The following is an interview with Tjaart Blignaut of Massive Activity.
Over time, your blog has taken a much greater focus on atheism. Why this change of focus? Have you always been an atheist?
I have been an atheist since about the age of twenty one or twenty two. I spent quite a lot of time being quiet about my atheism, because I thought that beliefs were something personal that shouldn't be disturbed. My mind was changed gradually when I became aware of Richard Dawkins' out campaign. When I came out I realised that atheism was very much misunderstood, and I became troubled by the fact that Christians would totally ignore the fact that I was an atheist. My position was readily dismissed as a phase, or I was told that I would eventually turn back to belief. This thoughtless dismissal frustrated me, and I turned to blogging and engaging with believers online to say all the things I felt needed to be said, and pave the way for more atheists to feel like they could come out and speak out. If I could help one person to find a way out of faith, I would have accomplished my goal.
What would you recommend to a believer who is starting to question their faith to ease them further down the road to atheism or critical thinking?
I would recommend not seeing it as all or nothing. Questioning your faith does not mean you will become an atheist. If your beliefs are true you have nothing to worry about, if they are not true you need to think about whether holding false beliefs is good for you. The problem is that if you never honestly engage with yourself, you will never really know. There will be all these unanswered questions in the back of your mind that you will have to ignore or push away. A second piece of advice is just the attitude that you take toward questioning. The best way to prove a true belief is to try and disprove it. This is not an easy attitude, because it is natural and easy for people to want their beliefs to be true. A great way to think through your attitude is to learn about psychology. Psychology lays bare our biases so we can guard against them when we engage in thinking exercises. It is also fun and interesting, and it will help you generally improve your understanding of yourself and others. You have nothing to lose by learning an questioning.
My audience is mostly based in the Americas. What is the believer to nonbeliever ratio like in South Africa? What are the most common beliefs? The most irrational?
South Africa did not ask religious affiliation questions in the last national census. Wikipedia pegs non-religious at 8% in 2007, but this number seems questionable, the source at least is missing in action. The 2001 census shows more than 6 million non-religious people, but the term non-religious is not particularly useful, and based on observation this is probably not very indicative of the number of atheists. I have a few atheist friends, but I think they are overrepresented among software developers.
Calvinism has a strong influence here among white Afrikaners, and they had considerable influence in the Apartheid government. Many people here are falling into evangelical churches though, and many of these churches are US brands. There is a massive Rhema church in Johannesburg, and Joseph Prince and friends feature prominently on the religious channels on our satellite TV provider. There is a Christian book store in every mall!
Christianity dominates, but Islam is growing, Hinduism is ever present (I attended a Hindu wedding recently), and traditional African beliefs are still quite popular in rural areas. Traditional beliefs are probably the worst, because many young teenage boys die in a tribal tradition where they are circumcised in an unhygienic way, although society is kicking back hard, and they probably won't be able to do it for much longer. Muti (magical medicine) is also still practiced, and wildlife like Lions or Hyena can sometimes be mutilated for this magic medicine. Surprisingly, medical insurance companies in South Africa are required to pay for treatment at witchdoctors (not a leap from homeopathy I guess, which is also covered).
South Africa is an immensely plural society, and I could probably write a book on this topic alone. South Africans are pretty tolerant of each other because there are just too many groups for any one group to assert its religious authority in government and get away with it. Even though lots of people despise each other, we manage to get along. Here is a video of a gay Zulu wedding, I think it is something beautiful, tradition without backwards dogma. It is not representative of South Africans, but it does give me hope. Gay Couple Marry! Traditional African Zulu gay wedding a first.
You are very involved with counter apologetics and debate on Google+. What do you find is the best way to interact with apologists?
The best way I've found to approach apologists is to take them seriously. I think that they feel threatened by a growing atheist movement, and get the feeling that atheism is this new silly fad. A lot of them are clever people, but often they are conservative thinkers. The same kind of phenomenon shows with people who refuse to get smartphones and show off with their old monochrome Nokias, or in professional work people who insist that newer programming languages and paradigms are stupid and that old dependable ones are better. The behaviours are very similar, and it involves a lot of confirmation seeking and cognitive dissonance. The comparison isn't perfect, but I think the overlap is striking. We humans can become emotionally attached to ideas just like we do to tools we use that are outmoded or even fashion items. That's where I think apologists are mistaken. They think that fluidity in thinking and beliefs amounts to being disloyal or unpredictable.
