the infamous blood libels against my own people, the Jews. For the enlightenment of any reader not familiar with this quaint and venerable practice (do I have to explain that I am speaking ironically? I suppose I must, to prevent stupid misinterpretation. All right, then: I am, or rather was just now, speaking ironically), I will explain how it works. A gentile, usually a Christian boy, is found dead, or disappears, or is believed to have disappeared. (An actual human disappearance, or even a specific identity for the one supposedly missing, is not necessary for the proceeding.) The story is then spread that the victim was abducted by Jews who used him for a ritual sacrifice—insert here details of crucifixion or whatever else excites violent indignation—and drank his blood or used it in making matzah. Attacks on Jews, ranging from harrassment to mass killing and expulsion, usually follow. The great age of blood libels was in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, but they continue to this day. Forebears of mine suffered under them (though as far as I know they were not physically attacked or killed) in Rhodes and Damascus in the year 1840. Needless to say, the practice reflects more on its Christian inventors, who celebrate the onetime sacrifice of a human being by (at least in some denominations) ritually drinking his blood, than on the victims, whose law expressly forbids them to consume even the blood of animals (and no, human blood, even one’s own, does not get a pass).

The lie spread by right-wing evangelical Christians that Haiti was born of a pact with the devil, and more generally that Haitian Voodoo is a form of Satanism, struck me as similar to the anti-Jewish blood libel in that both are cases in which people of strongly held but narrow, ill-founded, and ill-informed opinions project their superstitious fears upon others. In the end, though, I did not include this comparison in the piece, as it seemed to me a bit of a stretch. For one thing, it does not seem to be a libel against Haitians or vodouisants to say that the fabled meeting at Bois Caïman involved the ritual sacrifice of a pig and the drinking of its blood: there is historical evidence of such an event, and besides that, so far as I know, Haitians by and large find nothing offensive in the idea. (This Haitian writer deems the ritual as recounted in the historical sources “a traditional Dahomean blood oath,” Dahomean religion being one of the African sources of Haitian Voodoo.) For another thing, what evangelicals impose on the story to defame Voodoo is not the sacrifice of an animal but the idea of a pact with the devil—hardly as inflammatory a charge as attributing to someone the ritual murder of a child and the drinking of its blood. (Some Haitians have been reported to believe the meeting at Bois Caïman to have involved the sacrifice of a human being: a black slave in some versions, a French colonial soldier in others. See Markel Thylefors, “‘Our Government is in Bwa Kayiman’: A Vodou Ceremony in 1791 and its Contemporary Significations,” Stockholm Review of Latin American Studies, No. 4, March 2009 (PDF), p. 79. But even the evangelicals have not, so far as I know, stooped so low as to try to get people to believe this.)

I was disconcerted, however, when I happened on an article published in the New York Sun on August 19, 2003 under the title “Disturbing Disclosures of Human Sacrifice” (for the moment I withhold the identity of the writer; the article can be found on line, but, apart from the version available through the Lexis service, which I quote here, only in an unreliable altered version). The article begins:
In the wake of several defections from the embattled Haitian regime, some disturbing disclosures about alleged human sacrifice have thrown a new light on the ruling authorities in Haiti.

Executions early in the year 2000, prior to the fraudulent elections of that summer and fall, were intended to ensure the return of Jean-Bertrand Aristide to the presidency he had reluctantly relinquished in February 1996. So said Johnny Occilius, a member of the mayoralty of Cite Soleil, who defected last month.

Among the most scandalous of his disclosures was the gruesome sacrifice of the first baby of a young mother, Nanoune Myrthil. The date was important, Mr. Occilius said, in an interview. It was February 29, the last day in a month that will recur in four years. And “the lamb” must have been a first-born baby. Thus, the Myrthil baby was “at the right place at the wrong time,” Mr. Occilius said. The administrator of the State University Hospital in Port-au-Prince, also known as General Hospital, Marie-Antoinette Gauthier, made possible the snatching of the baby only 72 hours after birth.

Somewhere in the countryside north of the capital, the sacrifice took place that same night. The live baby was crushed in a mortar with a heavy pestle. Officiating was Voodoo sorcerer Henri Antoine from St. Marc, the same thug who founded the pro-Aristide so-called popular organization “Bale Wouze,” or “Clean Sweep” in English. . . .

Meanwhile, Jean Michel Mercier, former assistant mayor of Port-au-Prince, confirmed the disclosures of Mr. Occilius and added that the execution last year of a powerful leader of a “popular organization” was connected to the baby crime.
A baby stolen from the hospital and crushed to death in a mortar under the supervision of a Voodoo sorcerer! And this in a report in The New York Sun—not exactly a publication of the first rank, but still a newspaper with some professional standards, one would think. Initially, my search for confirmation or disconfirmation of the report turned up nothing decisive. I found reports that confirmed that the newborn child of a woman named Nanoune Myrthil had indeed been abducted from the General Hospital of Port-au-Prince around that date. But the only materials that I could find bearing on the alleged ritual sacrifice of the baby were reports of the accusations of Occilius and Mercier that added nothing pertinent. (Note, by the way, that verifying that a baby was stolen from the hospital and never found, however shocking that fact is by itself, does not license the conclusion that the baby was sacrificed in a Voodoo ritual. Babies do get stolen, usually either by people who want to raise them as their own or by people who want to sell them to others to raise.)

Several features of the article raise suspicions. The article appeared, not in the “Opinion” section, but in the “Foreign” section of the newspaper; yet it hardly reads like a piece of reportage. Take the first sentence: how can a mere allegation of human sacrifice constitute a revelation that throws a new light on something? By what right does the writer, in the third paragraph (and in the title, though that may be an editor’s contribution), identify Mr. Occilius’s charges as a “disclosure,” a term that implies veracity? Why, in the fourth paragraph, does the writer report the events of the alleged sacrifice in direct speech, as if reporting facts, rather than attribute the assertions to Occilius? The sentence that immediately follows it (which I omitted from the quotation above), far from calming these suspicions, only exacerbates them:
The bestial crime boggles the mind, and some people question the veracity of Mr. Occilius’s disclosures. But who would have thought that men infected with the AIDS virus in South Africa believe that they can be healed by having intercourse with a young virgin!
Who would have thought that the writer of a news report, rather than simply stating the facts of what a certain person said, would overtly take that person’s side? And who would have thought that a news reporter would make use of emotional language, strained analogy, and rhetorical question?

Plainly the article is not the work of a competent professional reporter. But why would the writer, whoever he was (his name was on the page, but at this point I made nothing of it), take so partisan a position in a news article? Further, the fact that my Web searches turned up no other reportage of so monstrous an act, other than a few other mentions of Occilius’s allegations, intensified doubt about those allegations, though it did not constitute a refutation of them. Why would someone make up such a story, anyway?

Then I found this: a transcript and translation of an interview conducted in Haitian Creole with Sonia Desrosiers Lozan, a former employee of the National Port Authority of Haiti who claims to have been present at the ritual killing of the child of Nanoune Myrthil. (The Web page on which I found the transcript is dated October 30, 2009, but the interview was certainly conducted well before that date, as I found the same transcript reproduced on a page dated March 5, 2007. The latter page contains a narrative, written by Stanley Lucas, of the night’s events, apparently reconstructed from the interview, but adding many details, as if the writer had himself been present.) Ms. Desrosiers reports that the sacrifice took place at the home of then-President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. She gives the names of several persons supposedly present: President Aristide; Grandra, the houngan (Voodoo priest; the embellished version by Lucas, who seems to have been misled by the word “priest,” has him initially appearing in the robes of a Catholic priest); Marie Antoinette Gauthier, the director of the General Hospital, who, according to Desrosiers, brought in the baby (Desrosiers says that it was this that led her to conclude that the baby was the one taken from the hospital); General Wiltan Lherrisson, the head of the Haitian army; Jocerlerme Privert, the minister of the interior; Jean-Marie Chérestal, prime minister of Haiti during  2001 and 2002; Annette Auguste, popularly known as “So Anne,” a Haitian singer and political activist for Lavalas, Aristide’s party; and others. (The Lucas version adds Aristide’s wife Mildred to the company and describes the sweat on her upper lip.)

According to Desrosiers, all the participants took turns working the mortar to crush the baby, all the while “singing mystical songs and crying that Aristide’s five-year term was non-negotiable. . . . Mystical songs, throwing water, lighting candles, something totally diabolic.” After the ceremony was completed, she says, the houngan gave the president the heart of the baby in a bottle which he placed in his private room, and the baby’s remains were interred in the cemetery of Port-au-Prince, in “a sector where they put the remains of the ceremonies. . . . When they do these ceremonies they always bury the remains of the dead so when they want to light a candle and call the spirit back . . . they often do that.”

