99 percent of Ugandans believe in a higher God. Meet the other one percent.
by Lindsey Kukunda
Harold Camping, founder of US based Family Radio, came to the spotlight when he predicted that the rapture, a day when Jesus swoops down and carries true believers to heaven, would fall on 21st May of this year.
It was on this day that a special group of people was to be found at 4 Points Bar and Restaurant in Centenary Park. It is their usual meeting place every Saturday and to the innocent passer-by, they look normal enough. Just another rather large group of youngsters celebrating a special occasion. And so I joined them. Today we were there to celebrate ‘The Rapture’.
If the rapture came to pass, my fellow celebrants would thank their lucky stars that only the ‘cool’ people were left on earth, and perhaps a post-rapture looting could take place. However, we all know now that it did not come to pass, so those present slapped themselves on the backs for their choice of belief and proceeded to pour scorn upon foolhardy believers all over the world. One member was sad that “no one had been raptured away so that beer could be cheaper for the reduced population”. Another remarked after the allotted time for the rapture (6.00 pm), had passed: “Perhaps God is an African. There’s still time!”
Their choice of belief? Technically, they have none. According to them, there is a difference between believing nothing and not having a belief.
Welcome to Freethought Kampala, Uganda’s first atheist organization. They come together once a week to discuss topics based on reason and logic and (one of their favourite pastimes) to sneer at organized religion. I sat with them as one of their own for a few hours to better get an idea of what Freethought Kampala is all about.
James Onen (pictured above with fellow Freethought member Phillippe MK), better known as the prominent DJ “Fat Boy” with Sanyu FM and the founder of Freethought Kampala, explained the basis for its formation in late 2009.
“I felt a growing concern for the marginalization of rationalization in the public domain”, he explained. “Most issues being discussed were about God or spirits. God this and God that, witchcraft and child sacrifice. While people denounced witchcraft as a bad thing, no one came forward to proclaim it as false, ineffectual and superstitious. No one educated those practicing it that it was a waste of time. Extreme religious views took the day.”
As timing would have it, James also started Freethought Kampala right about the time that homophobia was growing rampant in Uganda, fueled by religious sentiment. James was irked that ‘homophobians’ thought that respecting peoples’ rights to commit a ‘sin’ was the same as actually committing one.
“Through Facebook, I noticed several individuals who expressed opinions from a rational point of view,” said James. “Through my interactions with them, I realized that they valued science and were non-religious. We met and exchanged ideas and decided it would be useful to form a group that would encourage critical thinking in the public domain.”
While ‘Freethinkers’, as they have dubbed themselves, hold monthly meetings every last Thursday of the month for the general public, their Saturday meetings are when opinions of atheists, agnostics and people with ‘extreme’ ideas take the day.
“In the beginning, we were against weekly meetings,”said James. “But I have learned that human contact is good as is evidenced through Facebook. Humans crave interaction and that is how religion has succeeded. It pulls people together to exchange ideas and experiences. Religion takes advantage of this to the utmost.”
A few minutes in their company is enough to make a wavering seeker lose all hope in religion entirely. One member, Richard, was congratulated by all and sundry for getting himself kicked out of a popular Facebook group, “Idealogue”. His crime was posting a picture of a woman wearing a burqa symbolizing the bible’s refusal to allow women to have a voice, inspired by the Book of Timothy. He added this caption to the picture, “And they criticize Islam.”
Yet another Dutch member was applauded for posting a picture of Jesus dancing. The Bible, I was also informed, is actually an acronym for ‘Bible Equals Big Irrelevant book of Lies and Exaggerations’. Various theories were discussed as to the creation of woman, the most hilarious of which was, God found Adam pleasuring himself one day and simply told the Holy Spirit, ‘I don’t think this is going to work’.
Highly sacrilegious and still, although against my firm beliefs as a Catholic, highly amusing. It was a struggle not to chuckle.
It was interesting to observe that atheists though these people were, they were more knowledgeable about religious books than most religious people. One member, who preferred to remain anonymous, advised me to google the ‘Dead Sea Scrolls’ and books written by Thomas and Mary Magdalene, that had allegedly been left out of the Bible by the Catholic Church.
“If the Church is all about the truth, why are those books left out?” he demanded to know.
Phillippe MK, as he is dubbed, is one of those well informed atheists.
