How Offensive – The Banned Axe Advert and Patronising Christians

An advert about odours that “could offend” Christians has been pulled because of a single complaint from an angelically-concerned, single (male) individual. I’m offended his offence was taken seriously. Does my offence count?

From the Axe advert - How offensive that they would want to do anything else for eternity except dwell in servility and worship

Recently, it’s been very interesting watching advertising bodies get involved in metaphysical debates about the existence of god. For example, when the wonderful (but British) Ariane Sherine successfully managed to get an atheist message on busses – with powerful support from Richard Dawkins – they were told to change “There is no god” to “There is probably no god”. There were very bad arguments for this, but it’s fairly obvious why – ironically it is to cater to those who do believe, despite it being directed at those who obviously do not. Now, in South Africa, we’ve had something similar. Continue reading


Zuma Solves the God Problem

I’m so delighted. After all my philosophising and arguments, my disdain and wondering, my curiosity and reading, I can finally answer the question of god’s existence. Praise His name! Not only does the Christian god exist, ladies and gentleman, but I know an almost certain way to get into the lovely domain of Heaven: Vote ANC.


"Invisible men in the sky talk to me! Aren't you glad I'm your president!"

It’s so simple. Here I am doing an ethics course, struggling through the difficult dilemmas raised when people with different beliefs and different values come into conflict over a singular issue. What? That’s politics you say? Don’t be silly. Vote ANC! Continue reading

Misunderstanding Nonbelief:’s David Wong Gets it Wrong, Part #1

Unable to relinquish my love of, I find myself constantly perusing it to the detriment of many other projects (like my thesis, assignments, girlfriend and life in general). This is not completely without merit, considering its basis in knowledge-generation and our shared dislike of all things Gaga, Palin and Scientology. When Cracked writers touch on religion, however, they make noises that harmonise all too well with bad apologetics and a simple-minded “Cant-We-All-Get-Along” attitude, which, I think, is dripping with a juvenile, optimistic and, unfortunately, ignorant assessment of the matters at hand.

David Wong, one of their best writers, wrote an article with the dewy-eyed title of “10 Things Christians and Atheists Can (And Must) Agree On”. In it he outlines 10 simplistic foundations which are aimed at making both sides drop their eyes, rub their necks and mumble apologies. He targets primarily Christians and atheists. He claims that both have got it oh so wrong in their “approach”.

Let’s get some preliminaries out the way: there are, undoubtedly, good and terrible ways to engage with people of the opposite metaphysical and moral persuasion. By this I mean groups of people who either believe morals come from divine sources or natural ones (even a mixture of the two, as in theistic evolution, falls into the former since the source remains divine). Sure: there are fence-sitters and swingers, who dance between because their feet are on fire from heated aggression or heated argument or burning reasonable truth from either side. But, arguments for agnosticism are very boring and, really, can also be bifurcated. You can be a staunch agnostic because of atheistic arguments but not be a complete atheist yourself.

I agree with Wong on this point: there are bad arguments for my side. But from there his train of thoughts goes off the rails of rationality. Let us look at his arguments.

His first subtitle is: “Celebrating the death of somebody you disagreed with pretty much makes you a dick.” As he explains: “I doubt anybody reading this has ever waved a snarky sign at a funeral, so I think we’re pretty much all in the same boat still. See? Common ground.” Using this as a template, he says it’s possible to find more and perhaps controversial places to find firm ground for both sides.

But why does this make you a dick? Firstly, consider the death of Jerry Falwell.

Hitchens, in this famous clip, talks about what a horrible, little man Falwell was. Calling him a toad and a fraud, Hitchens makes an important point: Hitchens said these things about Falwell while Falwell was alive. Hitchens is celebrating his death, I think, because Falwell cannot continue his fraud and cause suffering to any more people. This, to me, is reason to celebrate. Is anyone saddened when dictators die? Sure, a dictator’s death is not the immediate recreation of a country into a proper functioning liberal democracy, but it is a good first step if there are those willing to do so. What is wrong with celebrating a people finally being freed from a tyrant? This is a good emotion. Should we have a moment of silence for the death of mass murderers in jail? This is silly.