Is it possible that this woman believes in the truth of her account of events? Certainly. Indeed, it is likely that she does so: even without hearing the original broadcast, one gets the impression from the translation of her words that she is entirely sincere. Is it possible that her account of events is true? Certainly; in the same respect that it is possible that President Aristide and his associates are all humanoid aliens from another planet or gaseous entities made to appear fleshly by telepathic mind control, namely that there is no logical contradiction involved in entertaining such bizarre and fantastic hypotheses. But is there any reason to give this account of events any credence?

On the “yes” side, there is the fact that Desrosiers seems sincere in her testimony, that she held an official position in Port-au-Prince at the time of the reported event, that her narrative is coherent and detailed, and that two other persons, Occilius and Mercier, make similar assertions. On the “no” side is the lack of hard evidence that Satanic ritual sacrifice has ever occurred anywhere, and the extravagant improbability of such elements of her tale as that there could be a sector of the Port-au-Prince cemetery, known only to the malefactors, where the remains of sacrificial victims are regularly interred; that several highly placed government officials including the president of the country and the director of its largest hospital would conspire and participate in such an act; and that, such a thing being done, no evidence of its occurrence would come to light besides the testimony of one self-declared witness and two other persons. That Mercier was not a witness, even purportedly, is evident from the transcript and translation of a broadcast of Radio Vision 2000 in Port-au-Prince on August 13, 2003 in which the reporter, after relaying Mercier’s claims about the abduction and ritual murder of the Myrthil child, adds:
With this, Mercier confirms what Johnny Occilius said about that issue. He says that he got that information from current Lavalas Deputy André Jeune Joseph, who apparently took part in that meeting.
I have not been able to discover any relevant further information about this Mr. Joseph.

It is worth noting, by the way, that while Occilius is reported to have said that it was “important” to the perpetrators that the baby be snatched on February 29, a date that occurs only once in four years, a news report from February of 2001—two years before Occilius made his allegations of ritual sacrifice and even longer before Desrosiers gave her interview—gives the date of the theft as the night of February 26, 2000. Desrosier gives it as February 27. Also, Desrosiers identifies the presiding houngan as a man named Grandra, while Occilius identifies him as Henri Antoine. Such divergences are hardly the weakest features of their stories, but they do add weight to the “no” side of the balance.

Another way to look at the matter is to consider the testimony of Desrosiers as a given fact and to consider what is the most credible explanation of it. There are three principal candidates: (1) that she really did experience the events that she recounts, or events much like them; (2) that she is lying; and (3) that she is confabulating. It is obvious that, for the reasons given earlier, (2) and (3) have vastly greater probability than (1). Between the two of them, I consider (3) more probable than (2). Desrosiers’s story, with its lurid detail, has much in common with the “recovered memories” of Satanic ritual abuse that flourished in the 1980s in this country and elsewhere, initiated by a fraudulent memoir called Michelle Remembers and spread by quacks whose trade consisted in “helping” people to “remember” similar events. Of course, the case of Desrosiers does not involve any claim of a memory repressed and recovered, and in any case, it concerns events from only a few years before her recital of them. But her case exhibits the same conformity of apparent memories to a widely used, pre-existent template.

Of course, to discredit the testimony of Desrosiers is not to prove that no such event occurred. As I said before, it is possible that such an event did occur. But all probability is against it, no strong evidence is for it, and to believe in its occurrence on the strength of the facts that have come to light would be preposterous and irresponsible.

So how did this tale arise? An interesting document to look at in this connection is this item, a page dated January 21, 2001 written by Yves A. Isidor, a Haitian-American professor of economics and spokesman of an anti-Aristide organization. Isidor asserts, citing “a senior member of Aristide’s Lavalas Family Party, also known as the party of Satan, the party of death, who pleaded with us for anonymity,” that Aristide “reportedly was bathed in November [of 2000, presumably] in the blood of a dead Haitian by voodoo priestess . . . Marie-Anne Auguste, commonly known as So An.” This could be a sketchy and garbled version of the Desrosier-Occilius-Mercier story or an independently developed rumor, but in view of the order of the reports, it is most likely the original story from which the more detailed version was subsequently derived by combination with the actual event of the disappearance of the Myrthil baby. The unnamed senior member of the “party of Satan” who was Isidor’s source may be Mercier. Note that in Isidor’s version, the blood sacrifice took place in November rather than February of 2000. This is because, according to Isidor, the ritual was designed to influence the American presidential election to secure that the presidency go to Gore, who was likely to be friendly to Aristide, rather than to Bush, who was likely to be hostile. (Clearly, the spirits of Voodoo were no match for the Florida voting system or the justices of the US Supreme Court. —I kid, I kid.)

Finally, I return to the question of the motives of the people spreading these tales. Obviously, they were actuated by animosity toward then-President Aristide. One element of that animosity that is of particular interest to me is the religious one. Jean-Bertrand Aristide was ordained as a Catholic priest of the Salesian order in 1983, though he was expelled from that order in 1988 on account of his involvement in leftist politics and left the priesthood in 1994 (source: Wikipedia). I do not know what position he may have taken in public regarding Voodoo early in his career, but the piece by Isidor from 2001 makes clear that at least some of his political enemies imputed Voodoo practices to him long before he gave legal recognition to Voodoo as a religion in April of 2003.

Aristide’s recognition of Voodoo, according to this contemporary news report from the BBC, “means that voodoo ceremonies such as marriages now have equal standing with Catholic ones.” The meaning given to the event by evangelical Christians was quite another matter, as the following passage from an article published in Christianity Today on October 1, 2003 indicates:
“The government said they are going to turn the country entirely to voodoo. The Christians say we are going to turn the country totally to the Lord Jesus Christ,” said Jean Berthony Paul, founder of Mission Evangelique du Nord D’Haiti. . . .

Pastors and missionaries in St. Marc organized a rally on August 14, a key voodoo holiday, to counter the witchcraft they say voodoo involves. Missionaries have also circulated unconfirmed reports that a child was abducted from the town hospital to be made a voodoo sacrifice.

They fear Aristide is planning to renew a 200-year-old national “pact with the devil” on January 1, 2004. Many Haitians credit the country’s independence to voodoo.
The “voodoo holiday” of August 14 is the commemoration of the gathering of rebel slaves at Bois Caïman in 1791. The content of the “unconfirmed reports” is, obviously, the blood libel against Aristide. And, as I reported in a previous post, evangelicals have identified Aristide’s official recognition of Voodoo as a religion as itself a renewal of Haiti’s supposed pact with the devil. The interesting fact here is that “missionaries,” meaning, of course, evangelical missionaries, are identified as the ones spreading the blood libel.

I have one final piece to add to the puzzle that I have been assembling here. In a previous entry, I quoted the puzzling reply of the Haitian ambassador to the remarks of Pat Robertson about the pact with the devil supposedly formed by Haiti’s founders. Instead of dismissing Robertson’s tale as superstitious nonsense, the ambassador, after describing the ways in which the revolt of the Haitian slaves against their French masters has benefited the United States, said ambiguously: “So what pact the Haitian made with the devil has helped the United States become what it is.” I was a long way into the researches that I have presented in this entry before I realized why the name of the author of the article from 2003 on the “disturbing disclosures of human sacrifice” seemed familiar to me: it was the same as the name of the Haitian ambassador, Raymond A. Joseph. The biographical page on Ambassador Joseph in the Web site of the Embassy of Haiti in Washington, DC states that he is “mostly known as a journalist.” The page states also that he translated the first New Testament and Psalms in Haitian Creole for the American Bible Society, an evangelical Christian organization, and that he is a graduate of Moody Bible Institute and Wheaton College (Illinois), both evangelical Christian institutions.

It is plain why the ambassador did not repudiate Robertson’s tale of the pact with Satan as the nonsense that it is: he believes in it himself. He is an evangelical Christian, and he is himself part of the effort to demonize Voodoo as Satanism, as well as the effort to demonize former President Aristide and his associates as practitioners of blood sacrifice. The evangelical libel campaign against Haiti and the religion of many of its citizens may have originated outside the country, but it now has exponents among Haitians, including the one who represents his country to the United States.

I do not defend the political record of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, nor do I hold any brief for the practice or the beliefs of Voodoo. But those who use demonic fantasies to defame either the man or the religion by that action alone set themselves in an even less credible, indeed a despicable, position. If they have legitimate objections to make, either in politics or in religion, let them make them without lies, hysterical fantasies, and demagoguery. We have suffered enough from blood libels.

