Updates: James Arthur Ray, Pope Benedict XVI, and Haiti’s Vodou Tourism

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  November 23, 2011 — 18 Comments

News did not grind to a halt while I was away at the AAR Annual Meeting, and I have a few important updates on previously reported stories here at The Wild Hunt that I’d like to share with you before I continue unpacking my AAR coverage.

James Arthur Ray Sentenced: Perhaps the biggest news to break while I was away is that New Age guru James Arthur Ray, who was convicted in June of negligent homicide in the deaths of three participants in a 2009 sweat lodge ceremony he led at a retreat in Sedona, has been sentenced to two years in prison (three two-year concurrent sentences) and fined nearly $60,000 in restitution for his crimes.

Prosecutors had sought consecutive three-year sentences for James Arthur Ray on each of the three counts of negligent homicide on which a jury convicted him. The judge instead imposed three two-year terms, to be served concurrently. Ray and his attorneys asked for probation, but Judge Warren R. Darrow said the evidence shows “extreme negligence on the part of Mr. Ray.” “A prison sentence is just mandated in this case,” he said.

Victim’s families and Native American activists alike are both unhappy that Ray didn’t get a longer sentence, though Lakota elder Marvin Youngdog did hope the conviction would act as a deterrent to others appropriating and misusing Native ceremonies. Quote: “Now, he’s a convicted felon; let the word go out to others.” From all accounts an appeal seems likely. This story has been covered extensively by The Wild Hunt, as I feel this case, and the issues it raises have ramifications for the wider Pagan community. Here’s some highlights of my past coverage: “Reactions to Ray Verdict from Native Voices, Victim’s Families, and Pagan Community,” “James Arthur Ray Trial Begins,” “Checking in With James Arthur Ray,” and “The New Age Sweat Lodge Death Controversy.” You can be sure we’ll be following future developments.

Pope Benedict XVI and Vodun Leaders: While I was heading to San Francisco to be among religion scholars, the head of the Roman Catholic Church was headed to Benin for a three-day visit to the West African country of Benin, birthplace of Vodun (aka Voodoo). Anticipating this planned visit, I wondered what the pontiff would say to Vodun leaders in a planned meeting.  As the BBC notes, Vodun is “completely normal” there, an interwoven part of the culture, and Vodun leaders like Dah Aligbonon Akpochihala (mentioned previously on this site) were hoping for words of reconciliation and bridge-building.

High-ranking Voodoo priests have been invited to meet the Pope. One of the Voodoo leaders, Dah Aligbonon, said he hoped the pontiff would urge Roman Catholics to be more tolerant of Africa’s traditional religions. “I invite the Pope to tell his followers to stop acts of provocation against the Voodoo culture,” he said, Reuters reports.

So what happened? So far I haven’t been able to find any accounts of the meeting(s), and what was said. However, there’s been some side-coverage of the Pope’s interactions with Vodun and African Traditional Religions in Benin. The National Catholic Reporter notes that Benedict “urged Catholics to resist a ‘syncretism which deceives’ and to uphold a Christian faith that ‘liberates from occultism’ and ‘vanquishes evil spirits.'” On a somewhat more positive note The Washington Post reports that the new papal document unveiled in Benin,  “Africae Munus” (”The Commitment of Africa”), “stresses the importance of dialogue with Islam and practitioners of indigenous African religions.” I’ll be writing more about this topic once first-hand accounts of the Vodun meetings emerge.

Haiti’s Vodou Tourism: Turning from Vodun in Benin to Vodou in Haiti, we pick up on a story I first noticed back in SeptemberHaitian President Michel Martelly wants to “rebrand” Haiti, and Vodou tourism is part of that vision. In Martelly’s first address to the United Nations he said: “Do you know how many people would like to come to Haiti and try to understand what Voodoo is?” This was no idle rhetorical question as Haiti’s new tourism minister, Stéphanie Balmir Villedrouin, is already utilizing the allure of Vodou to boost ambitious plans for a new tourism industry for the island nation.