Secondly, as Hitchens highlights, just because someone dies, does not mean we change our tune. If you do change your tune, suddenly talking about what a wonderful person s/he was, then you are being inconsistent and, it seems, a “dick”. But, if you are playing the same tune at their funeral that you played at their birthday, I don’t see a problem. Wong is wrong, here.

Wong then launches into a series of arguments for common ground, having failed to establish what his first one could possibly mean.

“1. You Can Do Terrible Things in the Name of Either One”

According to Wong, “All I need from you is agreement that it’s entirely possible for either an atheist or theist world to devolve into a screaming murder festival. The religious leader sends his people into battle because he thinks God commanded it, the Stalins and Maos of the world do the same because they see their people as nothing more than meaty fuel to be ground up to feed the machinery of The State. In both cases, the people are equally dead.”

Yes, he opens with the Stalin-card. This should strike anyone even vaguely read in the various literature as a bad start.

Wong doesn’t tell us what he means by “atheism”. As I have said elsewhere, atheism is a useless term. It means, merely, a lack of belief in deities (or a belief there are no deities, though this latter definition is somewhat controversial. I certainly have no problem with it, however. I am as certain there are no supernatural gods as I am there are no pink unicorns). Wong falls into the same mistake as so many others, by making atheism into something relating to one particular deity – that is, the deity of the theism, particular Christianity. Perhaps this is what some people mean by atheism (which is why I think the term ‘atheism’ problematic) – but how insulting to all the other religions and deities that have existed! There is nothing special about the Christian god to us nonbelievers. We don’t believe in him any more/less than Zeus or Loki.

Believers have yet to tell us what makes disbelieving in their particular god, of their particular denomination, of their particular religion, so much more threatening to our souls (which they must also still prove) than not believing in all the others. (For an excellent list that illustrates this point, see here)

There is nothing to be done with atheism: it tells you almost nothing about a person’s morality, politics, personality and so on. Yes, there’s a lot to be said if we think someone believes she is here because of divine or natural reasons, but branching out from that is difficult if not impossible. Believers and nonbelievers support abortion policies, no slavery, women’s emancipation. What is more interesting, and I think fair, in the Great God Debate (stifle the yawn, please) is what both sides do “believe” in.

My apologies for those (very) few who have read my previous piece on this, but I must reiterate. I cannot speak for all atheists – only one may do so and even he does it in three voices – but my focus is based on what some call “Enlightenment values”. Valuing reason over faith, evidence over authority, ethical deliberation and reflection over Papal rules and regulation, beauty for its own sake, the reduction of suffering, and so on. The works of Paine and Jefferson, Kant and Bentham, Leonardo and Galileo, Darwin and Einstein, Russell and Neiman, Schopenhauer and Hume – and so on. Show me how a society, founded not only on these types of works, but also on these types of values – of reflection, evidence and reality – fall prey to the very things they all oppose – despotism, dictatorship, genocide, unjustified authority – and we will be on firmer ground.

It is simply idiotic to say we can talk about what Stalin didn’t believe in but what the Catholic Church did believe in – and somehow say both can lead to suffering. As I say, we should base our judgements in these debates on what both sides do believe in to make headway. There are millions of things we do not believe in, but play no part in the discussion. For example, it is an almost certainty that Stalin did not believe in the dancing fairies at the edge of my fingers. Similarly, Christians do not believe in it – does that mean that Christians will end up causing suffering because they share a disbelief with Stalin? This is a terrible argument and one that needs to be done away with. This is what the faithful claim when making the “Stalin move”: that we nonbelievers share a nonbelief with Stalin, and therefore, will end up endorsing regimes of death. Yet, we can easily pull the same card by saying: Stalin disbelieved in, say, Muhammad narrating the Final Word of God. Most Christians disbelieve this, too – therefore, Christians again are likely to be Stalinists. This is a bad argument.

So, no, Mr Wong. You are again, wrong.