Added 26 January 2010, 22.30 EST:

After writing and posting this entry I discovered a Web page that expounds in a concise and linear fashion most of the matters that I had so laboriously worked out by hours and hours of research, as well as much else concerning the preceding political developments: Richard Sanders, “Demonizing Democracy: Christianity vs. Vodoun and the Politics of Religion in Haiti,” from the magazine Press for Conversion, November 2008, published by the Coalition to Oppose the Arms Trade (COAT), a Canadian organization. I quote the most pertinent part, in which I have replaced the references that originally appeared in endnotes with links in brackets:
When Aristide and thousands in Haiti’s popular government were then illegally removed from power, the elite’s outrageous propaganda was actually taken seriously by the coup-empowered regime. The de facto government’s CIDA-funded “Department of Justice” even used these outrageous rumours to arrest and illegally imprison prominent supporters of Aristide’s Lavalas government. In mid-2004, a U.S. human rights delegation to Haiti reported that:
Members of Fanmi Lavalas have been using the word witch-hunt to describe the ongoing repression of Lavalas. . . . We were shocked to find that this term can be taken literally. While we were in Haiti, a wild story was being circulated by the media and Haitian authorities. It claimed that a baby was sacrificed during a ceremony attended by many members of Lavalas in the year 2000. While we initially took this to be at the level of tabloid sensationalism, it became clear that this ludicrous charge is being pursued by the current de facto authorities.

On three occasions individuals have gone on National Television, reportedly at the behest of the Minister of Justice, to describe their participation at this so-called ceremony. Despite the fact that the stories told by these individuals are not even consistent. . . . Haitian authorities are using these out of court, unverified statements as the basis for issuing arrest warrants for Lavalas officials. These charges are also the justification for continuing to hold [prominent Lavalas activist and community leader] Annette Auguste. [Ref.]
Two particularly virulent enemies of Haitian democracy who have pushed these absurd, religious smear campaigns are Yves A.Isidor, a professor of Economics at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth, and Raymond Joseph, a former Wall Street Journal financial reporter who became the 2004 coup-regime’s ambassador in Washington. Isidor, who accused Ms. Auguste of being Aristide’s “voodoo medium,” said she bathed him in human blood to place a curse George W. Bush and to ensure the election of Al Gore in 2000.  Isidor’s grotesque story was later embellished by Joseph who said that as part of their Vodoun ritual, a newborn baby was crushed with a heavy pestle in a giant mortar. [Ref.]

The most well-connected figure who aided and abetted this particular psychological warfare campaign is Stanley Lucas, director of the right-wing Washington Democracy Project’s program on Latin America and the Caribbean. In 2007, this long-time Haitian representative of the U.S. government-funded International Republican Institute, disseminated extravagantly detailed slander regarding the alleged Vodoun infanticide that was supposedly engaged in by President Aristide and his closest political allies. [Ref.]

To establish his credentials and lend credibility to these outrageous lies, Lucas’ website displayed dozens of photographs of himself posing with business executives, Premier Jean Charest, U.S.-backed heads of state, Afghan “tribal leaders,” U.S. senators, congressmen, ambassadors, three former U.S. Secretaries of State, a former National Security Advisor, a former CIA director, and other such so-called “friends” of Haiti.
Yves Isidor, Raymond Joseph, Stanley Lucas—the very same sources to which I traced the story, though I like to think that I have added a bit of further substantiation to the case by combing through Sonia Desrosier’s testimony and the rest of it.

Previous entry: Parallel-Earth Pat Robertson

Next entry: Dishonesty in Hertz’s Torah Commentary

Monday, January 25, 2010

Parallel-Earth Pat Robertson

As envisaged by Tom Tomorrow:

I don’t think it adds much to the discussion, but it’s a nice break from the long and involved disquisitions that I have been posting here.

By the way, to see the real-world basis of what Parallel-Earth Pat says in the fourth panel, see my first entry on this subject.

Previous entry: The Right-Wing Evangelical Libel against Haiti

Next entry: From Satanism Libel to Blood Libel: This Time, It’s Coming from Haitians

Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Right-Wing Evangelical Libel against Haiti

The idea that the nation of Haiti was born of a pact with the devil, far from being Pat Robertson’s invention, is a libel widely circulated among right-wing Evangelical Christians. Like many people who reject critical rationality, they mistake repetition for confirmation and plausible detail for evidence.

Bois-Caïman: painter unknown; image found here

In two previous posts (”Pat Robertson, Propagandist for Atheism?”, January 15; “Second Thoughts about What Pat Robertson Said,” January 19), I discussed Pat Robertson’s attribution of Haiti’s dire history to a pact with the devil supposedly sworn by a group of slaves in 1791. It turns out that the idea of such a pact is not a product of the brain of Pat Robertson at all: it is a libel that has been circulated among Evangelical right-wingers for years. What is most disturbing about this libel is, first, the insidious way in which it mimics the procedures of history in order to promote a religious and political agenda, and second, the success that it has had in propagating itself among the Evangelical faithful.

For purposes of this investigation, it will be useful to distinguish clearly between the following two historical claims:

(1) That in mid-August of 1791, a group of slaves planning an uprising against their French colonial masters met at Bois-Caïman to perform a Voodoo rite (the preferred spelling among scholars seems to be “Vodou,” though I have also seen it spelled “Vaudou,” “Voudou,” and “Voudon”; I will follow the popular spelling). Although there is a considerable amount of confusion and conflict in the historical sources (which I hope to discuss in a subsequent post) over the specifics of this event, such as when it took place, who led the rite, and what kind of animal was sacrificed, and although one scholar has even defended the thesis that no such event ever took place, there is no denying either that there is credible historical evidence of such an event or that it is widely believed and celebrated by Haitians as the starting point of the founding of their nation. I will refer to this event as “the meeting at Bois Caïman.”

(2) That the participants in the meeting at Bois Caïman swore a pact with the devil to serve him for 200 years. Note that this claim admits of two different interpretations. It could be taken to mean either (a) that those present at Bois Caïman went through the motions of sealing a pact with a supposed spirit, believed by them to be real, and known as the devil or Satan; or (b) that they really did enter into a pact with a perfectly real devil. Plainly, it is only on interpretation (a) that this claim can be considered within the discipline of history, for it is only on that interpretation that it admits of confirmation or disconfirmation by evidence. On interpretation (b), the thesis is beyond the reach of possible evidence and belongs to myth, or perhaps demonology, but not on any account to history. As it happens, there is no evidence that supports this thesis even under interpretation (a). I will refer to the uninterpreted and ambiguous thesis that the slaves at Bois Caïman “swore a pact with the devil” as “the Satan thesis.”

On the day on which Robertson’s inflammatory utterances were broadcast on The 700 Club (January 13, 2010), Chris Roslan of the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN) posted a “Statement Regarding Pat Robertson’s Remarks on Haiti.” The concluding part of the statement reads:
If you watch the entire video segment, Dr. Robertson’s compassion for the people of Haiti is clear. He called for prayer for them. His humanitarian arm has been working to help thousands of people in Haiti over the last year, and they are currently launching a major relief and recovery effort to help the victims of this disaster. They have sent a shipment of millions of dollars worth of medications that is now in Haiti, and their disaster team leaders are expected to arrive tomorrow and begin operations to ease the suffering.
So far as I can tell, this part of Roslan’s statement is entirely just. The final words of Robertson in that notorious news segment were: “Right now, we’re helping the suffering people, and the suffering is unimaginable.” The Web site Charity Navigator gives Operation Blessing International, a relief organization belonging to CBN—presumably what Roslan is referring to as “his [viz., Robertson’s] humanitarian arm”—a rating of 62.41, a rating that puts it in the highest possible rating category. For comparison, Doctors Without Borders USA gets 61.23 and Oxfam America 63.01. So I no reason to doubt that Robertson’s organization is on the up-and-up and is doing good work.

The first part of Roslan’s statement is another matter entirely:
His [viz., Robertson’s] comments were based on the widely-discussed 1791 slave rebellion led by Boukman Dutty at Bois Caiman, where the slaves allegedly made a famous pact with the devil in exchange for victory over the French. This history, combined with the horrible state of the country, has led countless scholars and religious figures over the centuries to believe the country is cursed. Dr. Robertson never stated that the earthquake was God’s wrath.
Let us work through this backward from the last sentence:

Dr. Robertson never stated that the earthquake was God’s wrath.

Indeed he did not. But he plainly implied that Haiti’s long history of suffering is due to the “famous pact with the devil” that, as Roslan delicately puts it, “allegedly” was sworn at Bois Caïman in 1791. (I won’t quote Robertson’s words again, but you can read them in my first post on the subject. About that qualifier “allegedly,” more in a moment.) On that view, there are only two possible explanations: either the afflictions of Haiti are divine retribution for the pact, or they are returns on the original bargain exacted by the devil himself. Either way, they are the fault of Haitians, whether collectively or in the persons of the leaders of the rebellion that led to the founding of the nation.

