The Pink Humanist Archive.Read past feature article

The challenge of atheism in contemporary Zimbabwe, by Leo Igwe

THE saying, “There are no atheists in foxholes” is frequently used to argue against atheism. The line of reasoning is that in situations of fear, danger or stress, people profess some belief in God or in some higher being. So this expression is employed to discredit the atheistic position and to question the authenticity and integrity of the godless life stance. But let’s face it: uncertainty, despair and hopelessness can drive people to seek help from imaginary beings.

However this is not always the case. Many godless people maintain their disbelief in God no matter what dire situations they may find themselves in; they stand their ground and refuse to budge even in the face of extreme fear and stress. In situations of war or conflict, many atheists do not see the need to convert, to hanker after the supernatural or to profess belief in a higher power as a way of coping with difficult or dangerous life situations.

Given the prevailing economic conditions, Zimbabwe can be compared to a foxhole. According to a BBC report, the country’s economy is in deep crisis. Poverty and unemployment are pervasive. The country has witnessed rampant inflation and severe food and fuel shortages. The collapse of the economy has been attributed to the forced seizure of white-owned commercial farms by the Mugabe regime. Everyday life is literally a battle.

But the question is: are there atheists in this country? The answer is yes. Atheists do exist in Zimbabwe and they have started organising, mobilising and connecting with each other, thanks to the Internet. The growing network of atheists in the country is a clear testimony that atheism has a place in the lives of people whether they live under comfortable or stressful conditions; whether they live in a conflict situation or lead peaceful and secure lives.

Recently, I was in contact with two Zimbabwean atheist activists whom I shall call Dan and Jane. They explained the challenge of being an atheist in contemporary Zimbabwe. Dan lives in the capital city, Harare. He had a religious upbringing but has been identifying as an atheist for the past three years. He says: “I was raised religious but I was always the curious type, always willing to question and as I grew up and learnt more, it became increasingly difficult for me to take religion seriously. It was only after I encountered online sceptic and rationalist communities that I started to fully self-identify as an atheist.”

The advent of the Internet has indeed been empowering to non-theists particularly in expediting their leaving the closet. The flow of information and knowledge has been liberating for atheists in Africa because it has furnished them with ideas to nurture their doubts. The Internet has provided atheists in the region with a platform to meet and interact with people of like mind. Though the virtual community has been helpful, atheists still face challenges because they have to relate with real people – friends and family members – in their immediate physical environments.

Dan explains the social cost of identifying openly as an atheist in Zimbabwe:

“The main challenge is that identifying openly as an atheist complicates all manner of relationships. It’s not exactly fun to have to take a measured approach to every conversation you participate in. There is definitely a lack of understanding of what atheism is. For most people not being religious has never occurred to them as an option. Yes there are other atheists in Zimbabwe, I’ve only ever physically met two but I know over ten others from the web. I actually co-run the Zimbabwean Atheist Facebook page which had 95 likes the last time I checked. A significant number of them are atheists from countries other than Zimbabwe, but it still helps to have some space to meet up even if it is virtual.

“As far as I can tell, most of them are in the closet, as am I. I doubt that it is physically dangerous to publicly identify as an atheist in Zimbabwe. I certainly haven’t heard or seen anything to lead me to believe this. However there are bound to be serious social costs attached to that sort of thing. Zimbabweans are very religious and with the economy performing as badly as it is they have become even more religious.

“It’s certainly not hard to imagine a person losing friends and family because they admitted to being an atheist. It is problematic enough being a young person without adding your rejection of the religion to the mix. I am privileged to have a number of friends who understand even when they are mostly Christian themselves, but at the present moment I don’t even dream about disclosing this to family members.

“The future of atheism in Zimbabwe is particularly not easy to predict. I suspect there is a long difficult road ahead of us. The best we can probably hope for in the short term is increased knowledge of what atheism is in the broader society. There would be less shock and fear if it were known that there is an alternative to religion.”

But spreading the knowledge that there is an alternative to religion is difficult because faith groups refuse to acknowledge that such an alternative exists. It’s a case of believing in God or being damned.

