Saturday, March 29, 2008

Being an atheist in catholic Cape Verde

Recently, a large sculpture was erected in Achada St Antonio in Praia, just by the ocean. The statue portrays the late Pope John Paul II, gazing out over the infinite sea with his arms gracefully lifted as if giving his blessings to anyone passing by. The area around the statue has been restored with stone paths and stairs, some greenery and a small children’s playground. It has become a popular family spot for the locals, especially in the evenings.

The choice to pay tribute to the Pope is not by chance, of course. According to statistics, a clear majority (some 90%) of Cape Verdeans are catholic Christians – no doubt a heritage from the colonial days the archipelago was under catholic Portuguese rule (in fact, when you think about it, isn’t it strange that Cape Verdeans did not want to oust the colonial religion along with the oppressors at the time of liberation?). There is also a protestant Christian community, as well as smaller communities of Baha’i and muslims.

My impression is that religion has a prominent, however not exceedingly dominating, role in the Cape Verdean society. People go regularly to church (every Sunday you will see large crowds of well-dressed people on their way to service), but most people I meet don’t say grace, they don’t pray to god openly, and they don’t seem to express religious disapproval of, for instance, abortion or the use of contraceptives. And unlike in the USA, it appears that a Cape Verdean politician can actually run for office with success even if he or she does not openly declare a Christian belief. All in all, my impression is that Cape Verde is fairly secular. Surprisingly so.

Nevertheless, I have yet to meet a fellow atheist in Cape Verde. When occasionally I feel obliged to reveal my (lack of) beliefs, and tell them that I am genuinely convinced that there is no such thing as a god (or any other supernatural entity for that matter), Cape Verdeans usually show great surprise, even disbelief. They seem to wonder how it is even possible not to believe in god. Still, I have never felt any outspoken intolerance or disrespect; my conviction seems to be accepted (if not understood) – maybe in the same way as they accept all my other strange foreign behaviors and traits such as treading around in mountain slopes, always insisting on using seatbelts in the car, appreciating raw herring in mustard sauce and being very strict not to drink-and-drive.

In contrast to Cape Verde, my native country Sweden (albeit historically being a Christian country since the 11th century) is nowadays probably one of the most secular and non-religious countries in the world. A relatively high number (75%) of Swedes are formally members to the state church, but this is mostly due to the fact that, until 1996, all children became members automatically at birth. Currently, the Swedish church is losing about 1% of members every year, and less than 10% regularly attend church service. According to a poll made in 2005 by the Eurobarometer, only 23% of the Swedes believe that there is a god, and equally many (23%) do not believe in any god at all. Interestingly, a majority (54%) would rank somewhere in-between, believing that there is some sort of spirit or life force, but no god in the Christian sense.

My own path to atheism began early on. Even in secular Sweden, and brought up in a non-religious family, I was however somewhat indoctrinated by Sunday school and other influences, and I do recall praying to god from time to time when I went to bed (“Please dear God, let my math teacher be sick tomorrow so that I won’t have to take the test”). I also remember vividly a bus filled with some strange people, parked at the school yard for a whole week, using munchies, guitar music and convincing smiles to lure innocent children inside during breaks to “learn about the word of God”. In fact, I believe that I spent quite significant time in that bus, and it might be just pure luck that I escaped from that experience without being sucked in to some Christian sect (I still can’t believe that that bus was actually allowed to park in the school yard).

While by no means actively religious in my early years, I first came to seriously doubt the existence of god when preparing for my communion at 13 years of age. It came as somewhat of a surprise to me that nobody, including the priest himself, was nowhere near of adequately addressing even my most sensible and basic questions about Christianity, such as “who or what created god?”, “if god created everything, why did he create the Devil?”, “what will happen to all of those that never hear of the Christian god, will they burn in hell?”, “what sense does it make that Jesus suffered and died in the most horrible way to cleanse other people’s sins?” etc. As a consequence, I discontinued my bible studies halfway, to the surprise of my (secular) parents and to the dismay of my (Christian) grandparents. Even if it meant that I therefore didn’t get any precious communion gift (typically a moped), as did most of my classmates.

