Miracles in Kongo Religious History: Evaluating the Ritual Healing Theory

James McClenon. Miracles: God, Science, and Psychology in the Paranormal. Editor: J Harold Ellens. Volume 2: Medical and Therapeutic Events. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2008.

Kongo religious history provides cases useful for evaluating hypotheses derived from the ritual healing theory. This theory argues that, over many millennia, groups of genes (genotypes) governing dissociative and hypnotic capacities reduced the psychological effects of trauma. These genotypes ultimately provided the basis for human religiosity. The genotypes, allowing dissociation and hypnosis, provided greater benefits to hominids/humans participating in therapeutic rituals based on dissociative/hypnotic processes. The selected genes facilitated anomalous and visionary experiences, labeled within some cultures as miraculous. Apparitions, visions, waking extrasensory perceptions, paranormal dreams, out-of-body and near-death experiences, and psychokinesis (unexplained movement of objects) generated beliefs in spirits, souls, life after death, and magical abilities—the foundations of shamanism, humankind’s first religious form. This theory is evaluated through analysis of Kongo religious history. Kongo history describes recurring cycles of dissociative religious practitioners performing rituals benefiting those with hypnotic/dissociative ability. These practitioners and their followers report miraculous/anomalous perceptions whose forms coincide with those found all over the world. These correspondences support the argument that such perceptions have physiological basis. Consequently, findings support the ritual healing theory.

English dictionaries define miracles as events surpassing known human or natural powers. Such events are often ascribed to supernatural causes, most typically to God. Yet various cultures do not distinguish natural from supernatural causes, and some do not conceive of a single god as intervening in human affairs. Some definitions of the miraculous use scientific evaluation as a standard—events thought to exceed scientific explanation are labeled as miraculous or paranormal. Such definitions are not fully adequate as questions regarding the authenticity of individual miracles, or of miracles in general, have not been resolved (McClenon 1984). As a result, scientists and theologians do not agree regarding the incidence and nature of miracles.

This chapter uses a cross-cultural perspective to argue that particular experiences have physiological bases, indicated by universal features, and that such experiences shape folk religious beliefs (McClenon 1994, 1997a, 1997b, 2002a, 2002b, 2006a, 2006b). Although scientists disagree regarding explanations of these experiences, they can test hypotheses regarding their incidence and impact. Much evidence indicates that visions, apparitions, waking extrasensory perception, paranormal dreams, psychokinesis (unexplained movement of objects), and out-of-body and near-death experiences have shaped beliefs regarding spirits, souls, life after death, and magical abilities (McClenon 1994). Issues regarding the degree to which scientific theories explain these perceptions are beyond the scope of this chapter. For the sake of convenience, these experiential forms will be referred to as anomalous, even though some researchers regard certain experiential forms to be explained within present scientific paradigms; apparitions and out-of-body experiences, for example, are attributed to activation of cholinergic processes in the brain.

This chapter reviews cases from Kongo religious history to evaluate a theory explaining how propensities for anomalous experience have evolved through evolutionary processes. Within this evolutionary paradigm, religiosity is a phenotype, an existing behavioral trait associated with physiological structures, derived from a genotype, a corresponding collection of genes. Religiosity can be measured through questionnaire scales—but the exact number of genes affecting the various dimensions of religiosity has yet to be determined. Within this paradigm, genes for religiosity are thought to be switched on or off as a result of an organism’s experience. As a result, genotypes do not govern behavior, but provide patterns within which traits are shaped by environment. Religious phenotypes vary among individuals, taking different forms in response to corresponding genotypes affected by environment.

Much evidence indicates that religious genotypes exist. Twin studies demonstrate that religious attitudes, interests, practices, and associated hypnotic processes have genetic bases (Waller et al. 1990; D’Onofrio et al. 1999; Koenig et al. 2005; Duke 1969; Morgan 1973; Morgan, Hilgard, and Davert 1970). It would be surprising if a universal practice, such as religion, did not have a genetic basis. Researchers find that all other universal characteristics, such as psychological variables, have genetic bases (Carey 2003).

Some theorists argue that so-called religious genes provide survival advantages to groups, allowing more religious groups to replace groups lacking the group religion genes (Wilson 2002). Evolutionists refer to this as a group selection theory, an orientation that often appeals to social scientists focusing on culture. Most evolutionists reject this position, arguing that selection occurs at the gene, rather than group, level (Dawkins 1999; Parker 1978; Wright 1994). For a gene to be selected at the group level, mechanisms must prevent those lacking the gene from gaining equivalent advantages merely by being in the group. If individuals pass from group to group (as is observed among primates), group selection models are improbable since those lacking the specific gene would not be penalized.

Religiosity genes, assumed to generate cohesiveness, would not become prevalent if those lacking them benefited from being in the cohesive group. Second, religion is not the only mechanism creating cohesiveness. Primates, lacking religiosity, have other genetic propensities that cause them to remain in groups. Those lacking cohesiveness genes tend to wander off, are exposed to predators, and die without progeny. The hypothesized religiosity genes, whose major function involves creating cohesiveness, would need to be more powerful in fulfilling this function than existing nonreligious genes in order to replace them. If group religiosity genes exist, we would expect to find example cases (phenotypes) of religious groups replacing other groups within the histories of all societies. Although it is possible that historical analysis is unable to detect group selection processes, an inability to find example cases renders group selection theory less plausible.

