Witches, Healers, & HIV–new installment

replicationcyclehiv.jpgLast week, I read Witches, Westerners, and HIV: AIDS and Cultures of Blame in Africa by Alexander Rödlach (Left Coast Press, 2006). Rodlach argues that societies undergoing rapid destruction–such as cultures in Africa ravaged by AIDS–search for explanations that make sense, that help them to get out of bed in the morning. “Understandings of disease produced by this search for meaning do not necessarily match biomedical explanations,” he claims. “This is reflected in the classic distinction between disease, which refers to abnormalities in the structure and function of body organs and symptoms, and illness, which refers to the human experience of sickness that is shaped by cultural factors governing perception, labeling, explanation, and valuation of the discomforting experience” (p. 4). Is this just another way of saying that one culture labels a particular sickness demon possession, while another labels it psychological madness, while yet another labels it prophetic or something else? Maybe, but I think it also helps to explain how people could have two very different explanations for the same phenomenon co-existing within their mind. Example: how a South African might variously explain HIV as sexually transmitted but argue that AIDS is a witchcraft-related affliction. (At the moment, I’m ignoring Thabu Mbeki’s infamous declaration that HIV doesn’t cause AIDS, and the impact that must have had on South African society as a whole.)

Had an interesting conversation with my little brother about this topic of witchcraft-as-explanation-for-AIDS over the weekend. He often thinks about why we, as humans, seem to need these kinds of supernatural explanations, rational or not, testable or not. He suggested that the ability to imagine the things we haven’t experienced allows our societies to grow. Somebody who was cold but had never seen a house had to realize that binding sticks or rocks together would provide shelter from the wind and the rain. People had to imagine democracy before it existed. Mathmatically, we know the 6th dimension exists but we can’t experience it–we have to imagine it. In this case, witchcraft explanations for HIV are part of that necessary imagination. Is it possible to suggest a particular belief may be harmful without damaging the ability to believe?

Comments 9

  1. Erik

    It’s also not uncommon for an explanation that uses rationalistic, scientific terminology to be utterly devoid of “testability” – except with technologies and methodologies that exist only in the imagination. I’m not sure where those fit in the spectrum, if there is such a thing, from science and witchcraft; and that’s not even taking into account people who fake scientific data.

    Richard Feynman once reacted to the statement that scientific explanations require testability by pointing out that no one could test theories of the mechanisms of the Northern Lights. He clearly thought science covered a broader range than just what was testable, but I don’t know if anyone ever asked him what was the principle that separated science from witchcraft. If somebody told a person that this Feynman was part of a group that built a device that could destroy a city in an instant, why wouldn’t a cabal of witches be the first image that came to mind? It does seem a little unlikely that people could understand the principles of nature on such a deep level to be able to build such a thing. It even seems unlikely that you could get the tens of thousands of people necessary to cooperate long enough to build such a device.

    I can certainly sympathize with someone who sees witchcraft as a more likely explanation for the bomb than science. It’s actually easier on the imagination, I think. Personally I think that’s the main reason for the genesis of cargo cults.

  2. Amanda Materne

    You know, it’s interesting b/c we have this going on in our own American culture. One of the ideas circulating out there in contemporary spirituality (and possibly in Xtianity if I were better at remembering it) is that we get an illness b/c we haven’t healed a belief or experience in our own lives – so it manifests as a physical illness in our bodies. (For example, I once heard a white, American woman explain one of the reasons she believed she had gotten uterine cancer was because she hadn’t addressed some essential false beliefs she’d held all her life about being a woman and what women’s roles were in our society.)

    That all goes to say I think these concepts of religion and spirituality and how we connect disease and illness are prevalent in all societies (not that you were arguing that they weren’t). And one of the things this woman’s type of belief is creating in our American society (pushing us for that 6th dimension, perhaps?) is the idea of our active role in healing – how we co-create healing for ourselves by our beliefs, our attention, and our intention.

    Yeah, it’s all pretty fascinating… 🙂

  3. Jess

    Erik, I may be misquoting him here, but Matt called it “lab lore” when scientists do certain things because it “works” but they don’t really have an explanation for how or why it works. And Adam Ashforh, in his book Witchcraft, Violence, and Democracy in South Africa, in fact states that the idea that a person could kill somebody from a remote distance is no less strange than, for example, cell phones.

    Amanda, I’ve heard similar things. I agree, beliefs about illness that don’t fit in with scientific ideas are definitely prevelent throughout the world, even in our so-called “rational” society. That’s an interesting idea that the woman you mentioned thought about why she got uterine cancer.

