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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.

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.

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Dear Believers in God,

You and I know that, the belief in the existence of God is not down to how many times he has showed up in his physical form or how often we have been able to communicate with him. The belief in God is down to a summation of various events, lessons and experiences that have led to the maintenance of the notion that there is a God after all. This however, does not take away the rather sad fact that there are many of us who have grown to believe that God exists, not out of our own freewill but because of circumstances. The trouble is not in the process through which one gets to believe that God exists but in the eventual refusal to actually validate the existence of God to oneself. Many of us believers have grown up believing God exists and we even appear to pray to him unaware that we are simply following in the footsteps of others and we are not exactly curving out our own reasons for belief.

It is all well and good that many of us believers have been blessed to grow up in God-fearing families with our parents teaching us the values of believing in and praying to God. However, it would be more beneficial if we made the personal realization and discovery that God does exists having set aside all traditional or enforced beliefs handed down to us from authorities and families.

Very many people claim to believe in God having been pushed by circumstances, history, acquaintances, the environment, troubles, hearsay and all sorts of reasons. Very few have actually taken the time to conceptualize and create a basis for their belief in God. If I believe in God because my father is a Church elder, then I may as well be regarded a non-believer because after all, my belief is channelled through and is dependant upon my father. In the event that he is no more or for some reason unavailable to keep holding my hand, my belief will be shaken or even shattered without a doubt. However, if my belief in God emerges from conclusions I have personally drawn and observations I have made on my own, my faith will probably be rock solid. True, my faith may and will often be put to test but the chances that I can weather the storm are higher if my faith is founded on principles that I personally visualize and not on principles that someone else set up for me.

It is my hope that believers in the existence of God (irrespective of their faiths i.e, Muslims, Orthodox, Protestants, Born Agains e.t.c) begin to have belief in God and defend their positions based on personal conclusions. Each person does have the ability to analyse the question of God’s existence on their own; after all, I believe God did not create us with powerful minds just to have these minds believe without questioning. Having belief that is independently rooted in some other people or authority can be very dangerous especially since others are susceptible to changing goal posts or even twisting issues to suit their own needs. This probably explains why some people use faith based arguments to front their desire for terrorism and other inhuman activities carried out in the name of God. Aside from the fact that it tarnishes one’s faith in the eyes of the rest of the world, it also creates a huge problem for such a believer in case they were asked to present a logical and well thought out argument for their belief in God. They would start scampering around looking for arguments previously presented by other people and this lends credence to the argument that they probably believe in a God they do not even know personally.

I may not be able provide physical evidence that God exists or to offer some sort of script documenting the conversations me and my God have had, however, I know well enough not to use my emotions and sentiments when arguing or debating with atheists. Besides, when I stand on my two feet and say I believe in the existence of God, I offer my argument based on what I have personally experienced or what I think is my reason for belief. I do not offer arguments based on what some other person or authority says. Every once in a while I may reference or quote someone else but overall, I offer my argument based on my own conclusion and not someone else’s conclusion on my behalf. This principle, I imagine, is what belief in God should be founded on because only then shall we be able to talk to atheists with level-headedness and only then shall we appreciate and cherish our own belief in God.

One of the problems that atheists tend to have with us believers (and I totally understand them here) is that many believers tend to argue as if we own exclusive rights to the deity that is God. Maybe we do, because after all, we are the custodians of the argument for the existence of God, are we not? However, many a time, our arguments are half baked, botched and extremely shallow. Sometimes I see or hear my fellow believers offering arguments to atheists and I almost hide my face in shame. We as believers are fond of making submissions with the anticipation that the other person should (must) understand and agree with our stand point right away and without much question. And this probably explains why atheists are quick to claim that many of us believers are arrogant, perpetually in denial and somewhat aloof. Many times, this degenerates into a worthless argument …

…more often than not, we even end up exchanging words that tend to feel like (and in many cases turn into) actual blows.

