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Christianity

Whereas Christianity is in decline in Europe, in Africa it is still very strong.

Speaking as a rationalist and freethinker who believes he has objectively assessed the available data and has come to the conclusion that:

… I wonder, does Christianity as a worldview still have anything to offer anybody besides the kind of subjective personal validation that one could also derive by subscribing to any number of passions, hobbies, or interests? Further, there exist today many avenues for seeking motivation for life and healthy living that do not require belief in Jesus or even a ‘God’ – and yet there are many for whom this belief is their reason for living on a day to day basis.

Church_01

Atheists like myself view this dependency as a crutch.

But is there more to it?

And even if it is a crutch – what’s wrong with that, considering the dire situation the majority of Ugandans live in?

Matthew Parris an atheist, and journalist, wrote the following in his defense of Evangelical Christianity in Africa in the Times:

But travelling in Malawi refreshed another belief, too: one I’ve been trying to banish all my life, but an observation I’ve been unable to avoid since my African childhood. It confounds my ideological beliefs, stubbornly refuses to fit my world view, and has embarrassed my growing belief that there is no God.

Now a confirmed atheist, I’ve become convinced of the enormous contribution that Christian evangelism makes in Africa: sharply distinct from the work of secular NGOs, government projects and international aid efforts. These alone will not do. Education and training alone will not do. In Africa Christianity changes people’s hearts. It brings a spiritual transformation. The rebirth is real. The change is good.

I used to avoid this truth by applauding – as you can – the practical work of mission churches in Africa. It’s a pity, I would say, that salvation is part of the package, but Christians black and white, working in Africa, do heal the sick, do teach people to read and write; and only the severest kind of secularist could see a mission hospital or school and say the world would be better without it. I would allow that if faith was needed to motivate missionaries to help, then, fine: but what counted was the help, not the faith. But this doesn’t fit the facts. Faith does more than support the missionary; transferred to his flock. This is the effect that matters so immensely, and which I cannot help observing.

The hospitals, the schools, the charity work, the encouragement, the world view the belief system of Christianity contributes to Africa – all these are things Parris feels Africa cannot do without at this present time.

He adds:

Anxiety – fear of evil spirits, of ancestors, of nature and the wild, of a tribal hierarchy, of quite everyday things – strikes deep into the whole structure of rural African thought. Every man has his place and, call it fear or respect, a great weight grinds down the individual spirit, stunting curiosity. People won’t take the initiative, won’t take things into their own hands or on their own shoulders.

How can I, as someone with a foot in both camps, explain? When the philosophical tourist moves from one world view to another he finds – at the very moment of passing into the new – that he loses the language to describe the landscape to the old. But let me try an example: the answer given by Sir Edmund Hillary to the question: Why climb the mountain? “Because it’s there,” he said.

To the rural African mind, this is an explanation of why one would not climb the mountain. It’s… well, there. Just there. Why interfere? Nothing to be done about it, or with it. Hillary’s further explanation – that nobody else had climbed it – would stand as a second reason for passivity.

Those who want Africa to walk tall amid 21st-century global competition must not kid themselves that providing the material means or even the knowhow that accompanies what we call development will make the change. A whole belief system must first be supplanted.

And I’m afraid it has to be supplanted by another. Removing Christian evangelism from the African equation may leave the continent at the mercy of a malign fusion of Nike, the witch doctor, the mobile phone and the machete.”

Matthew Parris

It seems to me that Parris is saying Christianity is somehow necessary to fill the philosophical and metaphysical vacuum left by the erosion of traditional beliefs that have previously given Africans a cohesive albeit irrational worldview – because such a vacuum would leave Africans at the mercy of undesirable influences such as those things he mentions (though his selection criteria for those things is not clear).

It would not surprise me if some feel such sentiments to be patronizing in nature. I could see how one might accuse Parris of trying to imply that Africans are currently incapable of handling rationality and reason – and so at present need Christianity to save them from themselves. But even then, rather than infantilise Africans by replacing one crutch with another, why not give them the chance to learn how to walk on their own? The fact that there exists a growing number of atheists on the continent seems to challenge the implication that we are somehow unable to deal with reality without having Christianity as a crutch. Today, many Africans are increasingly looking at the world around them through a rational lens and are coming to the conclusion that one need not subscribe to religion to be moral, and charitable. Many of us have also realised that mysticism is not required as a foundation for a cohesive view of reality.

