In early October 2011, I engaged in a tour of the UK and Ireland to give talks on the topic: The Rise of Skepticism in Uganda.

The talk I gave in London for the British Humanist Association (mp3 here) was reviewed in The Guardian, by Matthew Cresswell, who was among those in attendance.

Atheist Ugandan works his magic on British humanists He wrote:

An atheist talkshow host and 12 "like-minded people" are attempting to tackle superstition, mysticism and witchcraft in Uganda. James "Fat Boy" Onen is an on-air presenter for Sanyu FM and a co-founder of Freethought Kampala. Through Facebook campaigns, newspaper articles and regular monthly meetings, Onen believes Freethought Kampala is providing the only rational platform for tackling superistition in Uganda.

This month, Onen has been speaking at events around the UK after being invited by the British Humanist Association (BHA). Addressing small gatherings, he said everyday Ugandans were over-reliant on a "mixed bag" of belief in black magic and Pentecostal Christianity.

Cresswell also talked to a researcher called Joanna Sadgrove, who expressed her doubts about my portrayal of religion in Uganda:

Commenting on the talks, Joanna Sadgrove, a specialist in African Christianity who has researched in Uganda for 15 years, said Onen did not capture the diversity of expression of religion in Africa. "There are religious leaders who capitalise on people who don’t have control over their lives. There are also Christians who are doing good works in Ugandan society and being part of a community of faith."

I wish to respond to Joanna Sadgrove’s comments.

To begin with, I have no idea what version of my views Joanna Sadgrove was given by the Cresswell, so its difficult for me to know whether she is reacting to something I actually said, or something she might have been led to believe I said. I’m inclined to think that if Joanna Sadgrove had actually heard my talk she would not have misconstrued the point I was trying to make.

(EDIT: I’m assuming she was not at the talk – because I do not recall meeting her that evening. If she was, then I offer my apologies to Cresswell. It would mean Sadgrove may have misunderstood my central contention in the presentation I gave)

If I had wanted to, I could have spent some time discussing some of the good things religion has done Uganda, by way of schools, hospitals, a sense of community, and all that – but that was not within the scope of my talk. My talk specifically focused on charismatic Christianity inspired irrationality, and its detrimental effects on society – that the wider church is not addressing.

A look at the “About” section of the Freethought Kampala blog explains what our agenda is, which, in a nutshell, is what I explained to my audience:

We respect every Ugandan’s right to practice religion (as the constitution stipulates), and we recognise that religion has played an important role in education and provision of healthcare services in this country, and continues to provide an important sense of community among believers.

But we also recognize that certain types and expressions of religious belief do cause some problems in Ugandan society. Such as:

  • Pastors conning thousands of believers by stage-managing fake miracles

  • Many HIV positive believers dying because they were abandoning ARVs based on unsubstantiated miracle testimonies,

  • Making people believe that they have been bewitched or are victims of ‘generational curses’

  • Being a tool of manipulation of the public by politicians. Politicians across the board have continuously used religion to shift the burden of their failings from themselves to the general population by blaming them for not being religious enough or not being sufficiently faithful to ‘God’.

There are also problems associated with cultural beliefs, such as the belief in the efficacy of witchcraft. Believing that witchcraft works motivates some individuals to pursue it as a viable course of action in order to solve all manner of socio-economic problems they may be facing. The rise in incidences of child sacrifice can be attributed to such beliefs being pervasive, even when there is absolutely no empirical evidence to suggest that witchcraft is in any way efficacious.

Our desire is to specifically address these and other detrimental aspects of extreme fundamentalist religious and cultural beliefs in this country that even our educated religious peers are aware of, but seem reluctant to challenge directly, boldly, and publicly.