This point was clearly grasped by an anonymous defender of Robertson who on January 16 posted the following comment on Roslan’s statement in a blog titled Milennial Perspective, one of several blogs under the heading “Rightly Concerned” in the Web site of the American Family Organization:
Leave it to the liberals, and those who do not understand the difference between a curse, and the assumption that “God hates Haiti.” Point: If a person or a group of people make a deal, a pact with another person or organization, then they are each beholden to the other to uphold the terms of that pact. Any other person, outside the realm of that pact, has no standing to interfere with the pact. So, the Haitians of that day made a deal with the devil. They got what they wanted, and in return, Satan got their souls. This contract will be in effect until the Haitians, as a nation, reject that pact by confessing that sin to the Father, God. Until that happens, He has no control—or limited control—over what happens to them. So their suffering falls upon their own shoulders, not His. Neither is the blame for the disaster His fault.
(The quoted phrase “God hates Haiti” is presumably an allusion to a piece by Lisa Miller that appeared in Newsweek on January 15 under that title.) The same position is taken by Bryan Fischer in an entry in his blog Focal Point, another blog in “Rightly Concerned,” in an entry titled “In Defense of Pat Robertson” (January 15):
Robertson did not say that the earthquake was a result of this curse, or was God’s fault. Instead, Robertson attributed Haiti’s grinding poverty to this compact with Satan. Jesus himself said that the thief comes only to “steal and kill and destroy.”
But surely there is a theological problem here. I do not know how well the idea that God has “no control, or limited control” over what befalls the Haitians squares with the views of Robertson or of his followers, but the idea that the Almighty can have his hands tied where Satanic pacts are concerned sounds highly unorthodox to me. Such a view is squarely rejected by the Reverend Dr. Gary Cass of the Christian Anti-Defamation Commission, who, in a piece titled “1.7 Billion Reasons to Defend Pat Robertson” (January 14), writes the following sobering words:
The modern cynic chaffs [sic] at any suggestion that there may be a connection between historical realities and unseen spiritual influences, or as the Bible calls it God’s “blessing or cursing.” Although most people are very comfortable with the notion that God blesses people, we are not at all comforted with the terrifying prospect that Almighty God might also curse.

The overwhelming majority of Americans believe in God and /or moral causality. Eastern religions call it Karma, but Christians call it God’s Providence. I wonder if the reason that so many hate Pat is because he expressed what many Americans don’t want to face—the moral and spiritual dimension of our lives. . . .

Agree or disagree with what Pat said, it was well within the bounds of historic Christian theology. Maybe that’s the real problem after all.
The last quoted paragraph is in agreement with the position of atheist Ronald Lindsay, who, in a blog post that I discussed in my first post on this subject, cited Robertson’s remarks as an exhibition of the irrationality of religious belief. I argued in my own post that Lindsay’s conclusion was overstated, as there are varieties of religious belief that do not presume that it is possible for human beings to discern the effects of divine providence. When I offered this criticism in a comment on Lindsay’s post (comment no. 6, under the name “Kritikos”), he generously granted the point, and restated his position as follows (comment no. 8):
Kritikos is quite correct: my statement should have been explicitly qualified. Robertson’s comments highlight the irrationality of belief in a personal deity who can cause storms and earthquakes, intervenes continually in human affairs, and responds to petitionary prayer, that is, the type of deity that appears to be accepted by most believers.
To get back to the main point, though: whether Robertson thinks that the earthquake was God’s doing or the devil’s, he plainly implied that it is a consequence of the actions of Haiti’s founders, and therefore ultimately their fault.

This history, combined with the horrible state of the country, has led countless scholars and religious figures over the centuries to believe the country is cursed.

The phrase “this history” here refers to the pact with the devil supposedly sworn by Haiti’s original liberators. But who has concluded that the country is cursed? Some religious figures? Undoubtedly. “Countless” ones? Perhaps; if rank-and-file believers are included, then certainly so. But “scholars”? What sort of “scholar” interprets historical facts, let alone tales of the supernatural presented as facts, as evidence of a “curse”? What sort of person takes writers who so interpret history as “scholars”? I believe that the answer is to be found under “religious figures,” or more precisely among adherents of Pat Robertson’s variety of Evangelical Protestantism. It is not clear if this particular statement is an argument from authority or an attempt to diffuse the responsibility for Robertson’s outrageous claims among other, unnamed sources. Either way, it gives no credibility to the idea that Haiti is under a curse.

(As a resident of greater Boston, whose baseball team was held for 86 years to be under a “curse” that only ended in 2004 when the Red Sox finally won the World Series, I must add at this point that Robertson and company are not using the word “curse” in any kind of playful or ironic spirit. I do not doubt that there are Red Sox fans who believe just as solemnly and sincerely in the reality of the Curse of the Bambino as Robertson and his allies do in the reality of the Haitian pact with the devil. I merely wish to caution those who use the word less seriously, as an ironic way of describing a persistent pattern of misfortune, that that is not what is at issue here.)

His comments were based on the widely-discussed 1791 slave rebellion led by Boukman Dutty at Bois Caiman, where the slaves allegedly made a famous pact with the devil in exchange for victory over the French.

“Allegedly,” says Roslan; but alleged by whom? “Famous,” says Roslan; but famous among whom? Among Haitians what is famous, and much celebrated, is the story of how, in August 1791, a group of slaves met to plan an uprising against their French colonial masters, an occasion that culminated in a Voodoo rite in which a pig was sacrificed. As I indicated earlier, there are divergent accounts of who took part in this affair and where and when it took place. What is clear is that none of the historical sources make any mention of a pact with the devil. Who or what, then, is the source of Roslan’s tale?

I cannot identify an ultimate source, but Roslan or whoever prepared the page on which his statement appears offers a proximate one. Next to his statement are several links under the heading “Related Information,” one of which reads “Haiti: Boukman, Aristide, Voodoo and the Church.” It leads to a piece under that title written by Elizabeth Kendal and dated 2004, on a page in the Web site of the John Mark Ministries, an Evangelical Christian organization in Australia. This appears to be the same Elizabeth Kendal who is identified by the Christian Monitor as Principal Researcher and Writer for the World Evangelical Alliance Religious Liberty Commission. Her version of the history of the founding of Haiti includes this passage:
On 14 August 1791, a black slave and witch doctor named Boukman led the slaves in a voodoo ritual. They sacrificed a pig and drank its blood to form a pact with the devil, whereby they agreed to serve the spirits of the island for 200 years in exchange for freedom from the French. The slave rebellion commenced on 22 August 1791, and after 13 years of conflict, the slaves won their independence. On 1 January 1804 they declared Haiti the world’s first independent black republic. An iron statue of a pig stands in Port-au-Prince to commemorate the “Boukman Contract”.
I have found the contents of Kendal’s piece credulously reproduced on numerous Web pages, including one in Polish, all posted since January 13. The transformation of Dutty Boukman or Boukman Dutty (I have seen his name given both ways) from a priest of the Voodoo religion into a “witch doctor” does not raise confidence in Kendal’s competence as a historian, though it does give the measure of what Chris Roslan had in mind when he invoked unnamed “scholars.”

But there is that bit at the end about the statue of a pig. A detail of such specificity, concerning a present, or at least recent, state of affairs, lends an air of verisimilitude to the whole story. Bryan Fischer, in the piece cited previously, adds another such detail:
It is a matter of historical record that Haiti’s independence from France is, in fact, rooted in a pact with the devil made on August 14, 1791 by a group of voodoo priests led by a former slave named Boukman. The pact was made at a place called Bois-Caiman, and the tree under which a black pig was sacrificed in this ceremony is still a shrine in Haiti. Annual voodoo ceremonies are conducted every August 14 on this very site, essentially renewing the covenant with darkness each summer.
So not only is there, according to these sources, a statue of a pig in Port-au-Prince that commemorates the Boukman contract with the devil but the tree under which the original pig was sacrificed at Bois-Caïman is a shrine at which Voodoo ceremonies are performed every August 14. One can imagine the effect of such details on Evangelical readers of these materials: they would no doubt see them as decisive proof of the truth of the story.

But any person examining these matters skeptically would have to wonder, first, whether the details are actual facts, and second, whether they constitute any sort of confirmation of the story of the pact with the devil. Take the pig first. Is there such a statue? On a message board for Haitian Americans, two participants in a thread on this question recollect seeing an iron statue of a pig at a certain location in Port-au-Prince (one locates it at la Place de l’Italie au Bicentenaire, . . . across from the old legislative palace,” the other “near the post office”; I do not know if these refer to the same location), but neither of them knows of any indication that the statue is connected in any way with Boukman. Remember that the question is not whether Haitians celebrate the memory of the meeting at Bois Caïman: there is no doubt that many do so. What is at issue is whether there was any pact with the devil at that meeting. The existence of an iron statue of a pig is no confirmation of this. The same applies to the supposed annual commemorative gatherings. Such details provide concreteness, and thus may have the psychological effect of enhancing the verisimilitude of the Satan thesis; but they constitute no evidence for it whatever.