Norm Allen, the former executive director of African Americans for Humanism, wrote in his response to Parris:

I readily admit that missionaries have done some great work in Africa—building roads, clinics, schools, etc. However, missionaries in recent years have also enriched themselves while exploiting the masses, discouraged millions of Africans from using condoms, thereby increasing unwanted pregnancies and the spread of Aids, promoted sexism, contributed greatly to the persecution and deaths of alleged witches, etc. Indeed, Africa provides the perfect example of what Robert Ingersoll said about the historic role of the Catholic Church: “In one hand she carried the alms dish, in the other, the dagger.” The same could be said of organized religion in general.

In Rwanda, Christians were complicit in the genocide that occurred there in the 1990s. Many people were brutally murdered in churches. In Nigeria, Christians and Muslims have been killing each other by the thousands. Throughout Uganda, Zimbabwe, Nigeria and many other African nations, Bible-based homophobia plays a major role in the persecution, and in some cases, murders, of LGBTs.

What Africa needs is what Ingersoll called “a caring rationalism.” The Bible simply contains too many ultra-reactionary and inhumane messages to be blindly embraced by believers. Christian ideas of tolerance are inconsistent with the biblical notion that acceptance of Christ is the only way to reach heaven. The Prince of Peace said he came to bring not peace, but a sword. It is no wonder that there are so many different conceptions of Christianity, not all of them benign.

A humanistic life-stance is the best way to approach the many divisive religious and ethnic conflicts that plague Africa. Human-centered thought and action offer much more for African uplift than piety and prayers ever could. Christian charity is, indeed, commendable. However our appreciation of the missionaries’ alms dish must never blind us to the dagger that so often accompanies it.

What do YOU think? Are you a believer? Then you probably disagree with atheists on this. Perhaps to you Christianity is real and is indeed the only path to one’s salvation – relevant today as it was 2,000 years ago.

This Freethinkers’ Night we are asking – Is Christianity Still Relevant in Africa?

We will be joined by several members of Mavuno Church, Kampala, who have expressed interest in participating in this discussion, with us.


The January 2013 Freethinkers’ Night will take place on Thursday, 31st January, at SPICE GARDEN (formerly 4 Points Bar & Restaurant), Centenary Park, Kampala, starting 6PM. Entrance is FREE.

If you are an open minded person whose opinions are formed on the basis of science, logic, and reason and are interested in meeting like-minded individuals – you are more than welcome to join us.


UPDATE: We attempted to record the discussion. The sound is inconsistent in the beginning but it gets better as it progresses. The recorder kept going off so there are breaks in just a few places, and it ends rather abruptly. That said, it is a fairly good recording – it sounds surprisingly much better than I thought it would, considering I recorded it using just my cellphone’s in-built recorder. Download.

As a journalist, Lindsey Kukunda had been sent by her editors to investigate a local group of freethinkers in Kampala. Things took an interesting turn after that. This is her story.

On Wednesday January 2nd 2013, I and Andrew Mwenda participated in a debate on Pastor Martin Ssempa’s radio talk show on Kingdom FM to discuss the effects of the publicity homosexuality was receiving in Ugandan media by those who laboured to demonise it.

[Link to the mp3 of the debate at the bottom of the article]

sempa-debate_thumb10

Background:

On December 18th 2012, I posted a status update on Facebook in which I argued that the antics of Martin Ssempa and his fellow anti-gay activists were creating a climate of tolerance for homosexuals due to the increased exposure they were giving the subject:

Whether knowingly or unknowingly, the likes of Martin Ssempa have become top ‘promoters’ of homosexuality in Uganda – in other words, they have become the very things they despise. The way he goes on and on about it, the ridiculous stunts he pulls in public (e.g. screening hardcore gay porn in church), making a fool of himself on TV today, etc. His efforts have done nothing but ‘advertise’ homosexuality. Even my mother was like "can’t he just STFU already, because now all the kids are curious about homosexuality!" Many people have told me the same thing (and the people telling me this are staunchly anti-gay, mind you).