The frequency and nature of genes associated with perception illustrate evolutionary selection at the gene level. Hominid olfactory capacity, for example, declined as hand dexterity increased, even though detection of odors provides survival benefits. The brain structures governing perception are limited by skull space, and as one capacity increases, another declines. Better hand coordination meant a reduction of other phenotypes. Group selection theorists must provide evidence that religious groups replaced less religious groups—merely pointing out functions of religion is inadequate.

An alternate position, the ritual healing theory, argues that selection tends to occur at the genotype, rather than group, level. Hominid rituals, involving dissociation and altered states of consciousness, provided benefits due to hypnotic and placebo processes. As a result, hominids with genes allowing hypnotic response had survival advantages. Over the millennia, healing rituals shaped the human propensity to go into trance and to perceive anomalous experiences such as apparitions, waking extrasensory perceptions, paranormal dreams, psychokinesis, and out-of-body and near-death experiences. The theory argues that these experiences generate beliefs in spirits, souls, life after death, and magical abilities.

This theory can be evaluated:

  1. The folklore and religious history of any ethnic group can be analyzed. All groups should report ritual healing based on dissociative processes. The theory specifies that patterns within history reflect hypothesized evolutionary processes—certain people tend to be more dissociative, and these people are more likely to become spiritual healers, particularly aiding those suffering from disorders derived from dissociative propensity. The theory argues that such healers continually emerge but are particularly prevalent during social crisis.
  2. Anomalous experience accounts collected from any ethnic group can be analyzed. All societies should provide folklore with similar forms of anomalous experience since the theory hypothesizes that these experiences have physiological basis.
  3. Survey research should find that hypothesized variables related to ritual healing are significantly correlated. These variables include childhood trauma, dissociative and hypnotic experience, propensity for anomalous experience and belief, and propensity to respond to ritual/hypnotic suggestion. Such studies would allow development of questionnaire scales identifying those high in the hypothesized capacities—and these scales would be valuable to clinicians treating mental problems and psychosomatic disorders. Geneticists could use such scales to identify genes providing the basis for factors related to spirituality, the individualized form of religiosity.

This chapter focuses on the first and second strategies. Previous studies provide a foundation for the overall research program. Residents of northeastern North Carolina (McClenon 2002b), anthropologists doing fieldwork (McClenon and Nooney 2002), elite U.S. scientists (McClenon 1984), and students at three colleges in the United States, three colleges in China, and one college in Japan (McClenon 2000, 2002a, 2002b) report common, recurring anomalous experiences. These experiential forms include apparitions, waking extrasensory perception, paranormal dreams, out-of-body and near-death experience, and psychokinesis. The cross-cultural consistency of these forms implies physiological bases. The ritual healing theory predicts that these experiential forms can be found in the folklore and religious history of any ethnic group. Studies of spiritual healers in Korea, the Philippines, Okinawa, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, Thailand, and the United States show common elements within their biographies (McClenon 1994). Healers report that spontaneous experiences created profound beliefs in spirits, souls, life after death, and magical abilities—elements in the ideologies they use for healing. Anthropologists have noted common elements within spiritual healing practices all over the world, elements associated with hypnosis and placebo effects (McClenon 2002b).

Ritual healing processes could occur concurrently with group selection processes. The evolution of genotypes allowing human culture affected selection of religiosity genotypes. It is beyond the scope of this chapter to discuss the complexities of cultural evolution. These complexities are so great that conclusions drawn from historical analysis of any one ethnic group must be tentative. The present study is presented as a contribution to the discussion of the relationship between genes and culture, with the recognition that genes and culture evolve together (Richerson and Boyd 2005).

Kongo Religious History: An Example Case

This chapter evaluates the ritual healing theory through content analysis of cases drawn from Kongo religious history.Kongo refers to ethnic groups (the BaKongo or Kongo people) prevalent within an area divided since 1895 among the Republic of Congo (formerly French Congo), the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire, formerly Belgian Congo), and Angola (with Cabinda, formerly a Portuguese colony). This history contains multiple generations experiencing high mortality rates, of interest due to potential for evolutionary change. Precolonial BaKongo were plagued by recurring draughts, often one per generation, producing migration and reduction of populations by over 50 percent. These climatic cycles contributed to hierarchical slavery systems (Miller 1988). Encounters with the Portuguese, beginning in 1482, led to a merchant capitalist era and destabilizing, exploitative slave trade (Edgerton 2002; Miller 1988). Later, King Leopold II of Belgium created and ruled the Free Congo State (1885-1908), resulting in the death of about 10 million people—half the population. Belgian and French colonial rule led to continued social instability, exploitation, and economic underdevelopment (Edgerton 2002; Forbath 1977; Hochschild 1998). Independence in 1960 meant tyranny, corruption, police brutality, hunger, malnutrition, civil wars, and an ever shorter life expectancy (Edgerton 2000, 246).

