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A Skeptic’s Manifesto for Africa
Leo Igwe   Oct 9, 2012   Ethical Technology  

For too long, African societies have been identified as superstitious consisting of people who cannot question, reason or think critically. Dogma and blind faith in divinity and tradition are the mainstay of African popular thought, culture and mentality.

African science is often equated with witchcraft and the occult; African philosophy with magical thinking, myth making and mysticism, African religion with stone-age spiritual abracadabra, African medicine with folk therapies often involving concoctions inspired by magical thinking. Science, critical thinking and technological intelligence are portrayed as western - not universal-values, alien to Africa and to the African mindset.

An African who thinks critically or seeks evidence and demands proofs for extraordinary claims is taken to be taking a white or western approach. An African questioning local dogmas and traditions is portrayed as having abandoned or betrayed the essence of African identity. Skepticism and rationalism are regarded as western, unAfrican philosophies. Although there is a risk of over generalizing, there are clear indicators that the black continent is still socially, politically and culturally trapped and held back in the past.

African science is often equated with witchcraft and the occult; African philosophy with magical thinking, myth making and mysticism, African religion with stone-age spiritual abracadabra, African medicine with folk therapies often involving concoctions inspired by magical thinking. Science, critical thinking and technological intelligence are portrayed as western - not universal-values, alien to Africa and to the African mindset.

An African who thinks critically or seeks evidence and demands proofs for extraordinary claims is taken to be taking a white or western approach. An African questioning local dogmas and traditions is portrayed as having abandoned or betrayed the essence of African identity. Skepticism and rationalism are regarded as western, unAfrican philosophies. Although there is a risk of over generalizing, there are clear indicators that the black continent is still socially, politically and culturally trapped and held back in the past.

Many irrational beliefs exist and hold sway across the region. These are  in the main beliefs informed by fear and ignorance, misrepresentations of nature and how nature works. These misconceptions are often instrumental  in causing many absurd incidents, harmful traditional practices and atrocious acts.

For instance, not too long ago, the police in Nigeria arrested a ‘robber’ goat which they said was a thief who suddenly turned to a goat. A Nigerian woman was reported to have given birth to a horse. In Zambia, a local school closed temporarily due to fears of witchcraft. In Uganda, there are claims of demonic attacks in schools across the country. Persecution and murder of alleged witches continue in many parts of the continent. Many Africans still believe that their suffering and misfortune are caused by witchcraft and magic. In Malawi, belief in witchcraft planes is widespread. Ritual killing and sacrifice of albinos and other persons with disabilities take place in many communities. Across Africa people still believe in the potency and efficacy of juju and charms. Faith based abuses are perpetrated with impunity. Jihadist, witch hunters and other religious militants are killing, maiming and destroying lives and property. Other-worldly visions and dogmatic attitudes to anything divine continue to corrupt and hamper attempts by Africans to improve their lives.

Even with the continent’s ubiquitous religiosity, many African states are to be found at the bottom of the Human Development Index and on the top of the poverty, mortality and morbidity indices.

Recently Africa was polled as the most devout region in the world. Devoutness and underdevelopment, poverty, misery and piety co-exist and co-relate. Incidentally the dominant faiths in the region are alien faiths. That means African Christians are more devout than Europeans whose missionaries brought christianity to Africa. African muslims are more devout than muslims in the Middle East whose jihadists and clerics introduced islam to the region.

 Meanwhile, whatever good these foreign religions must have brought or done in Africa cannot be compared with the damage and darkness they have caused and are still causing in the region. Intellectually, these two religions are holding Africans hostage. Most Africans cannot think freely or express their doubts openly because these religions have placed a huge price on freethinking and critical inquiry. Christianity and Islam peddle too many irrational claims which reinforce traditional irrational beliefs and encumber efforts to combat superstitions in the region. They include the belief in heaven and hell, virgin birth, Jesus as the saviour of the world, ascension and resurrection, divine revelation, holy spirit, angels, the devil, prayers and faith healing, divine emissaries, the prophethood of Mohammed and other Abrahamic religious icons, holy books, holy land, holy water etc.

Africans must reject religious indoctrination and dogmatization in public institutions. Africans need to adopt this cultural motto: Dare to think. Dare to doubt. Dare to question everything in spite of what religions teach or preach.

Africans must begin to think freely in order to ‘emancipate themselves from mental slavery’ and generate ideas that can ignite the flame of enlightenment.

The two dominant religions have fantastic rewards for those who cannot think, the intellectually numb and dumb, those who exercise blind faith and unquestioning obedience, even those who kill or are killed furthering their dogmas. They need to be told that the skeptical goods - the liberating promises of skeptical rationality- are by far more befitting and more beneficent to Africans than imaginary rewards either in the here and now or  in the hereafter. 

Today the African continent has become the new battle ground for the forces of a dark age, and we have to dislodge and defeat them if Africa is to emerge, grow, develop and flourish. To some people, the African predicament appears hopeless. The continent seems to be condemned, doomed and damned. Africa appears to be in a fix, showing no signs of imminent radical change, transformation and progress. African enlightenment sounds like a pipe dream.

I do not think this is the case. The fact is, there are indeed Africans who reason and think critically. There are Africans who are skeptics and rationalists, but they are too few and far apart to form the critical mass the continent needs to experience a skeptical spring.

However, the momentum is building slowly and steadily. One can say that an African “skeptical awakening” is in sight. The darkest part of the night often precedes the dawn. There is reason to be optimistic and hopeful. After all, Europe went through a very dark period in its history, in face, it was a darker and more horrible phase than that which Africa is currently undergoing. Yet the European continent survived to experience enlightenment and modern civilization.

Who ever thought that the Arab Spring would happen in our lifetime? African enlightenment can happen sooner than we expected. But it will not happen as a miracle. African enlightenment will not fall like manna from heaven. It requires - and will require - hard work, efforts, sacrifice, courage and struggle by Africans and other friends who are committed to the values of enlightenment.

In Europe, skeptics spoke out against dogma and tyranny and caused the dawn of a new awakening. African skeptics need to speak out against the forces of dogma, irrationalism and superstition ravaging the continent. Skeptics need to organize and mobilize - online and offline - to further the cause of reason, science and critical thinking.

Skeptics can no longer afford to keep quiet or remain indifferent in the face of a looming dark age, because charlatans operate operate in their communities, ‘mining’ popular fears and anxieties, exploiting desperate, ignorant gullible folks. We need to expose them and free our people from their bondage.

African skeptics cannot remain passive and inactive and expect skeptical rationality to thrive and flourish or expect the forces of dogma and superstition to simply disappear. The situation requires active engagement by convinced and committed skeptics. That was how the much talked about skeptical tradition in the western world was established and is sustained. That is how we are going to build and leave a skeptical legacy for Africa.

This is a call to duty to all African skeptics in Africa and in the diaspora. History has thrust on us this critical responsibility which we must fulfill. Let us therefore marshal our will to doubt and other intellectual resources and cause this new dawn - this skeptical awakening to happen early in this 21st century. African skeptics arise.

Leo Igwe, as a member of the International Humanist and Ethical Union, has bravely worked for human rights in West Africa. He is presently enrolled in a three year research programme on “Witchcraft accusations in Africa” at the University of Bayreuth, in Germany.



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