Archives For Rob Kerby

This past April I wrote a piece criticizing the religious portal site Beliefnet for a news item that conflated the recent Cornwall controversy over teaching Paganism in religious education classes with the troubling trend of witch-hunts and witch-killings in places like Africa and the Middle East. The article, written by Beliefnet Senior Editor Rob Kerby, not only drew criticism from me, but from Beliefnet’s only Pagan blogger, Gus diZerega, and several Pagans who commented on the original article at Beliefnet. It also inspired a response from Evangelical Christians Paul Louis Metzger and John W. Morehead.

“Those in Pagan circles have responded strongly to the piece, and with good reason. Kerby provides no solid substantiation for his claims, demonstrates a lack of familiarity with the spiritual practices and beliefs he critiques, and as a result, the piece creates fear and suspicion of witchcraft (and broader Paganism as well). While Christians have often accused Paganism of superstition, the irony is that the Christian community has often approached Paganism superstitiously. Kerby’s piece only adds to the superstition and suspicion, made worse by the stereotypes and fears that often underlie such representations.”

Now, two months later, Beliefnet seems to have finally reacted to the controversy their Senior Editor caused. In a thread on their forums, an official response was posted on June 7th in a thread started by Gorm Sionnach.

“We wanted to reach out to you to let you know how deeply sorry we are for the Beliefnet News blog post back in April titled “What can the third world teach the “civilized” world about witchcraft.”  Unfortunately this post was just recently brought to our attention; however it has been permanently removed from Beliefnet.com.

Please note that the views expressed in this piece are by no means representative of Beliefnet and our views toward Paganism.  Beliefnet is, and will always remain, a multi-faith website celebrating all beliefs.

Thank you for bringing this to our attention.  Your voices and discussions are a valuable and enjoyed asset to the site and we look to continue to provide you with a safe environment to express your own thoughts and feelings on religion, spirituality and more.”

A quick check shows that the story has indeed been removed (here’s a cached version of the article), but there is no outside acknowledgement of this anywhere. The apology has only been posted to this thread on the Beliefnet forums, and somewhat disturbingly, they have also removed Gus diZerega’s criticisms of the piece as well (here’s a cache of the post). Since I know Gus diZerega, I asked him about this, and he related to me that the deletion was done without his prior knowledge or approval. An apology was also directed to Gus from Rob Kerby, but not directly.

While I appreciate that Beliefnet was willing to apologize to Gus diZerega and Pagans on the Beliefnet forums, I’m disturbed by how they have decided to simply scrub this incident away and not publicly acknowledge that they had done something offensive.  I also think it is disingenuous at best to pretend they knew nothing of this controversy until “recently.” That would mean that no-one reads comments at the site, looks at trackbacks, traffic reports, or even pays attention to the content on their blogs. I think a comment from Beliefnet forum member ‘Ferretling’ sums the situation up rather well.

“What I find bothersome is that they took it down from its very prominent position, but did not write a news article apologizing. No, they tuck away the apology here, where only those bothering to read the Multifaith Board will see it. To me this says a couple things. The first is that they don’t actually care. The second is that they are not really sorry. The third is that they don’t worry themselves about the concerns or feelings of any of their non-Christian members. I am a former pagan (now Zen Buddhist), and I found the article highly offensive. But what I find even more offensive is that there is no public statement on the same page from the so-called writer who spewed the idiocy, nor from Beliefnet itself. Put the apology and retraction on the page where everyone can see it, not tucked away here in a seldom-visited forum.”

One has to wonder, is this how Beliefnet apologizes? By scrubbing critical posts, keeping apologies “in house,” and generally pretending the whole thing never happened? That seems counter-productive to me, and holds no one accountable for their actions. If Rob Kerby and Beliefnet are truly sorry for this article, they should make their apology visible and accessible, posted in the same sections the original piece was. The question of if Beliefnet actually values its Pagan readers and contributors is still very much an open one.

