I took part in a very interesting radio debate this morning, on the topic of whether or not God exists. As I said in one of my first remarks, the first question we’d need to resolve is “which God?”, because that question is perhaps one that separates many heathens and believers.
By which I mean simply this: the debate around the existence of god(s) allows for vast amounts of embedded assumptions, implied premises, special pleading, confirmation bias and the like. I’m not a fan of Richard Dawkins’ approach to the religion debate at all, but he had it completely right in saying (paraphrased) that everyone knows what it’s like to be an atheist – I just go one god further than you.
Charismatic pastors have long been abusing the loyalty and faith of devout Christians, and I’m sure this happens in other religions also. In South Africa, though, we’ve recently heard of some quite bizarre examples.
Penuel Mnguni telling people they should eat snakes and Lesego Daniel making a sacrament of grass and petrol come immediately to mind. And then there are the more traditional forms of exploitation, like Pastor Mboro telling parishioners that he can get them to heaven for R 10 000 (or, secure them a VIP seat next to Moses, Abraham and even Jesus for R 30 000).
Nobody should be surprised to hear that I’m an atheist (or an agnostic, depending on who I’m talking to). But for many a year now, I’ve deplored the lack of humanism displayed by many of my fellow atheists, expressed in a contempt for religion and the religious.
There’s no question in my mind that religion is not the ideal way to substantiate moral claims, or to create community, and especially not to resolve matters of empirical fact. Despite this, most religious people are just like the rest of us in wanting to live better lives and treat each other well, and much of the time, their religion is no obstacle – and even an advantage – in the quest to do so.
Religion matters as much today as it ever did. It matters to a slowly but steadily increasing proportion of the world’s population, even though it is in decline in Japan, the United States, Vietnam, Germany, France and the United Kingdom. Everywhere else, religious adherence is increasing, with Pew Research data identifying Islam as the fastest-growing religion, expected to catch up with Christianity in 2050.
This notion will hopefully strike most of you as obvious, but how we express ourselves matters, at least if you care for being heard. The examples you choose to make a point, and the style in which you deliver that point, can mark you out as either interested in discussion/persuasion, or as simply wanting to show your interlocutor that she is wrong.
Gateway News, the ‘South African Christian News Portal’, is always a good place to find over-reaction, misrepresentation, and unfounded panic, for example this account of ‘militant atheist groups‘ that are (shock, horror!) trying to stop Joshua Generation Church from endorsing corporal punishment.
A recent Gateway News post by Adv Nadene Badenhorst, legal counsel of FOR SA, catalogues some of the ways in which religion will find itself “in the firing line” during 2016. But a cursory look at the cases cited reveals the opposite, in that it’s religious privilege that she’s concerned about, rather than religious freedom.
An amusing Sunday outrage (not an outrage to equal Cecil the Lion or anything – just a little one) today stems from the three leading cinema chains in the UK refusing to flight an advertisement that features the Lord’s Prayer, on the grounds that it might cause offence.
You can read about the ad (and watch it) on the guardian’s website, but it’s not the ad itself that I want to talk about. My concern here is the Church’s motivation for trying to place the ad, and their reaction to the decision not to flight it. The reaction includes:
The church warned that the move could have a ‘chilling effect on free speech’ and said it was at a loss to understand the logic behind the decision.
To be approved, an Advertisement must: 2.1.3 not in the reasonable opinion of DCM constitute Political or Religious Advertising;
2.2 For the purposes of clause 2.1.3 above, Political or Religious Advertising means: 2.2.2 advertising which wholly or partly advertises any religion, faith or equivalent systems of belief (including any absence of belief)
In other words, the advertisement was always going to be rejected, until the relevant policy is amended. The Church of England might not have known this, but once it was communicated to them, they would clearly have no grounds for complaint regarding the decision (which, per 2.2.2, would also apply to atheist advertising).
