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Mandela and atheist deathbed conversions

I’m still recovering from (minor) surgery, but I saw some mention of Mandela and atheism being floated around (my limited access to Internet is an additional hindrance to accessing information, along with my limited consciousness). However, thankfully, Jacques Rousseau has done a great job in tackling this subject.

In asserting that Mr Mandela’s “atheism” is another reason to celebrate his life, The Freethinker magazine (and, presumably, those who, like Richard Dawkins, retweeted the story in question) seem to be exploiting… “borrowed interest”, but which you might know better as simple opportunistic exploitation of largely irrelevant details about someone’s life.

I say largely irrelevant, because Mandela’s role involved highlighting what we have in common, rather than our differences and antagonisms. If any of the labels we use to describe religion and related issues could fit, the one that would have the best chance would be humanism, because his relationship to the citizens of the world seemed to transcend the quite limited boundaries offered by religion and its explicit opponent, atheism. The focus in religion vs. atheism is on difference, rather than commonality, and hardly seems either a good fit or a fitting thing to bring up while people are still mourning Mandela’s death. It’s crass, and opportunistic.

Furthermore, it also seems largely a fabrication, or at least a fantasy, that he was an atheist at all. The “evidence” offered in The Freethinker consists solely of a birthday wish to Mandela from a South African atheist, urging Mandela to “come out” as an atheist. In another piece, it’s asserted that “the other [after Andrei Sakharov] great moral atheist leader of the 20th century was Nelson Mandela”, but we’re given no reason to believe this assertion to be true.

Jacques’ final paragraph in the post is also important, concerning double-standards when it comes to nonbelievers claiming great people as “their own”.

Comments

  1. John Morales says

    The post headline is catchy but misleading, since nobody has claimed an atheist deathbed conversion* for Mandela — in particular, the claim from your linked piece by JR “When Christians or other religious folk try to claim deathbed conversions, there’s no shortage of voices pointing out how distasteful to “claim” people for one side or the other. It’s no less distasteful when atheists try to do the same.” is attacking a straw dummy, and therefore (and ironically) itself distasteful. Tsk.

    * Deathbed conversions are a thing.

  2. says

    John, I agree that Tauriq’s title is misleading, but reject the claim that this extends to the paragraph of mine that he quotes. The symmetry I’m pointing to is the distastefulness of claiming a person for a “side”. not the vehicle for doing so (i.e. whether as “deathbed conversion” or not). So, in death(bed conversions) it’s distasteful, and in death it is too. The straw dummy is of your own invention.

  3. John Morales says

    Fair enough, I accept your clarification on what you intended to express, Jacques — but that doesn’t change what you did write; it is of the form “When Christians or other religious folk try to X, there’s no shortage of voices pointing out how distasteful X is. It’s no less distasteful when atheists try to do the same.”

    The only natural reading is that to do the same is to try do X.

    In short, what you should have written in order to express what you claim to have wanted to express is: “When Christians or other religious folk try to claim people for their side, there’s no shortage of voices pointing out how distasteful to “claim” people for one side or the other. It’s no less distasteful when atheists try to do the same.”

    (I strongly suspect Tauriq borrowed the idiom from your piece, rather than introducing it on his own — that is, if it was misleading, it’s because he was misled)

  4. says

    Nope, that’s not how grammar works. I said “there’s no shortage of voices pointing out how distasteful to “claim” people for one side or the other” – in other words, the distasteful bit is the “claiming”, not the deathbed part.

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