Friday, June 12, 2020


Here's another example of why framing questions through religion is a bad idea.

On Thursday, NPR aired this poetry podcast.  The poem itself was pretty meh, but it was put into a  troubling context by the announcer, the poet Tracy K. Smith.
My sister visited Cuba once with a friend, and spent part of their time among followers of Santeria, people who take the Orisha, or Yoruban gods and goddesses, quite seriously.  Back at home, over drinks with her travel companion, my sister brushed off the half-joking request to pour out a little of her mojito as an offering to Shango.  Later that night, driving home in a thunderstorm, my sister's car suffered a broken axle.  She ended up having to replace the car with a new vehicle altogether.  She now tells the story as if it was all just a strange coincidence, but that very same weekend, for good measure, she laid out an offering of cornmeal and rum for the aggrieved deity.

In the Yoruba tradition, Shango is the god of thunder and lightning.  He is known for his strength, formidable anger,and love of justice, as well as for his prodigious appetite.  In the Americas, his strength was called up to bolster Africans who were brought to the New World in chains.  In today's poem, "On the D Train," Jacqueline Johnson, the speaker imagines seeing Shango all around her: on the subway, or walking city streets on his way to work.  Inevitably, the poem brings my sister's Shango kerfluffle to my mind.  

But in a more serious way, the poem also asks me to take a better look at the black men around me, moving through their days at work and rest.  Aligning men like this with the figure of Shango urges me to acknowledge the honor, respect, and even the awe that ought to be their everyday due.  Black men are misjudged and mischaracterized every day.  This poem offers a powerful antidote to that tendency.
Since the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic, I've decided that it's time to criticize and oppose religion more aggressively.  I've been collecting material for several months now, yet I've hesitated to pull it together and write about it, for reasons I can't quite identify.  I don't think it's just because the subject is religion.  I've written critically about religion often before, and I have a backlog of other topics I've been blocked on.  Whatever the reason, this podcast broke the logjam.

The popularity of "phobia" to refer to almost any kind of opposition or criticism needs to be challenged.  It's sort of like the way the suffix -gate for any scandal, large or small, has metastatized since the 1970s - it makes great clickbait.  The invention of phobias is part of the general medicalization of all areas of contemporary life.  Now, I admit that many people do exhibit strong emotional affect toward competing religions that could loosely be called "phobic," but I don't think most people who speak of "Islamophobia" realize that they're using a metaphor, and a problematic one at that.  After all, different Muslim sectarians display the same sort of "phobic" hostility to each other that some outsiders display toward Islam generally; so do sectarians in other religions.  I suppose one could speak of Shi'aphobia or Sunniphobia, but why bother?  As with genders, the alleged phobias would multiply ad infinitum, and a clinician with access to professional journals can easily invent or appropriate new ones, in hopes that they will make it into the DSM and become billable for insurance.

That way lies madness, though, and it's bound to backfire.  Liberals and progressives who furiously denounce conservative Christians are going to be diagnosed with Christianophobia, Catholophobia, or Evangelophobia, getting into trouble on social media as they are accused of racism.  Since such people tend to racialize evangelical Christianity as white even though a sizable proportion of American evangelicals are black, and growing numbers are Asian or Latino, the accusation would have teeth.  It doesn't help that most Christians are biblically and religiously illiterate, so their hostility to competing sects is driven by emotion rather than information.  The same is true of most atheists.  Right-wing Christians have already borrowed diversity-management and culture-of-therapy rhetoric to present themselves as the victims of prejudice by liberals, and weaponized diagnoses of Evangelophobia are bound to show up if they haven't already.

As an atheist, I reject all religions.  Am I religio-phobic?  I don't think so, and not just because the term is basically meaningless.  Am I bigoted against religion?  I don't think so.  I'm certainly more knowledgeable about religion than most atheists and most believers, and I'm happy to learn more; if I'm wrong factually or am overgeneralizing, I welcome correction.  I know, and insist, that religious believers vary among themselves, and I also insist that they are not as different from atheists or competing cults as they like to believe.  But as with other belief systems, I find that believers who hope to educate me rarely know as much as I do, and are misinformed about their own sects.

In this case I'm relying on the NPR podcaster for the account of Orisha and Shango that I'm responding to; if I get anything wrong, blame her.  I listened to the episode with mounting bafflement.  She doesn't exactly claim that Shango broke the axle of her sister's car because she failed to pour out a libation; I suppose she was aiming for plausible deniability.  Religionists of other stripes, including Christians, do the same thing.

But really, I thought, I'm supposed to see Shango as a positive deity?  With his "strength, formidable anger, and love of justice, as well as ... his prodigious appetite," this "god of thunder and lightning" sounds like a dead ringer for Yahweh, the god of the "Abrahamic" religions.  The great historian Morton Smith once referred to Yahweh, as the Hebrew Bible describes him, as "a North Arabian mountain god who traveled in thunderstorms and liked the smell of burning fat."  I'm sure that's just a strange coincidence.  Many of Yahweh's devotees also like to blame misfortunes large and small, national and personal, on us, for not spending enough time on our knees and building up his tender ego.  The offerings we give are of terrible quality, and such small portions.  And so on: this earth-based Yoruba deity is not as different from Yahweh as people like to think.  Having a small-time hood offering protection is not an improvement on a more megalomanic one ("Nice little car you have there, Missy; be a shame if something happened to it...").

What good does Shango's protection really do?  Where was he while Africans were being brought to the New World in chains?  Probably getting high and watching Internet porn, like his competitors; sorry about that, guys.  I've seen the same pattern among neo-pagans and Native Americans: their gods were out to lunch while the rapacious Christians were conquering the world.  As he's described here, Shango is also a god of toxic masculinity, again a lot like Yahweh.  Thanks, but I'm not buying it.  And he's not a good role model for African-American men, who need more respect and care, as black women and everyone else does; being "aligned ... with the figure of Shango" is one of the last things they need.  As for "awe," forget it.

This isn't a question of facts, of course: Shango, like Yahweh or any other deity, doesn't exist, so any traits ascribed to him are lies. I'm making a judgment, and anyone is welcome to disagree with me.  I'd be interested to see what kinds of arguments they could offer.  Meanwhile, I see no reason to respect Santeria any more than I do Christianity.  I suppose someone could re-interpret Shango, as Christians do with Jesus, to make him more attractive, but he'd still be a fiction.  Is it phobic of me to say so?  Not unless it's phobic to object to "so-called Christians" on the right, as liberal Christians do all the time.  I'm not interested in hearing about new phobias, I'd like to have some more intelligent, informed, thoughtful discussion of these questions.  I'm not holding my breath.