  4. Erik

    Some lab workers also use the term “empirical” (as in “it’s just an empirical result”) meaning they’ve tried different things and this is what gives us the results we expect although we don’t really know why other ways don’t. My main point is that what we call science isn’t grounded in pure rationalism or testability nearly as much as we imagine. It may not be quite so far removed from witchcraft as we’d like to believe. It’s easy to use scientific terminology without having exhaustive experimental science backing it up, just as it would be easy to use witchcraft terminology without having much evidence to back it up.

    Health issues are especially susceptible to this sort of thing, since the human body is very poorly understood and so wildly complex that almost any laboratory test-tube experiment is leaving out thousands of factors that could affect what happens in vivo, in the body. Almost any time we say “this happens in the lab, therefore this is what it means for your body” it is more a leap of faith than a statement of experimental science. (More often than not, the “this is what happens in the lab” is left out, and all you’ll hear is “scientists have proven that this is what is true for your body”. If you knew how controlled the experiment was in the lab, you might not think it had that much relevance to your body).

  5. Erik

    I realize my earlier comment also might be construed to imply that religion is a result of a lack of imagination. I don’t think that’s true either. It may take science to imagine the very difficult, but I suspect it takes religion for most people to imagine the impossible, like peace on earth, instant healing, or rising from the dead.

  6. Erik

    I just realized none of our responses actually addressed the question at the end of the article: Is it possible to suggest a particular belief may be harmful without damaging the ability to believe?

    I think the difference is whether you say a particular belief is harmful, or a particular belief system. The history of science is full of examples of things scientists believed, in all good faith (or perhaps I should say “in the best scientific thinking of the time”), that turned out later to be harmful. X-rays, for example, were believed to be pretty harmless at first. Some shoe shops had small X-ray machines that you could use to measure the real size of your foot. It’s not hard now to see that this belief was harmful. But if you use it as a reason to dismiss the entire belief system that science is built on, you dismiss too much. In that case, you are not merely pointing out a harmful belief but potentially injuring the ability to believe.

    I think the same is true of spirituality-based belief systems.

  7. Matt

    I find it fascinating that as humans we have the almost overwhelming need to try and figure out why shit happens to us. If we don’t have an easy cultural or physical explanation then we make one up that best fits our perceptions of the world (I’m thinking of the Heaven’s Gate Cult). I believe it is because in finding reasons for our situation (both bad and good) we feel some sense of control whether or not those reasons are real or not. Add a fine imagination into the mix and we get a heady brew! (I am in no way excluding scientists in this analysis since we are humans too) Depending on view points, we can explain this desire to explain in many ways. Two prominent view points I happen to know about are 1. “an insatiable desire to figure out our lot in life is the desire God has placed in us to continue to search until we find God. Some of us never find God and therefore are deceived (presumably by the devil) and that is why we have such crazy ideas and explanations of things at times i.e. the Heaven’s Gate cult” 2. “we evolved the desire to figure out our surroundings and explain natural phenomena to help us survive and our incredible imagination serves this purpose by giving us the ability to think new thoughts and come up with new ideas. This has served us well giving us an evolutionary advantage as a species. Our species also tolerates a certain degree of over imagination causing us to have very dumb thoughts and explanations at times but the individuals who are susceptible to these irrationalities eventually lose out in the gene pool. i.e the Heaven’s Gate cult” Neither of these two strains of thought are necessarily mutually exclusive if we put our imagination to it! Getting back to the topic at hand… Why not believe that HIV is a curse and also sexually transmitted? Why not take western medicine if it is available and also hedge our bets and be blessed by a healer? Where does reality and theory part ways? When in true conflict, belief, at some point, submits to reality if reality eventually becomes more believable and imparts real quantifiable advantages. Promulgating a shoddy belief in the face of reality often occurs when the powers that be retain control through the belief system.

  8. Jess

    What’s interesting is that all of us who have written comments here appear to assume that there is an objective reality. Some of the books I’ve been reading (by scholars, trained in the western tradition of logic) suggest, alternatively, that our subconscious, our dream world, the visionary is no less a “real” world than the so-called “real” world which is apparently goverened by scientific laws. And so they try to accept at face value what some of the healers tell them…it’s almost painful at times to see how they try to erase the distinction while, at the same time, making it obvious that the distinction is in large part purely semantic, in their head, not in their experience. So ultimately, even though they are trying not to do it, they think there’s an objective reality that we measure these other beliefs against.

  9. Terena

    Lately, I’ve been reading about Humanism and the idea that a belief must be tested against reason. Although I do believe that logic is important, we humans are not purely logical creatures. We need our myths and will create our own ideas of what reality is. Our beliefs are created from our culture, our history, our families and personal needs. I don’t think you can separate logic and emotion. Humans use both to create reality. Dreams and Instinct, with a little bit of reason thrown in. That seems to be our basis for what we call “reality.”

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