Thanks to all this anti-gay crusading and hysteria by Ssempa, Bahati, et al.. homosexuality is now everywhere. Its featuring prominently in our newspapers, on our TVs, and is the number one subject highlighted by politicians and clergymen alike, at public functions. It is one thing that literally everybody is talking about now, and YET before all this bullshit drama was started by the anti-gay activists, it was a taboo subject that remained outside the realm of public discourse.

Let’s talk about the anti-homosexuality bill.

The bill, even if it does get passed, will be ineffective (at best) and unenforceable (at worst) in curtailing homosexuality activity. There will simply never be a successful prosecution of a person charged under that law, and if anyone is ever charged, it is also highly likely that the law will be repealed in the constitutional court (seeing as it violates several already existing constitutionally guaranteed rights).

So guess what… I actually now WANT this bill to pass. You know why? Because I can’t wait to see the confused looks on people’s faces as they realise that not a damn thing has changed. Meanwhile, gay activists like Pepe and Frank Mugisha are going to be swimming in gay rights activism money from overseas thanks to all the sympathy that has been generated by the actions of local hate mobs here. Pretty soon people will stop caring (and many already have), and this will become a long-forgotten issue. People will eventually just get on with their lives to focus on more important things. Gay people will simply continue to exist, as they always have since time immemorial. Nothing will have changed, except that now homosexuality will have been completely demystified, thanks to all the free ‘promotion’ the anti-gay crusaders gave it.

If ever there was a worse case of people shooting themselves in the foot, I am yet to hear of it.

At the end of the day, what two consenting adults do in their privacy should be no one’s business but theirs. In case you didn’t know, the Penal Code Act was amended in 2007 to make defilement gender neutral offense. Girls and Boys in Uganda are protected equally under the law, from defilement. Of course, that’s something these anti-gay bigots never tell you, because they believe you are ignorant (and for the most part most of you have proven them right, I’m sorry to say).
If homosexuality is against the wishes of ‘God’, then let ‘God’ deal with them on judgement day. You have your own shit to worry about – after all, no one is "without sin", according to your very own bibles. Remember the story of Jesus and the adulterer in John’s Gospel? Try and remember what Jesus told the angry mob that wanted the woman stoned to death in that story.

Right now, YOU are that angry mob.

Stop the hate. Hate never wins.

[Full post, with comments, here.]

A few days later Andrew Mwenda wrote in the Independent, echoing my views with regards to the unintended consequences of the continuous exposure that homosexuality was receiving in the media, courtesy of those that worked incessantly to publicly vilify homosexuals:

As Red Pepper continued its publication of Mubiru’s pornographic pictures, the anti gay lobby was ridding unprecedented momentum. With a tidal wave of public anger on their side, the bill may now sail through parliament easily. Pastor Martin Ssempa took the initiative to launch his foray against gays – again making no distinction between sex acts between two consenting adults and those of adults with minors. To many inside and outside Uganda, the cause for gay rights seemed lost as the pictures incite the worst homophobia in years. Yet I think the best thing to have happened to the cause of gay rights in Uganda was Red Pepper publication of Mubiru pictures.

The best way to fight bigotry and prejudice is to generate public debate about the issue under contention. Constant conversation and debate about a contentious issue promotes the spread of knowledge which in turn fosters tolerance leading to acceptance. When any new idea is suggested, it is initially rejected, then debated, later accommodated and, sometimes, finally accepted.

This is what we learn from Galileo, when he first suggested that the world is round; or from Charles Darwin, when he published his theory of evolution. In both cases, their findings produced condemnation with the church leading the attack. After heated debate, people began to listen more, learn and understand. Today, most enlightened people believe the world is round.

It is for this reason that although the subjective motivation for MP David Bahati to introduce his anti-gays bill was bad for the gays, the objective outcome of his action will be good for gay rights in Uganda. The Bahati bill has generated the most debate on gay rights. With time, it will lead to tolerance and acceptance.