My contention is not that churches have done no good, but  simply that charismatic forms of Christianity (and I was very specific about this), of which there has been an explosion over the past few decades, has made it difficult to steer people (who otherwise should know better) away from irrational beliefs such as…

  • Belief in the efficacy of faith healing
  • Belief in the efficacy of witchcraft
  • Belief that people get possessed by demons
  • Belief in the efficacy of prayer as a solution to social, economic and political problems
  • Belief that homosexuals recruit children, or that sexual orientation is a matter of choice
  • etc

…as these beliefs are firmly entrenched as part of their doctrine.

No Christian doctrine spends more time trying to convince people how "real" the effects of witchcraft are, than charismatic Christian belief systems such as Pentecostalism. In fact, some of their pastors have even claimed to have taken part in witchcraft, or been witchdoctors themselves, before they ‘saw the light’. Then they concoct fantastical stories like about how they went underwater and had dinner with Satan, or that they had sex with snakes, and so forth. Of course, against this backdrop, they purport to offer the ‘solution’ to witchcraft (‘binding’ demons and all of that nonsense) so that they can get huge collections from their desperate congregants who are now convinced that their pastor has access to supernatural powers that can help them.

Further, charismatic Christianity is directly responsible for the dissemination of hateful propaganda against homosexuals that eventually led the the tabling of the 2009 Uganda Anti-Homosexuality Bill. Indeed, Ugandans may have never approved of homosexuals, but they did not want all of them killed – that is, not until they started being told that gays recruit children (and receive millions of dollars from western organisations/governments to do so), and that the “gay agenda” intends to destroy the traditional family. And just who told them this? Pentecostal pastors and local Christian organisations affiliated to conservative American Evangelical groups.

Who can forget the infamous Anti-Homosexuality Conference of March 2009, which had, as its chief speaker, Scott Lively? The video below captures the highlights of his speech at the conference:

Scott Lively is an evangelical pastor notorious for his peddling unscientific and extremely bigoted views of homosexuals, whose ministry, Abiding Truth Ministries, was declared a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. This same man was consulted during the very drafting of the anti-homosexuality bill, and even made presentations to Ugandan parliamentarians where he promoted his slanderous lies about sexual minorities – culminating in the 2009 Uganda Anti-Homosexuality Bill.

To date, there is not a single official denouncement of, or rebuttal to, Lively’s outrageous allegations about sexual minorities from any Ugandan Christian group or denomination, available on record. Ours is here.

At a time when modern science and reason could be brought to bear to assuage existing cultural anxieties about homosexuals – leading to greater tolerance, charismatic Christian groups are instead incessantly capitalising on those misgivings and exacerbating an already tenuous situation by aggressively vilifying sexual minorities. This has created a climate of such unprecedented hatred for homosexuals and lesbians as never before seen in the history of Uganda.

Someone has to be there to counter this wave of irrationality and propaganda that is being perpetuated in Uganda specifically by charismatic Christian groups – be they Pentecostals or Evangelicals. The mainstream (i.e. Catholic and Anglican) churches are not doing it; in fact all indications are that they are succumbing to the pressure to radicalise in order to stay relevant in Uganda’s evolving religious landscape. So as of now, that someone – who needs to counter the irrationality – seems to primarily be us (at least in as far as countering belief in the efficacy of witchcraft,  demon possession, or miracle claims is concerned).

Just because churches have built some schools and hospitals, and given people a place to hang out on Sundays to discuss their problems, it does not mean I am not supposed to be concerned about all the deleterious effects of what they teach. To suggest  otherwise is like saying Hamas should not be criticized for engaging in terrorism just because they have built schools, libraries, and hospitals in the Palestinian Territories. Of course that would be ludicrous.

I acknowledge that churches have done some good (in just the same way I would acknowledge the role of Hamas in providing social services to some degree to their people). My criticisms have to to do with the dangerous beliefs they promote.

Sadgrove continued, in the Guardian article:

She went on to say: "Witch doctors, child sacrifice and belief in demon possession have been around for years in Uganda, they are just more talked about at the moment because of an increasing western presence in Uganda. Journalists feed a western fascination with these stories and child sacrifice certainly makes the headlines."

