I have written several times in the past about how religious superstition, when it is taken seriously, causes harm and suffering to real people by dissuading them from seeking the evidence-based treatments they need. But a new story from the March 31 edition of Newsday, Trying to change minds in the Congo, is one of the most horrifying illustrations of this principle I have yet seen.
The African Republic of the Congo, a country of 3.7 million people, has only one clinical psychiatrist. Dr. Alain Mouanga works against heroic odds, in desperately poor and dilapidated conditions, to treat people suffering from mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and depression. The Congolese government provides him buildings – albeit run-down and unsanitary buildings, still damaged from a 10-year-old civil war – to work out of, and pays the salaries for him and his staff. But everything else, including medications, patient meals and even sheets for the patients’ beds, must be paid for by patients’ families or by funds that Dr. Mouanga raises himself from individuals or aid groups.
All this would offer a tremendous challenge for a doctor in any country, and for his tireless, dedicated efforts on behalf of his patients, Dr. Mouanga deserves to be recognized as a true humanist hero and an inspiration to everyone who works to reduce human suffering. But this is not the end of the story. There is one other major obstacle that he must face:
Mouanga knows that if patients don’t believe in him, they will leave, instead seeking help from the hundreds of spiritual leaders, herbalists and other traditional healers who claim to cure the mentally ill in this poor country.
Less than a mile from Mouanga’s hospital clinic is his chief local competitor – a Pentecostal church that claims to heal the mentally ill through faith in God.
…The church’s treatment program is founded in the belief that mental illness is caused by evil spirits and sorcery.
“Evil spirits and demons can’t be seen or interpreted by a microscope,” said Galouo, head of the church’s mental-illness program.
Yes, you guessed it. In this poor, predominantly Christian nation, primitive superstitions are still dominant – including the superstition that mental illness is caused by demonic possession. As the article explains, Dr. Mouanga’s greatest struggle is to convince potential patients that he actually can help them. And many only come to him after “traditional” magical treatments fail:
Very few patients walk through Mouanga’s gate without having visited a traditional healer first. Their treatments range from fasting to more extreme methods such as scarring and burning of the flesh.
But let’s take a closer look at that Pentecostal Christian church that competes with Dr. Mouanga. How do they attempt to treat the mentally ill people who come to them seeking help?
There, patients can be seen chained to their beds nearly 24 hours a day. The men sleep under ratty plastic tarps, which offer little protection from Congo’s tropical rain and sun.
If patients complain or try to leave, they are beaten. “We hit them to discipline them,” said Pastor Pierre-Clotaire Galouo, head of the church’s mental-illness program. “Those who menace us have lost all reason. They no longer understand anything.”
…Less than a mile from Mouanga’s psychiatric ward, patients are limited by the length of their chains at the Assemblées de Dieu de Pentecôte. Men and women are tethered to their beds like bicycles to a lamppost.
Some of the patients clearly chafe at the chains. One young man bore a large gauze bandage around his ankle during a visit in November. Others make them into a joke. A woman coquettishly dangled her ankle for a reporter, showing off her shackles as if they were jewelry.
…The patients stay for as little as a few weeks and as long as several years, waiting for church leaders to announce that God has healed them.
They are unlocked only to wash and to relieve themselves. They are not unlocked to pray.
There is one correction to the Newsday article I must make. The article says that Congoloese churches are “seasoned with African beliefs” about demon possession. This errs by calling demon possession an “African” addition, as if this were some superstitious add-on not present in Christianity originally. In fact, the idea of demon possession as the cause of both mental and physical illness is a prominent and obvious theme in the New Testament itself, as shown by verses like this:
“Now when Jesus was risen early the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, out of whom he had cast seven devils.”
“Then was brought unto him one possessed with a devil, blind, and dumb: and he healed him, insomuch that the blind and dumb both spake and saw.”
“And in the synagogue there was a man, which had a spirit of an unclean devil, and cried out with a loud voice, saying, Let us alone; what have we to do with thee, thou Jesus of Nazareth? art thou come to destroy us? I know thee who thou art; the Holy One of God. And Jesus rebuked him, saying, Hold thy peace, and come out of him. And when the devil had thrown him in the midst, he came out of him, and hurt him not.”
“And when they were come to the multitude, there came to him a certain man, kneeling down to him, and saying, Lord, have mercy on my son: for he is lunatick, and sore vexed: for ofttimes he falleth into the fire, and oft into the water…. And Jesus rebuked the devil; and he departed out of him: and the child was cured from that very hour.”
“And he ordained twelve, that they should be with him, and that he might send them forth to preach, and to have power to heal sicknesses, and to cast out devils.”
If anything, it is the African churches who are following what the text says. Meanwhile, Western denominations who recognize this for the embarrassing anachronism it is have added these passages to the vast category of Biblical verses that modern churchgoers do their best to quietly sweep under the rug and disregard.
Beliefs in demon possession are a legacy of humanity’s superstitious past, when people ignorantly imagined that any phenomenon they did not understand was caused by supernatural agents. But there is no longer any excuse for holding such beliefs, now that we know so much about the natural origins of the mind. Especially, there is no excuse for using these superstitions as an excuse to degrade and abuse our fellow human beings and treat them like animals, as these despicable Pentecostals are doing. This whole sorry episode just goes to show that when we abandon reason as a means of understanding the world, evils and cruelties visited on our fellow human beings are sure to follow. That is why we as atheists should oppose faith, superstition, and irrationality of all kinds – not just because it is false, but because of the immeasurable harm it has wreaked on the lives of human beings.