Contested Definitions of Healing and Medicine

J. Brent Crosson discusses how colonial government has shaped definitions of religion, science, and spirituality
By Saralyn McKinnon-Crowley

What is the difference between religion, science, and superstition? How a society or nation defines what constitutes religion has important legal implications. If the state considers a set of spiritual practice to constitute a religion, those practices will be protected under freedom of religion laws; without those protections, spiritual practices are vulnerable to becoming criminalized. Practitioners of outlawed religions may be compelled to redefine their practices in order to remain on the right side of the law, and spiritual groups that are not considered official religions under the governmental definitions will not be able to claim the financial and legal benefits that official religious organizations are often granted. Religious practices, however, often challenge the binaries that serve as the very basis for the classification of religions as legal entities—binaries, for example, between spirituality and science or spirituality and superstition. In contemporary Trinidad, efforts to define the problem-solving practices that together are known as Obeah illustrate some of the many challenges of distinguishing and defining religious practices from other spiritual activities.

Obeah is difficult to characterize because the terms used to describe it are themselves contested and its practices are not centrally organized. Among its various practices, however, Obeah can include practices associated with healing and medicine, also contested terms in this context—Obeah’s relationship to healing and medicine troubles the Western tendency to distinguish between religion and science. Obeah spiritual workers might use their power to heal, protect, divine the future, or perform works of healing and protection. For example, an Obeah worker may attempt to remedy a relationship in which a couple argues too much. Dr. J. Brent Crosson (Assistant Professor, Religious Studies) conducts research on Obeah’s relationship to healing and medicine, research that he recently presented at HI’s Faculty Fellows Seminar in Health, Well-Being, Healing. Dr. Crosson describes Obeah as a collection of problem-solving practices. His ethnographic work has found that Obeah practitioners themselves typically describe Obeah not as a religion but as a science or as spiritual work, a distinction rooted in the legal system of Trinidad.

A 2007 Canadian court case—R v. Welsh—determined that Obeah is not a religion because it is not based on spiritual values. Yet, how the state thinks of spiritual values is rooted in colonial history. After the Tacky Slave Rebellion of 1760, the Trinidadian government outlawed Obeah, which it defined as “any assumption of supernatural power.” The colonial government scapegoated Obeah and other practices they termed superstitious for high mortality rates on plantations tended by slaves. Blame for slaves’ deaths could be attributed to “superstitions” rather than to hard labor. In the 19th century, Obeah was considered a backwards, anti-modern scourge, preventing Trinidad from advancing and industrializing. In 2000, the laws against Obeah were repealed in Trinidad and in Barbados, though Obeah remains illegal in Jamaica and Antigua.

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