I am in a very cozy little café on a Sunday, early afternoon. Occasionally, amid the soft music and people’s intertwining conversations, a voice from a block away slips through the window, a preacher yelling himself hoarse:
I passed at least four churches walking from the moto-taxi drop-off point to the café. Jean-Charles says there are more churches in this city than bars.
A few days ago I was going to interview a fellow journalist, Innocent Muhozi, who directs the Burundian Press Observatory and runs one of the handful of private media conglomerates around here, Tele-Radio Renaissance.
“Who are you going to see?” asks the web editor, Hussein, a Muslim.
“Why are you going to see Muhozi? He’s an atheist.” After a pause, while I tried to determine what that had to do with a damn thing: “He doesn’t believe in God.”
Although Bosco, a believer if there ever was one, said:
“Muhozi is a good guy.”
Burundi is a country of believers. The President and First Lady are both Protestant ministers, who go on “faith crusades” throughout the country. Jeune Afrique magazine once ran a photo of the President with the headline, “God’s Footballer.” Same-sex sexual relations are illegal. A large majority of people here are Catholic. If you’re not Catholic, you must belong to one of the dozens of Protestant groups–Pentecostal, Evangelical, Seventh-Day Adventist, Jehovah’s Witnesses or one of the countless warehouse churches or American-funded sects. If you’re not a Protestant, you must be Muslim. If you’re not a Muslim, you must be a Bahai, a Rastafarian, a traditionalist, a Jew or at the very least a deist or theist of some sort. The different religious groups seem to get along without much fuss– within my work, we have Catholics, Protestants, Muslims and Rastafarians and, apart from the occasional, good-tempered jibe about Thierry’s hair or Hussein’s name (his nickname is “the Iraqi”) religion is never an issue. However, skeptics like Jean-Charles and myself are the odd ones out; people work with us while at the same time being convinced we will go to hell one day. Bosco is convinced that one day I’ll have a (quoting here) “personal encounter with God” and write a book about it. Stranger things have happened, I suppose…
I feel for Innocent, if he is indeed an atheist. I figure being an “out” atheist here is a bit like being gay in a North American city in the 1980s. While the majority of sensible people have moved beyond visceral hatred, there is still a lot of bewilderment.
For my part, I’m what people here call a non-croyante- a nonbeliever. I think the literal truth of any of these religious stories is highly improbable, to say nothing of the weird form they have taken over the times. A wandering philosopher crucified in the ancient Middle East–possible. A wandering philosopher with Anglo-Saxon features being born in the ancient Middle East from the womb of a virgin, who herself had Anglo-Saxon features? Not possible. To say nothing of a talking snake or a woman being born from the rib of a man. It was all made to order by a dozen misogynists. it’s no more or less believable than the Cherokee legend that says the entire world is riding on the back of a sea turtle, or the early Tahitians who believed that the islands making their world came from a goddess’ tears. If very few people believe in the literal truth of these stories, why do so many believe in the literal truth of the Old Testament with its gardens, talking snakes and forbidden fruit? Why are so many people still willing to believe that women should follow their husbands’ orders, sex is somehow inherently evil and people with homosexual attractions should hate themselves, because the Bible– written two thousand years ago by a people with a reality and a morality much different from our own– says?
I think it’s remotely possible that there’s a god, but the idea of this god having human form or existing before people, or implicating itself on an individual basis in people’s lives, or having a divine plan for all seven billion of us to the point where personal responsibility is pointless, or caring what we eat or how we dress, is absurd.
Not to mention Christianity in Africa contributes to the devastating inferiority complex which Africans already live with, by making them bow down to and worship white faces, and preventing them from taking ownership of their own successes (“I didn’t do that, God did” is something I hear a lot from exceptional people like Emilie and Athanase who have fought hard their entire lives and ought ro know better) . Why don’t more people realize that missionary business was a big conspiracy of submission?
Marx hit the nail on the head when he said religion is the opiate of the masses…the idea of an afterlife and a divine plan prevent people from taking ownership of their own lives and fighting for something better in this life, now.
And then there’s the question of divine intervention.
Did prayers help the victims of the Holocaust or the famine in Somalia, or Hurricane Katrina or the Haiti earthquake or the Rwanda genocide (despite the fact that victims of these last two tragedies screamed Jesus’ name and hid in churches, hoping that some magical process would happen and that they would be spared?)
In the week after the Haiti earthquake in 2010, I saw a picture of a girl about 8 or 10 years old. I remember, she was wearing a dark green dress, standing in the middle of a pile of gray concrete rubble. A house had fallen on her family. Limbs of victims were visible underneath. She was looking at the sky, mouth open in a scream. The look in her eyes was hard to describe, full of all the agony and fear and hurt and loneliness imaginable. Looking in those eyes, something inside me froze. There was no such thing as God, and in the event there was– no God I would worship would do that to a little girl.
No God I would worship would put into the world a girl like Daphnée’s granddaughter, who has been slowly curling up and wasting away from a genetic disease since she was a year old…although she has a fully functioning brain and is aware of everything? That’s not God, that’s the anonymous, cold computer program of genetics, which in this instance bugged, with the cold, terrible consequences.
No God I would worship would accept a priest like the smarmy hypocrite I had in summer bible school. One day in class–I was eleven, almost twelve– he was prattling away about sin, hellfire, who was going to hell and who wasn’t. My best friend at the time, from ice-skating class, was a Jewish girl.
“Any questions?” said this pastor.
“What’s going to happen to Jewish people?” I asked.
“Well, of course they’re going to hell, because they don’t believe Christ died on the cross for our sins.”
I don’t remember if I said anything or if I just gaped at him like a fish, I just remember that I didn’t wait for the end of the class before leaving the room. Although I suppose I should thank him for stopping my transformation into a sanctimonious, glassy-eyed cultist, which until then had in fact been coming along quite nicely.
I don’t pretend to have all the answers; I just readily admit that not all the answers exist. People invented the afterlife because of a fear of endings, of death, of not being and, in a lot of cases, because they thought “There has to be some kind of reward for putting up with this.” . Why do some people wake up from comas and others not? I don’t know, no one knows. Why do some people survive car accidents and others not? I don’t know, no one knows. Why are some people born disabled and others not? Why do some people work hard, become successful, imagine things that go beyond anything dreamed of before? They work hard. That’s just the way it is, in my view. The key phrase is ‘personal responsibility.’
Although religion has comforted millions of people, just think about how many people have been killed and buildings destroyed in sectarian violence and witch-hunts, how much unnecessary pain experienced by people who loved someone of the same sex or a different faith? How much hate has been created by thought-systems which, on the surface, speak of love? Palestine, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Northern Ireland, the Balkans, Nigeria, the Spanish Inquisition and centuries of witch burnings? It could make you weep.
People here ask me about my non-religion.
“How is it that you have morals?”
“My parents raised me to work hard, do nice things for people, be honest, not steal and so on.”
“Who made you?”
“Who made your parents?”
“Who made people?”
“How should I know?”
At this point, my interlocutors usually give up the discussion as hopeless.
But don’t make the mistake of thinking this country, or the Third World, or the world, is entirely full of sectarian sheep. Often in a relaxed moment, after a beer or two or on the couch in front of a brainless, dubbed American series, a Catholic friend will make a comment like “The tithing box is all a big business,” or “If sex is a sin, why did God give men penises and women vaginas?” or “Did God make people, or did people make God?”
“How should I know?”