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Why I am an atheist – Jabu M

Growing up in Zimbabwe presented many challenges. Calling anyone “middle class” was a joke – you were either filthy rich, struggled to make ends meet or were so poor words could not begin to describe it. My family was part of that second group – we lived comfortably, but only just. I’m an ex-fourth generation Seventh-day Adventist, which, considering that Adventism has been in Zimbabwe for about four generations is really something. One thing I can truly thank my parents for is that they never compromised on my education. My brothers and I always went to private school, even if it meant we had to cut back on a few luxuries to do so. I was also always very inquisitive, very much a nerd and had a deep love for science that my mother encouraged. I read a lot of books, particularly about physics, astronomy and dinosaurs so questions were inevitable. I was an introspective child, though, so I tended to keep those questions to myself and try to figure things out on my own.

At twelve I was baptised into the church. I think this was the turning point at which I began to come to terms with reality, because it forced me to examine what I believed and why I believed it, where previously I could just drift along and pretend there was no conflict between my faith and my aspirations to be a scientist. It wasn’t an easy journey, but less than eight months later, I came to the conclusion that God as envisioned by any Earthly religion does not exist. I still thought a higher being of some kind was possible, and so became somewhat of an agnostic.

The biggest problem I had at this stage of my life was that I had nothing concrete to fill the gap my faith left behind. One practical upshot of my country and my family’s financial state was that I had no access to the solid facts I needed – I had no access to the internet and what little I did know came from the now too vague books I could access from the kids’ section of the library. I was growing ever more hungry for knowledge, and would gobble up any little morsel I could get, regardless of quality. In time, this led me to a brush with pseudoscience no better than the faith I had recently forsaken.

Rifling through some old books at my grandmother’s house, I found a bunch by a certain fellow called Erich von Daniken. They had the words “stars” and “space” in them , so reading was a no-brainer. What I read had me instantly hooked. Soon, I was proclaiming to all my friends how aliens had visited us in ages past and imparted us with intelligence. I was rattling off every single piece of “evidence” E vD presented – the Piri Reis map, the Ica stones, the Nasca lines, Puma Punku – with the utmost confidence that I’d finally found the truth. E vD did an excellent job of pretending to have that which I had been looking for all along – good, solid facts. His book “Miracles of the Gods” also fit in with the pseudo-mystical approach I had taken, and this led into a brief but retrospectively embarrassing flirtation with the Law of Attraction.

It was this phase, in which I wholeheartedly accepted such nonsense as is contained in “The Secret” and “What the Bleep Do We Know” that led to me taking another deep look at my beliefs. I noticed that all my “positive thinking” and meditating on the things I desired was getting me nowhere, and I started really thinking about how this actually worked. I realised that all this talk of “qantum-this” and “quantum-that” was simply a different term for the magic I used to believe in when I was still Christian. It did not take long for the rest of my belief in the supernatural to disappear, and eventually any concession of the possibility of the existence of a deity went down the drain as well.

I remember the first time I ever referred to myself as an atheist. I had just moved to a new school in Botswana. We were in a class Guidance and Counselling session and the counsellor asked me what religion I belonged to. Right there and then, I realised – much as I had once reviled those who were so “close-minded” as to outright deny the existence of a god, I had become one of them. With newfound conviction in my voice, I proudly answered, “I’m atheist.” This was early in 2009, and I was 16, going on 17.

Perhaps not very oddly enough, I still lent some credence to Erich von Daniken’s hypotheses. I would think to myself, “Okay, maybe he got the metaphysics wrong, but some of his facts must be right.” I was also very critical of vocal atheists, even once writing a letter bashing Richard Dawkins over his hope that creating a cross between a human and chimp would end religion to the South African edition of Popular Mechanics. The Internet changed both these things, however. The Skeptic’s Dictionary in particular demolished von Daniken’s hypotheses, while reading of all the abuses to freedom that religion continues to perpetrate underscored the importance of activism to me.

I take a pragmatic view of the circuitous route I took to becoming rational: if it weren’t for it I wouldn’t be who I am today. I wouldn’t have experienced first hand how harmful and limiting believing in lies can be, and wouldn’t be so passionate about eliminating them. It’s not my lack of belief in gods that I count as my most important trait, though. I value being a rationalist because I choose to think, a skeptic because I choose to question, a humanist because I have compassion for my fellow man and have an unbridled love for the cosmos that drives me to achieve my dream of becoming an astrophysicist. It is from this dream that I draw the deepest meaning for my life: that of discovery, and questing to understand the universe we live in.

Jabu M
Botswana

Comments

  1. says

    Wow! Thanks for sharing! I can hardly imagine what it must be like to grow up and not to have a lot of information at my fingertips (thank you Internet!). How is it perceived to be an atheist in Botswana? Do people cringe at the term? How unusual is it?