Whereas we can point to the Magic Books of the three monotheists which include licences to murder and massacre, we cannot do the same for nonbelievers. After all, we nonbelievers do not think any of our favourite thinkers are anything other than fallible human beings (Jefferson endorsed slavery, Aristotle thought woman an incomplete man, Paine was too talented as a writer, etc.). We do not claim our books are magic or are written or inspired by deities. Fallibility is not a word recognisable to faith. And indeed nonbelievers can also treat thinkers as automatic authorities (as seen with some philosophers claiming Hume’s “is/ought” gap is impassable and, therefore, it is taboo to say science can say anything about morality); but when nonbelievers do this, they would be defeating what I see as a fundamental value: giving in to authority without critical reflection and a willingness to admit fallibility.

But, as I highlighted, atheists might very well do this because there is no unification principle of any interest with atheists save our shared disbelief in deities. They might very well give into various views I find idiotic or abhorrent, like The Secret, The Law of Attraction, etc. It only highlights that you cannot speak of any unification of atheistic views on matters of morality or politics. I might be a utilitarian and an atheist but someone else might be a Aristotelian-Communitarian and an atheist. Not realising this important point makes any argument against the Straw Man Atheist boring and impotent, as seen here.

“2. Both Sides Really Do Believe What They’re Saying”

This is a description which is perfectly unhelpful. So what? Wong justifies his point by highlighting people willing to die for their beliefs. This, Wong, proves people really believe it (for God, country, and freedom. People will kill themselves over anything and are willing to do the same to others) Here Wong makes one of the worst arguments – and there are plenty throughout this bad piece – I’ve encountered. Here is evidence Wong really is quite myopic and ignorant in his thoughts. Addressing us nonbelievers, he says:

If there’s no God, then there is something in the human brain that can and does present an amazingly realistic impression of one. A gland, an artifact of environmental pattern recognition, whatever you want to pin it on, the result is, at certain times and in certain moods, as tangible and real and distinct as the person sitting across from you on the subway.

You can say they’re wrong. You can say it all day, you can etch “YOU’RE WRONG” into the surface of the moon with a giant laser. But you’ll have a lot less angst if you remember that the thing they’re wrong about is something they honestly believe, down to their roots. I guess you could just call them crazy, but it’s a little silly to use that word when believers are the norm in human population. (Italics added.)

Reread that second paragraph. Our immediate thought should take us right back to Robert M. Pirsig, in his best-selling Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, where he famously says: “When one person suffers from a delusion, it is called insanity. When many people suffer from a delusion it is called a Religion.”

Unfortunately, Mr Wong, reality is not dependant on majority opinion. In one USA poll, in 2005, the majority of respondents rejected evolution as a fact. Does that mean we should accept their view because it is the majority? Similarly, it is highly likely great parts of the world thought our planet flat centuries ago. Did our planet alter its shape over time? Of course not. As Philip K. Dick so beautifully put it: “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.”

So, if tomorrow, everyone except David Wong has a momentary revelation that states: “Everyone named David Wong is a blue cow” would that mean they are right? Would it make them sane because the delusion is dispersed? Spreading a bad belief does not make its statements any more real, any more true, nor any less insane, any less stupid. It only makes idiocy unafraid to display itself. No matter how many people believe David Wong is a blue cow, it is not true. And Mr Wong would be perfectly right to call everyone except himself insane.

As to the first paragraph, I am uncertain what his point is. I don’t think he fully thought out that paragraph. A gland? It is certainly thought that our incredible pattern-recognition is the basis of all superstition. The derivation of false-positives resulted in our ancestors being the ones to survive the dangerous landscapes of the past (movement in the grass = lion hunting me > movement in the grass = just some wind. The former more likely to survive.).

People believe all sorts of things are real because of this adaptation: Loch Ness, UFO’s, ghosts, spirits, elves, fairies and so on. It does not make it real. Just because we know why people believe in these things does not make it real. And this is important – if we maintained Mr Wong’s view that because it part of our adaptation, we must simply accept it, we would never bother curing ailments with medicine, since people really, really believe prayer would work. Because the sick little girl hasn’t got some bacterial infection, she has a demon. So what if we can describe where all these bad ideas come from? The point is, we know they are false, we can prove they are false and, more importantly, we have better explanations. Mr Wong ignoring this makes a terrible move.

