Various misconceptions about atheism abound in religious and theistic circles in Africa. In Kenya and Uganda, in Nigeria, Ghana, Zambia and South Africa, these mistaken notions have often been deployed to discredit atheism and to delegitimize atheistic positions. Someone captured a ridiculous portrayal of atheists and atheism in a comment on a recent article in a Kenyan newspaper. It reads:
“In Florida , an atheist created a case against Easter and Passover holy days. He hired an attorney to bring a discrimination case against Christians and Jews and observances of their holy days. The argument was that it was unfair that atheists had no such recognized days. The case was brought before a judge. After listening to the passionate presentation by the lawyer, the judge banged his gavel declaring, “Case dismissed!” The lawyer immediately stood and objecting to the ruling saying, “Your honor, How can you possibly dismiss this case? The Christians have Christmas, Easter and others. The Jews have Passover, Yom Kippur and Hanukkah, yet my client and all other atheists have no such holidays…” The judge leaned forward in his chair saying, “But you do. Your client, counselor, is woefully ignorant.” The lawyer said,” Your Honor, we are unaware of any special observance or holiday for atheists.” The judge said, “The calendar says April 1st is April Fool’s Day. Psalm 14:1 states, ‘The fool says in his heart, there is no God.’ Thus, it is the opinion of this court, that, if your client says there is no God, then he is a fool. Therefore, April 1st is his day. Court is adjourned…”
Apparently, what the commentator is saying is that April Fool’s Day is for atheists because they say that there is no God, and the Christmas, Easter and Eid Holidays are for the ‘wise’ because they believe in the existence of god. Right?
In this piece, I critically examine this erroneous viewpoint. I refer to it as a classical misrepresentation of atheism because it is widely alluded to by theists. That is the designation of atheists as fools. According to the The online Cambridge English dictionary, a fool is “a person who behaves in a silly way, without thinking”. The online Merriam Webster dictionary defines it slightly different. It says that a fool is one who lacks good sense or judgment. From both definitions, foolery entails: ‘behaving in a silly way’, ‘behaving without thinking’, ‘lacking good sense’ and ‘lacking good judgment’.
My main questions here are: How do atheists, by mere fact of not believing in a god behave in a silly manner? How are atheists persons who do not think? How can one justifiably say that persons who see no evidence for the existence of god lack good sense of judgment?
First of all I would like to state that the whole notion that persons who doubt or disbelieve in the existence of a deity or some supernatural power are not sensible is not a Christian or Islamic invention. This impression predates the advent of these foreign religions and their gods. A Nigerian Yoruba adage roughly states that “those who are not knowledgeable about the power of charms call them vegetable”. This saying is often used to deride skeptics, ‘non believers’ and those who doubt the efficacy of the Yoruba traditional gods and ‘medicines’.
However, centuries of christianization and islamization have turned the arrows of derision towards those who reject the Christian and Islamic gods. The idea that atheists are fools is common among African Christian believers particularly the pentecostal christians who literally interpret the Bible.
One passage in the Christian holy book which informs the idea that atheists are fools is Psalm 14: 1 which states: “The fool has said in his heart: There is no God”. That verse goes on to state apparently in reference to the atheists, ‘They are corrupt and commit evil and abominable deeds’. Personally, I cannot recall how many times Christians ‘friends’ and associates have referred me this verse out of contempt and in their attempt to respond or challenge my atheistic positions or perspectives. This biblical verse is often cited along with another provision in the scripture, Proverb 15:33. It states that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. The fear of the Lord? If one takes a critical look at this verse, it actually means the fear of the unknown is the beginning of wisdom because god personifies the incomprehensible. Thus, out of dreadful ignorance, the theist said in his heart that there is god.
How does that qualify as a mark of wisdom? What makes a confession based on fright and panic thoughtful? How is a ritual in trepidation an act of common sense? How is accepting a claim that lacks evidence a mark of good judgement?
For instance the notion that god exists is often informed by the idea that ‘he’ is the creative agent responsible for the world. How is this tenable? Did god finish creating the universe and then went into a coma or disappeared?
How is it that the so-called owner of the universe has refused to come forward and take full charge of ‘his’ property? Where lies the evidence that the world was created by a ghost hovering in a void? What shows that there is somebody who owns the world and how is it a good behavior to be talking to him even when there is no shred of evidence that there is an effective network and communication with the so called Supreme Being? How is it a sound minded behavior to build houses for him, attribute the authorship of several texts with contradictory messages to him? How is it wise of anybody to profess that god is located somewhere in paradise and at the same time omnipresent, and waiting to judge people after they are dead? Those who say in their hearts that there is a god should really pause for a moment and ponder. I am deeply persuaded that the profession of theists, not that of the atheists is actually one that is informed by lack of thinking and sound judgment. The god claims are literally untenable. Acts in reverence of such creatures are utterly preposterous, though they may be entertaining.
There is no justification in associating the profession of theism, as opposed to atheism, with wisdom or to think that an exercise in fear of an imaginary Lord is a mark of good sense and judgment. The time has come for African theists to begin to understand that it takes thoughtfulness and courage to question and seek evidence and to take a position based on evidence or lack thereof. Yes it takes wisdom to overcome primitive fears and to affirm in one’s heart that there is no God.