[Full article here.]

Martin Ssempa got wind of my widely circulated Facebook status update and also read Mwenda’s article. He then invited both of us to participate in a debate with him on Kingdom FM (where he hosts a regular talk show) to challenge us on our contention that the efforts of anti-gay activists like himself, rather than ‘curb’ homosexuality, were instead serving to promote tolerance of it.

I was in the studio with Ssempa during the debate. Andrew Mwenda participated via Skype (he was in Kigali at the time).

Download: Pastor Ssempa, James Onen & Andrew Mwenda Debate Homosexuality on Kingdom Radio – Jan 2nd 2013 (21.6mb)

[Duration: 1:34:44]


Related podcast:

We were, unfortunately, not able to have our meeting last month to discuss the topic “Is ‘Romantic Love’ a Form of Woo?” due to a problem with our usual venue that occurred just a day before the day of the meeting. The situation seems to have stabilized so we shall be convening to finally have the long-awaited debate.


The October 2012 Freethinkers’ Night will take place on Thursday, 25th October, at SPICE GARDEN (formerly 4 Points Bar & Restaurant), Centenary Park, Kampala, starting 6PM. Entrance is FREE.

If you are an open minded person whose opinions are formed on the basis of science, logic, and reason and are interested in meeting like-minded individuals – you are more than welcome to join us.

Ssempa vs Onen

On Saturday 6th October 2012, I participated in an informal debate with Pastor Martin Ssempa on the subject of atheism. The debate took place at Makerere University in front of an audience of 2000 students. The actual venue (the swimming pool grounds) is home to Martin Ssempa’s weekly campus fellowship meet-up called Prime Time, and the debate was part the evening programme for that day’s meet-up – with me as the featured guest.

You can download the mp3 of the debate here.

Martin Ssempa, meanwhile, is well known around the word as a staunchly anti-gay pastor:

I have previously discussed my disagreements with his arguments and approach here. It would have been great if we’d had the time for me to challenge his views on homosexuality during Saturday’s debate. If we ever meet for another debate I will suggest that we make that the topic.

romantic love

On September 4th 2012 I posted the following question on the Freethought Kampala Facebook page:

As freethinkers hasn’t the time finally come for us to debunk the notion of ‘romantic love’? It’s a highly toxic form of woo. It hurts people, and bankrupts them by giving them false hope. Surely, we have a moral obligation to disabuse people of that delusion, do we not? Don’t we need to let people know that ‘love’ is just chemicals playing tricks on our brains, and nothing more? We’d be saving them tons of grief.

I know, I know… its a pretty outrageous and hyperbolic thing to say.

The aim of the question was to kick-start a debate on an issue that I feel is hardly explored, even among skeptic circles – the notion of romantic love. As I had anticipated, the responses I got were very interesting.

One needs only to look at the kind of language typically invoked when discussing this elusive abstraction to notice how woo-ish it tends to be: Soul mate, the ‘one’, fate, destined for each other, eternal, transcendent, spiritual… etc.

Woo refers to:

“…ideas considered irrational or based on extremely flimsy evidence or that appeal to mysterious occult forces or powers.”

Source: The Skeptic’s Dictionary

Many of us talk about romantic love as if it were something deeply mystical or magical. We will often justify otherwise ‘embarrassing’ behaviour by claiming that were overwhelmed by that inexplicable, beautiful and magical  thing called romantic love. There is supposedly a mysterious force that a lot of us believe sweeps over people when they find that ‘special’ person, leading them to do things they will regret later (presumably after they’ve ‘returned to their senses’):

Ecstatic expressions of emotions like what we see Tom Cruise doing in the above video can also be found in the more charismatic forms of religious practice:

Believers, of course, will suggest that such experiences are the work of mysterious spiritual forces, or the power of ‘God’.

Believers of romantic love (in a mystical sense) and believers in ‘God’ thus seem to have something in common – that being the propensity to attribute certain emotional states to magical forces.

Science:

Those of us that are aware of what science has to say about these matters will attribute these feelings to brain chemistry and psychological factors.