Ritual Healing Theory Hypotheses

The ritual healing theory provides hypotheses regarding patterns robust enough to be detected in historical accounts:

  1. Dissociative propensity is more prevalent during generations subject to severe stress since trauma triggers dissociative genotypes to manifest as phenotypes.
  2. Dissociative individuals tend to suffer from psychologically based disorders, to be healed through ritual processes, to experience anomalous perceptions generating belief in spirits, souls, life after death, and magical abilities, and to devise, accept, and practice rituals beneficial due to hypnotic and placebo effects.
  3. The most common forms of anomalous and visionary experience have universal features, derived from physiological bases. These experiences are apparitions, waking extrasensory perceptions, paranormal dreams, out-of-body and near-death experiences, psychokinesis, and spiritual healing. These experiential forms are hypothesized to exist in the folklore of all societies.
  4. Therapeutic rituals devised by dissociative individuals are evaluated in the religious marketplace. Successful practices attract many followers, some of whom experience hypnotic and placebo benefits. Historical analysis of any ethnic group should reveal examples of these processes.

Historical Analysis

Few historical analyses have been applied to theories regarding religion. One study, an analysis of Iceland’s religious history, refutes arguments regarding religion’s social glue (Swatos and Gissurarson 1997). Rather than religious beliefs evolving from collective needs, as Durkheim (1995) and group selection theorists suppose, Iceland’s history portrays experiential processes generating innovative ideologies. For example, an important spiritualist medium, Indriði Indriðason, captured the attention of Icelandic audiences in the early 1900s. He and other performers were sufficiently compelling that Spiritualist beliefs became an important element in Iceland’s religious heritage. Swatos and Gissurarson (1997) portray how anomalous perceptions shaped cultural processes in a manner not predicted by group selection models. People adopted specific beliefs because they perceived events that implied spirits, souls, life after death, and magical abilities, not because their religion provided a social glue inducing unity.

Kongo religious history provides an alternate arena for analysis. Cases are derived from (1) indigenous Kongo religion, (2) the introduction of Christianity after 1482, (3) the Christian prophet Dona Beatriz (1686-1706), (4) Simon Kimbangu and the Kimbanguist Church (1921-1960), and (5) modern Kongo prophets (1960 to present). Although there is much cultural variation among the BaKongo, analysis of the literature pertaining to this ethnic group allows evaluation of ritual healing hypotheses.

Indigenous Kongo Religion

Pre-European Kongo religions included a variety of cosmologies based on a “process of continuous revelation … that characterized African religion in general” (Thornton 2002, 73-74). Certain practitioners went into trance, communicated with spirits, and gained information valuable for their community.

This pattern seemingly evolved from the same physiological processes allowing shamanism, the foundation of all later religions (Winkelman 1992, 2000). Anthropological studies indicate that all hunter-gatherer societies have shamans, individuals who go into trance, gain information about the spirit world, and use this information for healing. Anthropologists argue that as hunter-gatherer societies devised more complex technologies and become sedentary, their religious healing systems changed correspondingly, reflecting increased social complexity (Winkelman 1992, 2000). The ritual healing theory argues that religion’s physiological basis continued to shape spiritual healing practices, producing religious-medical systems still based on hypnotic and placebo effects.

Kongo religions, encountered by the Portuguese in 1482, reflected the Congo Kingdom’s hierarchical social structure. Its cosmology included four basic domains: (1) a powerful, but distant, god (Nzambi Mpungu), whose actions and healing powers were influenced by (2) the king (mfumu), who had the power to authorize executions; (3) ritual experts (singular:nganga), who practiced beneficial magic; and (4) sorcerer/witches (nkoki), who practiced harmful magic. Ritual experts included a variety of practitioners engaging in healing, divination, and protection. These experts, and the king, were expected to control magical powers for the common good. Sorcerers and witches, on the other hand, used magical skills to create discord and illness. Activities and roles on the earthly plane were associated with equivalent activities and roles on the spiritual plane.

Although Kongo ritual practices varied widely among localities, recurring patterns included healing, spiritual protection, and negative magic. A prevalent belief was that sorcerers/witches caused problems. In some areas, ancestral spirits might also create afflictions. Victims gained relief or protection by having a magical specialist construct a statue carved in human likeness or made out of basketwork (MacGaffey 1986). Missionaries condemned these charms as fetishes. Alternate methods included identifying a living sorcerer and subjecting this individual to ritual trial—requiring the accused to drink poison, for example, with survival indicating innocence. Kongo religion, transported by slaves to the Americas, contributed to rootlore, voodoo, and other Africa-based traditions in the New World (McClenon 2005b).

Although witchcraft systems fulfill social functions, it seems doubtful that Durkheim would have formulated his religion-as-society theory if he had used Kongo history as his single example case. Sorcery/witchcraft systems focus on labeling deviance, rather than worshiping the collectivity. Although Durkheim had much to say about the functions of labeling deviance, he was not concerned with the evolutionary mechanisms by which such systems evolved. Examples of the dysfunctions of witchcraft abound, even among modern BaKongo. In 2001, for example, 394 northeastern Kongolese were killed in a hunt for suspected witches, and 89 people were arrested for these murders (Edgerton 2002, 236). Witchcraft systems may be functional when deviants “deserve” to be labeled as witches and when discussions of cases are psychologically perceptive (MacGaffey 1986, 161). Evaluations of costs and benefits are unclear. Historians provide no example case of a group practicing witchcraft replacing one lacking such beliefs.

Historical analysis allows insights regarding the degree that gene flow occurred among competing groups. Precolonial central Africa varied enormously in terms of topography soils, rainfall, vegetation, and resources. Population pressure, coupled with recurring droughts, resulted in major, periodic immigrations. Desperate people were forced into dependency, contributing to lordship, tribute, and slavery systems. Rulers’ wealth and power were measured in numbers of subservient humans. Historical data imply that gene flow within hierarchical systems was prevalent. Rather than genocide being common (portraying group selection), slavery systems were the norm (Miller 1988). Such observations reduce faith in group selection models.