[Added after posting, 23 January 2010, 15.40 EST:  It has occurred to me that the pig statue, if it exists, could have been installed as a punning salute to the city itself: the first word of “Port-au-Prince” (the “t” is silent) is homophonous with “porc,” the French word for “pig.”]

The only other bit of evidence that anyone in this crazy circuit, to my knowledge, has ever presented to support the Satan thesis is Bryan Fischer’s assertion that “on national TV, Haiti’s ambassador to the U.S. openly admitted, while criticizing Robertson, that Haiti did in fact enter in to this pact with the devil.” He is referring to the following remarks made by Ambassador Raymond Joseph on the Rachel Maddow Show on January 13:
I would like the whole world to know, America especially, that the independence of Haiti, when the slave rose up against the French and defeated the French army, powerful army, the U.S was able to gain the Louisiana Territory for $15 million. That’s 3 cents an acre. That’s thirteen states west of the Mississippi that the Haitian slaves’ revolt in Haiti provided America. . . . So what pact the Haitian made with the devil has helped the United States become what it is.
But while Joseph speaks slowly and deliberately, and appears to have a good command of English, the crucial last sentence is very unclear. As it stands (and I have transcribed his utterances verbatim), it is simply ungrammatical: the phrase “what pact” does not make sense in that context. It is possible that by “what pact” Joseph meant simply “the pact,” in which case he would indeed be making the admission that Fischer attributes to him. But while the ambassador’s English is imperfect, it does not seem to be as crude as that. It is far more likely that by “what pact” he meant “whatever pact.” On that assumption, he is most likely merely saying that, whether there was a pact with the devil or not, the actions of Haiti’s original liberators have benefited the United States.

Of course, it is possible that Ambassador Joseph does believe the Satan thesis. That would be at best exceedingly feeble evidence of its truth, but it would certainly be evidence that the thesis has gained acceptance among Haitians. This finding was reported by Jean Gelin, a Haitian-American agricultural scientist and Christian minister, in a three-part article titled “God, Satan, and the Birth of Haiti,” published on the Web site Black and Christian in 2005. In the first part, Gelin writes as follows:
Have you ever heard how some preachers or theologians try to explain the unspeakable misery that is crippling most of Haiti’s population of 8 million? Everywhere you go, from your television screen to the Internet, what you are most likely to find is a reference to a spiritual pact that the fathers of the nation supposedly made with the devil to help them win their freedom from France. As a result of that satanic alliance, as they put it, God has placed a curse on the country some time around its birth, and that divine burden has made it virtually impossible for the vast majority of Haitians to live in peace and prosperity in their land. . . .

The worst part of the whole picture is that the story is believed by many sincere Christians in America and around the world; and not only do they believe it, they also spread it as fact. The tragedy of our age is that repeated lies are often mistaken for the truth, especially when repeated long enough.
But did the idea of a pact with the devil originate abroad or in Haiti itself? Gelin does not take a firm position on that question:
It’s hard to know where the idea of a divine curse on Haiti following the purported satanic pact actually originated, whether from foreign missionaries or from local church leaders. In his book Ripe Now: A Haitian Congregation Responds to the Great Commission, Haitian pastor Frantz Lacombe identified a ‘dependence mentality’ in the leadership of the Haitian church, which resulted from the way the Christian faith was brought to the country, historically and through various denominations. Apparently, this unfortunate manner of thinking, which tends to emulate the worldview and culture of North American and European Christian missionaries, has permeated the general philosophy of the Haitian church on many levels, including church planting, church management, music and even missionary activities.

In that context, I would not be surprised if the satanic pact idea (followed by the divine curse message) was put together first by foreign missionaries and later on picked up by local leaders. On the other hand, it is equally possible that some Haitian church leaders developed the idea on their own using a theological framework borrowed from those same missionaries who subsequently propagated the message around the world.
Wherever the idea originated, it is now being spread over the world by Evangelical Christians. Though imposed on the story of the Bois Caïman meeting, a story which itself has a basis in historical evidence, the crucial element of Satanism is a fabrication. I suspect that many Evangelicals are unable to grasp this point because for them the identification of Voodoo with Satanism seems self-evident. This can be seen, for instance, in a passage written by photographer Shawna Herring in a blog entry dated January 15, 2009 concerning a visit to Haiti that she had recently made (ellipsis in original):
To clear up any superstitious idea here I want to just say that Voodoo is REAL. It’s not just some little revengeful idea with dolls and pins . . . it’s a real partnership that was made with the devil himself. 203 years ago [sic] when Haiti was under French rule, they were enslaved by them and in an effort to gain their freedom, Voodoo priests from all over came together and literally signed a written contract and made a deal with the Prince of darkness that stated that if he could grant their freedom, they would serve him for 200 years. He did and they have. It’s no joke.
Note the movement here from saying that Voodoo is real (which it is, in the sense that it is a religion really practiced by many Haitians) to saying that the “partnership with the devil” established more than 200 years ago is real. For this writer, as for others of her religious outlook, the two are the same. The detail of a “written contract,” which I have not seen anywhere else, is also a nice touch. I suspect that it is merely the product of misrecollection or faulty transmission, but it may be worth checking up later to see if other members of the crazy circuit are citing Ms. Herring’s statement as further proof of the Satan thesis.

By the way, if you are wondering how Evangelicals can believe that Haiti is still suffering the consequences of a pact with the devil forged more than 200 years ago for a period of 200 years, the answer is, first, that the term of 200 years is supposed to have begun not with the forging of the pact in 1791 but with the liberation of Haiti, which was effected on January 1, 1804; and second, that when President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, on April 8, 2003, gave official recognition to Voodoo as a religion in Haiti, he thereby, as Bryan Fischer puts it in the post cited earlier, “extended the pact.” Fischer does not state the duration of the extension or the reason for which Aristide would do such a thing.

Of course, it is easy to see this detail as an instance of facts being interpreted, not to say rewritten, to suit a rigid belief. No doubt, it is that, but to ascribe it to that principle alone is to miss the point that for Evangelicals like Fischer, it is axiomatic that Voodoo is Satanism. I have little doubt that even if it were possible to look into the past as we look at old television shows and to watch the meeting at Bois-Caïman unfold, Fischer, Kendal, Robertson, and all of their like would find the proceedings to be a complete and thorough confirmation of their beliefs.

That rigidly held religious beliefs yield unsound anthropology—as they do unsound history, science, ethics, politics, and so on—is hardly news. The interesting thing about the Evangelical libel against Haiti is the way in which its proponents not only offer it as a “true story” (Robertson) and “a matter of historical record” (Fischer), but support it with historical and factual details that, however little value they have as evidence, are well calculated to persuade the unwary.

One final reflection. As noted at the beginning of this piece, Pat Robertson’s humanitarian organization Operation Blessing International has been contributing to the relief effort in Haiti. I have no doubt that his followers and other people who propagate the libel of Haiti’s founding pact with Satan have been making generous contributions, in money and labor, to that effort. Nor do I doubt the sincerity of those who receive and repeat this falsehood. But it is a falsehood, and not an innocent one. It is blameworthy for the disregard of evidence and fact that engender it, the superstitious attitude that it sustains (it is almost amusing to see people who attribute literally earth-shaking powers to the devil trying to pin the charge of Satanism on others), and the damage that it does. This damage consists in defaming the Haitian people and the founders of their nation as Satanists; putting the blame on them for misfortunes that are no fault of theirs; shifting attention from the real causes, past and present, of Haiti’s afflictions, and thereby diminishing the chance of improving conditions there.

Further documentation of the use of the Satanism libel against Haiti may be found in a recent piece by Rachel Tabachnik: “Pat Robertson Not Alone in Demonizing Haiti” (Talk to Action, January 14, 2010).

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Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Second Thoughts about What Pat Robertson Said

What is wrong with what Robertson said is what is wrong with a great deal of religious thinking. Explaining wherein the fault lies is not easy.

William Blake, Job

I have some emendations to make to my previous entry, on Pat Robertson’s theological explanation of the sorrows of Haiti.

(1) In that entry, I observed that, for all the outcry against Robertson’s remarks, there has been almost no discussion of what exactly makes them so outrageous. Subsequently, I discovered a piece by Lisa Miller, published in Newsweek on line under the sardonic title “Why God Hates Haiti,” that addresses the question that I had thought neglected. After a brief account of Haiti’s history of misfortune, Miller comments as follows on Robertson’s remarks:
In his narrow, malicious way, Robertson is making a First Commandment argument: when the God of Israel thunders from his mountaintop that “you shall have no other gods before me,” he means it. This God rains down disaster—floods and so forth—on those who disobey.