Jane, who also lives in Harare, was brought up as a Christian but became an atheist when she was 17. She became an atheist through reading the Bible. “The Bible itself deconverted me,” she stated. This “painful” process of deconversion and abandoning of the Christian faith happened because, while reading the Bible, she noticed “many things which were contradictory and utter nonsense”.

Also she loves science and found scientific claims more persuasive than religious or biblical doctrines. Like Dan, she notes the social cost of “coming out” with her atheism in contemporary Zimbabwe

“Well, being an atheist here is quite a rare thing. I’m open about it to everyone but my family members just to avoid the drama. I think it’s more a matter of the judgement you’ll get rather than being in danger. Atheism is perceived as a bad thing.”

She maintains that atheism is not a topic that is openly talked about in the country and she thinks the muted discourse of atheism is due to the prevailing economic situation.

“The economic crisis definitely gets the churches full. Zimbabweans love ‘miracles’. As an atheist in this country I feel like my opinion is unwanted and unimportant but in all honesty I have bigger things to focus on. So I barely care much. I live and let live”.

Throughout the region, atheists often feel quite helpless in the face of the overwhelming influence of religious faiths. particularly the dominant effects of Christianity and Islam. Religion and politics are so intertwined that atheists are socially and politically squeezed out.

Many believe that there is no future for atheism in the region and that going open and public with one’s disbelief in God or Allah is a needless risk. So, many atheists in Africa remain in the closet or continue to pay lip service to religion. But religious posturing is delaying the emergence of vibrant atheism in the region. It is doing huge damage to the cause of atheist awakening in Africa.

It is important to state that many countries in the West once faced economic challenges similar to the ones experienced by Zimbabweans and other Africans, whose reaction is to seek answers to their problems in places of worship.
But Western atheists refused to submit to religious pressure. They openly expressed their doubts and demonstrated that there were indeed atheists in foxholes. History tells us that their campaigns paid off and contributed to the cause of the Renaissance and Enlightenment in the Western world.

So atheists in Zimbabwe should not despair or relent in their drive for an open, secular and freethinking society. They should not think that their views are of no significance to their country and its future. Instead they should strive to keep the flame of atheism, scepticism and secularism burning despite the odds against them.

And as atheists in Zimbabwe try to make their voices heard; as they try to organise and mobilise in furtherance of secular values, atheist groups and activists in other parts of the world should reach out to them and show support and solidarity.

A pink letter day for Tasmania

NOVEMBER 18, 2015, saw the Tasmanian parliament vote overwhelmingly for marriage equality, and in doing so it sent a strong message to federal MPs in Australia to support the reform throughout the country.

A Greens motion for equality was passed 15 votes to 9 with the support of Liberal Premier Will Hodgman and almost half of his Liberal colleagues.

Jubilation in Tasmania over a momentous equality vote in November 2015

The Australian Marriage Equality National Director and 2015 Tasmanian of the Year, Rodney Croome, said: “I am very proud of the Tasmanian Parliament for sending a strong message to Canberra that it’s time for marriage equality and a strong message to the nation that Tasmania is an inclusive society.

“I applaud Will Hodgman, his deputy, Jeremy Rockliff, and all those Liberals who have shown courage and leadership by voting for the marriage equality motion.”

“I hope those Tasmanian federal members who are yet to declare their support for marriage quality heed the Tasmanian Parliament and take the message to Canberra that Tasmanians want marriage equality. The fact the Tasmanian Liberals had a free vote on marriage equality is a reminder to their federal Liberal colleagues that free votes are a foundational Liberal principle, and that they should do the same when voting on marriage equality legislation.”

Croome pointed out that Will Hodgman is the only current Liberal Premier who supports marriage equality and there is more support among Tasmanian Liberal state MPs than in any other Liberal caucus in Australia.

“I pay tribute to all those Tasmanians from all walks of life – couples, parents, business people, farmers, sports people and people of faith – who have patiently spoken out in support of marriage equality.” While noting a High Court ruling that states can’t individually legislate for same-sex marriage, Hodgman said it had consistently been the case that Tasmanian Liberal members have a conscious vote on the matter.