Discussions of precontact BaKongo support the ritual healing theory. Magical practitioners provided rituals generating hypnotic and placebo effects. Historical and anthropological documents describe certain people having greater propensity for trance, anomalous experience, and performance ability (MacGaffey 1986). Charms (fetishes) seemingly derived their power from hypnotic and placebo processes. Dissociative people, better able to suspend critical functions, gained greater psychological protection.

As predicted by the ritual healing theory, historians (and their informants) describe anomalous experiences as foundations for religious belief. Thornton (2002, 75) mentions two near-death experiences as supporting belief in life after death. In one case, “a woman who had been sacrificed … returned from the dead to report that her services in the Other World were not needed.” These stories have narrative structures equivalent to near-death experiences found all over the world and throughout all eras. Although we cannot determine the degree that such accounts reflect spiritual realities, it is logical to assume that brain structures and common physiological processes contribute to recurring features. In parallel fashion, Laman (1962) describes apparitions as central to indigenous belief. BaKongo perceived deceased relatives in manners equivalent to those of other societies, generating similar beliefs in spirits, souls, and life after death.

The Introduction of Christianity

When the first Portuguese missionaries arrived in 1491, they found basic correspondence between Kongo and Christian religious concepts (finding of similar concepts regarding spirits, souls, life after death, and magical abilities supports the ritual healing theory). Among the early rulers attracted to Christianity was King Mbemba Nzinga, who took on the name Alfonso (ruling 1506-1543). The scarcity of Portuguese priests, and the equivalency of doctrinal elements, resulted in a blending of Christian and pagan practices. Terms for magical practitioners, for example, were applied to Catholic priests, and baptism became merely another magical ritual (MacGaffey 1986). Over time, the impact of Christian beliefs declined. One traveler noted, in 1857, that “crosses were to be seen everywhere but … for the Congolese people they were simply another of their many fetishes and had no Christian significance” (Edgerton 2002, 28). As during precontact eras, Christian rituals would have provided greater benefits to those more open to suggestion.

Historians do not portray early Kongo Christianity as social glue. The slave trade, supported and practiced by many Portuguese priests, destabilized the Congo Kingdom, resulting in social and environmental disaster. “At least once each century during the slaving era ecological an epidemiological crises reaches intensities sufficient to eliminate perhaps a third to a half or more of local populations” (Miller 1988, 156). Although some might argue that Christianity was functional in that it justified oppression, thereby contributing to social cohesiveness, the evolutionary effect is unclear. Many elements within Congo history support the argument that there are sick societies and that not all long-lasting elements within a culture are functional (Edgerton 1992).

Descriptions of military conflicts do not support group selection models. For example, in the mid-1500s, the Yakas, a cannibalistic warrior army, “focused their entire social structure around their fighting men…. They killed their own babies, burying them alive at birth, so as not to be hindered on their relentless march, and … adopted the children of the peoples they conquered and made them warriors in their army” (Forbath 1977, 125). The Congo Kingdom, weakened by the slave trade, was helpless against these people. The king, his courts, and the entire Portuguese settlement were forced to flee. As a result, hundreds of thousands of homeless people perished from famine and bubonic plague. Because the slavery trade was disrupted by this slaughter, the king of Portugal, in 1571, sent an army of 600 soldiers, slavers, and adventurers to aid the remnants of the Kongo army. This force drove back the Yakas—who were

defeated but not destroyed, and they remained a force of chaos and turmoil in the Congo River basin for years. The countryside was stricken by plague and famine and torn apart by wars; every chief and province lord was in open revolt, and slavers, traders, soldiers of fortune, and adventurers of every ilk infested the realm. (Forbath 1977, 132)

This case, and many other accounts of Kongo military conflicts, do not provide clear examples supporting group selection theory; there is no mention of religious groups replacing less religious groups. Proponents of this theory might argue that there is no need to find clear examples of actual selection for the theory to be valid—that religion’s social glue genotypes are so evenly distributed in modern populations that group replacement cannot be detected during historical times. Future geneticists might test this hypothesis by determining the nature and antiquity of these social glue genotypes.

On the other hand, Kongo history includes many elements illustrating the ritual healing theory. As during all eras, anomalous experiences, particularly spiritual healing, supported religious beliefs. During the first great battle between Alfonso’s army and his native foes, enemy troops retreated after seeing a white cross and armored horsemen in the sky, apparitions thought to prove the validity of Christianity (Thornton 1998, 33). Similar stories of apparitions are part of the folklore in all societies, and the fact that stories emerge collectively does not negate their power. Christianity itself is based on a series of apparitional accounts justifying belief in life after death. Among the BaKongo, Christianity was accepted, in part, because of its perceived magical power, and such stories were believed because they were parallel to spontaneous individual visionary and apparitional experiences.

The ritual healing theory does not deny that social processes affect conversion. Horton (1971, 1975), for example, argues that world religions provide universalistic means for overcoming the boundaries of local communities. His theory explains the prevalence of Christian and Moslem faiths in Africa. Yet this theory fails to portray the dynamics of individual belief. As with many social theories, it tends to ignore the stories people tell explaining why they believe as they do. As a consequence, many believers find such social explanations offensive. Most BaKongo did not perceive themselves as converting to Christianity to gain universalistic perspectives but because Christianity seemed more effective for healing, magic, and solving real problems. People more open to the magical suggestions of Christianity benefited most.