But Robertson’s is a fundamentalist view. It’s so unkind and self-righteous—and deaf, dumb, and blind to centuries of theological discourse on suffering by thinkers from Augustine to Elie Wiesel—that one might easily call it backward. Every Western religious tradition teaches that mortals have no way of counting or weighing another’s sin.
I was heartened to read this piece, for two reasons. First, it goes beyond a mere emotional reaction to Robertson’s remarks to address issues of the nature and consequences of religious belief, as I think that one must do to bring to light what it is about those remarks that makes them deserving of condemnation. Second, it reminds us that Robertson’s remarks are deplorable even in a religious perspective—perhaps especially so. Not just any old religious outlook will lead one to the conclusion that Haiti’s afflictions are the consequences of Haitians’ having done things displeasing to God, not even if you throw in Robertson’s ignorant and bigoted identification of the Creole religion of (some) Haitians with a Satanic cult. No; it takes, in Miller’s apt word, a particularly backward theology to do that. (Ignorant, bigoted, backward, arrogant, callous, inhumane, smug, fatuous—one thing for which you have to give Pat Robertson credit is that he provides work for lots of adjectives!)

(2) It was rash of me to dismiss Robertson’s purported “true story” about a pact with the devil as “just more of the sort of lurid fantasy habitually extruded by the brains of right-wing religious fanatics like [him].” It is surely something more baneful than that. I offered the surmise that “in [Robertson’s] view any religious practice much different from the Evangelical Protestantism with which he is comfortable is Satanic worship.” That may be so, but it does not take account of the fact that the Haitians are of largely black African origin, as is the Vodou religion whose rites Robertson equates with Satanism. It is possible that Robertson’s bigotry is purely religious and not racial in nature, but, I think, not likely. The suggestion of an underlying racial bias adds to the ugliness of his remarks.

(3) I think that I was a bit glib about the relation between believing in God and the habit of attributing specific events to divine designs. I took for granted that the latter is separable from the former—that it is possible to believe in God while forswearing all judgments about divine intentions behind worldly events. Certainly the two are separable in principle. But the fact (assuming it to be a fact, as I think it is) that the vast majority of religious believers make such judgments is an indication of how difficult it is to have the one without the other. To believe that everything that happens does so in accordance with divine providence while making no judgments about how specific events bear a providential meaning would surely greatly reduce the comforts of religious life for most believers. On this point as on many others, the more that religious belief is purged of irrational elements, the less emotional appeal it can hold for most people.

(4) In my attempt to account for what was outrageous in Robertson’s remarks, I think I conflated two questions that require separate answers: (a) what principle led Robertson to such conclusions? and (b) what makes his conclusions so obnoxious? I would still say that his remarks rest on a presumption on his part of being able to identify God’s designs in worldly affairs. That presumption, combined with his bigoted assessment of Haitian history (see point (2) above), led Robertson to the conclusion that Haiti’s misfortunes are the return on a Satanic bargain, whether they are effected by Satan himself as part of the deal or by God in retribution for the original pact. The same presumption plainly underlies Robertson’s grandiose, politically opportunistic explanations of the September 11 attacks, the flooding of New Orleans, the murder of Yitzhak Rabin, and the incapacitation of Ariel Sharon by a stroke (all explained in the previous entry).

But what makes such conclusions obnoxious is something more. It is, as Lisa Miller points out in the passage that I quoted earlier (see (1) above), the presumption of being able to identify and weigh the sins of others—always, of course, with favor to oneself and disfavor to the others. Robertson embraces a religious doctrine according to which believers of said doctrine are deserving of God’s favor and non-believers deserving of divine retribution. To say that such a view is baseless, superstitious, or implausible (all of which I say it is) fails to touch on what is most deplorable about it, namely its self-serving arrogance and presumption. Robertson’s conclusions are certainly generated by faults of reasoning and judgment, but what is most objectionable in them is a matter of the human posture that emerges from his faulty reasonings and judgments. (I acknowledge that what I have written is not entirely clear; it seems to me that the question that I have been trying to answer—what is so outrageous about Robertson’s remarks?—does not yield to the familiar terms of either ethics or logic as commonly practiced.)

(5) A further point to be made about the evil done by Robertson and those who share his fondness for imputing earthly disasters to divine causes is that they reinforce a lack of interest in the demonstrable natural causes of such disasters and thereby reduce the likelihood of remedy. Elizabeth McAlister sums the matter up well in a piece for CNN titled “Why Does Haiti Suffer So Much?” (January 18, 2010):
For social scientists, there is nothing metaphysical about the question “Why Haiti?” Longstanding structural reasons have produced a dysfunctional system long in crisis. Beginning as a French slave society, the nation was founded at a severe disadvantage. France demanded enormous payment for abandoned property after the revolution, starting a cycle of debt that was never broken.

Deep and abiding racism prevented the U.S. and Europe from recognizing Haiti for 60 years. Trade was never established on even terms. The military ruled the state, culminating in the brutal Duvalier dictatorship, which the U.S. supported.

No robust civil society developed—there’s no vigorous tradition of PTAs and town planning boards. A brain drain evacuated top talent from the country, while the U.S.-subsidized farm industry sent surplus crops to Haiti, undercutting local prices there. Farmers abandoned their lands, flocked to the capital, and built the shanty towns that have now collapsed into rubble, burying the innocent and vulnerable, strong and powerful alike.

The suffering Haitians are enduring is a natural disaster worsened by human-made conditions.
Robertson cited the disparity between the comparatively good fortunes of the Dominican Republic, on the eastern half of the island of Hispaniola, and the terrible ill fortunes of the Republic of Haiti, on the western half of the same island, as evidence of the supernatural causation of Haiti’s misfortunes—as if no natural explanation were possible. The more that people embrace this kind of superstitious thinking, the less likely it is that anything will ever be done about the actual causes of suffering. (Chances are bad enough; that is no excuse for making them worse.) An earthquake is an uncontrollable natural event; the substandard building construction that makes an earthquake fatal to tens of thousands of people is not. Heavy rains are an uncontrollable natural event; the deforestation that makes such rains result in deadly landslides is not. And so on.

(6) Finally, no discussion of religious responses to the disaster in Haiti can be complete without some consideration of the Book of Job. Lisa Miller’s piece opens with the sentence: “Haiti is surely a Job among nations.” Subsequently, she quotes Rabbi Harold Kushner, the author of When Bad Things Happen to Good People (New York: Anchor Books, 1981), which is among other things a meditation on the Book of Job. (What Kushner is quoted as saying, by the way, is: “I think that it’s supreme hubris to think you can read God's mind.” I was struck by the fact that the rabbi chose the Greek “hubris” rather than the Hebrew “chutzpah.” But on reflection, I saw the justice of the choice: only the Greek word denotes a transgression upon divine prerogatives, the Heberew word signifying only a transgression upon human ones.) Plainly, if Haiti is a Job, then Robertson is a Job’s comforter of the worst sort. Kushner in his book provides a useful schema for understanding what that means:
To try to understand the book [viz., Job] and its answer, let us take note of three statements which everyone in the book, and most of the readers, would like to be able to believe:
A. God is all-powerful and causes everything that happens in the world. Nothing happens without His willing it.

B. God is just and fair, and stands for people getting what they deserve, so that the good prosper and the wicked are punished.

C. Job is a good person.
As long as Job is health and wealthy, we can believe all three of those statements at the same time with no difficulty. When Job suffers, when he loses his possessions, his family, and his health, we have a problem. We can no longer make sense of all three propositions together. We can now affirm any two only by denying the third. . . .

Job’s friends are prepared to stop believing (C), the assertion that Job is a good person. (42–43)
A characteristic of the author of When Bad Things Happen to Good People that impresses the reader from the beginning is his humanity—a characteristic not universal among bearers of clerical titles, as recent events remind us. In the first chapter of the book, titled “Why Do the Righteous Suffer?”, Kushner disposes of the familiar attempts to reconcile the sufferings of the innocent and the just with belief in God—“They did something to deserve it,” “It’s for their own good,” “It’s for the best in the long run,” “God will make it up to them in the next life,” and so on—not so much for being unconvincing answers to a theoretical conundrum (though he does find them to be that) as for failing to offer the afflicted a possibility for reconciliation with God. His alternative solution is that God does not cause or allow all of our suffering: some things really do just happen, for no divinely providential reason at all. In terms of the schema above, Kushner gives up statement (A). In theological terms, he gives up the doctrines of divine omnipotence and providence: “God can’t do everything,” he says in the title of his seventh chapter (although, he adds, “he can do some important things”).

