The Department of Religious Studies featured the first in a long line of guest lecturers this Monday, tackling topics like witchcraft and African religious beliefs.
Douglas Falen, a professor of anthropology at Georgia’s Agnes Scott College, presented about witchcraft, healing and religious conflict in West Benin. The event was cosponsored by the departments of history, anthropology and Africana studies.
Falen received his bachelor’s degree from Emory University, going on to earn a Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania. Falen has taught on a variety of topics, including sexuality, human rights and African cultures and marriage.
Falen’s Monday evening presentation focused on the religious practices of a small section Benin, the Gbaname region. He discussed how the region has recently been dominated by new Christian religious movements.
Within the region, Catholic Christian imagery has combined with indigenous beliefs about spiritual possession and ancestral communion. In this context, a young woman named Parfaite claimed that she was possessed by the Judaic-Christian God.
This has resulted in a large amount of social and religious division in a country that thrived on religious tolerance and cultural acceptance
Falen originally wanted to research different topics in Benin, but his sources led his to discover new information on how Christian beliefs interacted with West African ideas about witchcraft.
“My earlier research was on marriage and gender relations, and that got me interested in different Christian churches (in Africa),” Falen said. “Everybody had a story about witchcraft. Everybody had a story about someone who died because of witchcraft. It just overwhelmed me that this (was) the biggest thing happening. I needed to know something about it.”
A fear of witchcraft appeared to be the common denominator among tragedies in this West African culture — a fear which led to acts of violence towards and in support of the region’s Parfaite-worshipping sect.
Falen explained how the Benin community developed these concerns about witchcraft.
“A post-modern construction of reality leads to radically different claims of truth regarding divine power,” Falen said.
This means that modern technology and social contexts make it difficult to determine how best to interpret spiritual ideas in often misunderstood regions like West Africa.
Nicole Eggers, an African history professor at the University of Tennessee, valued this argument for how it presented diverse and nuanced ideas about spiritual beliefs.
“I think a lecturer like this is really important for people to understand the diversity of ideas about spirituality that exist in this world, and to understand also that African ideas about spirituality are always changing, even today. They don’t live in some timeless past,” Eggers said.
Eggers also valued how the lecture emphasized the individual’s role in shaping spiritual beliefs.
“The thing that I really liked about this presentation was the attention (paid) to the role of individual creativity and individual experience in (making sense) of why people are attracted to certain forms of religious belief,” Eggers said.
Falen wishes for more research to be conducted on witchcraft in Africa, and he hopes that his research will draw greater attention towards the topic.
However, Falen emphasized that historical research about historically marginalized groups should amplify the groups’ voice rather present a point of view from outside the group.
“It’s not that I’m not interpreting (sources). I’m still interpreting (and) I’m still writing, but I take my view from the (African) people I work with rather than imposing a model that I bring to the field from my own educational background,” Falen said.
The Department of Religion’s next guest lecture will take place on October 22, when Duke University professor Omid Safi will present on Islam.