The Christian Prophet Dona Beatriz Kimpa Vita

Dona Beatriz Kimpa Vita (1684-1706) experienced visions at an early age. “To her family and friends these visions were a sign that she was spiritually gifted, and people paid attention to her and treated her as a special person” (Thornton 1998, 10). Her biography fits that of a nganga, a dissociative possessor of spiritual power who contacts beings from the Other World and can be possessed by them:

A possessed nganga, such as nganga ngombo, would go into a trance … commonly through various forms of hypnosis induced by drumming, dancing, or simply rhythmic chanting and hand clapping. Once this state was achieved, some being from the Other World would enter the nganga’s head, and then use his or her vocal cords to speak. (Thornton 1998, 54)

While an adolescent, Dona Beatriz was initiated into the Kimpasi society. Initiates were tied up and carried to a special compound, where they remained for some time. They learned a special religious language, swore an oath of secrecy, and gained the ability to go into trance in order to address both individual and social problems (Thornton 1998, 56-58).

Dona Beatriz was one of various Christians during her era reporting visions. The size of a visionary’s audience was determined by trance performance, magical skills, and capacity to generate stories regarding miraculous cures. An old woman, Mafuta, for example, attracted crowds after she reported visions and discovered a curious stone, shaped like a man’s head, thought to be that of Jesus. She healed people and told of her visions of the Virgin Mary, who counseled repentance (Thornton 1998, 108).

In 1704, Dona Beatriz fell ill and experienced a vision of Saint Anthony. Her continuing visions led her to believe that Jesus and Saint Anthony were born in the Congo and that, through her preaching, she could resolve the political divisions which eventually led to civil war. Her healing ability attracted large crowds, and many people practiced the innovative rituals she prescribed. Her opposition to church corruption stimulated official alarm, and in 1706, a local king arrested her. Soon afterward, with the support of Christian missionaries, she was burned at the stake. Her movement is regarded as the first documented example of Africanized Christianity.

Dona Beatriz’s biography does not portray religion as social glue. Although some people may have been unified by their attraction to her doctrines, the net result was social turmoil. On the other hand, her story illustrates how dissociative people react to difficult environments. They suffer illnesses (often psychosomatic), experience visions providing innovative doctrines, and, if socially skillful, launch prophetic movements. Their ritual performances benefit dissociative people exposed to their suggestions. The history of Dona Beatriz illustrates the recurring elements specified by the ritual healing theory: dissociative people in all eras report anomalous experiences and engage in spiritual healing, benefiting those open to therapeutic suggestion. Although established religions often oppose these movements, recurring patterns imply a physiological basis.

Simon Kimbangu

Like Dona Beatriz, Simon Kimbangu (1889-1951) grew up during an era of social turmoil. The agents of King Leopold II plundered the Congo’s ivory and rubber, contributing to the death of half the Kongo population between 1885 and 1908 (Hochschild 1998). In 1918, a major flu epidemic killed thousands, while forced labor extended the BaKongo’s ordeal. Kimbangu, a teacher in a mission school, came to believe that European missionaries had omitted important elements from Christ’s teachings. As did most BaKongo, he observed that missionary hospitals were unable to cure African forms of illness and that European Christianity could not end the evils of colonialism. Many BaKongo perceived that Christianity failed to prevent witches from causing the unemployment, accidents, and psychological distress they experienced.

In March 1921, Kimbangu heard a voice telling him to preach a more appropriate Gospel. As a Kimbanguist document stated, it appeared that the missionaries only enriched themselves and cared not for the sheep (Janzen and MacGaffey 1974, 131). Soon afterward, the Holy Spirit compelled Kimbangu to go to a sick child’s house, where “he laid hands on it and prayed, whereupon he was subjected to violent convulsions. The child, however, was cured of its sickness and put to its mother’s breast” (Andersson 1958, 51). Church traditions state that he then performed many other miracles such as raising a child from the dead. Rumors spread of his success, and in April and May, he attracted huge crowds, among whom he healed the sick and raised the dead using spirit possession, quoting from the Bible, and shouting, “Be healed in the name of Jesus Christ” (Anstey 1966, 125). Eyewitnesses reported that he “tossed his head, rolled his eyes, and jumped into the air, while his body twitched all over” (Andersson 1958, 58).

Stories of Kimbangu reveal the nature of his healing. Many observers saw no miraculous events (Andersson 1958; and see Janzen and MacGaffey 1974, 62, for a skeptical example case involving a later prophet). Yet Andersson (1958) provides eight healing stories illustrating why people were attracted to this, and later, movements. These accounts reveal patterns found in spiritual healing all over the world, both ancient and modern (McClenon 2002a, 2002b). Ritual performances contain hypnotic inductions, generating hypnotic and placebo benefits. Those most often healed complained of disorders with a psychological basis, of the same types amenable to treatment by hypnosis. Many of the blind, paralyzed, and deaf probably suffered from conversion, anxiety, and dissociation disorders—problems prevalent in societies exposed to severe stress. Recurring elements in miracle healing stories, such as temporary reduction of symptoms and differential response to suggestion, infer hypnotic processes. For example, a respondent described bringing two blind men to Kimbangu for healing. He noted that one did not benefit. The second man, Yankala,

rose at once at the prophet’s command and started in route for his home. When they met him later in a village on the way he gaily answered their queries as to whether he could see, replying “When we came here before, I could not walk, and you carried me, now I see clearly and can walk by myself.” (Andersson 1958, 55)

The narrator reported that Yankala had been commanded by Kimbangu not to sin again, but when Yankala resumed drinking alcohol, his blindness returned. This type of reversion is found among all large collections of miracle healing stories—even on the ancient Greek stone steles of Asclepius at Epidaurus (McClenon 2002b, 41-43).

