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Richard Dawkins appeared as the featured guest on Al Jazeera’s social media-driven show "The Stream”. It aired on Wednesday, June 27th, 2012.

I feel honoured to have been invited to participate via Google+ Hangout.

James Onen on Al Jazeera's 'The Stream'

The first question I asked Dawkins:

Research suggests that there is a correlation between things like insecurity, poverty, poor standards of living, lack of proper education, lack of proper healthcare, income inequality and other such socio-economic indicators…. vis-à-vis religiosity. It would seem that for as long as long as people live in desperate conditions, they will always be susceptible to irrational beliefs that promise to address their problems.

In a country like Uganda, where I live, looking at these indicators, we do poorly and this might partly explain why religiosity and other form of superstition persist, even when science has come a long way in providing explanations for a lot of things people attribute to the supernatural, such as sickness, and poverty.

So my question is… What are your thoughts on how one might go about telling a person to not go to a witchdoctor, or miracle healing crusade… when he’s illiterate, uneducated, impoverished, with there being no clinic in sight for 100 kilometres?

I ask this because it almost seems like for rationality to flourish, it requires that societies or individuals in those societies, to be relatively well off first, and not so desperate.

I have asked myself this question many times, given my experience with trying to promote critical thinking here in Kampala, Uganda.

People here mainly resort to quackery out of poverty and desperation. No matter how many times I try to explain how there is no evidence that witchcraft works, for as long as the witchdoctor is promising that person what I cannot give, then he is more likely to listen to the witchdoctor than me. It is also true that the quality of education is very poor – and that is even in cases where any form of education is at all available. I get the feeling that unless these socio-economic issues are resolved, communicating the need to think critically will fall on deaf ears.

We have, however, witnessed greater success among the middle-class, where there has been some interest in the issues we raise. Given that they don’t really need to go to witch-doctors (since they can afford to go to proper hospitals, and they have also been educated somewhat) they tend to be less prone to falling prey to the quacks, as compared to their upcountry counterparts.

Economic empowerment thus seems to be a highly significant factor in creating the conditions that allow rationality to flourish (I stand to be corrected, but I haven’t heard of a poor society that tended not to be superstitious at a general level). Sadly, it looks like its going to be a long while before we emerge out of poverty.

For the time being, we’re simply going to continue to make the facts about pseudoscience, witchcraft, alleged miracles and demonic possession available on this blog and the various platforms through which we express our views. There will surely be those that seek such information; its our duty to make sure its there for them to find.

And my second question for Dawkins:

Voltaire famously said “if God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him" When I look at the online atheist community today, I am reminded of Voltaire’s words.

While they may not believe in any gods, many atheists do seem to have their fair share of sacred cows, and in the defense of these sacred cows, will often use the same logical fallacies, and what have you.. that you often encounter when arguing with religious believers.

When it comes to dismantling creationism let’s say, they’re as rational as rational can get, discuss something related to feminism, and well, I think you know what happens.

So when you see this happening among a community of people that pride themselves as being rational – a community that you played a very big role in building, how do you feel? And what do you think is the way forward?

Unfortunately, because the show run out of time, Dawkins was not able to address this question. He did ask me to clarify what sacred cows I had in mind. I couldn’t do it then, so I’ll clarify now.

The sacred cow I had in mind was radical gender feminism.

I have keenly, and with dismay, been following the downward spiral the quality of critical thinking has taken within the online atheist community since the Elevatorgate fiasco – and the madness is showing no signs of abating, some it it brilliantly captured in this brilliant essay by Paula Kirby.

My second question aimed to get Dawkins’ thoughts on the way forward, in light of all this. The sacred cow, known as radical gender feminism, is destroying the online atheist community. To me, it is indistinguishable from religion, and is equally dogmatic – and not based on science or facts.

It would have been great to hear his response to this question.

Debate-Flow-Chart

[Source: http://atheismresource.com/wp-content/uploads/Debate-Flow-Chart.jpg]

The above is a guide for atheists who wish to debate Christians. It essentially lays at the rules of discourse that the Christian should be willing adhere to if he wishes to debate the atheist on the topic of religion, or ‘God’, presumably.

It should be noted that one can easily substitute ‘Christian’ with the holder of any ideological view point, philosophical stance or epistemic position, and this debate scheme would still be just as useful. 