“This vote will reassure Tasmanian LGBTI couples that their parliament regards their love for each other as equal and supports their right to express their love through marriage if they choose,” Greens leader Cassy O’Connor said.

Rockliff said his “yes” vote might surprise some people. “I believe that those who are committed and in a loving relationship should have the ability, in the eyes of the law ... to get married,” he said.

At the beginning of June, 2015, about 1,000 same-sex marriage supporters took to the streets in Sydney in a colourful rally for equal rights in Australia. Corporate businesses were behind full-page newspaper ads calling for change, and politicians on both sides of parliament supported same-sex marriage on social media.

Following the public momentum, Opposition Leader Bill Shorten introduced a private member’s bill to parliament calling for overseas same-sex marriages to be recognised, and the terminology in the Marriage Act to be changed to include same-sex couples.

“For too long we in this parliament have been following, not leading,” Shorten told the parliament. “It is within our power to change this. It is a double standard that divides families, and our country. It’s not fair and it’s not who we are. And it should change,” he said.

“To some this may seem a small gesture; in truth it means so much to so many.”

New book published by Terry Sanderson

TERRY Sanderson, President of the National Secular Society, has a new book out entitled The Adventures of a Happy Homosexual: Memoirs of an Unlikely Activist.

In this funny, warm and touching book Sanderson reveals how he – the most unwilling and unlikely of activists – honed his skills as a campaigner in the early days of the struggle for gay rights in Britain.

But this is more than just the story of an amazing social revolution: it’s an absorbing tale that will take you to a time when coming out of the closet was a radical act with potentially dire consequences and when fear and prejudice were the daily lot of gay people.

From the author of the best-selling self-help manual How to be a Happy Homosexual comes this eye-opening and deeply personal memoir which is as much a love story as it is a recounting of a complete transformation in our society’s approach to homosexuality.

Sanderson covers his time in the 1970s as a thorn in the side of a relentlessly homophobic council in a grimy northern town; his stint as an agony aunt on a national woman’s magazine and his 25 years writing the popular Mediawatch column for Gay Times. He has published nine books for the LGBT community, including seminal self-help books such as Assertively Gay and Making Gay Relationships Work. He is now as President of the National Secular Society.

Human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell said of the book: “This wonderful memoir by veteran LGBT campaigner Terry Sanderson offers a vivid personal snapshot of gay life in Britain over the last four decades; told by someone who was an eye-witness to our many advances and to several of our setbacks. From gay activist to agony aunt, media monitor and secular campaigner, Terry has seen, done and now written about it all. Bravo!”

A full review of the book will be published in the spring 2016 edition of The Pink Humanist.

Prof: Alan Turing Decoded, reviewed by Brett Humphreys

IN THE March 2013 issue of The Pink Humanist I reviewed Turing: Pioneer of the Information Age, a new biography of Alan Turing by Jack Copeland. I mentioned three existing biographies – Alan M. Turing (1959) by Alan's mother Sara Turing, the epic Alan Turing: the Enigma (1983) by Andrew Hodges, and The Man Who Knew Too Much (2006) by David Leavitt – and I posed the question of what value another biography provides.

That question arises again with the publication of this latest biography, Prof: Alan Turing Decoded, by Dermot Turing. This time the author is more forthcoming. Unlike Jack Copeland, he pays full tribute to Andrew Hodges's "masterly" biography at the outset. However, his aim and perspective are rather different.

He has been reported as saying that his main aim in writing the book was to challenge some widespread stereotypes about Alan Turing's life. In his epilogue he points out that most people's impressions are likely to be formed from portrayals such as those of Derek Jacobi (in the 1986 play and 1996 television film Breaking the Code), Ed Stoppard (in the 2011 television docudrama Britain's Greatest Codebreaker, later released internationally as Codebreaker) and most recently Benedict Cumberbatch (in the 2014 film The Imitation Game). No doubt the last of these, with its gross exaggeration of Alan's autistic tendencies, would be a particular incentive for him to want to describe the real man behind the myth.