“Because we are talking of Voodoo, and there again, it is an initiation to what makes us unique and gives us the force to propose, Haiti on the most popular tourist routes as is now the Caribbean basin. Haiti as a must-visit, because its cry at the world is and remains “Unique Haiti, magic Haiti ! (bewitching, fascinating)” Although recognized as a religion and institutionally to the equal of all others, since 1992, Voodoo is more that this normative and formal status ; it marries and inspires all fields of conscious as the unconscious of every Haitian. It is the starting point of the Foundation of our Nation. Voodoo is in Everything, it is tautological in the expressions of each, both at the level of the laborious daily, than at the level of representations of the artistic creation (dance, music, literature, cuisine, cinema, painting and sculpture) both traditional and modern.”

Former Haitian presidential candidate Jean H. Charles has lauded the appointment of Villedrouin, calling her one of three Haitian women who represented the country’s “highest good,” and noting that Haiti has “immense” potential as a tourist destination, specifically listing Vodou-related events. So it looks like Vodou tourism is full-steam ahead in Haiti. What this will mean for Vodou, both in Haiti and abroad, should be an interesting question to follow in the months and years to come.

That’s all I have for now, but stay tuned for more AAR-related coverage and other great Pagan-oriented news updates!

Jason Pitzl-Waters


  • Let’s hope that Martelly and others go beyond mere “tourism” and find ways to offer something more along the lines of religious pilgrimage. I think many people would jump at the chance to embark on a truly sacred journey to Haiti. Highlights should include a pilgrimage to Bois Caïman, and also a tour of the Barbancourt distillery.

    • Baruch Dreamstalker

      Good idea, and a natural for a vigorous tourism industry.

      • Can I make a zombie? 😀

        • Anonymous

          Step 1. Sit in front of Bill O’Reilly or CSPAN for three days…

    • Oh, they could do all kinds of cultural and religious themed events. Dance and music, prayer flags, clothing, legends, divination, and yummy delicious Haitian food, goat and conch and yam pie. And amazing beaches. What a wonderful boost that would be to Haiti’s economy.

  • Jack Heron

    Coming to Haiti to understand what Vodou is would be good – let’s hope it doesn’t devolve into a theme park version of creepy creepy Voodoo for those wanting to gawp at the superstitious natives.

  • kenneth

    Why would anyone invest hope in Benedict being a “bridge builder”?

    • Hope springs eternal for the optimist?

    • The phrase “bridge to nowhere” springs to mind.

    • This, and particularly with regard to Africa. The Catholic Church needs to double down on religious imperialism and dominance in Africa to offset its loss of followers and dominance elsewhere (as several protestant denominations are doing) and I fully believe that’s at the forefront of Benedict’s mind right now. I don’t even remotely trust anything coming from that source about respecting indigenous African religion as anything other than a PR nod. A different pope, maybe, but not this one.

  • Eaglewyllde

    Urging Catholics against a “…syncretism which deceives…” ? Well, they have done one Hel of a job in terms of cultural and spiritual syncretism throughout the historical continuum…that is, adapting ancient holidays to their calendar, and, as well, co-opting gods to become saints, etc. And, of course, the fact that nothing happens in a vacuum…how many Pagan themes influenced the rise of Christianity. So, perhaps, they have done the best job at deceiving themselves by this argument.

    • Baruch Dreamstalker

      Yeah, the Church is so good at that kind of syncretism that fundamentalist Protestants call them pagan.

    • Jack Heron

      The Church makes a distinction between ‘acculturisation’ and ‘syncretism’. In their vocabulary, the former refers to the importation of festivals, decorative styles, stock metaphors, emphases and other such things that do not contradict Catholic doctrine. ‘Syncretism’, under their definition, refers only to the importing of doctrines and theological ideas that do conflict with a Christian method. So the Pope is repeating the standard Catholic view of ‘adapt Catholicism to local ideas and tastes, so long as the fundamental beliefs aren’t affected’. Whether the Church has actually managed to stick to the former and avoid the latter in history is pretty debatable, but it does try.