As strongly as Kushner’s ethos appeals to me, and as humane as I find his theological view, his attempt to derive the latter from the Book of Job seems to me to have little textual foundation. To me, the view implied by the Book of Job is just the view that Kushner attributes to Job himself:
Job sees God as being above notions of fairness, being so powerful that no moral rules apply to Him. God is seen as resembling an Oriental potentate, with unchallenged power over the life and property of his subjects. And in fact, the old fable of Job [i.e., the folk tale posited by biblical scholars as the antecedent of the scriptural text] does picture God in just that way, as a deity who afflicts Job without any moral qualms in order to test his loyalty, and who feels that He has “made it up” to Job afterward by rewarding him lavishly. (46–47)
This is, in fact, the only view of God that I find in the text. To me it seems that God figuratively picks Job up by the scruff of the neck and thunders at him, “Can you compare your powers to mine? No, you can’t! So shut up!” (38:1–40:2 and 40:6–41:26); to which Job meekly replies, “Yes, Sir; I will, Sir” (40:3–5 and 42:1–6). The theological lesson taught by God’s answer to Job, so far as I can tell, is either that divine might makes right or that God’s power is so far beyond our comprehension that it is senseless for us to apply our notions of justice to God. If any of the three propositions in Kushner’s scheme is to be given up, it must proposition (B), that God is just—not because it is false, but because when we attribute justice to God, we really have no idea of what we are talking about. Kushner takes the passage about Leviathan (40:25–41:26) to mean, literally, that God is only able with great effort to subdue the giant sea serpent, and thus to mean, figuratively, that “even God has a hard time keeping chaos in check and limiting the damage that evil can do” (49–50). Rabbi, you’re a mentsh for trying to find such a humane view in scripture, but I just don’t see it there.

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Friday, January 15, 2010

Pat Robertson, Propagandist for Atheism?

There have been many reports of what Robertson said about Haiti and many condemnations of it; what is missing from public discourse is an account of what exactly is outrageous about what he said.

First, just so that it’s clear what I’m talking about, here are the notorious words uttered by Pat Robertson on his program The 700 Club on January 13, 2010 (transcription from Media Matters, where the video can also be seen):
And, you know, Kristi, something happened a long time ago in Haiti, and people might not want to talk about it. They were under the heel of the French. You know, Napoleon III and whatever. And they got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said, “We will serve you if you will get us free from the French.” True story. And so, the devil said, “OK, it’s a deal.” And they kicked the French out. You know, the Haitians revolted and got themselves free. But ever since, they have been cursed by one thing after the other. Desperately poor. That island of Hispaniola is one island. It’s cut down the middle. On the one side is Haiti; on the other side is the Dominican Republic. Dominican Republic is prosperous, healthy, full of resorts, et cetera. Haiti is in desperate poverty. Same island. They need to have and we need to pray for them a great turning to God. 
Of course, Pat Robertson’s notion of what constitutes a “true story” can be gauged by the crackpot theory of a two-hundred-year-old plot for global domination by Jewish bankers, Freemasons, the “Illuminati,” and other Satanists that he expounded in his 1994 book The New World Order. An account of its contents may be found in Michael Lind’s Up from Conservatism: Why the Right Is Wrong for America (New York: Free Press, 1996), pp. 99–120, or on line in “New World Order, Old World Anti-Semitism,” an article by Ephraim Radner that appeared in Christian Century for September 13, 1995. A single paragraph from Radner’s article will give you the flavor of Robertson’s thinking:
Robertson traces the historical progress of this conspiracy, back to Lucifer and his machinations in antiquity. In the modem era the conspiracy has been promoted through a small secret society founded in late 18th-century, Bavaria called the Illuminati, whose members purportedly infiltrated Freemasonry, organized the French Revolution, recruited Friedrick Engels and other communists to their cause and orchestrated the Bolshexik takeover of Russia. Through their control of international banking, the Illuminati-dominated servants of Satan, according to Robertson, have imposed a system of national and private credit and interest that has saddled the nation with debilitating and enslaving debt, robbing the American people at once of their independence and their control over their religious life.
Getting back to Robertson’s more recent outburst of paranoiac idiocy, one should note that his so-called “true story” actually has what might be described, if misleadingly, as a historical basis. The event that presumably caused his febrile brain to conceive that the Haitians swore a “pact to the devil” was a religious ceremony that reputedly took place on August 14, 1791, at Bois Caïman in what is now Haiti under the leadership of a slave and vodou priest or houdon named Dutty Boukman. (Whether this event actually occurred seems to be a matter of dispute.) Boukman reputedly prophesied on that occasion that the slaves of Saint-Domingue (as the colony occupying the territory of what is now the Republic of Haiti was then called) would rise up and overthrow their white masters. On August 22, an uprising began, in the course of which Boukman was captured and killed by the French authorities. The revolt continued without him, and in two years’ time, slavery in Saint-Domingue was at an end. By the end of 1803, the Haitians had overthrown and expelled the French (who, by the way, were under the rule of Napoleon Bonaparte at the time; Napoleon III was not born until 1808).

The idea of a pact with Satan, as far as I can gather, is just more of the sort of lurid fantasy habitually extruded by the brains of right-wing religious fanatics like Robertson. I suspect that in his view any religious practice much different from the Evangelical Protestantism with which he is comfortable is Satanic worship.

But the benighted and delusional character of Robertson’s version of history, however interesting, is really not the issue. What has made his remarks notorious is the fact that they identify the earthquake in Haiti, and other misfortunes that have dogged the history of that nation, as divine retribution. This sort of utterance on his part is nothing new. As Media Matters points out, Robertson has a record of indulging in such prophecy:
  • Remember when Jerry Falwell said, two days after the events of September 11, 2001, “I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the A.C.L.U., People for the American Way, all of them who have tried to secularize America, I point the finger in their face and say, ‘You helped this happen’”? He said that when he was appearing as Robertson’s guest on The 700 Club, and Robertson’s reply was, “I totally concur.” Though Robertson seems subsequently to have tried to put some distance between himself and Falwell’s remarks (he described them as “totally inappropriate,” a phrase that in the perverted moral discourse of the present day passes for severe condemnation, though really it only faults Falwell’s choice of occasion and not the content of what he said), he also issued a written statement that made his stance on this issue perfectly clear: “We have insulted God at the highest level of our government. Then, we say, ‘Why does this happen?’ It is happening because God Almighty is lifting His protection from us.”

  • On The 700 Club for September 12, 2005, Robertson intimated—though he did not plainly assert—that the occurrence of the Hurricane Katrina disaster and terrorist attacks on the US was due to the legality of abortion here (transcript again from Media Matters):

    We have killed over 40 million unborn babies in America. I was reading, yesterday, a book that was very interesting about what God has to say in the Old Testament about those who shed innocent blood. And he used the term that those who do this, “the land will vomit you out.” . . . You look at the book of Leviticus and see what it says there. And this author of this said, “Well, ‘vomit out’ means you are not able to defend yourself.” But have we found we are unable somehow to defend ourselves against some of the attacks that are coming against us, either by terrorists or now by natural disaster? Could they be connected in some way? And he goes down the list of the things that God says will cause a nation to lose its possession, and to be vomited out. And the amazing thing is, a judge has now got to say, “I will support the wholesale slaughter of innocent children” in order to get confirmed to the bench.
  • On The 700 Club for January 5, 2006, Robertson attributed the stroke that paralyzed Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and the murder of his predecessor Yitzhak Rabin to their having tried to divide God’s land, in defiance of biblical prophesy. Robertson said (transcript again from Media Matters):

    The prophet Joel makes it very clear that God has enmity against those who, quote, “divide my land.” God considers this land to be his. You read the Bible, he says, “This is my land.” And for any prime minister of Israel who decides he going carve it up and give it away, God says, “No. This is mine.” And the same thing—I had a wonderful meeting with Yitzhak Rabin in 1974. He was tragically assassinated, and it was terrible thing that happened, but nevertheless, he was dead. And now Ariel Sharon, who was again a very likeable person, a delightful person to be with. I prayed with him personally. But here he is at the point of death. He was dividing God’s land, and I would say woe unto any prime minister of Israel who takes a similar course to appease the EU, the United Nations or United States of America. God said, “This land belongs to me, you better leave it alone.”
    By the way, the passage to which Robertson alludes is this one:

    For behold, in those days and at that time, when I restore the fortunes of Judah and Jerusalem, I will gather all the nations and bring them down to the Valley of Jehoshaphat. And I will enter into judgment with them there, on behalf of my people and my heritage Israel, because they have scattered them among the nations and have divided up my land, and have cast lots for my people, and have traded a boy for a prostitute, and have sold a girl for wine and have drunk it. (Joel 3:1–3, English Standard Version)
    Setting aside the question of how anyone in his right mind can take a bit of ancient literature purported to record divine utterances as a title deed to an entire country, it is obvious that the passage promises divine judgment upon foreign nations that have conquered the land of Israel and dispersed the Israelites among other nations, not upon Israelites in possession of the land who have given away some of it.