  2. says

    had a deep love for science

    So of course you threw out your religious indoctrination.

    It’s for a good reason 93% of the members of the National Academy of Sciences are atheists. Also, it’s fair to say there’s something seriously wrong with the other 7%.

    Human Ape

  3. niftyatheist says

    Jabu, not only have you a remarkable mind, but you also have a great ability to express your ideas in writing. Here’s wishing you every success in your endeavors!

  4. says

    Thanks for the comments, and thank you PZ for posting my story.

    @micheltrottier-mcdonald, atheism’s not very common here and the few other doubters I know are not very vocal about it. Most of my friends know about my beliefs, but my family is still in the dark. Of the people who know, not a lot of them give me grief over it. I do occasionally get sucked into debates and I sometimes instigate them, but there is no outright animosity, save for a few snide remarks thrown here and there.

    If anyone would like to ask me anything, feel free to fire away.

    Cheers,
    Jabu M

  5. scottportman says

    Wow, Jabu. I suspect most readers who haven’t spent time in Africa won’t really understand how much courage it must have taken for you to tell others that you are an atheist. Nearly everyone believes in God, and for most people, that belief is a far more fundamental part of life than for people in the US or Europe. The price of not believing in God in much of Africa is social stigma and in some circumstances even violence. Maybe Zimbabwe is different, but I suspect not. I suspect it can be as hard to be an “out” atheist in Zimbabwe as it would be to be an openly gay man in many African societies.

    It’s also really important to make sure that knowledge – through books (or access to the internet) – are not merely for rich kids in Africa, but for all curious kids, including those without money. Satisfying curiosity is as basic as satisfying hunger.

    Anyway, I’m glad you shared your story here, and I’m glad PZ is posting this series.

  6. Chris Booth says

    Jabu M, thank you for your letter, and the moving and interesting narrative you present–it has been quite a journey. I admire your intelligence and courage.

    I am greatly impressed by your clarity of thought and your ability to express your thinking. You are intelligent, thoughtful, and honest, and you have an exceptional gift for writing.

    I, too, wish you every success, but I also look forward to reading more of what you have to say. I hope that we will see more posts from you, and I look forward to reading your books when the time comes. :-) You are a born writer.

  7. Julien Rousseau says

    but there is no outright animosity, save for a few snide remarks thrown here and there.

    Those theist can be so shrill, why are they so angry?

    /sarcasm

    Good luck becoming an astrophysicist.

  8. raven says

    If anyone would like to ask me anything, feel free to fire away.

    How available is the internet in Africa? Obviously it is there because you are posting from Botswana.

    Do most people have access at least part of the time?

    It’s a nontrivial question because the internet provides access to most of the world’s knowledge and most of the world’s people. As an invention, it is right up there with TV, radio, and cell phones.

  9. Tyrant of Skepsis says

    Jabu,

    I like your writing! Keep it coming.

    I found a bunch by a certain fellow called Erich von Daniken.

    Oh good grief, I’m sorry!

    I had no access to the internet and what little I did know came from the now too vague books I could access from the kids’ section of the library.

    That illustrates that there is a lot of potential that could be unlocked on the continent of africa by comparably simple means, namely of bright young people like you, who would profit enormously from just a little more access to information, e.g. the internet, for the benefit of all. The cost/benefit ratio seems staggering. Do you have an idea whether this situation is currently improving or how it could be improved effectively? Do most young people in Zimbabwe have a good grasp of the english language (which I gather, is an official language there), such that the vast number of english and french internet sites are actually accessible to most young africans? I’m sorry if that’s a stupid question.

  10. Brownian says

    I suspect most readers who haven’t spent time in Africa won’t really understand how much courage it must have taken for you to tell others that you are an atheist.

    True. This was driven home to me recently when one of my coworkers, a Christian Kenyan, mentioned how amazed he was that one of his professors back home openly admitted to being an atheist.

    Jabu, you and I have had remarkably similar trajectories, apostasy-wise (swap Catholic for SDA but keep the von Daniken), though I was years older than you before I realised I was an atheist.

    Thank you for sharing your story.

  11. Brownian says

    How available is the internet in Africa?

    Jabu would certainly have a better idea, but my experience in East Africa (KE, TZ, UG) was that even some thirteen years ago internet was available in internet cafés to urban East Africans who had disposeable shilingi. Lack of infrastructure such as land lines meant most personally owned telecommunication was mobile.

    Wiki gives a more up-to-date picture.