Example cases also illustrate direct evolutionary impacts of spiritual healing. As in all societies, Kongo healers facilitated conception:

[Babutunu Jean] had two wives, both of whom deserted him, because of his sterility, and now his third was about to follow the example of her predecessors, for the same reason. When Babutunu Jean came to the prophet he said: “I am sterile. I wish to beget children.” Kimbangu merely replied: “Beget children, in the name of Jesus Christ.” Within a few days of his return his wife became pregnant. The child was a boy. (Andersson 1958, 55)

Given the strong links between human sexuality and psychology, it seems likely that ritual processes selected for specific genotypes since some people derive greater benefits than others.

The Belgian administration, concerned with the possibility that the colonial regime would be overthrown, sought Kimbangu’s arrest, and in September 1921, obedient to a message from God, he gave himself up. He was whipped and sentenced to death—a sentence later commuted to life imprisonment. Kimbanguists were forced to worship in secret, and Kimbangu died in prison in 1951, after 30 years of incarceration. “Despite Kimbangu’s imprisonment, his movement flourished as huge congregations of true believers, many of them sick, came together to enter hypnotic trances … New prophets arose to continue Kimbangu’s mission, becoming possessed, speaking in tongues, and finding their health restored” (Edgerton 2002, 174). Andersson (1958, 136) describes later prophetic movements, noting their success in curing sterility, a problem of great importance among the BaKongo.

In 1957, the Kimbanguists began a campaign of passive resistance, and on the eve of national independence, in 1959, the Church of Jesus Christ on Earth through the Prophet Simon Kimbangu was legally recognized by the government. Spiritual healing continued to be an important activity:

In Kimbanguist theology, Kimbangu’s success as healer guarantees the promise of salvation. In June 1960, the newspaper Kimbanguisme reported that 10,050 persons had been healed in the preceding two months: 4 people rose from the dead; 4,789 lame persons walked; 3,568 of the blind saw, and 902 lepers were cleansed. (MacGaffey 1983, 118)

MacGaffey (1983, 186) portrays Kimbangu as equivalent, in many respects, to traditional magical healers. His analysis describes how Kimbanguists constructed new ideologies from existing concepts; innovative ideas were framed within the basic Kongo paradigm. Kimbanguism had political aspects, becoming aligned with anticolonial ideologies. In this case, the ideology unified its members, providing a form of social glue; this evidence points to social processes within religion that must be included in evolutionary explanations. Group selection and ritual healing are not mutually exclusive.

Modern Kimbanguism, one of many Kongo prophetic religions, has over a million members. Its history illustrates how religion works, and this example implies that group selection processes occur, to some degree, since Kimbanguists benefited from membership. Yet this history more directly supports the ritual healing theory. Kimbangu’s biography fits the shamanic pattern. He reported visions and other anomalous experiences. His performances attracted followers through creating stories of miraculous healings. People with dissociative propensities had greater probability of benefiting from this movement.

Modern Kongo Prophets

After independence in 1960, political repression of innovative religions declined. Numerous prophets arose, established churches, and introduced new religious concepts. MacGaffey (1983, 5) portrays how “successive generations of prophets offered different social analyses and recommendations, all framed in the same set of categories, the ideological structure of Kongo religion.” As would be predicted by the ritual healing theory, the Kongo ideological structure reflects, in part, the physiological basis for religion. Prophets describe anomalous experiences, supporting belief in spirits, souls, life after death, and magical abilities—with witchcraft beliefs prevalent. They provide hypnotic and placebo benefits to those more open to suggestion. Although specifics vary over time, recurring elements are translated from one era to the next.

Prophets’ revelations typically take the form of a spiritual journey, coinciding with shamanic visions. For example, a prophet reports,

In 1966, I fell into a coma, and people brought blankets for my funeral; but then I saw a bright, dazzling light, heard a heavenly choir singing No. 461 [“Many troubles here on earth, we suffer from sicknesses, our tears pour down O Spirit, come to help us!”], and I awoke to find that I had acquired exceptional intelligence, so that no witch could get past me. (MacGaffey 1983, 211)

This story exemplifies a near-death experience. Near-death experiences often include perceptions of leaving one’s body, traveling to a spiritual realm, and gaining information about life after death during a life-threatening event.