      • Going back to Erasmus there is a more enlightened tradition among at least some Catholic thinkers who embrace a far more positive usage of the term “syncretism”. And that tradition is in turn far more in line with the original import of the term, which goes back at least to Plutarch, who admired the Cretans for their habit of putting aside their differences whenever foreigners attempted to invade their island. Thus the original meaning, and arguably the true meaning, of “syncretism” is “banding together in the Cretan fashion”. Plutarch thought of “syncretism” as nothing less than a praiseworthy manifestation of the virtue of “brotherly love”, and it is well worth reading his essay on that subject (De Fraterno Amore), in which he explains the true, original meaning of “syncretism”.

        Erasmus and his ally George Calixt were opposed by more conservative churchmen who could see no good in syncretism. But the more positive view of syncretism actually became a basic principle for much of the missionary activity in the New World as well as in Asia and Africa. According to church historian Anita Maria Leopold:

        “The expansion of Christianity in the sixteenth century was the basis on which the notion [of syncretism] became part of the mission policy. It was in the irenic [“conducive to peace and reconciliation”] sense of the term that the Franciscans and the Dominicans in Mexico planned in 1524 and in the tradition of Erasmus, “to settle the Indians around churches … and convert them by colourful ceremonies”. In the East, the Jesuits regarded syncretism as a means to expand their mission, in a similar way to the Jesuit Francis Xavier (1542), who worked out a scheme to convert Japanese lords to Christianity by adapting Christianity to Japanese culture. As a result, local customs not directly in contradiction to Christianity were to be accepted. In China, another Jesuit, Matteo Ricci (ca. 1600), accepted Confucian rites and ancestor worship as a way of serving missionary purposes. He even wore the robes of a Confucian scholar.” [Syncretism in Religion: A Reader, pp. 16-17].

        • Jack Heron

          You are of course correct about the original and arguably more widespread use of the term ‘syncretism’, but this is not the current usage of the term in the Catholic Church. The distinctions we must make are between the traditional usage (as you say, a banding together – this was the meaning Calixt was using when encouraging a syncretism of Lutheranism and Catholicism), the usage meaning fusion and mixing of religious beliefs, and the usage by the Catholic Church meaning the importing of explicitly non-Christian beliefs into Christianity. It is the latter of these three which the Pope is using.

          As Leopold points out, it was local customs ‘not directly in contradiction to Christianity’ that were accepted. *We* might call this syncretism, and under the first and second definitions of the word we would be correct. However, the criterion of the customs being not directly in contradiction means that under the current Catholic distinction this would be acculturisation (other terms used include ‘contextualisation’ and ‘inculturation’) and not syncretism. And that’s the position the Pope is taking – customs that don’t contradict are OK, those that do are not. It may seem a fussy little distinction, but to the Pope it’s everything.

          • You are wrong. Catholics and others continue to use the term in different ways. In addition to the “subjective” usages (where syncretism is defined either “positively” as being beneficial to the spread of Christianity, or “negatively” as a problematic mixture of Christianity with things inimical to it), there are also, at least in theory, purely objective uses of the term, but these are also quite tricky, since they depend on what one means by “different” religions, and also on what one means by “mixing” “different” “religions” together (one also quickly finds that even the term “religion” itself, and most especially its plural “religions”, becomes quite slippery).

          • Jack Heron

            Of course they do – that was what my post above addressed. I’m not saying that there aren’t different uses of the term, I’m saying that when the current Pope uses it, *he* is following the distinction made between ‘syncretism’ and ‘acculturisation’/’inculturation’ in current official Church usage – the precedents set by the Eastern Rite Catholics, Jesuits in China and especially his predecessor’s missionary encyclicals.

            The point of my comments here is to explain what the Pope meant when he said ‘a syncretism that deceives’, and why a Church that incorporates many elements of other traditions does not consider itself to have a syncretic belief system.

  • Charles Cosimano

    I would doubt that the Ray conviction and sentencing will have any effect at all on New Agers other than to make them more careful of people dying. It isn’t like they are going to lose any sleep over what Pagans or Native Americans say.