Our brains and bodies are built – through evolution – to predispose us towards seeking bonds with others, and to be sexually attracted to members of the opposite sex (all exceptions to this general trend are duly noted, dear social justice warriors) so that we might attempt to mate with them, and produce and nurture offspring. The collective range of emotions that we normally experience in pursuit of this biological imperative (courtesy of a cocktail of interesting chemicals) is what we normally mean when we talk of ‘romantic love’.

Helen Fisher (PhD Biological Anthropologist) defines romantic love as a ‘basic mating drive’. In the video of her TED talk above (from 2008), she states:

Romantic love enables you to focus your mating energy on just one at a time energy conserve your mating energy, and start the mating process with a  single individual.

Fisher makes an interesting point about the ways in which it resembles an addiction by having all of its characteristics:

…you focus on the person, you obsessively think about them, you crave them, you distort reality, you’re willingness to take enormous risks to win this person..

I can think of numerous potential problems arising from such an ‘addiction’, and I’m certain many would agree that these problems can be seen all around us. Romantic love leads many people to act in ways that are detrimental to their well-being (depression, suicide, murder). It also makes them open to manipulation by others. People also spend a considerable amount of time and personal resources in search of their elusive ‘true love’ that has been promised to them by those who profit from peddling the notion that such magical experiences await those who diligently seek it. Anecdotes abound about how happy the lucky few who have found it are. The (usually unverifiable) testimonies of these lucky few are then used as proof that a soul mate awaits all of us, and many will search in vain for years and years, leading to much distress and misery. And sometimes its a combination of all of the above problems. Just like woo.

alcoholic

This is not to suggest that I think people shouldn’t experience ‘romantic love’. I consider romantic love to be an illusion (just like free will) – but a beautiful illusion, no doubt. Of course, by enticing us with these alluring sensations, our DNA is simply manipulating us in order to propagate itself. That said, I suppose ‘romantic love’ is a nice little drug that makes life worth living. It can be a great motivator, inspiring us to do many great things. So how about just letting people know exactly what it is, then they can make an informed decision as to how they want to live their lives? I contend that it is more useful than not – to be aware of what might be going on inside your system when you’re going through this particular emotional roller coaster. Here I am reminded of how we, as critical thinkers realise that it is good to be aware of the naturally arising biases that cloud our thinking, so that we might take necessary steps to reduce the chance that those biases will influence our thinking. Similarly, once being made aware of the biological factors underlying these sensations we associate with romantic love, wouldn’t we be in better position to take appropriate steps to reduce the risk of falling victim to many of the pitfalls that come with it? It would seem unkind to keep people in the dark.

Helen Fisher makes another good point, towards the end of her TED talk:

People have often asked me whether what I know about love has spoiled it for me. And I just simply say, ‘Hardly’. You can know every single ingredient in a piece of chocolate cake and then when you sit down and eat that cake you can still feel that joy… and certainly I make all the same mistakes everybody else does too. 

But it’s really deepened my understanding and compassion, really, for all human life.

That’s where I’m coming from in asking questions about ‘romantic love’.

Here are some of the comments from the Facebook exchange:

Lilliane Nsk: these chemicals help form a long-lasting bond between the pair which is necessary (at least it used to be) for the survival of the the newborn human offspring. hence the survival of the trait. maybe in a million years, with artifical wombs and store-bought semen, we might eventually mutate the gene out of the species…

Marvin Muganzi: used to wear my ‘heart’ on my sleave til some1 introduced me to reality..she cheated:(.
Dealing with the withdraw from the emotions i was addicted to was the tricky part. How do u plan on convincing our love birds out there that their fluffy feelings are only neurons playing tricks on our minds?

Irene Bileni: love does not lie or hurt..its the people who do and make it ugly

Khayinja Bernard Wegulo IV: Rationalize it all you want people are not going to stop being emotional… chemicals or not human being are predisposed towards being emotionally irrational.

Guxille Tim Okema: love is just one stinking emotional illusion..a mirage of everlasting euphoria only to end in a heartbeat

Stella Nantongo: If a placebo is working, why the need to tell one its just that..a placebo?!