(I also ask Mr Wong, in talking about god representation to contemplate Shermer’s First and Last Law: Any significantly advanced intelligent alien being is indistinguishable from god.)

I will continue my discussion of Wong’s post over the next few days.

A Reply to UCT Students: Reason Applied

I wrote this is in as opinion piece for the UCT newspaper – here it is in its entirety

The UCT Atheist & Agnostic Society could not have chosen a better time to come into fruition. We have Errol Naidoo to thank for reason’s proliferation into UCT. Naidoo and his army – who claim to know the mind of an ineffable deity – raised a cloud of anger, hatred and vitriol, aimed at Sax Appeal and UCT because of a recent “offensive” article. It seems ironic that Naidoo positioned himself on the periphery to an Islamic response: Christians, he says, unlike Islamists, would not resort to violence. Strange then that Max Price reports that staff at UCT did in fact receive death-threats.

The AAS was not fond of the Sax Appeal article, but we certainly will defend the editors’ right to publish whatever they like. This is the basis for the freedom of speech: I have the right to say and mock whatever I like (as long as there is no incitement to violence or squandering of liberty), and you have the same right to mock my view. We do not amount to hurting or threatening each other. Reason dictates that on the strength of the idea alone, it is able to stand up to counter-arguments: It is a sign of weakness, not strength, when adherents to a particular idea or belief raise voices against counter-arguments, demanding we “respect” their idea on the basis of “feelings” alone.

And if the religious are going to claim freedom of speech, which is underpinned by reciprocity, they should surely be aware of the offense to atheists. Imagine, if nonbelievers used offence as a legitimate means of argument, as the faithful do.

After going through rehashed theistic arguments, Taryn Hodgon, in the last VARSITY, says: “[atheists] continue in their blasphemy, SEXUAL IMMORALITY AND DRUNKENNESS.” She then, helpfully, informs us that we must abandon sin. That is very offensive to atheists. I know many atheists who don’t care about religion, aren’t “getting any”, and hate alcohol. This generalisation is unhelpful since by “immoral” she means “goes against her particular brand of Christianity”. Presumably she eats pork or drinks wine – which, by Islam’s model, is immoral. But would this make her change her stance to make another group feel happy? HL Mencken correctly defined puritanism as “The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.” Such is the case here.

Someone called Lugisani Nefale says “those loose Atheist believers” (which translates as “those loose non-believing believers” – an oxymoron) “are running wild on campus”. What on earth does this mean? Nefalalso says “atheism is a form of faith”. Presumably this is meant to be an insult, but that means he is insulting himself twice:

1. “Faith” used as an insult shows he views it just as we do. Namely as something silly.

2. He means that those of us who do not believe in his god have a faith. Fine, but that means that his nonbelief in Tezcatlipoca, Quetzquoatl, and Thor are 3 faiths. But this is madness. If the very disbelief in faith is a faith, the dialogue stops.

Instead let it begin: Let those religious societies explain to us why their amazing deity can not handle insults from a talking ape (It can’t be because he is sensitive, since in Deuteronomy he demands we kill a woman on her wedding night if she is not a virgin).

The AAS will defend blasphemy, a human right, and those who speak against religion. That does not mean we disrespect people. Respecting people repudiates respecting their ideas, as my friend Johann Hari says: “I respect you too much as human being to respect your stupid ideas.” Ideas and people are not the same, and it is the religious failing to understand this that results in so much hatred. Let us sit openly, in a friendly manner, and discuss these IDEAS critically and freely. We urge all societies to help us to arrange forthcoming discussions which highlight key areas and highlight why freedom of speech matters to everyone regardless of beliefs.

Remember, humans have rights – NOT their ideas.

For the next installement see this.