[The following is a guest post from Paul Louis Metzger and John W. Morehead. Paul Louis Metzger, Ph.D. is Professor of Christian Theology and Theology of Culture at Multnomah Biblical Seminary/Multnomah University; Charter Member, Evangelical Chapter of the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy. John W. Morehead is Director, Western Institute for Intercultural Studies; Director, Evangelical Chapter of the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy.]

Rob Kerby, Senior Editor at beliefnet, wrote a recent article titled “What can the Third World teach us about witchcraft?.” This has resulted in the concern of and critique by Pagans, but it should also interest those in other religious communities. We are practicing Evangelical Christians, and we are very interested in what Christians and Pagans have to say about one another in hopes of light being shed on our respective spiritual pathways. Unfortunately, misunderstanding, misrepresentation, and hostility have been characteristic traits of our exchanges throughout history. In our minds, Kerby’s article only intensified this problem.

After reading the Kerby article, we are left wondering what the piece teaches us about witchcraft. While we did not necessarily learn anything about witchcraft from his essay, we did learn that he believes witchcraft in all its forms does great damage to civilization in the “Third World” and elsewhere, and that strong measures should be taken to eradicate it from the West. In addition to other problematic features, we were deeply concerned that Kerby claims that witchcraft is a capital offense in Saudi Arabia, punishable by beheading. Why did he make this claim? Is this something the “Third World” can teach us about witchcraft, or is this one of many sensational claims by Kerby?

Those in Pagan circles have responded strongly to the piece, and with good reason. Kerby provides no solid substantiation for his claims, demonstrates a lack of familiarity with the spiritual practices and beliefs he critiques, and as a result, the piece creates fear and suspicion of witchcraft (and broader Paganism as well). While Christians have often accused Paganism of superstition, the irony is that the Christian community has often approached Paganism superstitiously. Kerby’s piece only adds to the superstition and suspicion, made worse by the stereotypes and fears that often underlie such representations.

What we learned from reading Kerby’s essay and the responses to it from Pagans is that we have a long way to go in pursuit of charity and sound argumentation in our post-Christendom and pluralistic public square. We are charter members of the Evangelical Chapter of the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy. Our chapter aims to develop interreligious relationships and conversations in civility and without compromise with those of other religious and spiritual traditions. Our work in the chapter represents a new movement in Evangelicalism. The chapter seeks accuracy and fairness in understanding, and embodies a relational and dialogical approach, while addressing substantial differences in practice and belief between various religious and spiritual communities. Two examples of this approach are the books Beyond the Burning Times: A Pagan and Christian in Dialogue (written by Philip Johnson and Gus diZerega, and edited by John Morehead; published by Lion, UK, April 2009), and Connecting Christ: How to Discuss Jesus in a World of Diverse Paths (Paul Louis Metzger; Thomas Nelson, May 2012—this work includes an article on Paganism and a response by Gus diZerega). We have been very grateful for our charitable and constructive engagements in reasoned argumentation with Dr. diZerega (who mentioned our exchanges in his beliefnet post on Kerby’s article). We welcome other opportunities for such collaboration. We also encourage Evangelicals to get involved in our FRD chapter and for Pagans to form their own FRD chapter so as to have a place at the table with other religions and spiritual paths. Over time, such collaboration may help mitigate against depictions like Kerby’s.

In our post-Christendom, pluralistic public square, Christians must learn to show respect for other belief and praxis systems by substantiating our claims and criticisms and arguing for the cogency of our own convictions on level ground also occupied by others. We must also seek to demonstrate that our Christian convictions promote the common good and pursue conversations with others from varying viewpoints who would do the same. One person self-identified as “unap” wrote in a comment posted in response to the Kerby article: “Crimes against humanity – death, torture, sacrifice, grave robbing and mutilation - are crimes pretty much everywhere. They need no special pleading for more punishment because you think those crimes are belief based.” Solid argument on level ground in civility.

We encourage both Evangelicals and Pagans to enter into sustained dialogue, with the former through our chapter, and the latter through the formation of a FRD chapter. The only way we will move beyond witch hunts and superstition is if we enter into public square discourse with level heads in search of charity and sound arguments.