“I have read the bible cover to cover and have a better grasp of its contents than most Christians I know,” he affirmed. “I used to sing in the choir in Miracle Centre Cathedral.”
Phillippe was just another regular church goer, trying to find the meaning of life.
“My goodness, I used to sing my heart out,” he laughed. “And while I was singing, I felt like I was a part of something wonderful. However, as soon as the song was finished, I was left feeling bereft. I didn’t feel ‘good’, and I used to wonder why.”
Part of his loss of faith in the Church could perhaps be attributed to the ‘exorcisms’ they used to carry out at the Miracle Cent
“We used to pray for so many people who claimed they were possessed by demons. It got to a point where things started to get ridiculous.” said Phillippe. “There was a woman we used to pray for every week, until I got tired. Most of these people simply needed us to direct them to Butabika mental hospital. They needed real help. Can you imagine someone telling you they want to kill themselves, and you lay your hands on their heads, pray for them, and send them home? Can you imagine that?!”
Now Phillippe MK says that if he dies, and wakes up in the other world to find himself between two angels being guided to the pearly gates, he will give them a hard time of it, thrashing and kicking and insisting that he be taken the other way, ‘where all my friends are.’
So, I asked Phillippe, is he still in touch with his Christian friends of the old days? “I’m not in touch with those people,” he shuddered at the question. “I think they’re mad.”
“Most atheists grew up in religious households and became atheist through gradually questioning their beliefs,” explained James. “We loved religion deeply but had doubts, and they kept growing and growing. Most Christians take religion for granted and open the bible only on Sundays. Very few read it regularly. On the other hand, most people who are non-religious have studied it thoroughly.”
James Onen accuses Christians of being selective, which is evident in a conversation that one member, Mwesigwa Savannah overheard between a Christian and a Muslim. They were discussing Seventh Day Adventists and marvelling about their habit of praying on Saturdays.
This was too good for Phillippe to resist, who chimed in quickly, “Yeah, what’s up with that? Everybody knows it’s Friday and Sunday.” Freethinkers are fast becoming part of the public sphere, unknown to many Ugandans. Some of them write articles that appear in the newspapers, discussing issues like witchcraft and demon possession from a rational perspective.
“We provide solutions more useful than the religious perspective,” enthused James. “We investigate claims of demonism and find a rational explanation. We have so far found no evidence to support notions of witchcraft or demon possession. In the times of the gospel, people with demons had epilepsy. Today, we call them sick.”
An interesting theory of ‘demon possession’ was solved for me that I had long heard about from my boarding school days. This is the notion that a demon attacks individuals in their sleep, paralyzing them in their beds.
The correct term is actually ‘sleep paralysis’. As you enter into deep sleep, your brain starts to disengage the motor neurons that control your muscles. This is what prevents us from performing the actions we carry out in our dreams. Sometimes however, the brain awakens before the motor neurons start to engage. Hence, you can’t move your body.
“The unnatural is really explainable.” said James. “We are all exposed to natural factors that may look like unsolved mysteries if we do not explore them deeper. People who claim they were beaten by ghosts may have simply over exercised or trained using the wrong workout.”
(All right, freethinker, that’s a bit of a stretch).
Freethought Kampala as a group is also home to a number of Theists, who enjoy hardcore rationality every once in a while. Believers keep on coming and like to express their views. It is clear that Freethought Kampala is not about intolerance.
“We want to have discussions based on reason and logic,” James said. “Don’t come to our meetings and quote from holy books because it’s a conversation stopper. What does that prove? Reason and logic is a good and fair way to arrive at truths.”
So if the discussion is witchcraft and one erstwhile Christian says their pastor ‘said so’, evidence will be asked for. If undelivered, they will be ‘treated with the contempt they deserve’.
“Many believers are fundamentalist and not open to challenge. Questions are taken as insults,” concluded James. “This is ironic because the foundation of a lot of religions is dialogue. Like Martin Luther leading the protestant reformation and the fact that Jesus was also flipping the script, challenging pharisees!”
So Jesus did not come on the 21st of May. Perhaps it was because man’s preparations for his coming threw him in disarray, leading to a postponement. Or perhaps, just perhaps he isn’t there. After all, according to one Freethinker, “Life only makes sense because it ends.”
Does it just end? Let’s discuss!