I have always been fascinated by life philosophy, religion and the possible existence of a god, and I still am. (If you are interested in my specific view of the “meaning of life”, have a look at my previous blog on this subject ). For a long time I used to call myself an agnostic, simply because I didn’t think that I knew enough to conclude for certain that god did not exist – regardless the fact that I actually found it exceedingly unlikely. As a student of natural science at secondary school and university, I chose biology as my main subject and became familiar with Darwin’s brilliant theory of evolution, which I found very captivating, even philosophically. (I now understand that there is a good reason that religious fanatics want to ban certain education; it is because these competing theories for the existence and development of life on earth are so much more convincing than what is found in the bible and other so called holy books.)

With all this new knowledge, my conviction that there are other and much more plausible theories to enlighten us on the classic existential “inexplicables”, such as the origin of life, what happens after death, the meaning of life etc, than some kind of simplistic “higher presence” (or however people want to describe god). Thanks to Richard Dawkins’ books “The Selfish Gene” and the “The Blind Watchmaker”, my certainty grew even stronger, and when I finally read his latest book “The god Delusion”, I realized with much clarity, and indeed inspiration, my true nature as an atheist, previously concealed under the inaccurate label of agnosticism.

In my opinion, “The God Delusion” is actually one of the most important philosophical contributions to mankind ever made on the subject of science, religion, evolution and rational thought. The argumentation put forward by Dawkins against god’s existence is so convincing, and at the same time so clear and simple, that it is hard to see how anyone, even the most rigid religious believer, could disagree with its main message (then again, dogmatic believers would of course never read it to start with). For me, the book is a real landmark when it comes to finding genuine comfort with the idea that god’s existence is decidedly implausible, as well as (generally speaking) malevolent for mankind.

As Dawkins rightly points out, we are all atheist in some sense – we have all come to denounce ancient gods like the Nordic “Thunder god” Thor, the Greek “Sea God” Poseidon, the Mayan “Winged God” Quatzequatel, and the Egyptian “Sun God” Ra. I personally hope that we one day we will see this trend completed: we would then have world rid of divine misconceptions.

Imagine that – a world based on rational argument, reason and evidence, instead of being guided by a groundless “faith” deriving from some books written by old men some thousand years ago, arbitrarily interpreted to fit our modern society (just as one small example, there is a fierce debate among religious scholars in Denmark on whether the church should denounce the idea of “hell”, which some consider has been completely “made up” in the middle ages). What would such a world look like? Well, to start with there would be no religious terrorism or suicide bombers, no depressing experience of “holy sins”, no religious child indoctrination, no women completely covered by black cloth, no doctors killed because they perform abortion, no disapproval of well established scientific knowledge (such as evolution, or the age of earth) that does not “fit” with the holy books, no banning of life-saving appliances such as contraceptives. And so forth – the list would go on and on and on.


While science can’t explain everything (yet, that is), it surely can explain a lot more, and by far more convincingly, than any religion can ever do. And, more importantly, science will never in itself make people fanatic enough to kill or harm another just because of their beliefs, as religion truly does (the actual use of scientific progress to promote violence, by for instance religious fanatics as well as others who wish to do harm, is a different matter). There is a reason that it is virtually impossible to picture a devoted scientist becoming a crusader, a militant Islamist or a suicide bomber.

On a final note, I recently had the most interesting discussion with a Cape Verdean woman on this subject. She, as many others, had a very hard time to actually come to terms with the fact that I really don’t believe in god, and she told me that she could show me plenty of evidence of god’s existence, referring e.g. to men who were pregnant, resurrected dead people, black magic and whatnot. I responded that I would be very willing to reconsider my atheistic conviction, if she could give me any kind of clear-cut scientific proof of the existence of any god. I then asked her if she would do the same; her response was that nothing I would say or do would ever make her change her mind about god’s existence. I think, in essence, that this little episode describes very well the difference between rational and superstitious beliefs – between reason and faith.

1 comment:

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