SA Student Magazine Offends Christians

Update and Apology (11/09/2012): In previous versions, I had said a particular individual had lodged a complaint with the SA Human Rights Commission. However, this person, who prefers not to be named, contacted me to say this is factually incorrect. I apologise to this individual for making this claim and thank them for correcting me.

The University of Cape Town’s satirical student magazine, Sax Appeal, has been pulled from shelves. Is there mocking of religious beliefs? You bet. Is it tasteful, reasonable or witty? Not in the least.

To quote from the Galilee International Ministiries (SA)‘s blog, the outcry that led to the eventual shelving of the magazine was the following:

There is an article entitled “Top ten atheist retorts to fundamentalist Christians – Richard Sagan puts them in their place with these handy replies“.

: Jesus died to save us from our sins – “I bet he feels like a tool now”

: Praise the Lord, it’s a miracle! – “No you stupid C.*.*.T. (Christian who Understands No Theorems) statistically they happen every 365 days”

In one picture a man with a megaphone shouts to passing people “I love God”. The caption above him reads; “F**k off to heaven and leave the rest of us alone”.

In another, a women is lifting her leg saying; “pervert” with the caption underneath “God sees everything” In a picture of two men lying in bed at opposite ends, “Without God you will never be happy” – “I’m pretty happy when I’m drunk, high on crack and having freakish man sex”

These and many other exclusive attacks on Christianity are spread throughout the magazine. A full page of Zapiro cartoons mock the Levitical injunction against homosexuality.

The pestilential voice of Errol Naidoo, from the Family Policy Institute, found its way into the inboxes of many Christian groups. Naidoo is quoted as saying the actions of Sax Appeal are “wrong and immoral”. Then, of course, the yard-stick of religious response, namely violent Islamic barbarism, is thrown in as an excuse for their Christian placidity. “If this was directed at the Islamic faith,” said Naidoo, “there would be a massive outcry, maybe even with violence. Thankfully we won’t respond that way, but that does not make us whipping boys.”

Crunching knuckles and shifting their heavy-weight shoulders, they none the less have a mean, desperate look in their eye. Sure, the hanging shadow of Islamic idiocy still has bloody knuckles and that twisted gleam in his eye, but hey! These Christians are not crazy Muslims! At least they won’t bomb or hack or murder or mutilate people because someone drew a cartoon mocking their faith.

If that is not bad enough, a Christian group has filed a complaint with … the SA Human Rights Commission! It seems that mocking irrational beliefs is a gross misconduct of human interaction, to be dealt with by the same body that:

[is] established to entrench constitutional democracy through the promotion and protection of human rights by:

· Addressing human rights violations and seeking effective redress for such violations

· Monitoring and assessing the observance of human rights

· Raising awareness of human rights issues

· Educating and training on human rights

The infringement on our secular society by religious groupings is one we constantly have to push back. It is the “rough beast” of WB Yeats, slouching toward our constitution to be born within its pages. Yet religious bodies forget the primary basis is that human rights commissions judge according to human-rights standards, a framework set up within the UDHR. I have my own qualms with this document but it nonetheless gives no privileges or special treatment to people who believe in talking burning bushes, virgin births and the denial of evolution. To make a case at the very centre where religious ideas – not people, ideas! – finds no hold, is about as welcome as dressing in a Boy George outfit at a biker bar.

This is why I am part of the campaign for One Law for All – a simple, easy-to-understand situation which states that everyone, regardless of creed, culture or country must be governed under one law and judged accordingly. This is why when religious leaders take their issues to human rights commissions and call blasphemous acts “immoral” (which is superfluous to the faithful), we must take issue with it.

The right to feel offended and express that offence, to be vocal and opinionated about what one disagrees with, the open facilities capable of disclosing such sentiments within a framework of open ideas, and the realisation that one could be wrong is all inclusive in free-speech. “I might not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,” is a quotation (Voltaire or Diderot, I believe) that captures this notion of free-speech. And I will defend Naidoo to be able to say that he thinks it is immoral, I will defend Elistam if he wants to express his view that blasphemy (a victimless crime) is a human rights violation.

