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#2812: Antoine replies to Bell on the matter of religion in Haiti (fwd)

From: Guy Antoine <GuyAntoine@windowsonhaiti.com>

Madison Bell wrote:
> Antoine is not the first to blame religion and attendant superstition
> for social and economic backwardness, nor is Vodou the only religion
> to be so blamed.

Madison, this statement does not at all reflect what I conveyed to the list.
I do make a clear distinction between religion and superstition, and their
effects on human development.  I do not belong to the school of thought
that claims that "religion is the opium of the people".  To me, all
are man-made institutions that help their adherents express and nurture
their spirituality in a social manner, in group meetings, with peer support,
rather than doing so individually.  (That's as far as I can reasonably go
with this thought, without straying too far away from our central Haiti

I do believe in the power of spirituality, and I certainly think that
have it as well.  Furthermore, spirituality is essentially an agent of
positive change.  I have never been intolerant of religion in a radical
way, except that as a man-made institution which has been led by
men with good intentions or exploitative ones, people with good faith
and others seeking rationalizations for all sorts of materialistic
we should recognize that religion definitely has a mixed record.  Even
apartheid in South Africa was justified on the basis of some Christian
theology -- like the slave trade in earlier times.  Yet, we know that Vodou
played a key role in freeing Haitians from their extremely inhumane
bondage, and Christianity fueled the Civil Rights movement in the U.S.

It has NEVER been my intention to blame Vodou or Christianity for the
ills of Haiti.  I could place part of the blame on SOME religious leaders,
but this is a far cry from blaming religion itself.

I do not subscribe to the notion of "pure" religions, but I do have a
healthy amount of respect for both Christianity and Vodou.  I know that
certain Christians are totally intolerant of Vodou, and certain Vodouisants
are (not to the same degree) intolerant of Christianity.  I understand their
positions, but this is not at all my focus.  I have, as far as I can
anyway, only advocated tolerance between the two groups and a
CLEAR SOCIAL RESPONSIBILITY by both religious sectors in a
country that is in dire need of such.

What I tried to do (somewhat successfully, though it was not easy!) was
to address a clear imbalance in the way that Vodou and Christianity
have been discussed on the Corbett list.  First with respect to Vodou,
the overwhelming majority of posts dealt with the mysteries of Vodou,
the origins and personalities of the lwas, and many technicalities
pertaining to the liturgy.  Very few posts have dealt with the role of
Vodou in the economic transition or human development of Haitians.
>From an admittedly detached point of view, I have felt all along that
this insistence on the mysteries of Vodou, devoid from any stated
positive social activism, was more harmful than beneficial to the religion.
This acute imbalance attaches a certain "freakness" to it.  Since I am
not an expert, I wanted to prod our religion experts (with some candid
questions) to start talking about the social and transformative power
of Vodou and what role the religion will play in helping majority class
Haitians out of their condition of abject physical poverty and some of
the worst norms of public health to be found anywhere in the Americas
(Let's hope that this does not become the successor to The Phrase.)

So, let's make this perfectly clear: I have NOT blamed religion or
Vodou in particular for Haiti's social and economic backwardness.
In fact, I only advocate a greater participation of the religious sector
in the country's development, as long as they do not consider any
critiques of their approaches as sacrilegious.  Let's face it: Vodou
is not dying in Haiti, and it would not even if ALL of the Promise
Keepers were to invade Haiti.

In recent History, we have the clear example of the Ti Legliz movement,
mostly led by Catholic priests I believe, which has fostered the notion
of social justice in Haiti. Why should not I expect an equally positive
push from our Vodou leaders?  And is it so unthinkable to envision
Christians and Vodouisants working harmoniously (with the State) to
accomplish the same social goals: education, greater standards of
public health, reduction of infant mortality, the elimination of the AIDS
scourge, etc.

As my dear friend from Japan, Mihoko Tsunetomi, would say:
"Haitians, get to it already!"  What she has failed to fully appreciate
are the very deep divisions that exist in our society that prevent us
from making A STEADY STEP FORWARD.  The rift between
Christians and Vodouisants in Haiti certainly does not help in that

I DO think that many superstitious practices in Haiti are counter-
productive to our development.  I have cited the public health field,
but some of our superstitions clearly impact our business associations
as well. In the mind of many people, those superstitions are associated
with the religion of Vodou.  If I challenged our Vodou experts on
superstitions, it was not in the spirit of defaming the religion... au
contraire!  My purpose was twofold: 1) I wanted Haitians to acknowledge
that not EVERYTHING in our culture lends to an accelerated human
development, and that we had better examine many of our superstitious
beliefs and practices in order to combat those that are demonstrably
prejudicial;  2) I wanted our Vodou experts to demonstrate that Vodou
was indeed NOT "an agglomerate set of superstitions" but a religious
institution capable of inspiring and enlisting its adherents in the struggle
to dismantle the barriers to our development, barriers which certainly
INCLUDE some superstitious practices.

It was never my claim that we can so neatly place the "social and
economic backwardness of Haiti" at the foot of religion or superstition.
Rather, my claim is that when confronted with a "social and economic
backwardness" as deeply entrenched as it is in Haiti, our religious
sector cannot shrunk from its social responsibility.  In my opinion, when
an infant is dying from malnutrition, there exists no Saint nor Lwa that
will save that infant, unless and until a human being decides to come
to the rescue of that child by feeding her properly.  If Christianity or
Vodou were the agent that inspires people to save that child (and to
address the root causes of malnutrition that befalls so many other
children), then all the power to Vodou or Christianity!

As far as superstitions go, they are clearly not the exclusive domain
of Christians or Vodouisants.  I believe that MOST Haitians have a
clear penchant for superstitious beliefs.  In stating earlier that
begets superstitions, I was not implying that religion and superstition
were one and the same.  I do have a healthier dose of respect for
religious leaders that do not condone or promote superstitious beliefs
(such as the attribution of every naturally occurring ill to a supernatural
cause and the prescription of a supernatural means to remedy it).
However, I sense that this subject is somewhat taboo because as one
attacks superstitions, one may well appear to be intolerant of religions.
This is unfortunate.

I believe that when all is said and done Religion will play a key role
in the economic development of Haiti.  I believe that religion will
overcome its historical demons.  I believe that spirituality is  profoundly
empowering, and that religion should learn not to get too much in its
way.  I believe that the Ti Legliz movement will live up to is promise.
I believe that people of good will (including missionaries)  who are
involved in microcredit development projects in Haiti (see a treatise
of such in Windows on Haiti) are working for the good of Haiti.  I
believe that the future of Haiti resides in the cooperation of its
various sectors and the empowerment of her poorest citizens.

You cleverly conclude, Madison, that "The barrier is rather chronic
political instability and the absence of a functioning  government.
These, in my view, are not religious issues....."  I would say that
it is naive to think that religions, in Haiti,  have not had a major role
to play in "functioning governments" (or the absence of) or in matters
of social and economic progress.  The record is decidedly mixed,
but far from negligible.  Politics alone do not explain everything
(especially when Haiti's religious leaders have displayed such
combativity on one side or the other of social activism).  More than
ever, we need to work hard at establishing a partnership between
the secular and religious sectors in Haiti to empower Haitians both
economically and morally.

Guy S. Antoine
Look thru & Imagine!