So Robertson has been at this sort of thing for a while, and we can expect that as long as he is with us he will provide more of it. What I find curious, and rather frustrating, about the reaction to his remarks in public written media is how elliptical the comments have been. Trolling through the Google and Google News search results for “Pat Robertson Haiti,” what I find, besides bare reports of what he said, consists almost entirely of remarks or exclamations on how outrageous, offensive, absurd, insane, moronic, insensitive, inhumane, and so on it is, or he is. What I have not found is an explanation of what exactly is outrageous, offensive, and so on about it.

Perhaps it is felt that the point is too obvious to merit explanation. Well, I grant that it is obvious that what Robertson said is outrageous and so on. I do not question that for a moment. What I want to know is: why is it outrageous? What makes it so? Is it the idea that the catastrophes that have befallen the people of Haiti—mutatis mutandis the people of New Orleans, of New York City, of the United States, and so on—are in some measure the fault of the victims? Is it the idea that the victims, or some of them, or some of their ancestors, have incurred God’s wrath? Is it the pretense to prophetic knowledge of how God works in the world? Is it not the thoughts themselves but merely the act of giving public utterance to them? (Were they merely, as Robertson said of Jerry Falwell’s remarks about the September 11 attacks, “totally inappropriate”?) It may well be that different people have different reasons for being outraged by Robertson’s remarks. But if there are so many reasons, why have I heard so little about any of them?

I have, as of the moment of writing, seen only one published comment on Robertson’s remarks that contains any analysis or explanation at all: an entry by Ronald Lindsay in the blog of the Center for Inquiry under the title “One Cheer (Amid a Chorus of Boos) for Pat Robertson.” Lindsay offers Robertson a left-handed commendation for exposing by his example the absurdity of religious belief. He writes:
In recent years, in response to increased critical examination of religion, many liberal religious apologists have claimed that these critiques of religion have it all wrong. There is no all-powerful, personal God, overseeing and intervening in our world, who guides hurricanes away or toward land depending on His will. Instead, there is only some nebulous spirit or life-force that fills us with joy, and makes us want to join hands and sing “Kumbaya.” In fact, some scholars, such as Karen Armstrong, argue that religion is not about belief in a personal God at all, but about commitment and activity.

For the ordinary believer this is all rubbish. Ordinary believers—and they do believe—have faith in a robust God, who can deliver them from evil (or not). Pat Robertson reflects the views of the ordinary believer. You see them all the time on TV being interviewed after some natural disaster. They claim they prayed to God to spare them from the tornado/hurricane/earthquake and God answered their prayers. Notably, the people who died can’t speak to the issue of why their prayers were not answered, but Robertson at least tries to offer an explanation. The victims were cursed for some reason, and in the case of Haiti it was because of an imprudent pact with the Devil. (Is there ever a prudent pact with the Devil?)

Of course, Pat Robertson’s claim is absurd. But his claim usefully underscores the absurdity of religious belief in general, instead of obscuring it with a veil of touchy-feely doubletalk.
In other words, Robertson, in Lindsay’s view, is a reductio ad absurdum of religious belief, and thus a walking argument for atheism. Sophisticated apologists for religion like Karen Armstrong try to disown the excesses of such cranks, but their notions of what it means to believe in God have little bearing on what ordinary religious people actually believe. Ordinary religious people believe in a God that intervenes in the affairs of the world to reward the faithful and punish the unfaithful—the God of Pat Robertson, or something very like it. Many of them may dislike Robertson’s conclusions, but they are committed to the same premises and the same logic. His absurdities are therefore theirs.

Thus Lindsay. Now there is an obvious non sequitur here. Granted that, as Lindsay claims, the lofty sophistications of theology do not reflect the beliefs of ordinary religious people, and granted that, as he also claims, the beliefs of ordinary religious people entail the absurd conclusions of a Pat Robertson, it does not follow that Robertson’s conclusions exhibit “the absurdity of religious belief in general.” All that follows is that they exhibit the absurdities of common forms of religious belief.

That conclusion, however, seems to me notable by itself; and it suggests to me an explanation of why so little has been said about what was outrageous in Robertson’s remarks. Most people who believe in God, I suspect, would disavow any claim to prophetic insight. They would deny that they know what worldly events may be attributed to God’s influence, or what God “means” by them. Yet nearly all such people believe that worldly events do show God’s influence and that God does mean something by them. So even if they disclaim knowledge of how God works in the world, they feel free—or perhaps “compelled” would be more like it—to venture judgments about such matters. The lone survivor of an automobile collision says, “God must have kept me alive for a reason!” Oh, and did he cause everyone else to be killed for an equally good reason? Someone makes repeated efforts to succeed in a certain line of work before finally giving up: “God must have meant me for other things.” Well, that is one way to reassure yourself that you made the right choice: pretend that your perfectly ordinary human decision had divine authorization. And so on.

People who think this way may find Robertson’s conclusions offensive because it is inhumane toward the victims of catastrophe to believe such things; or they may condemn his giving public utterance to such conclusions as “totally inappropriate”; neither objection has anything to do with the truth or falsehood of the conclusions. Such objections leave standing the possibility that what Robertson says, his historical delusions aside, may be perfectly true: they merely fault him for saying or perhaps merely believing such things. I suspect that the reason why we do not hear much about what is outrageous in his remarks is that identifying it means identifying what is outrageous in widely and strongly held religious beliefs, namely the idea that God’s actions and intentions can be discerned in worldly events.

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Friday, January 8, 2010

Carl Sagan on Science and Skepticism

Carl Sagan’s work is a great reminder of the ethical aspect of skepticism: without the ability to distinguish between prejudice and “postjudice,” or between what is true and what feels good, we may “slide, almost without noticing, into superstition and darkness.”

I recently learned from a blog entry by D. J. Grothe of the availability of some writings of Carl Sagan (1934–1996) on the site of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. Grothe comments:
One thing that stands out in them is how skepticism was for Carl Sagan a deeply ethical enterprise, not just a debunking hobby, or a way to show how smart we are compared to the numbskulls who believe nonsense. For Sagan, as for so many other leaders in skepticism—though it is not often framed like this—his skepticism came out of a kind of deep moral imperative. Because undue credulity causes so much measurable harm, it follows that there is an ethical obligation to work to mitigate it through speaking out and educating our neighbors. Whether you believe that space aliens are coming to Earth to solve all our problems so we don’t have to do any work to fix them ourselves, or you believe that going to a faith healer or New Age huckster rather than relying on medical science to heal you is the right course of medical care, believing in things uncritically can be bad for you and bad for society. Sagan felt that it was the right thing—the morally conscientious thing—to work against those trends.
That ethical concern seems to me well expressed in this passage from Sagan’s essay “The Burden of Skepticism” (1987):
Another writer again agreed with all my generalities, but said that as an inveterate skeptic I have closed my mind to the truth. Most notably I have ignored the evidence for an Earth that is six thousand years old. Well, I haven’t ignored it; I considered the purported evidence and then rejected it. There is a difference, and this is a difference, we might say, between prejudice and postjudice. Prejudice is making a judgment before you have looked at the facts. Postjudice is making a judgment afterwards. Prejudice is terrible, in the sense that you commit injustices and you make serious mistakes. Postjudice is not terrible. You can’t be perfect of course; you may make mistakes also. But it is permissible to make a judgment after you have examined the evidence. In some circles it is even encouraged.
It is salutary to remember such things when one is accused of being “closed-minded” (or “close-minded,” in the cretinous mangling of the phrase that seems to be coming into favor on the Web) for disparaging claims of events that run contrary to common experience and well-founded scientific conclusions. Being “open-minded” or unprejudiced does not mean refusing to draw conclusions. If Charlie Brown is a perfect skeptic, he must acknowledge that it is possible that, if he runs to kick the football this time, Lucy will let him do so. But, given that she has snatched the football away at the last moment on all previous occasions, he has good reason to believe that she will do the same thing to him this time. That is not a prejudice. That is a warranted conclusion from experience.

And here is a notable passage from “Wonder and Skepticism” (1994):
There’s another reason I think popularizing science is important, why I try to do it. It’s a foreboding I have—maybe ill-placed—of an America in my children’s generation, or my grandchildren’s generation, when all the manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when we’re a service and information-processing economy; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest even grasps the issues; when the people (by “the people” I mean the broad population in a democracy) have lost the ability to set their own agendas, or even to knowledgeably question those who do set the agendas; when there is no practice in questioning those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and religiously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in steep decline, unable to distinguish between what’s true and what feels good, we slide, almost without noticing, into superstition and darkness.
In a previous entry, I raised the question whether there is really any such thing as a “harmless superstition,” and suggested that there is no such thing, but only a distinction between less and more harmful superstitions. Sagan’s reflections seem to me in agreement with this thought.

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