In fact, it would also be useful as a guide for Christians debating atheists.

I think everyone, regardless of where they stand on whatever issue, should be willing to engage in a civil debate. Because we are all human and prone to the same biases, no camp has the monopoly on good reasoning; not even those who describe themselves as freethinkers.

It is by recognising our inherent proclivity to succumb to these biases, and taking the effort to minimise the degree to which they can influence our thinking, that we can have a proper debate with another person.

Following the above guide can help you have a focused discussion with another person. It will also let you know before hand whether or not you’re probably better off not even bothering to debate that person in the first place – because failure to abide by the rules of discourse suggested in the above guide will almost always guarantee you going round in circles with that person and accomplishing nothing.

Good luck!

 Be right back

jesus camp According to Wikipedia, Jesus Camp is:

… a 2006 American documentary film directed by Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing about a charismatic Christian summer camp, where children spend their summers learning and practicing their prophetic gifts and being taught that they can "take back America for Christ."

This film raises interesting questions about the ethics of indoctrinating children, who, one could argue, are too young to provide informed consent about whether or not they would want to partake of religion – be it the religion of their parents. There are some who have even suggested that indoctrinating children is tantamount to child abuse:

On the other hand, good parenting is often thought to be the act of instilling values and morals into children so that they can grow up to be responsible human beings. If those values and morals are part and parcel of a religious worldview, then it seems almost inevitable that children will have to be taught the tenets of the religion that incorporates those values and morals.

If this is the case, then is the issue one of the degree of indoctrination?

Maybe all of this is irrelevant. After all, would it not be a violation of the parent’s right to freedom of worship, for them to be denied the right to impart to their children the tenets of the faith they subscribe to? Many religious people, in fact, believe that it is their mandate from their ‘God’ to instruct their children in the ways of the faith. Are they justified? Or should parents wait until the child is 18 and is able to provide consent, or make her or his own informed choice about which path to follow – even if it ends up being a path that the parents disapprove of?

Let’s watch the movie, then discuss!


The June 2012 Freethinkers’ Night will take place on Thursday, 28th June, at 4 Points Bar & Restaurant (now called SPICE GARDEN), 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.

arab-springThe Arab Spring  – a series of public protests and demonstrations that swept through north Africa and other parts of the Middle East from December 2010 (and is still on going in some countries) – has got a lot of people talking about the ‘will of the people’ and how this power might be harnessed to effect change, in the face of societal discontent.

The Arab Spring

It is difficult to gauge what positive effects to the socio-economic wellbeing of the people in the countries involved resulted from these particular popular uprisings. It would appear, instead, that things have taken a turn for the worse. A number of negative socio-economic effects have been observed:

The Arab Spring revolutions have, ironically, increased the levels of unemployment in the region. A revolution intended to meet the aspirations of the youth has instead resulted in more of them being unemployed.

Egypt witnessed an increase of the unemployment rate during the fourth quarter of 2011 to 12.4% of the labor force, compared to 11.9% for the same period in 2010. The unemployment rate in Morocco reached 30% of people aged between 15 and 29 years up to January 2012. Algeria had the highest unemployment rate of 22%, due to the return of most of the workers from Tunisia, Libya, Syria and Egypt; and Tunisia had an unemployment rate of 18.9% by the end of 2011.

A study by the World Bank last year stressed the need for Arab countries to have 100 million jobs by 2025, only to maintain the current unemployment levels and prevent them from increasing. The study also stated that the unemployment rates in the Arab countries ranged between 25% and 30% in 2011, and these figures are the highest in the world.

In Morocco people have recently taken to going back to the streets in protest, since the changes the people had hoped for have not been forthcoming, even after political reform:

Tens of thousands of Moroccans took to the streets of Casablanca on Sunday in the largest opposition protest since an Islamist-led government took office, reflecting mounting tensions over unemployment and other social woes.

The protest was organised by trade unions which accuse Prime Minister Abdelilah Benkirane of failing to deliver on the pledges of social justice that brought his party to power in the wake of the Arab Spring.

"There are more than 50,000 people who are demonstrating to call on the government to start a genuine dialogue addressing our country’s social ills," opposition Socialist MP Hassan Tariq said.

A official estimated the crowds at between 15,000 and 20,000.