For several years I’ve been asking the question of what do we do when the men and women accused of “sorcery” and “witchcraft” are no longer “over there” in Africa or the Middle East, and are instead at our doorsteps.

“If this trend isn’t seriously addressed soon, we may find this madness turning its eye towards “safe” occultists and Pagans in places like America, the UK, Australia, Brazil, and Canada.”

Now, with the UK still reeling over the murder of Kristy Bamu, who died while being tortured under the auspices of an “exorcism” at his sister’s home, and British police being trained to spot cases of sorcery among immigrant communities, some Christian writers have seized on a largely constructed controversy over religious education in Cornwall to cynically launch attacks on modern Paganism. First out of the gate was  Catholic Telegraph columnist Christina Odone, whose anti-Pagan screed I recently highlighted on this blog.

“God, Gaia, whatever: school children are already as familiar with the solstice as with the sacraments. In pockets of Cornwall, children will point out a nun in her habit: “Look, a Druid!” Their parents will merely shrug — one set of belief is as good as another. How long before the end of term is marked by a Black Mass, with only Health and Safety preventing a human sacrifice?

To Odone’s credit, she doesn’t explicitly conflate the recent sorcery and exorcism-related deaths and attacks with modern Paganism, though she does bemoan liberals “who spy covert imperialism or racism in every moral judgment.” It took Beliefnet Senior Editor Rob Kerby’s insulting and sloppy article to do that. Interweaving Odone’s opinion piece with recent stories on witch-hunting and killings in the developing world, Kerby joins the imaginary dots.

“In 2005, Sita Kisanga was found guilty of torturing an eight-year-old in London, believing the girl to have kindoki. She told the court that, “Kindoki is something you have to be scared of because in our culture kindoki can kill and destroy your life completely.” But officials in Cornwall, England, say there’s nothing to fear. [...] It seems that the politically correct Cornwall Council regards Christianity as no better than any other superstition.”

Beliefnet’s sole Pagan blogger, Gus diZerega, has posted his own response to Kerby’s piece, hinting that his time at the religion portal may be coming to an end soon if nothing is done. But even if Kerby does ultimately walk back his statements, the connection has been made, and Catholic columnist Christopher Howse has decided to use it to hammer on Cornwall’s curriculum.

Christopher Howse at Glastonbury.

Christopher Howse at Glastonbury.

“So it seems there are now two kinds of witchcraft: the bad kind that black people believe in, and the kind that should be celebrated because it is believed in by Cornish people.”

Howse seems to suggest that there should be no distinction, that all witchcraft is bad. However, he undermines this somewhat by shifting to a “Paganism and Wicca aren’t truly ancient so they shouldn’t be taken seriously” argument.

“What we do know is that there is no continuity between pre-Christian religions in Britain and the various branches of modern paganism. [...] It [Wicca] was no more an ancient religion than Jedi.”

You can’t have it both ways, really. Either all forms of witchcraft and sorcery are indistinguishable, or they aren’t. If you acknowledge that Wicca is something other than the  phenomenon that led to Kristy Bamu’s death, you create cracks in the cynical false dilemma you’ve created to ratchet up the fear and misinformation. This misinformation not only harms modern Pagan religions, but African Traditional Religions as well, and obscures what may be the true culprit. According to groups like AFRUCA, the spread of anti-witchcraft and sorcery violence in the UK is centered in Pentecostal Churches, not indigenous, revived, or reconstructed pre-Christian belief systems.

Blood-spattered bathroom tiles at Magalie Bamu and Eric Bikubi's flat.

Blood-spattered bathroom tiles at Magalie Bamu and Eric Bikubi's flat.

“We were concerned about this before this trial of Kristy Bamu,” said Debbie Ariyo, executive director of Africans Unite Against Child Abuse (Afruca), who added that a boom in pentecostal churches was leading to more children being accused of witchcraft. “This is not a problem with all pastors or all churches, but the branding of children as witches is not abating. It is a growing problem. There are so many children suffering in silence.”

You see, what these concerned Catholics don’t want you to know is that this wave of violence is partially the fault of missionaries who inserted Christian triumphalism and a spiritual warfare dynamic into traditional beliefs about malefic magic. This created deadly consequences the missionaries could not (or would not) understand.