They could think the policy wrong, or might find instances of it being applied inconsistently. But that isn’t what they are arguing. They are arguing that “the Lord’s Prayer is prayed by billions of people across the globe every day and in this country has been part of everyday life for centuries” – with the implication being that it can’t possibly be considered offensive.
I wouldn’t find it offensive to find myself watching an ad promoting prayer. Hell, sometimes it might end up being the best part of that day’s cinema experience. But it’s precisely to avoid having to cater for subjective notions of offence that Digital Cinema Media have made a blanket decision to avoid religious (and political) advertising.
But here’s the thing: the Church of England might also have been fully aware of the policy, and be leveraging this outrage for promotional purposes. After all, the guardian reports that “the advert is to promote a new Church of England website, JustPray.uk, encouraging people to pray”.
And what better way of getting great publicity for your website than to have it become a poster-child for a “chilling effect on free speech”?
Ferlon Christians, the Western Cape Leader of the African Christian Democratic Party, would have you believe that the problem with the occult – especially in schools – is that we don’t take it seriously enough. In fact, the problem is the opposite one – we take the occult far too seriously.
“We” take it seriously enough, in fact, that our Department of Basic Education, which sometimes can’t even provide textbooks or toilets to schools, are dispatching “officials to investigate‚ together with school authorities‚ the ‘Charlie Charlie Challenge’”.
For those of you who aren’t Error Naidoo or Harry Potter, you can catch up on what the ‘Charlie Charlie’ challenge is by watching eNCA’s “full investigation”. Alternatively, you can take my word for the fact that it’s a parlour game involving creating a yes/no grid, stacking two pencils on top of each other, and then freaking out when gravity causes the pencils to move.
The freaking out is as a result of the “successful” summoning of a Mexican spirit who is mysteriously called Charlie, in honour of the many thousands of Mexicans who are called Charlie. You ask Charlie a question, and then the pencils move to provide a yes or no answer.
And, the freaking out on the part of Mr Christians, the Department of Basic Education and Bored from Bonteheuwel, that frequent caller to talk-radio, is due to simple superstition and ignorance.
You’d think that schools and national Departments of Education would use this as an opportunity to teach basic physics, as well as truths about human psychology such as confirmation bias. Instead, we read of school principals saying that “any pupil caught playing it will be expelled”, and of school pupils reporting suicides and school walls collapsing as a result of this game.
Well, this is what happens when you take a perfectly explicable phenomenon and add wacko metaphysics involving demons and curses to your explanation of it, just as we used to do with something like the Ouija board.
Seriously, parents, Mr Christians and the Department of Basic Education – if kids kill themselves as a result of playing Charlie Charlie, it’s not a Mexican demon’s fault. It’s the fault of a worldview detached from reality, and an education system that tolerates and even encourages that worldview.
In other words, and to some extent, it’s your fault, and blaming imaginary Mexican demons makes as much sense as blaming Harry Potter would.
Here’s a Whatsapp message a friend forwarded to me, which is apparently being circulated in one school:
Parents, guardians and learners. This is extremely important. I have received a letter from a school today encouraging parents to speak to there children about the Demonic Game Charlie Charlie they are playing on the schools nowadays.
A grade 4 boy fainted while playing this game and his pencil started spinning. When he woke up the pencil was still spinning.
Then I received a Whatsapp message of an incident that took place in Tafelsig Mitchells Plain today regarding this Demonic Game Charlie Charlie. Some boys placed two pens across each other and called out Charlie Charlie. The pens started to spin by itself and stopped by pointing at one boy.
This boy just started to bleed from his head profusely. The condition of the boy is still unknown.
According to our Ulama and experts in Jinn, its a demon (very dangerous jinn) from Mexico moving around schools inciting youngsters to play this game in order to harm them. This could even result in their death. Plz inform as many as you can.
And, for more hyperbole, consider this official press statement from the aforementioned ACDP Provincial Leader, Mr Christians: