The Challenge of Atheism in Contemporary Zimbabwe

The saying, ‘There are no atheists in foxholes’ is used in arguing against atheism. The line of reasoning is that in situations of fear, danger or stress, people profess some belief in God or in some higher being. So this expression is employed to discredit the atheistic position and to question the authenticity and integrity of the godless life stance. But let’s face it; uncertainty, despair and hopelessness drive people to seek imaginary help and imaginary intervention from imaginary beings.

However this is not always the case. Many godless people maintain their disbelief in god no matter the dire situation which they may find themselves; they stand their ground and refuse to budge even in the face of extreme fear and stress. In situations of war or conflict, many atheists do not see the need to convert,to hanker after the supernatural or to profess belief in a higher power as a way of coping with the difficult or dangerous life situation.

Given the prevailing economic conditions, Zimbabwe can be compared to a foxhole. According to a BBC report, the country’s economy is in deep crisis. Poverty and unemployment are pervasive. The country has witnessed rampant inflation, severe food and fuel shortages. The collapse of the economy has been attributed to the forced seizure of white-owned commercial farms by the Mugabe regime. Everyday life is literally a battle.

But the question is: are there atheists in this country? The answer is: Yes. Atheists exist in Zimbabwe and in fact they have started organizing, mobilizing and connecting with each other, thanks to the internet. The growing network of atheists in the country is a clear testimony that atheism has a place in the lives of people whether they live under comfortable or stressful conditions; whether they live in a conflict situation or they lead a peaceful and secure life.

Recently, I was in contact with two Zimbabwean atheist activists, Dan and Jane, and they explained the challenge of being an atheist in contemporary Zimbabwe. Dan lives in the capital city, Harare. He had a religious upbringing but has been identifying as an atheist for the past three years:

I was raised religious but I was always the curious type, always willing to question and as I grew up and learnt more, it became increasingly difficult for me to take religion seriously. It was only after I encountered online skeptic and rationalist communities that I started to fully self-identify as an atheist.

The advent of the internet has indeed been empowering to non-theists particularly in expediting their leaving the closet. The flow of information and knowledge has been liberating for atheists in Africa because it has furnished them with ideas to nurture their doubts. The internet has provided atheists in the region with a platform to meet and interact with people of like mind. Though the virtual community has been helpful, atheists still face challenges because they have to relate with real people – friends and family members – in their immediate physical environments. Dan explains the social cost of identifying openly as an atheist in Zimbabwe:

The main challenge is that identifying openly as an atheist complicates all manner of relationships. It’s not exactly fun to have to take a measured approach to every conversation you participate in.

There is definitely a lack of understanding of what atheism is. For most people not being religious has never occurred to them as an option. Yes there are other atheists in Zimbabwe, I’ve only ever physically met two but I know over ten others from the web. I actually co-run the Zimbabwean Atheist facebook page which had 95 likes the last time I checked, though a significant number of them are atheists from countries other than Zimbabwe. But it still helps to have some space to meet up even if it is virtual. As far as I can tell, most of them are in the closet, as am I.

I doubt that it is physically dangerous to publicly identify as an atheist in Zimbabwe. I certainly haven’t heard or seen anything to lead me to believe this. However there are bound to be serious social costs attached to that sort of thing. Zimbabweans are very religious and with the economy performing as badly as it is they have become even more religious. It’s certainly not hard to imagine a person losing friends and family because they admitted to being an atheist. It is problematic enough being a young person without adding your rejection of the religion to the mix. I am privileged to have a number of friends who understand even when they are mostly Christian themselves but at the present moment I don’t even dream about disclosing this to family members.

The future of Atheism in Zimbabwe is particularly not easy to predict. I suspect there is a long difficult road ahead of us. The best we can probably hope for in the short term is increased knowledge of what atheism is in the broader society. There would be less shock and fear if it were known that there is an alternative to religion.

But spreading the knowledge that there is an alternative to religion has to contend with the indoctrination by faith groups that no such alternative exists and that it is either one believes in god or the person is damned. Jane, who also lives in Harare, was brought up as a Christian but became an atheist when she was 17. She became an atheist through reading the Bible. “The Bible itself deconverted me”, she stated. This ‘painful’ process of deconversion and abandoning of the Christian faith happened because while reading the Bible, she noticed “many things which were contradictory and utter nonsense”. Also she loves science and found scientific claims more persuasive than religious or Biblical doctrines. Like Dan, she notes the social cost of going open with her atheism in contemporary Zimbabwe:

Well, being an atheist here is quite a rare thing. I’m open about it to everyone but my family members just to avoid the drama. I think it’s more a matter of the judgement you’ll get rather than being in danger. To be very honest most people are religious and no one that I know has had problems because the person is an atheist. Atheism is perceived as a bad thing of course.

She maintains that atheism is not a topic that is openly talked about in the country and she thinks the muted discourse of atheism is due to the prevailing economic situation :

The economic crisis definitely gets the churches full. Zimbabweans love ‘miracles’. As an atheist in this country I feel like my opinion is unwanted and unimportant but in all honesty I have bigger things to focus on ha ha. So I barely care much. I live and let live.

Throughout the region, atheists often feel quite helpless in the face of the overwhelming influence of religious faiths particularly the dominant effects of Christianity and Islam. Religion and politics mix so atheists are socially and politically squeezed out. Many people think that there is no future for atheism in the region and that going open and public with one’s disbelief in God or Allah is a needless risk. So, many atheists in Africa remain in the closet or continue to pay lip service to religion. But religious posturing is delaying the emergence of vibrant atheism in the region. It is doing huge damage to the cause of atheist awakening in Africa.

It is important to state that many countries in the western world once faced similar economic challenges which are driving Zimbabweans, and in fact many people across Africa to churches, mosques and spiritual homes. But atheists in these countries did not resign to their religious or theistic fate. They dared and expressed openly their doubts and really demonstrated in creed and in deed that there were atheists in foxholes. History tells us that their campaigns paid off and contributed to the cause of renaissance and enlightenment in the western world.

So atheists in Zimbabwe should not despair or relent in their campaign for an open, secular and freethinking society. They should not think that their views are of no significance to their country and its future. Instead they should strive to keep the flame of atheism, skepticism and secularism burning despite the odds against them.

And as atheists in Zimbabwe try to make their voices heard, as they try to organize and mobilize in furtherance of secular values, atheist groups and activists in other parts of the world should reach out to them and show support and solidarity.

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