Missionaries have commonly responded [to witchcraft accusations] in two ways, said [Robert] Priest [professor of missions and intercultural studies at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School]. The power of witches to harm others is dismissed as superstition, but this seldom persuades local Christians to abandon the concept; or the reality of witchcraft is endorsed by missionaries not wanting to be “post-Enlightenment rationalists” with a non-biblical skepticism of spiritual warfare.

The result is that traditional witch ideas are fused with Christian theology, which obscures the social consequences: Accused witches are often destitute or outcast, and thus socially defenseless. Instead of seeing old women or children as scapegoats, said Priest, Christian leaders suggest that witchcraft participates in genuine spiritual evil and that the accusations are reasonable. “The church is providing the cognitive underpinnings for the past system in the contemporary world.”

Nothing seems to be the fault of Christianity, of course. Even though there are several high-profile Christian witch-hunters who make a name for themselves by casting out demons, and receive support from Western churches. Spiritual warfare is waged, perverting indigenous beliefs in the process, but the response isn’t to crack down on Christian churches, the response is to further demonize non-Christian traditions.

Writers like Kerby and Howse aren’t stupid, they know their assertions will have reverberations beyond the page or computer screen. But will they be willing to take responsibility if their words spark a new moral panic? One that engulfs anyone who is suspected of practicing “witchcraft?” Somehow I don’t think they’ll have the courage or stomach for it, and will instead find someone (or something) to scapegoat. Anyone but themselves.

The moment when “witch-hunts” over there come home to roost on our doorsteps is now. How Pagans react will be very important in how this issue plays out. We must resist at all costs the urge to fall into Howse’s trap and create a “two kinds of witchcraft” split on ethnic lines, and instead build a response that holds fear-mongering churches and writers responsible while creating new coalitions between Pagans and practitioners of African diasporic and traditional faiths. We must not let moral panics break out against adherents of Santeria, Palo, Vodou, or smaller groups, while we try to pretend there’s no connections or overlap between these traditions and modern Pagan faiths. The response to fear and growing hysteria is not to bury our heads, or isolate ourselves, but to show that we won’t sit quietly in the corner while our spiritual cousins are demonized, hoping they won’t turn their attention to us.

Among Pagans, the rallying cry used to be “Never Again the Burning Times,” calling to a distant, sometimes romanticized, past. Perhaps instead we should say “Never Again the Panics,” and use our very real experiences with the Satanic Panics of the 1980s and 90s as an instructional on how to fight these new attempts to “other” belief systems and groups most people don’t understand. The answer to exorcism-related violence and death isn’t to find a single scapegoat, but to instead ensure that education and enforcement are allowed to spread.

A good news blogger will often try to spot trends and underlying issues in the stories of the day, using the strengths of the format to make links, provide more depth, and uncover nuances overlooked in the big headlines. However, sometimes a writer will commit the car-crash equivalent of same, using keywords and lazy cut-pasting to score pageviews for his or her employer. I believe the second scenario happened on Monday when Beliefnet Senior Editor Rob Kerby carelessly conflated the recent Cornwall controversy over teaching Paganism in religious education classes with the troubling trend of witch-hunts and witch-killings in places like Africa and the Middle East.

A fear of witchcraft? In our enlightened age? According to Reuters, the British news agency, a woman from the island of Sri Lanka off the southern tip of India has been charged with casting a spell on a 13-year-old Saudi girl during her family’s trip to a shopping mall. [...]  In Cornwall, England, the local council is defending its decision to include teaching children about witchcraft in religious education lessons. The Cornwall Council says that from the age of five, children should begin learning about pagan sites like Stonehenge and at the age of 11, pupils can begin exploring “modern paganism and its importance for many in Cornwall.” Critics say the council is offering “witchcraft lessons.” Witchcraft? Seriously? The United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund – UNICEF – says that tens of thousands of children in Africa each year are tortured and killed because of witchcraft. Blame is divided between local witchdoctors and Pentecostal churches that have led opposition to the witchdoctors.”