Just in case I’ve been misunderstood – I don’t disagree that what came to be referred to as witchcraft existed in Africa since time immemorial. As a matter of fact, in my talk I explained how Africans have for millennia believed that ancestral spirits were in their midst, many of them requiring appeasement in exchange for good fortune and protection from bad omens or ‘evil’ spirits. This is what traditional African religion is, essentially. It was the early missionaries who assigned the word ‘witchcraft’ to describe these activities, and urged their adherents not to partake of them.

In my talk I also presented evidence of how Alexander Mackay, a Presbyterian missionary affiliated to the Church Missionary Society, tried to convince people about how ineffective this traditional religion, or witchcraft, was. Mackay was one of the earliest Christian missionaries to come to Uganda. I quoted a passage from Mackay’s biography, “Blazing the Missionary Trail”, in which he is actually seen to be trying to debunk such beliefs:

Mackay sought to teach the Waganda from God’s word the evil of practicing or trusting in witchcraft. He also sought to give practical demonstrations on the impotence of their charms. One day he bought a very potent charm and said to a crowd of people: "Since I bought this charm, it is mine and I can do with it as I please, can’t I?“

"Yes, indeed," they answered.

"Will it burn?" he asked.

"Oh, no. But you better not try it. The god will be very angry."

By means of a small lens and some wood, Mackay soon had a blazing fire. "Now let us see if there is magic power in this thing," he remarked, putting the charm into the fire. It was soon reduced to ashes, whereupon half the crowd ran away in terror, while the rest remained, expecting every moment to see some terrible judgment fall on him.

The problem today, as I stated in my talk, was that charismatic Christianity was doing a great job of promoting the belief in the efficacy of witchcraft in this enlightened age – by reinforcing these age-old cultural beliefs, rather than dismissing them, as early missionaries appeared to do.

As proof of this, my efforts to publicly denounce witchcraft as ineffectual are almost always met with responses from mostly born again Christians who insist that the opposite is true. They appeal to events they have witnessed, or heard about, in their churches – of purportedly demon-possessed people being exorcised by their pastors, who vehemently attribute such manifestations to witchcraft. Local television channels are full of programmes featuring these same pastors exorcising demons from these alleged victims of witchcraft.

So just how are we supposed to encourage Ugandans to think critically while their belief in the efficacy of witchcraft is being reinforced every single day by these charismatic Christian churches on radio, television, in newspapers and at all kinds of public fora?
We want to get people to think rationally and move away from resorting to witchcraft (which may or may not include child sacrifice rituals) when faced with problems. But if a person lives in a country where almost everyone, including the vast majority of the country’s educated elite, believe that witchcraft works, just why wouldn’t he or she consider it as an option?
Thanks to the relentless propagation of such ideas (and reinforcement of old ideas), by the charismatic Christian Churches, our task to convince people to think rationally on this matter is that much harder – and this is the point I expressed in my talk.
Otherwise, I agree with Sadgrove when she suggests that it is recent media interest in the issue that is making it seem like the practice of child sacrifice is more pervasive now than it has been before. The practice is age-old, and has been quietly going on for years. Only recently (about three years ago) did the local media pick an interest in it, and began regularly reporting about it – to the point where today the issue is considered something of a national crisis. It now has captured the interest of foreign media, which is why the phenomenon being widely covered these days.
To conclude, I appreciate the points Joanna Sadgrove made, as it has given me the the opportunity to provide more clarity on the issues I raised during my talk. I gather she lives in Kampala, so I should make it a point to look her up.
I’m also grateful to Matthew Cresswell for the fantastic, balanced article he wrote for he Guardian. Thanks to the article, we have received a lot of feedback with expressions of support from people all over the world.
Dr. J Anderson Thomson of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, for example, felt compelled to donate to us a few copies of his latest book, Why We Believe in God(s), upon reading about us in the Guardian. It really is an awesome book, by the way.

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