Not much seems to have changed in Egypt either, even in terms of respect human rights:

The Egyptian military junta has intensified its violent crackdown on protesters before the presidential elections scheduled for May 23. On Friday afternoon, military police and security police working with armed thugs brutally attacked protesters in front of the Ministry of Defense at Abbasseya Square in Cairo.

The protesters called for the fall of the US-backed military junta and the execution of its leader, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi.

Military and police forces started their attacks Friday afternoon, claiming that demonstrators had tried to storm the Ministry of Defense. They used water cannons, tear gas and live ammunition against the protesters, who defended themselves with stones. At least two protesters and one soldier were killed and hundreds injured. The military enforced a curfew in the area. According to the “No To Military Trials” activist group, 311 male and 18 female protesters have been arrested and threatened with military trials.

More protests, more violent crackdowns – in short, more of the same from the Mubarak era.

In the face of this, would one be justified in concluding that the Arab Spring has been a failure?

Maybe not. 

There are noticeable political changes, for starters, that might be construed as positive. One could say it has encouraged participation of more people in politics, such as the women of Libya, and Islamist parties in Egypt – and that this in and of itself is a good thing. But then, with these political changes, freedom of expression seems to be no better tolerated than it was before:

The four Arab countries where the leaders have been toppled are now in the hands of Muslim fundamentalists, who used the “Arab Spring” as a vehicle to rise to power.

Tunisia’s Islamist party, Ennahda, is already demanding an Islamic state. Human rights activists say that with the arrival of the “Arab Spring,” freedom of speech in Tunisia, instead of growing, has died.

Nabil Karoui, owner of a Tunisian TV station, is currently on trial for blasphemy after airing the French-Iranian animated film “Persepolis,” which features a cartoon depiction of God. About 150 lawyers filed lawsuits against Karoui for “violating sacred values” and disturbing public order.”

Two weeks ago, hundreds of Muslim fundamentalists who follow the radical Wahhabi doctrine of Islam took to the streets of Tunis to demand the implementation of Sharia laws in their country.

Has the Arab Spring been worth the nearly 50,000 lives lost?

Come join the discussion.


The May 2012 Freethinkers’ Night will take place on Thursday, 31st May, at 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.

I am the host of the morning show at 88.2 Sanyu FM here in Kampala… and on radio I am known as ‘Fatboy’. fbup (1)

I also produce a personal weekly podcast called Fatboy Unplugged, and in the most recent episode I evaluate – or rather, eviscerate – the common arguments put forward by those who support discriminatory laws against, and attitudes towards, homosexuals in Uganda.

skepticism

Skepticism generally refers to :

…any questioning attitude towards knowledge, facts, or opinions/beliefs stated as facts, or doubt regarding claims that are taken for granted elsewhere.

There are many things we are told we should not question. Many religious, cultural beliefs fall in this category of things for which questions must be never asked. There are also all kinds of social and economic ideologies that are taken for granted. Other times we believe things for the simple reason that a lot of people seem to believe it.

This month, we’d once again like to take a look at some of the things we think we should all be more vigilant in asking questions about – and how to go about asking those questions in such a way that we can be fairly confident that we have arrived at the correct conclusion.

Might there be limits on how skeptical we should get?

Blind_by_Shorthand_Hero

Can one be skeptical of skepticism itself?

Come join the discussion!


The April 2012 Freethinkers’ Night will take place on Thursday, 26th April, at 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.

Born Again in the United States of Uganda is the name of a documentary being produced and directed by Samantha Asumadu, who describes herself as a “documentary filmmaker, campaigner & sometime DJ”:

There is a web of entanglement between U.S. evangelicals, fundamentalists, conservatives and African clergy that exists to maintain a power structure and a severe homophobic agenda that serves the hard-core religious groups. This documentary will be the definitive film that shows that the American evangelical right invests heavily in financial and advocacy effort in influencing religious Africans to shun gay rights and that the Ugandan Anti-Gay Bill was an import from the West. Uganda is the test bed for Texas.

In the documentary, Samantha follows the religious fervor surrounding the push to get the Uganda Anti-Homosexuality Bill 2009 passed:

She also captures a debate about the bill by members of Freethought Kampala, who believe that people should not be discriminated against on the basis of their sexual orientation. This was taped almost 2 years ago:

She hopes to complete the documentary soon. Looks interesting so far!