It does not mean I agree with them – I do not. But certainly I will defend free-speech and freedom of thought. This means that offence will be rain down like arrows, striking some, missing others but inevitably hurting many people. But these are things we must learn to deal with as adults. There will be things in this world that will offend us all the time (for me, its gender inequality, religious bullying and Sandra Bullock). Calling them immoral, asking for UCT to retract its statements, pulling magazines off the shelves, is simply special treatment for a nasty, bullying and whining child.

Grovelling at the feet of the offended, Cameron Ardense, UCT RAG’s Chairperson said: “UCT Rag unreservedly apologises to everyone who has been offended in this way”. We have become so used to these sorts of statements from those in the media who offend the sensitive, childish Christians that we simply shrug it off. And that is bad. We are dealing with adults here.

If the Christians and other faithful want to be seen as adults, they should act as such. Jane Duncan, from the Freedom of Expression Institute states beautifully:

The statements contained in the publication are silly and childish. Many of us would simply dismiss as student toilet humour and move on to more enlightened literature, which is perhaps how Errol Naidoo and UCT should consider dealing with the matter.

Duncan also points out that blasphemy is no longer a recognised ground for restriction of publications.

[Therefore] arguments to restrict the publication on this basis do not hold water … It is debatable whether the article advocates hatred against the Christian religion. The statements ridicule Christianity, but that does not mean that they encourage people actively to hate the religion.

But what is not debatable is that the statements do not involve incitement to cause harm, as they do not call on people to harm Christians.

Things are getting out of hand however. Christian Democratic Alliance spokesman, Colin Fibiger, said:

We consider the content of the UCT magazine to be a deliberate and planned, discriminatory attack on Christianity and will seek full restitutional measures.

This includes the immediate removal of the Executive Director of Student Affairs, as well as the Project manager and all editorial staff.

The balance does not seem fair or rational. Because a few adults – please note, we are dealing with grown human beings – have their feelings hurt, people must lose their jobs in a dishonourable way? That smells to me of discriminatory, arrogant religious bullying. Throughout the trawls of articles written about this and other beautiful blasphemy, the religious can never explicitly say why we should take such strong measures against those (like me, I suppose) who deliberately attack religious ideas.

Please note again: Firstly, we are dealing with grown human beings who can be offended on all manner of levels, yet demand no constitutional reprieve. Yet when the opportunity to raise a storm over a ripple arises, the leaves are tossed and fire is thrust into rickety houses of their ideas. And, secondly, there has been no incitement against religious people or restrictions to their expression of ideas – it has been a simple dismissal of their irrational beliefs.

If we mocked druids and Wiccans, how many of those flakes would be doing rain-dances and summoning Thor to strike us down with Mjollnir (his hammer)? I do not imagine a lot. Jesus himself is reported to have said that his followers must expect to be mocked. Have they not read their Bible recently? This is part of the “faith” anyway, to be mocked by the addressee in Pascal’s Pensees: “He who is so made that he can not believe”.

Once again, Christians are failing to recognise that an attack on their ideas is NOT an attack on them as autonomous human-beings. We respect and maintain human rights, in which is framed the spectrum of hate-speech (which is something very specific). But we do not have to respect ideas.

I do not think any ideas are beyond criticism, all ideas should be mocked and “blasphemed”. Even those of us who are not religious believe we each have ideas which are good or true: The equality of the genders, the need for compassion and respect, and so on. But that does not mean we view them as sacred.

We do not view the equality of genders as a topic of which no one shall speak. For example, I view the limitations on women in Islam as a gross “offence” to this idea of mine. But I do not for a second consider imposing that view by claiming human rights interventions, restricting the publications of people (men and women) who think it is OK for women to be restricted or below men, and so on. Change will come through a harmony of ideas not through the discord of restriction.

Another aspect that is upsetting is the deliberate namecalling from atheists. I imagine that if Christians wrote and namecalled atheists – which of course never happens – the atheists would also be upset. But when was the last time we witnessed nonbelievers demanding special treatment, human rights interventions, etc.? The deliberate namecalling from nonbelievers is giving those of us who attack religious ideas, from the standpoint of defending reason, a bad name.