Content analyses of near-death experience collections reveal their equivalence to shamanic visions. Fox (2003, 247) analyzed 91 British accounts, classifying crisis experiences, in which the event involved the possibility of death (near-death experience), and noncrisis experiences, in which that possibility was not present (visionary experience). Comparing the two groups, he found virtually equivalent frequency of Moody’s “core near-death experience features” (Fox 2003, 247). McClenon (2005a, 2006a) conducted parallel analyses of 28 near-death experience accounts collected in North Carolina, United States. He also found equivalent frequencies of near-death experience elements within crisis and noncrisis accounts. The Kongo literature provides two visionary narratives and five near-death experience accounts. Visionary narratives and near-death experience accounts contain equivalent near-death experience core features. These findings imply that near-death experiences are not generated by mechanisms related to a dying brain, but through visionary processes. This is not to say that near-death experiences are invalid, but that they are equivalent to visions, something recognized within spiritual traditions. Shamans, prophets, and dying people are thought able to visit spiritual realms. Using a social scientific paradigm, the data imply that humans, during unusual cognitive states, have a propensity to perceive cognitions contributing to belief in life after death.

Content Analysis of Kongo Experiental Accounts

Table 11.1 compares 56 Kongo anomalous experience accounts to 1,578 cases collected in North Carolina (McClenon 2000, 2002a, 2002b) and 40 cases reported by professional anthropologists (McClenon and Nooney 2002). Kongo cases were found in texts pertaining to religious history (Andersson 1958; Bockie 1993; de Vesme 1931; Janzen 1978; Janzen and MacGaffey 1974; Laman 1962; MacGaffey 1983; McClenon 2006c, Thornton 1998). The coding system for classifying these accounts was tested for reliability using multiple judges over various studies (McClenon 2000, 2002a, 2002b; McClenon and Nooney 2002). Experiential forms included apparitions, waking extrasensory perception, spiritual healing, paranormal dreams, normal dreams, occult events, psychokinesis/poltergeists (unexplained movement of objects), and near-death experience/out-of-body experiences. Previous anomalous experience collections gathered in Great Britain, the United States, Germany, Finland, and Hong Kong were compared to these data sets (McClenon 1994, 2002a). Although incidence of reports varies among societies, much evidence indicates that these forms have universal features, implying a physiological basis.

Variations in frequencies of reporting of experiential forms might be attributed to a number of factors. Cultural differences probably contribute to variations in reporting. Different methods of collection also affect frequencies. The North Carolina sample was gathered through college students conducting oral interviews of relatives, friends, and neighbors (McClenon 2000, 2002a, 2002b). The anthropological collection was created by assembling accounts published in the literature by anthropologists describing field experiences (McClenon and Nooney 2002). Previous cross-cultural comparisons reveal variations in frequencies among cultures, with all cultures providing similar experiential forms (McClenon 2002b).

As predicted by the ritual healing theory, most Kongo anomalous accounts have the same forms as those reported in other societies. MacGaffey’s (1983) text on Kongo prophets includes a near-death experience, two spiritual healings, and an occult performance (a rain-making prayer). Janzen and MacGaffey’s (1974) translation of Kongo religious texts includes five healing accounts (dating from Kimbangu to modern prophets). Laman (1962), a missionary in the Congo between 1891-1919, provides 19 anomalous experience narratives: 7 apparitions, 7 haunting/poltergeists, 3 occult performance accounts, and 2 anomalous animal accounts. Andersson’s (1958) discussion of Kimbanguism and later prophetic movements includes eight spiritual healings, one extrasensory perception account, and two occult performances (fire immunity feats). Bockie (1993) describes three apparitions, two paranormal dreams, three normal dreams (considered extraordinary), and three near-death experiences. De Vesme (1931) provides a psychokinesis/poltergeist account attributed to Central Africa, included even though the witness does not mention a specific ethnic group.

Respondents often describe their experiences as compelling belief and argue that miraculous effects can be verified empirically. For example, two prophets describe healing experiments, in which they found that rituals resulted in healing, while failure to conduct the ritual resulted in deterioration of health (Janzen and MacGaffey 1974, 66, 67). Several speakers at a prophet conference in Leopoldville (Kinshasa) in 1961 maintained that “the government should conduct a test of candidates for the leadership of the new organization [of prophets], in which the winner would be the one who most successfully performed the required miracles” (MacGaffey 1983, 58, 59).

Biographies of Kongo healers often describe potential practitioners’ sickness, healing, and resulting faith. This socialization pattern, observed by anthropologists all over the world, is termed the wounded healer syndrome (Halifax 1982). Faith healings inspire profound belief, enhancing the ritual performer’s ability to inspire faith in others.

Surveys indicate that the experiential forms listed in table 11.1 are reported with surprising frequency in U.S. and European national surveys. Over half of U.S. respondents report at least one extrasensory perception episode (McClenon 1994). Of U.S. national survey respondents in 1990, 9 percent reported having seen or been in the presence of a ghost, and 14 percent said that they have been in a house they felt was haunted (Gallup and Newport 1991). Collections of narrative accounts from Finland, Germany, Great Britain, China, Japan, and the United States indicate that people from all these countries report similar forms of apparitions, waking extrasensory perception, paranormal dreams, psychokinesis, out-of-body experience, and synchronicity (McClenon 1994). Analyses of survey responses from Japan, China, Europe, and the United States reveal that all cultures contain many individuals reporting frequent experiences (McClenon 1994). Studies also indicate that waking extrasensory perceptions, paranormal dreams, and apparitions have inherent structural features, consistent among cultures (McClenon 2000). Waking extrasensory perception, for example, tends to pertain to present events, while paranormal dreams more often predict future events. All over the world, paranormal experiences are likely to pertain to family members and to death.

