Anyone who is familiar with this blog knows that I am not religious. Not only that, but I am also an atheist, meaning, I do not have belief that a ‘God’ exists.
That said, in principle, I have no objection to people having religious beliefs – whatever they may be. It is their constitutional right to hold whatever religious beliefs they wish to hold, in just the same way it is my constitutional right not to hold any. My concern is, and has always been, specifically when religious beliefs end up harming people, or are somehow detrimental to people’s well being.
What prompted me to ‘come out’ and begin trying to promote reason and critical thinking in today’s Uganda is because of the high degree of superstitious thinking being aggressively perpetuated by the new wave of charismatic Christianity that has swept across the country. This new wave goes by a variety of names – such as Savedees, Born-Agains, Pentecostals, or Evangelicals. Locally, they are known simply as Balokole.
A number of common themes prevail across most Balokole churches, including:
Emphasis on miracle healing
Speaking in tongues
Prosperity doctrine (where believers are all destined to be financially successful)
All problems afflicting believers being the result of curses/demons/Satan, and solutions to these problems come in the way of divine intervention
Prior to the arrival of Christian missionaries to Africa, the natives of sub-Saharan Africa practiced traditional religion which included various forms of ancestor worship. Their worldview included a belief that illness, drought, natural disasters and other misfortunes were the result of angry (or evil) spirits, and that rituals had to be performed to appease these spirits. Various shamans and traditional healers have, throughout African history, claimed to have the ability to intercede between humans and these spirits, making available to them (at a price, of course) charms and other concoctions designed to either appease or repel such spirits.
Where as the early denominations that came to Uganda (Anglicanism & Catholicism) denounced ancestral worship as indulgence in ineffectual superstition, charismatic Christianity (which first took root in Uganda about 50 years ago) instead incorporated these African traditional practices and ancestral worship into their worldview as part of the wider cosmic battle between ‘good’ and ‘evil’. The ancestral spirits became reinterpreted as ‘demons’, and the shamans, mediums and traditional healers who interceded on their behalf became ‘witches’ or ‘witchdoctors’ – all of them allegedly working in collusion with Satan to make life difficult for followers of Christ.
The pastors of these charismatic churches in effect became the ‘new’ shamans, wielding, this time, the power of ‘God’ to be able to ‘bind’ and ‘cast out’ these demons. Like the local shamans, they too rely on incantations – usually invoking ‘the name of Jesus’ - to perform exorcisms and alleged healing miracles. Indeed, the typical charismatic church exorcism resembles what one might see being done in a local ancestral shrine:
The popularity of this form of Christianity has exploded over the last few decades because the doctrine promises poor, under-educated believers miraculous solutions to their everyday problems. Understandably, on an impoverished continent like this one, a religion that offers quick fixes to all the pressing problems in life will be immensely popular, and that is exactly what we see happening. Among charismatic Christians, things like unemployment, failure of business, failure of marriage, sickness, corruption in government… all the problems an individual or society could possibly face… are attributed to Satan, demons and other evil spirits – and Jesus is presented as the antidote.
Such an iteration of Christianity fits perfectly well with the mindset of most native Africans, most of whom have, since time immemorial, taken seriously the perceived threat of curses inflicted upon them by spirits and other bad omens. This is probably why charismatic Christianity has proven to be a raging success in sub-Saharan Africa.
This has literally created a cottage industry of make-shift balokole churches all over the country, typically run by unscrupulous, opportunistic individuals looking to earn a living from the lucrative business of ‘selling’ Jesus.
Competition is fierce among pastors of rival local balokole churches, after all, having more worshippers usually means bigger collections.
While probably succeeding in assuaging the everyday anxieties of legions of believers, and in some cases even doing decent charity work, the charismatic Christian belief system has yielded some rather undesirable consequences, such as:
Encouraging a reliance on miracle healings, rather than seeking science based medical treatment
Many HIV positive believers dying because they were abandoning ARVs based on unsubstantiated miracle testimonies
Believers parting with large sums of money in order to receive the purported blessings of ‘God’
Pastors conning believers by stage-managing miracles
General undermining of science (especially pertaining to medical science, the theory of evolution, Big Bang cosmology, and psychology)
Making people believe that the problems they face are as a result of spiritual forces, and that solutions to those same problems lie in the spiritual realm
An increased reliance on prayer to solve problems, rather than on efforts to find rational, practical and demonstrable solutions
Promoting an overly apocalyptic mindset (the belief that the world is ending anytime soon)
The result of this is that an unprecedented amount of irrational and superstitious thinking has permeated across Ugandan society (often practiced in its most extreme form).
I just wish they’d tone down on the spooky magical woo woo stuff, and practice their religion with a little more rationality, like some other mainstream Christian denominations (that don’t go overboard). But this could be wishful thinking on my part – all indications show that the mainstream churches, who are rapidly losing members to the charismatic churches, are now adopting many ideas from them in a bid to retain their flock.
In an upcoming post I will review a Christian book called ‘Charismatic Chaos’, and also look at how other Christian groups view the charismatic movement.