Yesterday evening, the Leader of South Africa's Opposition Party, Ms Helen Zille, caused a storm on Twitter with this tweet, responding to the massacre of school children by the Taliban in Pakistan:
This angered me at first, then I felt saddened, because I remember when, in the early 1970s, a group of "Young Turks" broke from the then opposition to the ruling Nationalist Party and the founders of "Apartheid," the United Party, to form a progressive, more liberal movement. The intention was to bring down apartheid, and release Nelson Mandela from prison. I worked with some of these young radicals, helping them with administration, and, with my own lifelong interest in politics, discussing what I dreamt for South Africa. Then Nelson Mandela was released, our "rainbow nation" was formed, and our new Constitution gave me the right to not believe, nor participate in religion.
“Everyone has the right to freedom of conscience, religion, thought, belief and opinion."
What this means is that every citizen in the country has the right to practice whatever form of religion they choose, without anyone being allowed to discriminate against them for their belief, or lack thereof. This includes people in government, and the law courts.
Yesterday, Ms Zille called me, and every other peaceful, law-abiding atheist in South Africa, a "fundamentalist." I now want to exercise another of my freedoms under my country's Constitution, the right to free speech, and to defend the attack that was made on me in a public forum.
By calling the people who murdered those children in cold blood "fundamentalist atheists" Ms Zille is demonstrating a few things about herself: firstly she is ignorant about what atheism is, and secondly, that she fears alienating those members of her party, and its hierarchy who are Muslims, by calling the Taliban "atheists." In a later post she mentioned something about hating all "fundamentalists." In other words, she is also attacking those members of our society who exercise their section 15 rights, by practicing deep fundamentalist Christianity and other religions. So by saying she hates "all fundamentalists" she is also hating creationists, and devout Muslims. Well done, Ms Zille, your party will not be the formal opposition for much longer.
However, I feel that I need to do a little educating here. Ms Zille, and those people who approve of her wild statement, need to know exactly what atheism is. To this end, I quote from Wikipedia.
That is it. Plain and simply, atheism is a lack of belief in the existence of deities. It is not hatred of God, it is not fundamentalist, it is not militant, it is nothing more than the absence of belief. In the same way that people who believe in the God of the Bible are atheists about Zeus, and Odin, atheists in the general sense, take it one step further, we do not believe in any gods, or their power over our lives.
Other than that, we live our lives pretty much as the rest of society does. We study, go to school, hold down employment, raise families, and so on. The only difference is that while other people spend time worshipping their deity, we don't. We do other things on our weekends. Some people watch sport on television, other people participate in sports, others go out to enjoy their families, and friends.
What we don't do is go out killing children in the name of our non-deity.
To help with understanding atheism, allow me to post some links from this blog, so that anyone who still doesn't understand how people can live without religion, may gain a better understanding of what it means to not believe in God.
A question I am often asked is: if I don't believe in creation, or that God is involved with my life, then where did we come from? To answer this question, I wrote this some time ago.
Then I'd like to share one of my favourite posts, a story of leaving religion:
In discussion, in real life, and on the internet, and I'm making an assumption that Ms Zille had something like this in mind, we are told: "but Hitler was an atheist, look what he did" and "what about communism, look at what happened to religion in the USSR." I have answers to these assertions.
Firstly, Hitler was not an atheist. He was a devout Catholic. So was Mussolini. He didn't practice his religion, but he did baptise his children, and when he had the chance to close down the Catholic Church in Italy, as dictator, he chose not to. If he was an atheist, and if he truly despised what religion was doing to his citizenry, then why didn't he repeal some of their laws, or even close down the church? He didn't because at heart, he was still a Catholic.
I'll allow more knowledgeable people than I to explain the conundrum of Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot:
One more fallacy I would like to clear up is the famous misquote of Karl Marx, that "religion is the opiate of the masses." That is not what he said, and he didn't imply that people who believe in religion were the same as people addicted to opiates. This is what he did say, in his Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right:
Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.Criticism has plucked the imaginary flowers on the chain not in order that man shall continue to bear that chain without fantasy or consolation, but so that he shall throw off the chain and pluck the living flower. The criticism of religion disillusions man, so that he will think, act, and fashion his reality like a man who has discarded his illusions and regained his senses, so that he will move around himself as his own true Sun. Religion is only the illusory Sun which revolves around man as long as he does not revolve around himself.
In other words, when people relieve themselves of belief, their minds open up to the possibilities that religion has closed to them.
My own experience, having grown up in the years when the policy of apartheid was being formulated in my country, was that it went hand-in-hand with the religious fervour of the zealots who were running the country, and who firmly believed that the native people of Africa had been ordained by their version of God to be the sons of Ham (the son who uncovered Noah's nakedness) and Noah in Genesis 9:25 refers to:
Cursed be Canaan; A servant of servants He shall be to his brothers.
Canaan, being Ham's son.
As a teenager, I questioned these policies. I told my parents that it was wrong to discriminate against the people who were here before us. That is was wrong to subject people to the indignities they were made to suffer because of the accident of their birth, and that we, by the accident of our birth, had no right to punish these people. This was where I began my deconversion from religion. Not because I was evil, and "fundamentalist" as Ms Zille would have me, but because my humanity told me that any God who condemned people to slavery, based on their genetics, was not a god I wanted to worship.
For that reason I became an atheist. I am proud of my country. I am proud that Nelson Mandela gave us the freedom to be whoever we want to be. I am proud that we moved into that freedom without shedding one single drop of blood. I am proud that when we voted in our first democratic election, even the criminals took the day off. I am proud to be a South African. However, I am not proud that Ms Zille's ignorant bigotry put yet another blot on our image around the world. For that reason I will no longer support the Democratic Alliance.