The much publicized CNN program on Vodou, narrated by Reza Aslan as part of the Believer series was a disappointment. Leaning on sensationalism, the program failed to reveal Vodou tenets, leaving viewers without an understanding of the religion´s basic teachings on morality, justice, and meaning of life. These omissions disregard Vodou beliefs as the intellectual product of Africans and of their descendants. Such neglect and disrespect are rooted in the Trans-Atlantic Trafficking of African People to the Americas which sought to dehumanize Africans as devoid of intellect.
Instead of presenting Vodou on its own terms, much of the show attempted to present Vodou through the eyes of ill-informed evangelists and their Anglo-American sponsors. Aslan did well to expose how American evangelists use their material wealth to propagate their belief that Middle Eastern Spirits are worthier than African Ancestral Spirits, called Lwa in Haiti. One Manbo priestess observed that the Christians are in the business of buying converts while Vodou practitioners have no foreign sponsors.
In the program, evangelical Christians repeatedly insisted on interpreting Vodou through their religious upbringing. They argued that the Lwas must have been disciples of Satan, a figure common in Christian belief. Aslan attempted to avoid this mind-set but fell into it by stating without evidence that Vodou is a 5,000 year old religion. This estimate likely came from the Judeo-Christian notion that the universe is about 5,000 years old. In a delusional effort to frame Vodou within a European Middle Eastern religious context, some pastors even cast the battle against slavery as an epic war between God and Satan instead of as a battle between slavers and abolitionists. They even view the earthquake of 2010 as evidence of this ongoing conflict. In their attempt to vilify Vodou, these evangelists vilified themselves for not understanding tectonic plate movements as the explanation for the numerous earthquakes occurring worldwide.
Some evangelists suggested that Haiti´s poverty is due to Jesus´ fury for lack of religious service to him. This approach on geopolitical issues allows them to say nothing about colonial and post colonial policies that have left the Caribbean and Central America substantially poorer than North America. Aslan failed to have the evangelists comment on the role of infrastructure, education, agriculture, industrialization, and information technology in improving quality of life. Coming from some of the world´s economic superpowers who used the wealth made during slavery to finance their development, the evangelists find it politically easier to blame the African Spirits rather than to question the impact of policies imposed by their own countries and by the IMF, the World Bank, and by local leaders.
To blame Vodou for Haiti´s poverty, the evangelists point to an animal sacrifice said to have been performed for spiritual blessing after multiple meetings organized by the leaders who planned the Haitian Revolution. The evangelists totally missed the fact that the real sacrifice was the 150,000 people who died from a population of about 500,000 combatants who fought a moral battle so that subsequent generations would not be enslaved. Fortunately, numerous Vodou followers appreciate the sacrifice made by their fore-parents and for that reason, the burial place of these Ancestors, called Demanbre- Dismemberment, is sacred ground in Vodou.
Moreover, the show failed to point out that before the Haitian Revolution, the Catholic French government did not allow Protestants to operate in the territory. Evangelists and Protestants churches began to arrive in Haiti after the success of the Haitian Revolution. As beneficiaries of this Revolution, if the evangelists want to insist that the Haitian Revolution was the outcome of a contract with a wicked figure from their belief system, then they must acknowledge that their growing numbers in Haiti must be the wicked fruit of that contract.
Finally, Aslan did spend time with several Vodou Temple leaders- Hougans, Hounsis, and Manbos. However, during this segment, he neglected to inform the viewers that Vodou is a body of religious beliefs and as such, it resides in the minds of its followers and cannot be filmed. The only thing that one can film is a particular person´s depiction of Vodou. Each Vodou temple exists independently. Each temple worships in its own distinct way. Aslan violated a central tenet of Vodou by not telling the viewers that to each temple, its own style of worship.
Having failed to present the philosophical underpinnings of Vodou, Aslan turned to controversial images to engross the public. One of his guides took him to Sodo, a waterfall where the African Spirit, Èzili, or the Middle Eastern Spirit, the Virgin Mary, is said to have once appeared. The site is as much a Haitian Christian pilgrimage site as it is one for Vodou worshipers. Aslan took a nude bath in the sacred waters and found it refreshing. Although pilgrimage to the waterfall attracts countless visitors every summer, such a visit is not mandatory and nude baths at Sodo are not part of Vodou initiation rituals. In general, Vodou initiation involves the teaching of the philosophical and ceremonial aspects of the faith. Initiation often involves sleeping in a dyevo, a special room in a temple. The act of sleeping is symbolic of being separated from the material world, allowing one to gain spiritual knowledge from the Ancestors. Emerging from the dyevo, the initiate is said to have become an enlightened disciple of the Spirits – Hounsi Kanzo.
As in all religions, some followers are more concrete in their representation of their faith while others are more symbolic. Whereas some Christians claim that the wine is actually the blood of Jesus, others believe that the wine is a symbolic representation. Similarly, in Vodou, some practitioners have old human skulls on their altars, while others have statues and pictures to represent the presence of the Ancestors in their lives. As the skeletons are more shocking to viewers, Aslan showed a temple that had parts of skeletons but failed to tell us that such a practice reflects the artistic inspiration of that temple´s curator – called the Badjigan.
In another ritual, Aslan participates in carrying a sacrificial animal into a hounfò, a temple. Aslan allows the houngan, a priest, to place a tinge of the animal´s blood on his tongue. In most instances following a sacrifice, the blood would be cooked and then served. Aslan´s preference is to shock his audience. In doing so, he failed to explain that animal sacrifice is not offensive in an agrarian society where domesticated livestock is consumed daily. Vodou practitioners believe that God created the Spirits, the Lwas, to assist the living and people must show appreciation for this assistance by making offerings.
While Aslan concentrated on the fierce efforts of Christian evangelists to triumph over Vodou, he ignored instances of collaboration between the two groups. The vocal religious organization, Religion for Peace, has members who represent the Catholic Church, the Muslim faith, Vodou worshipers, and Protestant Evangelical Christians. Its members collaborate to make Haiti a place of religious tolerance. Reza Aslan had the opportunity to present Vodou to a wider global audience but by being sensational, he failed to explore the faith on its own terms resulting in a disservice to both viewers and believers.