Let them eat snakes: CRL Commission and the harms of religion

If part of your spiritual “healing method” involves having your parishioners strip naked, it’s pretty likely that you’re a charlatan. Not only in the sense that you’re selling fake goods – because that’s the case for most religious activity – but more importantly also in the sense that you know you’re doing so.

If you add making your parishioners eat snakes, and trying to have them eat rocks that you’ve transformed into bread to the mix, I think there’s no room left for doubt – you’re not only a charlatan, but you’re also an exploitative one, willing to leverage the desperation of others into personal financial gain.

Your name in this case is Penuel Mnguni, and you appear to have learnt these tricks from Lesego Daniel, who chose to make his followers eat grass and drink gasoline rather than consume snakes and rocks.

Mnguni was arrested for animal cruelty for feeding his congregation live snakes (which would apparently turn into chocolates – praise the Lord!), and later released on bail. But the examples of him and Lesego Daniel are perhaps two among many, and this possibility has led the Commission With An Improbably Long Name to launch an inquiry.

The Chairperson of the commission otherwise known as the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities (CRL Rights Commission) says:

We’re not saying that the commercialisation of religion is a bad thing, but we want to understand how and what it is,” said commission chairperson Thoko Mkhwanazi-Xaluva.

When churches start selling pap, T-shirts and water after services… or when people stop taking their HIV or blood pressure medicine because traditional healers say ‘drink my water, it will heal you’, and charge people for it, it becomes problematic.

We need to look at these various miracle claims and see what form of legal structure is in place.

And if any of you are wondering how you’re supposed to tell the difference between a miracle claim such as the one “whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3.16) and snakes turning into chocolates, the CRL Commission shares your concern.

If you listen to this interview with CRL Councillor Edward Masadza, you’ll hear that they are very aware of the need to “distinguish miracles from magic“, which sounds about as difficult a task as distinguishing acid from LSD to me.

But that’s partly because from a secular and skeptical point of view, all these sorts of claims sound equally implausible to me – and this brings me to the main point of this post. If we are going to investigate the potential harms of religion, “traditional” or “established” forms of it can’t get a pass on scrutiny.

For example, an earlier interview I heard on this topic was very concerned with the agency of the parishioners, and how they might have been duped rather than being willing participants in snake-eating or gasoline-drinking.

Yes, that’s a vital concern, and a concern I share. But if you are going to take that concern seriously, should the investigation not also include thinking about whether we should ban religious circumcision? An 8 day-old can hardly be a consenting party, after all.

Or what about the prosperity gospel of Ray McCauley and others, who encourage people to impoverish themselves in exchange for hypothetical future financial blessings from God?

But I don’t think the establishment churches have any reason to be concerned, no matter whether they endorse genital mutilation or financial exploitation. Because:

Mkhwanazi-Xaluva was at pains to explain that the investigation would be done in accordance with the SA Charter of Religious Rights and Freedom. She said they were not doing this to infringe on the constitutional right to freedom of religion.

Notice that Charter she mentions there? It’s madly conservative, and has absolutely zero legal standing. This is the second time I’ve encountered a government agency thinking that it’s official policy, but last time I was fortunately enough part of the conversation, and able to correct the misconception.

Despite this, the Charter is perceived to have standing, and investigations like the one the CRL is embarking on begins with the premise that religious practices need to be treated with a default attitude of solemnity and respect. And that’s not true – or rather, it shouldn’t be true – they should be as open to criticism, ridicule, and legal action as, for example, a gym should be for throwing out a member who makes a political statement.

At some point, South Africans will need to have a serious and long-overdue conversation about a different sort of privilege to the one we talk about every day – namely white privilege. And that is the privilege of religion, when set against documents like the Bill of Rights.

White privilege is real, even if the concept is itself sometimes abused to drown out criticism. Religious privilege is real also, and manifests in cases like a court allowing a church to fire a gay pastor after she married her same-sex pastor, or in student leaders being able to argue that homophobia isn’t homophobia if that homophobia stems from religious conviction.

Here’s Pierre de Vos with more examples and analysis of religious privilege in the law, in case you’re interested. But to get back to the CRL Commission: here’s hoping that they are objective in their work, and treat all religions with equal respect – but also that they respect agency, common sense, and sound ethical reasoning most of all.

[Postscript: this week’s episode of John Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight” is a natural fit on the theme of the prosperity gospel.]


Also published on Medium.

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