What is Vodoun?
By Richard Sanders, editor,
Press for Conversion! and coordinator,
Coalition to Oppose the Arms Trade.
(See also "Demonizing Democracy: Christianity vs. Vodoun and the Politics of Religion in Haiti" and "CIDA’S Affinity with Elite and Blindspot for Vodoun.")
When summarizing the religious beliefs of Haiti, many articles, books and encyclopedic references begin with blanket statements that 80% of the population is Catholic, though how this statistic was derived is unexplained. Then, we are told that the remaining 20% are largely Protestants. Finally, as an afterthought, a caveat is sometimes thrown in to say that many Haitians still believe in "Voodoo."
A prime example of this portrayal of Haiti as Catholic is the U.S. State Department’s Report on International Religious Freedom. It explains that "approximately 80 percent of [Haiti’s] citizens are Roman Catholic. Most of the remainder belong to a variety of Protestant denominations."1 Then, after listing "Methodists, Episcopalians, Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), Adventists and Orthodox," which together form a tiny minority of Haiti’s population, the document refers to an even smaller fractions, namely "nondenominational Christian congregations" and "non-Christian groups... including Jews, Muslims, Rastafarians and Baha’is." Only then does this U.S. government report on religious discrimination finally get around to mentioning "Voodoo." This, it says, "is practiced alongside Christianity by a large segment of the population."2
It would however be far more accurate to turn this whole orthodoxy on its head and to say that "Vodoun is the popular system of belief and the religious practice of the overwhelming majority of the population of Haiti."3
Vodoun melds various spiritual beliefs brought to Haiti by enslaved African ancestors. Their monotheistic religion was suppressed and made illegal by Haiti’s Spanish and French colonial regimes. The Christian slave masters who formed Haiti’s elite did their best to denigrate and destroy Vodoun. Faced with intense cultural repression, Vodoun practitioners were forced to protect their belief system by disguising it behind a facade of Catholic symbols. While appearing on the surface to be Christians, Vodoun believers kept themselves and their faith alive by learning "to conceal their practice... behind the veil of Catholicism."4
Falsely equated with savage superstitions, "black magic," Satanism, zombis and human sacrifice, Vodoun is one of the world’s least understood and most maligned religious traditions. The term "voodoo" is even used as an adjective for "highly improbable suppositions,"5 as exemplified by the "derogatory term[s]" "voodoo economics" and "voodoo science."6
In reality, Vodoun has been a powerful unifying force in Haitian history, particularly in the hard-fought struggle for freedom from slavery and independence from European colonial domination. That struggle continues to this day. Vodoun is still seen as a threat to the status quo in which Haiti’s impoverished majority are held captive by dictates from the World Bank, the Intenational Monetary Fund and outright foreign military occupation.
So powerful are the negative stereotypes of Vodoun, that some may be surprised to learn of its progressive stands on religious tolerance, feminism, the key role of women as religious leaders, the right to use contraceptives, and equality for gays and lesbians.
Vodoun believers are also major proponents of the extremely radical idea that once a popular government is empowered in landslide elections by a country’s impoverished masses, it should not be overthrown in coups lead by wealthy domestic or foreign elites.
1. International Religious Freedom Report 2003. Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights & Labor, U.S. State Department.
3. What is Vodou?
4. Leslie Desmangles, The Faces of the Gods: Vodou and Roman Catholicism in Haiti, 1992. Cited by Dar Shvueli, "The Integration of Roman Catholicism into Vodou in Haiti," May 2000.
5. Voodoo, Merriam -Webster Dictionary
6. Voodoo, Wikipedia
The above article is from Press for Conversion! magazine, Issue
#63 (November 2008)
Previous issues of this
Coalition to Oppose the Arms Trade publication include:
#62 "Putting the Aid in Aiding and Abetting:
CIDA's Agents of Regime Change in Haiti's 2004 Coup"
#61 "CIDA's Key Role in Haiti's 2004 Coup d’état:
Funding Regime Change, Dictatorship and Human Rights Atrocities, one Haitian 'NGO' at a Time"
#60 "A Very Canadian Coup d’état in Haiti:
The Top 10 Ways that Canada’s Government helped the 2004 Coup and its Reign of Terror"
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