The question remains: What should be done? In my opinion, I agree with Duncan. Christians should just button up their adult-jackets, straighten their mature ties, and lick their grown-up hair straight. We are better than this. I do not agree with the magazine’s tasteless namecalling, but, hell, it is another trashy little magazine. There are better things to read and more important things to be doing with our time. In this case, the atheists are not advocating hatred of people who believe in Christianity, they are not asking for them to sit on seperate benches, they are not asking for their jobs to be revoked. The same can not be said for the believers.

We will continue to mock their Bronze-Aged myths and silly deities, yet defend their right to say why it is wrong. As I respect their right to say what they want, they must allow the same for me. By saying only they can have special treatment on what to say, whilst those of us who do not believe must be silent, is to invoke despotism. The Christian Democratic Alliance needs to rethink their totalitarian thinking if they are meant to represent. An open, civil society with free-thought and free-speech will not be restricted, from either side. That to me seems fair: They can say what they want, in an open, reasonable way and the same for us.

Hence when either side begins namecalling and evokes childish arrogance, I think we have lost the mark. Let us all just grow up a bit and realise ideas are not people. As Maryam Namazie says, rights belong to people not ideas. Once we all realise this, we can begin focusing more on making people’s lives better instead of placating overtly-sensitive and arrogant religious leaders.

POSTSCRIPT: I have namecalled within this post. But notice that the difference is that I picked out specific people and groups and showed why I think so. The atheist in the magazine simply generalised for all Christians. This is not the way to mock. Even mockery can come under the dominion of reason.

See also the follow up to this post.

And the latest assessment here.

Potato Preacher – a Sceptic’s Guide to Angus Buchan

When some 60,000 men gather in a rural area for a Christian-themed event, my senses begin twitching. Not only the number but the exclusive gender sent alarm-bells chiming in discord. This happened in April 2008 and it was/is called, disgustingly, the “Mighty Men” conference. Held at Greytown, here in my country South Africa, men – and only men – flew from all around the world to see the preaching of a man in a hat. (At one point, the largest tent in the world was used. Yes – in the world!)

His name is Angus Buchan. He first came to prominence after the release of his book, followed by a movie, entitled Faith Like Potatoes. As the IMDB plot-summary says:

Angus Buchan, a Zambian farmer of Scottish heritage … leaves his farm in the midst of political unrest and racially charged land. [He] travels south with his family to start a better life in KwaZulu Natal, South Africa. With nothing more than a caravan on a patch of land, and help from his foreman, Simeon Bhengu, the Buchan family struggle to settle in a new country. Faced with ever mounting challenges, hardships and personal turmoil, Angus quickly spirals down into a life consumed by anger, fear and destruction. Based on the inspiring true story by Angus Buchan the book was adapted for the big screen … and weaves together the moving life journey of a man who, like his potatoes, grows his faith, unseen until the harvest

He began giving talks and preachings across the country soon after. As he told The Argus:

“God gave me a directive to turn fathers back to sons and sons back to fathers, to take back the family unit.”

Although he has been asked why there was no conference for women, he said his directive had been to challenge men to stand up and be counted: “To be prophet, priest and king. They must be the breadwinners, protect their wives and discipline their children.”

“God gave me…” – Yes, we have someone else who has a red-phone connection to god. The number 60,000 is quite staggering. Apparently, 80% of the men who attended were Afrikaners which only makes sense. There is a high religiosity amongst the Afrikaner people here in South Africa, of a particular conservative kind. I know quite a number and have been to church services – the passion runs deep to engage with their lord. They are friendly, open people neither racist nor stupid but certainly very isolated from having a figure that represents them on an international level. They have found that in Buchan.

Buchan himself is often shown to be the epitome of an Evangelical Afrikaner: friendly, passionate, warm and very conservative in his beliefs. To say that the Afrikaner people – or Christian people in general – are clutching at straws would be nearer the mark given his statements and views.