When holding an argument with an atheist, instead of conceding that we may be short on valid arguments at certain moments, we as believers instead go ahead to explode into a series of uncoordinated responses that often lead one to conclude that maybe, after all, the believer’s arguments are unworthy of audience.

I have had the honour of debating and arguing with several atheists about the question of the existence of God but one thing that I have noticed over time is that the more you present a calm, collected and well articulated argument, the better your chances of putting your point across (if any). I may not be able to make the atheist convert and start believing in the existence of God but I will give them reason to agree that maybe even as a believer, my thinking cap is not lost or misplaced. True, I am often offended that my God is being belittled and treated as some illusion but I understand that if someone does not believe in my God, they are likely to use the most demeaning words – that I know and try not to kill anyone over it. Therefore the chances that I will lose my temper are minimal because the key to holding a logical argument or debate is to allow oneself to understand the other person’s argument no matter how divergent their views may seem.

Over the years, there have been fundamental issues raised by both the atheists and theists pertaining to the question of the existence of God. And it is these fundamental issues that have given rise to continued debate between the atheists and theists. However on more occasions than I can remember, I have come across an atheist and a believer failing to respect each other and instead have their argument degenerate into some kind of argument about who is sharper or more intelligent than the other…

…its almost as if they are trying to see whose brain is more superior.

I therefore have two simple appeals to make to believers. The first and probably most important is that you ought to believe in God not because your parents pushed you to or because you studied in a school that was run by believers and so the belief in God was taught to you by teachers. Belief in God is supposed to be felt, experienced and lived voluntarily and not taught or enforced. It may be true that freethinking calls for one to be inclined to forms one’s own opinions rather than depend upon authority, especially about social and religious issues; exhibiting boldness of speculation. However I believe this should work for the believer as well. The traditional freethinker will probably question my application of freethinking to the belief in God but I am insistent that the two can and should be married together because only then will believers start to be more logical and in turn benefit from their belief in God.

My second and final appeal is that when we are arguing with atheists or even doing the bare minimums of spreading the word, let us desist from condemning the non-believers. Let us try to keep calm heads and offer arguments with level headedness. That way, not only shall we attempt to live by example, we shall also end up appearing organised and well grounded in our belief (never mind the fact that we may have our own personal doubts and insufficiencies). Do not lose your temper as you talk about or put up a case for your belief in God …

…If you do not get a grip on your anger and temper, you could wind up turning into a savage warrior.

I end this letter with a quote from one of my favourite playwrights of all time; a namesake as well – George Bernard Shaw

The moment we want to believe something, we suddenly see all the arguments for it, and become blind to the arguments against it ~ George Bernard Shaw

Chew on that fellow theists; otherwise, God Bless all of you.

Yours in belief,

Bernard

a.k.a Beewol

The Talkative Rocker


The Talkative Rocker is a member of the Freethought Kampala Facebook group. He is a Christian.

[Originally posted at: The WORKZINE]

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.

christopher hitchens Author Christopher Hitchens dies after battle with cancer.


Related Post:

Pic_1115_012Many thanks to Andy Thomson, Trustee of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, for donating to us 2 signed copies of his latest book Why We Believe in God(s) – A Concise Guide To The Science of Faith.”

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.

Read the rest of this entry »

Yet another superb video series from Youtuber TheraminTrees – which is a response from him to a theist who is asking him questions about what he believes, and why. Here is the initial video from a theist Youtuber, saizai:

In the description section of the video is its transcript. Below is an excerpt:

1. Do you affirmatively believe that any god or gods do not exist? If yes, how certain are you, what god(s) does this belief apply to, and why do you hold this belief?

2. What claims do you believe to be unknowable, and why?

3. What claims do you believe to be knowable by personal revelation, what evidence would you yourself accept, and why? For instance, what personal revelatory experience would count? Please use whatever is the minimum possible thing that would convince you of some sort of god existence, that’s within the cultural realm of things attributable to such revelations.

And below is the response from TheraminTrees, in three parts:

 

 

The atheist-skeptic community currently seems extremely preoccupied with having more racial minorities participate in their events and activities.