  12. otrame says

    I value being a rationalist because I choose to think, a skeptic because I choose to question, a humanist because I have compassion for my fellow man and have an unbridled love for the cosmos

    This. I don’t think anyone except possibly Carl Sagan has ever put this so concisely, so elegantly and so beautifully. Thank you, Jebu.

    —-
    The idea of getting the internet to people all over the world who do not have it is something I think we should start working towards. I know precisely nothing about how one would go about it. Except the money part, of course. I do believe that this is something that can be done a little at a time, as funds are available. What is needed, then, is organization of an effort, and this again is something I have no knowledge of, but plenty of people here do.

  13. raven says

    wikipedia:

    Internet accessAccording to 2011 estimates, about 5.7% of African population has Internet access.[5] While Africa accounts for 14.3% of the world’s population, only 3.6% of Internet subscribers are Africans.[6] Africans who have access to broadband connections are estimated to be in percentage of 1% or lower.[3][7] In September 2007, African broadband subscribers were 1,097,200, with a major part of these subscriptions from large companies or institutions.[7]

    Internet access is also irregularly distributed, with 2/3 of overall online activity in Africa being generated in South Africa (which, on the other hand, only accounts for 5% of the continent’s population).[6] Most of the remaining 1/3 is in Morocco and Egypt.[

    Not as high as I thought. Info from Brownian’s link above.

    African internet use is growing rapidly though. Given the tremendous advantages it yields, it will be a profitable investment for anyone to upgrade their access.

  14. says

    Jabu M:

    I value being a rationalist because I choose to think, a skeptic because I choose to question, a humanist because I have compassion for my fellow man and have an unbridled love for the cosmos.

    I’m with otrame. I tremendously enjoyed your writing up to this point. With this, the essay moved from enjoyable and informative to exceptional.

    Thank you, Jabu M.

  15. says

    How available is the internet in Africa?

    In Botswana it’s quite freely available in the cities and in major villages. The biggest hurdle for most people in those areas would be cost. There’s pretty good cellphone coverage, so mobile internet is a viable option in places where there are no dedicated providers. I have a 512K uncapped connection, so I can do everything up to streaming 480p video. Chances are I’ll be moving back to Zimbabwe next year and from what I hear most contracts still have a usage cap there. The situation in Botswana is improving thanks to better infrastructure and the government realising how important the internet is to education and development. Public libraries now have free internet access and there are internet cafes for those with no home connections.

  16. says

    Do most young people in Zimbabwe have a good grasp of the english language (which I gather, is an official language there), such that the vast number of english and french internet sites are actually accessible to most young africans?

    The old colonial education system was very effective and made sure native Africans were well educated and well versed in English. Pretty much everyone has a very good grasp of English. Though standards have deteriorated since the economic meltdown, private schools are still good enough and of great cost value enough for people native to Botswana to send their kids to learn there.

  17. 'Tis Himself, OM says

    Thank you for your essay, Jabu. Like otrame and nigelTheBold I particularly liked:

    I value being a rationalist because I choose to think, a skeptic because I choose to question, a humanist because I have compassion for my fellow man and have an unbridled love for the cosmos.

  18. breton says

    Ngiyabonga Jabu – this was an excellent tale and very well told(apologies if you are not ndebele but I dont know the shona word for ‘thank you’!)

    As far as internet connectivity goes in South Africa we have connectivity in most areas but it is prohibitively expensive and it connects at about a quarter of the speed of the average European internet provider. The average South African does not have access to the internet.

    Breton

  19. David Marjanović says

    The old colonial education system was very effective and made sure native Africans were well educated and well versed in English. Pretty much everyone has a very good grasp of English.

    In the former British colonies.

    In the former French and Belgian colonies, the situation is analogous: the child soldiers in the More or Less Democratic Republic of Fucking Congo are fluent in French (I heard one being interviewed on TV), and I’ve even known someone from Abidjan (biggest city and former capital of Côte d’Ivoire) who apparently has French as her only native language.

  20. says

    but one really shouldn’t ask questions like “how’s the internet in Africa”, that makes as much sense as “how’s the internet in Asia”. As I understand it, Africa is quite a diverse place…

  21. says

    David,

    in an interesting case, Rwanda is in the process of changing the language of its educational system from French to English. There are some political reasons behind it, with Kagame being angry at Sarkozy, but also economic reasons.

  22. says

    Also I’ve heard linguists complain about the issue raised by David: when they were looking for language consultants of Malagasy in Paris and the United States, the problem ran into was that the Malagasy elite speak French much better than Malagasy, and therefore weren’t really that useful as consultants. Hlawedaulty due to socio-economic factors such as these…

  23. says

    The last sentence should’ve read

    “Hate to think that part of the research on Malagasy would be flawed due to socio-economic factors such as these”