Call me paranoid, but I’m wary of anyone who speaks or knows something about the monotheist god that I do not. Or rather, I’m mortified by someone who has a real-time feed to god’s consciousness.

Buchan, in July,  drew an audience of 70,000 people at Loftus (also in South Africa). He tapped into iGOD and was able say: “God is here. The Lord is here” (3). The resounding cries of “AMEN!” could shake the fabric off any veil of reason.

Not only were over 70,000 people crying their hearts and eyes out, the event “was also broadcast live to about 500-million people around the world on GOD TV, one of the world’s largest Christian television networks.” (3) We are not dealing with small fish here. There was nothing particularly new, enlightening or incredible about Buchan – except for his readings of the Bible that sees the lowering of women to be “looked after” by the husbands and for the “discipline of children”.

Until recently…

Not a week ago, he was in my city of Cape Town defiling the air with nonsense. According to Buchan, prayer has cured homosexuality, illness and depression. I have problems with saying “prayer” does anything let alone “cure”. Let us avoid that and say rather a “positive outlook” cured the illness and depression (I don’t know one way or the other if prayer has ever had an effect but so far the view is still zero, alongside the Loch Ness Monster and fairies). Curing is great. But what on earth does he mean by “curing” homosexuality?

I find it hard to fathom that these talks, which he’s still giving around my country, is based on logic like this. This is an insult to reason and humanity. What is more insulting is the lack of rationalist critique. We are a fragile nation, prone to acts of violence against ourselves. We’ve seen it recently in our mad xenophobic attacks, our change of power – its a soil teeming with uncertainty. As I said, when someone like Buchan comes along, exuding confidence, Christianity and conservativeness, you have an engine roaring to go. The Buchan machine is moving through the country and, with his nonsense spewing out, he is continuing to defile the air.

Harsh? Hostile? Yes. I’ve never presented myself otherwise to a decent person’s reasoning. I’m angry not at Buchan – he can keep his views. I am angry, upset and largely disappointed that he is having sell-out shows. I am upset that no one is taking notice of people who are no doubt longing for some answers to our confused place in history. Where do we go, what do we do, who do we learn from? Our future president Jacob Zuma is drowning in a sea of corruption charges, fighting sharks invisible and real who are rightly placed to point their fingers at his abuse of justice.

I will now take the fallacy of the straw man quite literally.

The Straw Man fallacy is committed when a person simply ignores a person’s actual position and substitutes a distorted, exaggerated or misrepresented version of that position. This sort of “reasoning” has the following pattern:

1. Person A has position X.

2. Person B presents position Y (which is a distorted version of X).

3. Person B attacks position Y.

C. Therefore X is false/incorrect/flawed.

This sort of “reasoning” is fallacious because attacking a distorted version of a position simply does not constitute an attack on the position itself. One might as well expect an attack on a poor drawing of a person to hurt the person.

I have focused on his statements and shown the context in our volatile, fragile and somewhat desperate and desparate nation. But perhaps it serves a motif: All these people are clutching at straws and Buchan is that strawman.

He stands for racial equality and integration (speaking fluently in one of the many beautiful official languages in South Africa). But he misses the boat by relying in Bible (il)logic. This will not do. We must make a stand for reason, we must face the teeth of superstition with the hammersmack of logic. We are not so far gone as reasonable, decent people to invoke this man as a pathway to the numinous. We all long for the numinous and the transcendent. Religion’s usurpation of this longing, framed in the light to the “one god”, is relentless in using this as an undertow to a natural wanting. No more.

It matters not that the feelings expressed tapped into something. Remain at a cold-distance to those who know the mind of god and claim to cure homosexuality. Rather, we should remain sceptical of his approach until such time as he has given us reason to be other than suspicious of his rehashed, evangelical ramblings.

News: Reasons for Christians to Support Hari

In an unsuprising turnaround, my friend, the theologian Jordan Pickering has written a response to the Hari edicts. Whilst I do not agree with any of the Christian references, his famed clarity and lucidity help capitulate the universal message of liberty and freedom to bounds and recesses I can not. Please read it for further grounding on this most unstable of ground we call human rights.