I’m not sure if their interest in having more minorities is primarily because they feel people from minority groups might have something useful or interesting to say. To me, it seems more because some people think not having enough racial minorities somehow makes atheists look like racists. I think this is that whole “white-heterosexual-male-privilege” conspiracy theory in full effect – fuelled by a large dose of white guilt.

In the essay “The age of white guilt: and the disappearance of the black individual” – Shelby Steele – award-winning African-American author, columnist, documentary film maker, and research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University (specialising in the study of race relations, multiculturalism and affirmative action), writes:

“What is white guilt? It is not a personal sense of remorse over past wrongs. White guilt is literally a vacuum of moral authority in matters of race, equality, and opportunity that comes from the association of mere white skin with America’s historical racism. It is the stigmatization of whites and, more importantly, American institutions with the sin of racism. Under this stigma white individuals and American institutions must perpetually prove a negative–that they are not racist–to gain enough authority to function in matters of race, equality, and opportunity. If they fail to prove the negative, they will be seen as racists. Political correctness, diversity policies, and multiculturalism are forms of deference that give whites and institutions a way to prove the negative and win reprieve from the racist stigma.

Institutions especially must be proactive in all this. They must engineer a demonstrable racial innocence to garner enough authority for simple legitimacy in the American democracy. No university today, private or public, could admit students by academic merit alone if that meant no black or brown faces on campus. Such a university would be seen as racist and shunned accordingly. White guilt has made social engineering for black and brown representation a condition of legitimacy…”

So in order to prove to themselves that they are not racists, the largely white-populated atheist-skeptic community seem to want to go out of their way to find minorities to join the fold. But just how do they plan to do this? No one goes into any details. What you do hear a lot of, though, is how the atheist-skeptic community needs to be more ‘welcoming’ of people of other races.

More welcoming? But how?

Do they plan to give out doughnuts to every black person who attends an atheist or skeptic conference, in order to encourage more to show up? Will every black person in attendance be assigned an attractive usher to show him around? Will there be a hip-hop music session between talks to make sure we don’t get bored during all the science presentations? Will they offer us special treatment, like seats on the front row? Will they tip toe around us at conferences and mince their words to ensure they don’t say anything that might have the slightest chance of ‘offending’ us? Will they not criticize us openly and ruthlessly (in the true spirit of skepticism) if we say something erroneous? Just what do they have in mind?

No one goes into any details.

As a black skeptic from Africa, its hard not to feel insulted if this was indeed their primary motivation. Its almost as if they want racial minorities just so they can feel better about themselves by assuaging their self-inflicted guilt.

Personally speaking, if I heard of an atheist-skeptic conference about to take place, and ALL the speakers were white, and ALL the attendees were also white, if I had the means to, I’d still want to attend because I want to hear interesting IDEAS.

Yes, interesting ideas. Not cookies, not ushers, not hip-hop, not special treatment – but interesting ideas. And why might that be? Perhaps its because I have a brain? Probably.

An African-American commenter at Abbie Smith’s blog, ERV, shares my view and drives the point home beautifully. He made this comment on a thread that was discussing Elevatorgate:

[…] even before this flareup got going I noticed bloggers consistently talking about bringing in more minorities and women. Trying to give advise on what the skeptic/atheist community ought to do to fix this problem.

So, as a racial minority, let me tell it to you straight.

The reason you don’t see as many minorities and women at these meetings and lectures isn’t because white, heterosexual men, high on their privilege, are rampant with subconscious racists and sexist mindsets. Heck, atheists in this country tend to be the most liberal people and socially progressive people on the planet. The main reason why we’re not there is because racial minorities and women in the western world statistically tend to be more religious then white men.

So all of you freedom fighter can relax all ready and stop getting bothered on behalf of me. Now, we can have fun trying to figure out why we’re more religious, but I promise you it’s not because the skeptic community is seen as too prejudiced to get involved in.