Dermot Turing's perspective is that of one of Alan Turing's closest living relatives, being the son of Alan's brother John with his second wife Beryl. Unlike his half-sisters, Dermot was born too late to have known Alan personally. However, his father, who died in 1983, was one of the few people to have known Alan well throughout his life, and one of even fewer to have read Alan's "dream books", the notebooks in which he recorded his dreams for his psychotherapist during his last months.

Dermot makes use of his father's papers, including his essay My Brother Alan (not published until 2012 when it appeared as an addendum to a new edition of his mother's 1959 biography) and his full-length autobiography The Half Was Not Told Me (1967), which remains unpublished. Rather oddly, Dermot follows his father in dating Alan's birth as 21 June 1912, when the rest of the world (including Alan's own mother) thinks it was 23 June.

The challenge facing any writer following in the footsteps of such a thorough and enduring work as Alan Turing: the Enigma is to produce a full and balanced biography and yet still have something fresh to say. Dermot Turing's approach to this is to pay particular attention to evidence that has come to light in recent years. Andrew Hodges has been tracking these developments too, of course – both on his Alan Turing Website and in prefaces to successive new print editions of his book, last reissued in November 2014 to coincide with the release of The Imitation Game – but Dermot Turing has had the opportunity to weave it all into a single coherent narrative.

On the one hand, the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) – the successor to the wartime Bletchley Park organisation that Alan Turing worked for – continues to release relevant papers from its secret archives from time to time. GCHQ has co-operated with this book, not only by permitting use of some as yet unreleased material but also by hosting an unprecedented launch event for the book at its Cheltenham headquarters in October.

On the other hand, new information still emerges from private hands – or heads – from time to time. For example, in 2011 the writer Alan Garner recalled conversations he had with Alan Turing in the early 1950s, unexpectedly reinforcing Andrew Hodges's long-held view that Alan was fascinated by the story of Snow White and the poisoned apple. More recently, following the death of Alan's close friend Nick Furbank last year, three letters that Alan wrote to him surfaced just in time to be quoted in the book.

Around the time The Imitation Game was released, the genealogy organisation Ancestry placed a story in the press claiming that Benedict Cumberbatch is a 17th cousin of Alan Turing. More interesting, to my mind, is that the supporting pedigree presents Alan as a direct descendant of King Henry VII of England. Dermot Turing has wisely avoided delving so deep but he understandably starts his book with a little more family history than some biographers provide.

Rather than dwell on the Turing baronetcy (which he himself currently holds after inheriting it from a third cousin once removed in 1987 – hence his official designation Sir John Dermot Turing), he follows Alan's mother in mentioning some of the more eminent scientific brains of the family, who happen to be on her side. They include the physicist George Johnstone Stoney FRS, three of his children – George Gerald Stoney FRS (engineer), Edith Anne Stoney (physicist) and Florence Stoney (radiologist) – and his brother Bindon Blood Stoney FRS (engineer).

The book's account of Alan Turing's life pretty well follows the familiar sequence, with careful attention to less familiar parts such as his work on speech encipherment during the latter part of the Second World War. It includes the two episodes that throw most light on his sexuality – the death of Christopher Morcom in 1930, and Alan's brush with the law in 1952. It's interesting to read Dermot's comments, as a qualified solicitor, on the way Alan was treated by the judicial system.

Like others before him, Dermot considers the enigma of whether Alan's death was deliberate or accidental. Speaking after publication of the book, he is reported as saying he doesn't believe it was an accident, but in the book itself he remains studiously neutral, concluding by quoting words attributed to Alan's closest friend, Robin Gandy: "Some things are too deep and private and should not be pried into."

I found the book's infrastructure somewhat disappointing. There are source references for most quotations but the unorthodox way the author has chosen to link quotations to their sources is unhelpful. I suspect it also tends to mask the amount of serious research that has gone into the book. More importantly, there is no index. Perhaps the thinking behind these omissions was to enhance the book's popular appeal by making it look less like a textbook, but they're a nuisance to anyone who wants to look things up.

Nonetheless, Prof: Alan Turing Decoded is a welcome addition to the literature about Alan Turing: readable, well researched, objective and balanced, and lavishly and professionally illustrated with getting on for a hundred black-and-white images, including previously unpublished family photographs.