As with other collections, the Kongo literature contains culturally unique stories. Two BaKongo described anomalous animals, killed by local people and thought to have magical characteristics. Since most accounts coincide with universal experiences, the data, in general, support the argument that the major experiential forms have physiological bases (McClenon 2002b). Specific stories illustrate how anomalous experiences generate folk belief. Laman (1962) describes how apparitions and psychokinesis affect faith:

One day, when Nambulu died, they dressed her in her skin with dog-bells that she had been wearing while dancing. At night, when the people were lying down, she went about with her skin and the bells all over the village. Everybody then understood that the dead live and that they go about in the same shape as they had on earth. (Laman 1962, 27)

This story illustrates how “everyone” came to believe in life after death, even though not everyone perceived the apparition. As with the horsemen in the sky story told by early Kongo Christians, the account’s acceptance depends, in part, on listeners’ acceptance of the storyteller’s sincerity. Because people tend to know each other, telling the story sustains folk religious beliefs.

Many accounts contain elements designed to refute skeptical arguments: simultaneous experiences by multiple witnesses, status and honesty of witnesses, and witnesses’ attempts to preclude normal explanations through investigation. Although scholarly discussions of such stories are restricted by academic norms, on the folk level, many reports have compelling qualities. Folklore implies that anyone could see a ghost, have a paranormal dream, or perceive spiritual effects—with some people having greater propensity than others. A unifying theme is that experience compels belief. For example, the missionary Karl Laman quotes an informant’s extensive poltergeist experiences, in which the poltergeist is labeled as “that one.” He concludes his account by describing his own investigation:

Finally, the women got together, terrified, in one house. But that one came there and banged on it vehemently, so that in great fear all went out through the door. When that one came, it was like a rushing strong blast.

As this took place in the village of Mukimbungu mission station, we called the whites to come and see and let us understand what it could be. Among these was taata Laman and two others.

I, Laman, hereby confirm these phenomena. One evening we went down to have a look, and it was then that the terrified women gathered in a big grass house. While we went about there one of the long walls of the house was pounded with heavy blows, so that the house shook, so that maize etc. hung up in the house tumbled down. We had a lantern with us to investigate, but we saw nothing. It was, moreover, entirely out of the question that a human being should have been able to do it. The following day we tried to bang on the wall as hard as we could. But neither the sound of the blows nor the violence of them was anything like those of the previous evening. The owner of the house had earlier been out hunting and been gored to death by a buffalo, so everyone thought that it was his ghost. We tore down the brick house and built a store with the bricks, after which everything seems to have stopped. (Laman 1962, 25-26)

This account has the same structure as haunting/poltergeist narratives all over the world: speakers portray themselves as logical investigators, seek authorities to verify their authenticity, report attempts to preclude normal explanation, and infer occult explanations. As is common in such stories, an action, such as in this case, tearing down the house, affects the phenomenon’s incidence. In parallel fashion, culturally prescribed rituals, exorcism, prayer, medium’s communications, and so on, may reduce or eliminate unwanted effects, and as a result, the phenomenon, and associated rituals, seem verified empirically.

Certain people have a propensity for anomalous experience, and social factors are known to trigger this propensity. Social scientists have long noted relationships between deprivation and religious movements. Relationships between stress and visionary experience coincide with the psychotherapy literature. It is almost axiomatic within psychotherapy literature that dissociative processes have therapeutic qualities—the mind compartmentalizes traumatic memories, enhancing mental health. This system breaks down when conflicts are severe—abused children develop dissociative identity and posttraumatic stress disorders. In parallel fashion, visionary and anomalous experiences seem more prevalent during times of social trauma. MacGaffey (1983, 118) notes that prophets “come from the elements of the population that suffered most … from status discrimination” and that visions reflect “the contradictions of the society in which they lived” (MacGaffey 1983, 236). Dona Beatriz, Simon Kimbangu, and many modern prophets are example cases. Similar patterns exist all over the world. Surveys of Chinese college students, raised during the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution, revealed higher rates of anomalous experience (41% reported many experiences) than found among other groups (McClenon 1994, 30). Human physiology seems to have evolved in a manner that causes dissociative capacity to be switched on by childhood trauma.


Although Kongo history includes examples of the social functions of religion, it provides no case of a religious group replacing a less religious group. As a result, the Kongo history analysis grants little insight into how genes associated with social functions increased in prevalence, beyond the capacity for some groups to experience increased unity. Although group selection processes may be so subtle that historical analysis does not detect them, the lack of a single example case is surprising, given the prevalence of social scientific belief in this paradigm.

On the other hand, historical analysis supports the ritual healing theory. Kongo religious history portrays recurring cycles, noted all over the world. The literature provides many examples of social trauma seeming to contribute to the emergence of magical practitioners. Dissociative people experience anomalous perceptions and become healers using hypnotic and placebo processes. Cases derived from the history of indigenous Kongo religions, early Kongo Christianity, Dona Beatriz, Simon Kimbangu, and modern Kongo prophets reveal patterns implying dissociative and hypnotic processes. Kongo anomalous experiences coincide with categories found in societies all over the world, suggesting physiological bases. Audience members more open to suggestion gain greater benefits, illustrating a process that, over the millennia, selected for genotypes related to dissociation and religiosity. The ritual healing theory argues that these patterns can be found through analysis of the history of any ethnic group.