To be honest I’m kind of insulted that these bloggers think that if they are nicer to me that I’ll have more reason to be a skeptic/atheist. I’m atheist because there is no evidence for god/s; it is entirely an intellectual position on my part, not because I’m looking for a place to be treated like a delicate piece of porcelain. Every other atheist on the planet can be an egocentric jerk for all I care, I still would be an atheist because their still wouldn’t be any evidence for god/s.

In fact I think this whole political litmus test some are trying to make for atheist/skeptics is just plain stupid, and at least for me, a real reason why I might consider not showing up these sort of conferences.

I came to skepticism because I saw demonstrable value in it. If white atheist-skeptics want to feel guilt over anything, let it not be the fact that they are white – but the fact that those they are allowing to speak on their behalf assume that being ‘welcoming’ to us will somehow get us interested in skepticism. I couldn’t think of a more patronizing attitude than that!

Are you a white atheist-skeptic? Please don’t feel sorry for me, just because I am a black African. Do not. You owe me nothing.

Judge me not by the colour of my skin, or my race, but on the ideas I have to offer. And if those ideas are not particularly interesting or worth considering, do not feel obliged to pay attention to them. You owe me nothing. The onus is on me to generate ideas that are sufficiently compelling in order to garner the interest of others.

If going out of your way to be nice to people like me is how you plan on getting people interested in skepticism – you’ll be infiltrated by half-wits who are simply looking for a good time. They’ll water down everything and bring the movement down. You do not want that.

So let’s keep politics and political correctness out of skepticism. Let the facts speak for themselves, because to have a viable ‘movement’ what you want is people who are drawn in by the demonstrable value of applying skepticism in their lives – not people who got interested because you were ‘nice’.

Consider this: what if tomorrow this person meets a ‘nicer’ Christian missionary, Scientologist, or homeopath? If nice-ness is the point of entry then this person will susceptible to the very things skeptics are trying to discourage him/her from. Exploiting people’s emotions to get them interested in something is what religion and other forms of quackery does. As skeptics, what we want to do is stimulate people’s thinking and let them see for themselves how much good comes out of applying skepticism, right? So let’s do that.

If we are unable to effectively communicate the demonstrable value of skepticism to others in the first place, then I have to wonder what the point of having a skeptical movement is.

Skepticism generally refers to:

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

On one hand, I can see great value in people of a skeptical bent meeting, and exchanging ideas. I can see the benefit in skeptical people getting together to discuss ways in which they might get the wider public interested in applying skepticism in their daily lives. In a way, that’s kind of the reason Freethought Kampala came into existence in the first place. I am also interested in meeting and interacting with skeptics everywhere. There is a lot to learn about this world, and a lot of information to share. Meeting people with the same passion for knowledge is, without a doubt, a great thing.

But what happens when skepticism becomes more than a way of thinking, such as a movement in and of itself?

crowd 1Movements are essentially political entities – and thus a skeptical "movement" is very much prone to abandoning the very skepticism it claims to uphold in favour of what, at the time, may seem politically expedient or politically correct.

Skepticism advocates an approach to thinking – not conclusions. On the other hand, political ideas advanced by movements are premised on what are already conclusions. That is why Elevatorgate, for example, is the scandal that it has become. It is, at its core, a purely ideological problem.

(To see and understand what exactly happened, see my previous post: Elevatorgate)

You would think that being skeptics, whatever disagreements arising from how the events surrounding and following from Elevatorgate were to be interpreted would be done calmly, rationally, and above all, skeptically.

But this is not what happened at all.

My concern is not so much about whether someone takes one view or another with regards to Elevatorgate. Indeed, even among the members of Freethought Kampala, there are different opinions on various aspects of the matter. My concern is about how the matter has been handled, the poor quality of arguments that have been advanced, the astounding amounts of hypocrisy on display, and above all the intolerant attitude towards viewpoints that don’t tow the radical gender feminist line – all this, among people that call themselves skeptics.

In this post I’d like to go into detail about some of the things that I found mind-boggling with regards to this fiasco – the ways in which I think skeptics decidedly jettisoned their skepticism, to embrace dogma instead.

Read the rest of this entry »

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