That said, I have had some good discussions with them, and I respect them as thinkers insofar as they at least attempt to learn what their position entails. I've found that their arguments are not meant to convince atheists though, their arguments are meant almost exclusively to convince themselves and their fellow believers that they don't have to rip the existential carpet from under their feet. It's fun to engage with the arguments though, because you get to learn how to better think critically and evaluate what people are telling you. Of course there is the hope that the apologists will change their minds, but I'm not sure if this is possible. There is a fundamental shift required in how someone thinks before they can evaluate a foreign position. The other remote possibility is that an apologetic argument will sway me back to the believer side. I am open to this, as most of their arguments only account for a deistic god anyway, and I don't have a problem with there being a universal creator. The practical difference between an atheist and a deist is almost negligible, because a deistic god has no demands on its creation.
Do you use a different approach with classic apologists versus presuppositionalists?
Absolutely. You can have a really good time discussing arguments for the existence of god or the nature of knowing with classicalists sometimes, but with presuppositionalists you are basically dealing with someone who is deluded. Someone who is delusional will not change their mind under any normal circumstances. Presuppositionalists are not people who are putting forward an argument, they are putting up a mental barrier to refuse to let any arguments in. They are dependent on certainty in what we know to be a changing and uncertain world. I think that a godless world scares them to their core, and they are engaging in denial in order to avoid trying to address their insecurities about it. My focus with presuppositionalists has been an abject failure, but what I have tried to do is to just break through their certainty so that I can have a discussion with them to begin with.
To what extent do you now believe Jesus was real? Did he exist? Did he perform miracles? What do you base this on?
I don't have a problem with Jesus existing, but I think that question is odd, because we know other historical figures that were admired often had their history highly embellished by their followers. Not having a corroborated account of the man, it is hard to say anything about who he was. In that way then, it may be that Jesus as people understand the historical figure, may not exist. Maybe such an account will still show up. History is after all never complete. As for claims of his divinity, those claims are difficult to believe, not only because they are fantastical and contrary to what we know about reality, but also because the symbolism of suffering is totally unnecessary for an omnipotent god. He could forgive instantly, so the display of the crucifixion seems contrived and melodramatic. It is consistent with the kind of things we see in mythology, not of the kind of things we should expect from an all powerful, all knowing, all good deity.
The other problem I have with Jesus is that the trinity was a huge cause of violent conflict for Christians. If Jesus had taken some effort to clear up what the trinity meant all of that could have been avoided.
Who is your favorite atheist public figure and why?
I would have to say that Peter Boghossian takes that position for me currently. I was extremely disillusioned with the interactions I was having with believers until I picked up his book. The idea of having discussions instead of debates, delivering small micro inoculations against faith, the socratic method, treating believers with respect and the readiness to change ones mind are all things that have a great potential to make our interactions with believers more civil, productive and honest. I have been guilty of talking at believers instead of with them, but I am changing that. Shock value and mockery have their place, but ultimately we will push people away if that is how we define all our interactions with people exclusively.
What do you see as the most beneficial aspect of religion? The most harmful?
Religion brings people together. I think that can be a good thing. Some churches genuinely support their members both financially and psychologically. Some churches also preach positive messages and are genuine in their attempts to do good. My sex education class in high school was done by a religious group in a church building, and they delivered good education, telling kids that masturbation was okay, that you could do other naughty things besides sex, that condoms were good, and that sex was natural and not shameful. It wasn't perfect, but it is a far cry from the abstinence only education that some believers try to push on horny teens. Of course I think that secular groups can accomplish all the same things, but I think that those churches that do good deserve credit where its due.
What I find most damaging about religion is that it is a gateway belief. My scepticism certainly did not start with religion, it started with medical quackery. I could see how people were spending a great deal of time and money on ineffective medical treatment, and I wanted to change that. The problem that believers face is that they have been taught this idea of faith being a virtue. It can be trivially easy to lead many of them astray.
A church is a con man's best chance at a payday, because there is no other place where people will willingly call themselves sheep. It is this understanding of the world that makes it easy for believers to fall for so many other traps. In my view this is why politicians can hijack religion, why pastors can suck their congregations dry, why a believer will indulge in astrology, believe in witches, demons and satanic conspiracies, or spend the last of their savings paying for homeopathy instead of seeking treatment at real medical institutions. I don't think the world will be capable of destroying superstition if religious superstition is allowed to flourish and faith is encouraged as an essential trait of a good person.