Hassan Higenyi: Come to think of it, since the god debate is almost exhausted in that there’s almost nothing new you can say or write that hasn’t already been said or explored by freethinkers before, and it’s even a boringly tired topic nowadays; romantic love would seems rather a fresh and more intellectually exciting and challenging (controversial) a subject for rational debate by this generation’s freethinkers seeking to advance freethought by remarkably applying it to other aspects of human life/nature like, well, love (of all non-things!), unlike in the past when freethinkers seemingly only concerned and dwelled on religion, politics, and -isms. Interestingly, the arguments for/against “romantic love” and the god debates are strikingly similar with regards to the rationality or irrationality of either, and thus the correlations with the belief and/or unbelief in either, and thus those tending towards for or against. I mean, think about it rationally, or rather comparatively, the notions involved in romantic love, like love at first sight, are like religious superstition, and the feelings are faith. Just saying :-)

Sophie B Alal: If love is a drug, I don’t want rehabilitation. I’ve been transformed as a human by the endorphins, I’m happy, hopeful, talented and aware of my endless potential because of love :-) Sorry losers, but try loving.

Do you think it is a settled matter? No? Good – because this loser hereby invites you to join us to debate this some more.


The September 2012 Freethinkers’ Night will take place on Thursday, 27th September, at SPICE GARDEN (formerly 4 Points Bar & Restaurant), Centenary Park, Kampala, starting 6PM. Entrance is FREE.

If you are an open minded person whose opinions are formed on the basis of science, logic, and reason and are interested in meeting like-minded individuals – you are more than welcome to join us.

Humanist Empowerment of Livelihoods in Uganda (HELU) is a new humanist
organisation registered as a Community Based Organization (CBO).

guluHELU will officially be launched in Gulu on Saturday, 29th September 2012 at Gulu Taks Center (located behind Acholi Inn Hotel).

The theme of this event is going to be “Empowerment through Humanism” and I will be delivering a talk titled Reason, Experience, Rational and Critical Thinking.

Launch of HELU - Programme

[L.C = Local Council, R.D.C = Resident District Commissioner, UHASSO = Uganda Humanist Association]

The “Young Leaders Think Tank for Policy Alternatives” with support from the
Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung is organising a public dialogue titled:

 Equitable Access to Quality Education in Uganda

The dialogue shall provide a platform for major stakeholders and policy makers to discuss policy recommendations formulated by the Young Leaders Think Tank which aim at addressing challenges with regard to the development, adoption and implementation of meaningful education policies in Uganda. 

The public dialogue is scheduled for Tuesday, 25th September 2012 at Imperial Royale Hotel (Gardenia Hall) from 2.00 pm to 5.30 pm.

I will be participating as moderator during the panel discussions.

programme

The Freethinkers’ Initiative of Kenya are organising a discussion on the topic of the existence of ‘God’, to take place this weekend.

Fika Leaflet 2

You visit a pub, office, online forum, or go to a party somewhere with lots of interesting people. Or maybe you have been invited to participate in a discussion on radio or television over a particular issue. Maybe you are at a meeting where the goal is to exchange ideas with different people and challenge each other with regards to certain issues.

You encounter someone who does not agree with your views.

You have reasons to believe you are right, and that the other person is wrong.

The other person feels exactly the same way, and thinks YOU are wrong.

debate

The good thing is, that person is willing to sit down and have a discussion or engage in a debate about this with you.

How should you both proceed in order for that discussion or debate to be constructive?

There are many different types of formal approaches to debate in existence. What we are interested in discussing is what you would need to do to have a friendly, productive, debate or discussion with someone you might encounter in a more informal setting.

Of course, there’s no reason why some of what we’ll  learn can’t be applied in a formal setting too.


The July 2012 Freethinkers’ Night will take place on Thursday, 26th July, at SPICE GARDEN (formerly 4 Points Bar & Restaurant ), Centenary Park, Kampala, starting 6PM. Entrance is FREE.

If you are an open minded person whose opinions are formed on the basis of science, logic, and reason and are interested in meeting like-minded individuals – you are more than welcome to join us.


Related post:

Freethought Kampala

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