The whole thing is such a thematic mess that I really don’t know where to begin. Let’s start with the fact that he puts the religious police crackdown on “sorcery” in Saudi Arabia, and African witch-hunting,  in the same category as Cornwall making the teaching of modern Pagan religions an option in religious education courses, then veers into Harry Potter!

“In the west, witchcraft is trivialized with children’s books such as Harry Potter and Disney movies and TV shows that present it as harmless. However, the Vatican has called on African authorities to ban sorcery with rigid laws.”

Then, after careening back into stories on witch-hunting in Africa, he turns to instances of African immigrants in the UK abusing and killing children in the name of witchcraft, and somehow links this back to the Cornwall story!

“In 2005, Sita Kisanga was found guilty of torturing an eight-year-old in London, believing the girl to have kindoki. She told the court that, “Kindoki is something you have to be scared of because in our culture kindoki can kill and destroy your life completely.” But officials in Cornwall, England, say there’s nothing to fear. [...] It seems that the politically correct Cornwall Council regards Christianity as no better than any other superstition.”

This spectacular exercise in lazy slander is capped by a lengthy quotation from  Catholic columnist Christina Odone, whose anti-Pagan screed I highlighted on this blog.

“God, Gaia, whatever: school children are already as familiar with the solstice as with the sacraments. In pockets of Cornwall, children will point out a nun in her habit: “Look, a Druid!” Their parents will merely shrug — one set of belief is as good as another. How long before the end of term is marked by a Black Mass, with only Health and Safety preventing a human sacrifice?

That’s how Kerby ends it, with that direct quote from Odone. I have seen stupid and bad reporting on modern Pagan religions before, but this mish-mash of different issues takes the cake. It gives the headline “what can the Third World teach the civilized world about witchcraft” a decidedly sinister ring. What, exactly, can the “Third World” teach us about witchcraft? That it should be outlawed, that witches should be hunted and killed? That kids shouldn’t read Harry Potter because witchcraft is serious business in Saudi Arabia? What?

One could easily do a paragraph-by-paragraph fisking of this piece, pointing out all the places where this story runs off the rails, but instead let me make a few simple points that Kerby doesn’t make in this bizarre “story.”

1. Sorcery persecutions in the Middle East are not the same phenomenon as witch-hunting in African nations. Both result in the killing of “witches,” but have different motivations and underlying causes.

2. Modern Pagan and religious Witchcraft traditions aren’t “trivializing” the practice of witchcraft, they are operating under a completely different cultural context and understanding of the term and its practice. Further, modern Pagans exist in the Middle East, and South Africa, places where witch-persecutions are happening. They take this problem very seriously indeed, and Pagans have even been seen as a possible solution in the problem of witch-hunting in India. To claim our faiths are “trivializing” witchraft is a slur, and an ignorant one.

3. If Mr. Kerby truly cared about witch-killings he should look into how Christian missionaries in Africa helped make them possible. Evangelical Christian academics say that indigenous ideas and reactions to “witchcraft” and malefic magic have been “Christianized” (their term), creating deadly consequences the missionaries could not (or would not) understand. I think Western funding of witch-hunters is doing far more damage than Wiccans practicing their religion.

4. Every culture has stories, folktales, and fantasy version of magic and witchcraft. To say their modern equivalent, Harry Potter, have somehow “trivialized” matters in the Third World is absurd.

5. The Cornwall “teaching Paganism” story was a tabloid sensationalist mess that distorted the facts in order to sell papers. That it is conflated with witch-killings in the UK is simply insane. No, worse than that, it is a deliberate smear.

That this patch-work monstrosity of an article exists at Beliefnet, who employs a Pagan blogger, one who co-wrote a book on Pagan-Christian dialog, and could have easily clarified many of the mistakes and misconceptions at work in Kerby’s piece, damns this exercise in unfounded conflation even further. If Beliefnet had an ounce of editorial conscience they would pull this abomination immediately, or at least not spotlight it as “news.” Then again, if Kerby is a “Senior Editor” maybe the lunatics are running the asylum at Beliefnet.