Samantha Asumadu’s e-mail: samantha.asumadu@gmail.com


Related Posts:

Anyone familiar with charismatic expressions of Christian belief in Uganda (mainly through Pentecostal/Balokole/Born-Again/Evangelical churches) knows that emotions and fanfare play a large part in the proceedings.

Typically struggling with everyday problems and desperate for divine intervention, every week (and sometimes more frequently) millions of believers flock to these churches in search for their ‘miracle’. Problems such as unemployment, marital trouble, poverty, and illness are deferred to Jesus Christ who they believe will solve those problems, or give them the strength to persevere through them.

In Charismatic Christianity in Uganda (Part 1 – Introduction) I wrote that:

The popularity of this form of Christianity has exploded over the last few decades because the doctrine promises poor, under-educated believers miraculous solutions to their everyday problems. Understandably, on an impoverished continent like this one, a religion that offers quick fixes to all the pressing problems in life will be immensely popular, and that is exactly what we see happening. Among charismatic Christians, things like unemployment, failure of business, failure of marriage, sickness, corruption in government… all the problems an individual or society could possibly face… are attributed to Satan, demons and other evil spirits – and Jesus is presented as the antidote.

Such an iteration of Christianity fits perfectly well with the mindset of most native Africans, most of whom have, since time immemorial, taken seriously the perceived threat of curses inflicted upon them by spirits and other bad omens. This is probably why charismatic Christianity has proven to be a raging success in sub-Saharan Africa.

This has literally created a cottage industry of make-shift balokole churches all over the country, typically run by  unscrupulous, opportunistic individuals looking to earn a living from the lucrative business of ‘selling’ Jesus.

Competition is fierce among pastors of rival local balokole churches, after all, having more worshippers usually means bigger collections.

Indeed, this competition for ever bigger collections has produced a crop of what can best be described as showmen, rather than clergymen – evangelists, who, using their knowledge of human psychology are able to enthrall the masses with charismatic styles of preaching. By also knowing which emotional buttons to press, they are able to compel hordes of their desperate followers to part with their meager earnings in exchange for the promise of a miracle. Many of them are now also televangelists, recording their sermons and broadcasting them on television to broaden their reach.

It is difficult to tell who among these characters actually believes in the things they teach, and who are just doing it as a business. What we are seeing is probably a combination of both. Perhaps they see themselves as providing encouragement to their desperate flock, and feel that the ends justify the means. So whatever it takes to get the the people excited and motivated, is what they will do. People want spectacle – and the evangelists supply it by the truckload. Speaking in tongues, casting out demons, slaying the spirit, shouting, yelling, ‘healing’ and singing – all of it working up the flock into a frenzy, almost to the point of hysteria.

These kind of evangelists are not unique to Uganda, or Africa.

Evangelists like these have been in business in the United States for years, and many of the successful ones are even well known to Ugandans.  Lighthouse Television, which is the local Trinity Broadcasting Network affiliate, on a daily basis broadcasts sermons and crusades by such televangelists as Benny Hinn, Joyce Meyer, T.D Jakes, Creflo Dollar and others.

Ever stopped to ask yourself how they pull it off?

Marjoe

This Freethinkers’ Night, we will be screening the Academy Award winning 1972 documentary titled Marjoe:

Part documentary, part expose, this film follows one-time child evangelist Marjoe Gortner on the "church tent" Revivalist circuit, commenting on the showmanship of Evangelism and "the religion business", prior to the start of "televangelism".

In this film, Marjoe Gortner (his real name) takes us behind the scenes to show us the ‘tricks of the trade’ in modern evangelism. After watching this, you’ll never look at a church service or revival the same again.


The February 2012 Freethinkers’ Night will take place on Thursday, 23rd February, at 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.

Yesterday marked two years since launching the Freethought Kampala blog!

second anniversaryThe very first blog post was published on January 30th 2010. Since then, there have been 222 posts published (not including this one).

As of this writing, the blog has attracted 97,953 hits.

The following were the most read posts over the last 12 months:

Other highlights:

Let’s see what 2012 has in store for Freethought activism in Uganda.


Related Posts:

La Raison is a monthly magazine published by the Fédération Nationale de la Libre Pensée (National Federation of Freethought) in France.

We were interviewed for the January 2012 edition. 

Freethought Kampala

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