Get hexed? From our ‘no comment’ department

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Let me be honest with you. I am not sure how to start this post.

After all, I could simply say “click here” and send GetReligion readers to the Washington City Paper item in question and that would be that. In fact, I think I’ll do that in a minute.

But I honestly think there is a story here — a religion-news ghost beyond the obvious ones — and I’ve been searching for a way to put that into words. Here’s what I have come up with.

Several years ago, I went to the Czech Republic to speak to the broadcasters there who work in Afghanistan and in other Muslim-majority lands in that region. The key question: Why do American journalists keep insisting that there are “moderate” Muslims and “fundamentalist” Muslims in spite of the fact that Muslims in the region do not think in those terms?

Anyway, I spend several days in the company of a veteran Czech journalist known for his work in public broadcasting. We spent quite a bit of time discussing the nature of religious belief and unbelief in the post-Soviet era.

The bottom line: The Czech Republic is now one of the most secular nations in the world. However, there’s a twist in this story. As the number of people committed to traditional religious belief and practice has declined, the number of people whose worldview includes strong beliefs in superstitions — such as hexes and omens — has risen. Sharply. Today, the Czechs are among the least religious and the most superstitious people in Europe and in the world at large.

With that, let’s look at the following bizarre item from here in Beltway-land, concerning a statement by Sally Quinn of The Washington Post and it’s On Faith project:

At a New York panel Monday on spirituality earlier this week, Quinn recalled how she used her psychic powers in the world of southern magic (emphasis added):

What we really believed in and practiced was voodoo, psychic phenomenon, Scottish mysticism, palm reading, astrology, seances, and ghosts. And I have many, many stories about those, real stories. And that—those things were my true religion, aside from dances. Aunt Ruth was psychic, my aunt Maggie was psychic, and I’m psychic. We actually put hexes on people and they really worked. It was actually really scary and I finally stopped when my brother who has a PhD in religion from the University of Chicago and is a theosophist and a practicing Buddhist told me I had to cut it out because it would come back at me three times. Anything that I did later that was troublesome I kept thinking, I brought this on myself, I should never have put a hex on her.

First, a reminder that Quinn is a columnist for a major American newspaper. Second, huh?

Don’t count on Quinn for an explanation, though. At least not yet. “I’m saving it all for my book!” she writes in an email. “But be careful what you write anyway. ….”

Uh, OK.

Now, let’s try discussing this as a JOURNALISM topic.

So, thumbs up or thumbs down. Who thinks this is a topic — broadly defined, as opposed to defining it as belief in hexes among Beltway mavens who are atheists-turned-Episcopalians — worthy of coverage in the mainstream press?

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • dalea

    Ronald Hutton in his ‘The Triumph of the Moon’ goes into this phenomena at length. He refers to the above grab bag by the terms ‘cunning’ ‘man or woman’. He refers to people who have certain gifts which can be interperated as psychic or paranormal phenomena. Or they could be skills that are highly developed. In any event, he posits that this is one of the elements of traditional practice, not necessarily religious practice, that were incorporated by Gardener into Wicca. It straddles the areas of magic and religion, which Western theology tends to regard as wholly separate.

    A cunning person is someone who has at least one skill and uses it. Among the many forms this takes are: green thumb, horse whisperer, wart witching, finder of lost objects, dowsing, hexing, cursing. In my own experience, wart witching is real, dowsing does work more often than not, and there are people who can find things when everyone else has failed. I once knew a woman who could communicate with dogs. It was amazing to watch her ‘talk’ to the dog in a way that the dog understood exactly what the issue was.

    Hutton also points out that anthropologists usually locate these practices in religion but religous scholars almost never do. As a Wiccan, much of what you call ‘superstition’ I would see as religious practice. Like the Czechs, I don’t believe things; but like them, I have practices. Perhaps the term ‘spiritual empiricism’ would cover the situation.

  • Kris D

    “When people stop believing in God, they don’t believe in nothing–they believe in anything.” G.K. Chesterton. Thumbs up as a journalism topic–what level of skepticism are you bringing to belief vs. practice?

  • Jon in the Nati

    “From our ‘No comment’ department”

    For me, this is in the “What is this… I don’t even…” department.

  • Jettboy

    Does Bill Maher and Hitchens know about this? Do they believe like her?

  • Dave

    What you call “superstition” is indeed a proper journalistic topic, because journalism has at least a chance of getting out some facts about such practices and the people who undertake them. Malign stereotypes about such people and practices are already being spread by self-designated “occult experts” who make a living by poisoning the minds of law enforcement. All too often “journalism” about such are simply playbacks of the lectures of such “experts” without critical reflection.

  • Jerry

    This is one of those “too little information” topics. Because, for example, we have the classic Tibetan Buddhist figure Milarepa who was apparently a sorcerer casting evil spells (“left-handed Buddhism”) before he renounced that path and achieved the highest realization under the tutelage and austerities assigned of Marpa, the translator.

    So my questions are: is she serious or joking around? If she’s serious, does her statements come from any tradition such as Tibetan Buddism, Wicca or not?

    Then we’d be in a better position to evaluate those statements.

  • Jay

    “ it’s On Faith project” should be “its.”


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