‘Personally, I am an atheist because I am a freethinker first and foremost’

James Onen aka Fat Boy is a founding member of Freethought Kampala, a club that seeks to bring together freethinkers in the Kampala area. Agnes K Namaganda spoke to him.

Who is a free thinker?
A person whose beliefs are not based on traditions or religious beliefs but on reason, logic and science.

How did you become a free thinker?
I have always been a free thinker to some degree although at one time I became very religious while at Kings College Budo. I got saved in S.1 and remained saved until about S.4. Because I had always been a freethinker, I began applying reason to my religious beliefs and found that they could not withstand much critical scrutiny. So I abandoned religion.

Uganda is about 98 per cent religious and like most non-believers, I kept my views to myself in order not to be ostracised or to antagonise relationships with friends and relatives. The child-sacrifice saga that began in 2008 changed this and prompted me to be open about my views on spiritual matters.

I noticed that there was much discussion in the public sphere on how witchcraft was wrong from a moral perspective, but absolutely no public discussion on whether or not witchcraft actually worked, from a scientific perspective. When I tried to initiate this debate among friends, colleagues, and academics, I found that most of them believed witchcraft worked, not that they would go to a witch doctor themselves, but they believed witchdoctors did have magical powers. For most, being believers, witchcraft was viewed as an extension of Satanism.

For as long as university-educated Ugandans thought witchcraft worked by refusing to question it, there was absolutely no hope for steering the illiterate away from irrational super naturalist beliefs. This situation bothered me.

Then, I also began getting concerned about other things, like how pastors conned thousands of believers by stage-managing fake miracles; I read about how many HIV positive believers were dying because they were abandoning ARVs based on unsubstantiated miracle testimonies.

I met people who were worried they had been bewitched or were victims of “generational curses” after what they’d been told in church. By consigning all our problems to the realm of the “spiritual”, we were inadvertently just sweeping all our problems under the rug and hoping they would magically disappear, which of course they weren’t.

Someone needed to warn the public about the fraudsters who promised them miracles in exchange for their meagre earnings. Someone needed to remind the public that they should not shun medical treatment in favour of dubious healing schemes on offer from charlatans, be it religious or traditional. Sadly, there was simply no one out there, so some like-minded individuals and I decided it was time to do something.

We got in touch with people who shared our concerns and together formed a community of freethinkers whose role, we decided, would be to provide a reason-based skeptical viewpoint with regard to religious, cultural and other matters. We decided to call this community of freethinkers “Freethought Kampala’- a think-tank, or club.

We respect every Ugandan’s right to practice religion. Our desire is to specifically address certain detrimental aspects of extreme fundamentalist religious beliefs that even our educated religious peers are aware of but seem reluctant to challenge themselves. We want to promote critical thinking based on reason, logic and the scientific-method.

So what is the difference between a freethinker and an atheist?
A freethinker is a person whose opinions are formed not on the basis of religion or tradition, but on the basis of reason, logic and science. Meanwhile, atheists lack a belief in the existence of any gods or the supernatural. I am an atheist because I am a freethinker first and foremost.

Are their religious people who are free thinkers?
It depends; some believers claim their belief in God is not based on scripture but on reason, science and logic, so in principle, it would seem like they are freethinkers. The current body of scientific knowledge is incompatible with belief in things like souls, spirits, miracles, efficacy of intercessory prayer and a literal interpretation of the Genesis creation story. If one persists in believing these things - even when scientific evidence suggests otherwise – then they are not being a freethinker.

How do your family and friends react to your freethinking views?
From time to time, my mother tells me she’s praying for me to come back to Jesus. My friends? Not really.

I don’t think all people are religious to the same degree. There are extremists and those who fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. Those in this “middle” area, who probably constitute the majority of believers, may claim to be religious, but in reality nothing about how they live their lives reflects it.

Case in point - even though their religions frown upon it, they consume alcohol, listen to “worldly” music, go clubbing, or practice pre-marital sex. Most religious people realise it is impossible to live in complete adherence of religious rules and don’t even try to pretend they can.

Fundamentally, as human beings, we have more in common than we realise – such as the desire for peace, safety of our loved ones, proper education of our children and youth, a healthy modern society, respect for rights of all citizens, and above all, the desire to be happy. I therefore don’t think differences in religious views should pose a problem given the universal human ideals that unite us and the common goals we share.