I have just returned from Plettenberg Bay, where we had a Public Viewing Area (what we are calling "FanJols") for the Confederations Cup. The Western Cape Provincial government has entered into a sponsor arrangement with a majoe FIFA sponsor, to do these. During one of the breaks, inbetween a woman called "Cookie Loekie" singing and demonstrations of skill by various soccer players - a representative of the sponsor stood up - and turned the whole gathering into an Evangelical prayer session! "I wonder if I can just ask you to bow your heads in prayer", he said to the people who had gathered there to watch soccer. "Father God", he began, "I just wanna ask you to pour your holy spirit... pour your blessing ... powerfully bless" etc etc
It was embarassing. It was wholly inappropriate and it was completely insensitive. But did this wally realize it? No! He told the crowd that he just wanted to tell each and every one of them that he loved each and every one of them. If I had something heavy near me, I would have thrown it at him. I ran towards the stage to stop him, but by the time I had got there, he had stopped praying and exited the stage.
On the flight back home, I remembered a story about the child of a friend of mine, that is worth re-telling:
We live, nowadays thank God, in a secular state. Before we didn’t. Before we lived in a Christian state. It was a state which sanctioned killing and murder across our borders; race hatred and broad sweep discrimination at home; capital punishment for anyone who opposed it; job reservation and separate (and universally better) facilities for whites … the list is well known and goes on and on. Well, as I said, thank goodness, we don’t live in a Christian state anymore.
I heard a story some time ago, which made me wonder about things though. It was about the courage of a ten year old schoolboy. This boy is bright, undoubtedly. Maybe that is a problem in a government school, where, as I remember things, one was supposed to conform as much as possible. If Friday was the day you did cadets, in my day, you wore Khaki to school and you saluted the flag and you sang the national anthem and marched around the rugby field. And it was a helluva thing to get out of. You were expected to conform and if you didn’t, there was trouble of one sort or another.
Now this boy is in a government school in Pretoria. He decided, for his own reasons, that he didn’t want to attend the bible classes. Gasp! “But why?!” asked his teacher. “Because I am an atheist,” he replied. This was followed by incredulity. The incredulity was then followed by suspicion. “But why?!” asked the now severely traumatised educator. The boy answered, succinctly, “Because it isn’t logical to me”.
Instead of admiration for his independence of thought, he encountered a rising level of hostility, a gathering of the forces of light against what was perceived to be a very clear outbreak of the forces of darkness. The teacher suggested that he “just sit in” the class. And if there was anything which he found … words started to fail her … “distastful”, she tried, or … “objectionable” she proffered, then he could leave. But the matter did not end there.
Dark musings began. I mean being a Hindu is one thing. Being Muslim, even another thing. But being an atheist! Could there possibly be something like …worried glances over the shoulder… hushed voice…Satanism involved here????
Another boy suddenly punched our hero, saying that God had told him to do it. Then something much more sinister began. The boy became gradually more and more ostracised. Slowly, friends withdrew from him. More blatently, when he tried to make more friends, the other children would subvert his attempts. He had become a ten year old, increasingly lonely paraiah.
His parents began to notice that something was seriously wrong and eventually the child told them what was happening. He had given the matter some thought, he said, and asked his parents whether they thought it would make a difference if he became an agnostic, rather than an atheist. They said they thought not and have wisely moved him to another school.
I was reminded, when I heard this story, of Olive Schreiner’s haunting picture of the little boy Waldo, in The Story of an African Farm, who tries to offer God a sacrifice of his lunch, a lamb chop. He knows it all depends on his faith and that for God to accept the offering, his faith needs to be strong. So he builds an altar of stones and he puts the lamb chop on it and he waits for fire to come down from heaven to consume it. He waits all day long in the blazing Karoo heat. And eventually the ants start eating it. There was no fire from the heavens, no voice from the skies. Eventually, as evening comes, he breaks down his altar, throws away the lamb chop and knows, with childlike certainty, that either he is damned, God must hate him. Certainty is a childlike and terribly endearing quality.
The process of secularisation in our society has been, and will continue to be, a very difficult one. With one form of one religion being so utterly dominant and triumphalist, there is little wonder to the fact that many people simply do not understand what the thrust of secularism is and they see it as something of a slide down the slippery slope of apostasy. However, if they were not no wrapped up in their own conceit, they would see that it is a slide down nowhere at all, except perhaps that thing which is frequently so terribly absent from uninformed religious thinking – the principle of fairness. Now, if you believe that you are right and no-one else can possibly be right, then that is where the conversation stops. And, to say the least, it is a damn good think for the rest of us to be protected from people like that. But another story I heard about a very wise school principal in Maritzburg will perhaps help to illustrate the point here.
The principal and the governing body of the school decided to put a stop to years of Christian exclusive practice in the school, just like that. Instead of singing Christian hymns in the assemblies, songs, equally syrrupy, but more universal in character were chosen. Theism in its many forms was acknowledged and general religious education was offered so that the learners could be made aware of the plethora of options and the benefits of all.
Well, needless to say, this wasn’t good news for the bible waving fundamentalists. They huffed and puffed and protested and signed petitions and saw the whole thing as grand apostasy of the first order. They arrived, clutching their bibles in one hand and their petitions in the other. They would not stand for it.
The principal said one thing. She said this. She said, the next principal of the school could well be a Muslim. How would this gang of Christian fundamentalists feel if everyone in the school was then forced to attend Koran classes and have prayers at noon on a prayer mat. She was, met, I hear, from that moment on, with nary a word of protest. The point, I am led to understand, was so clear that even normally logic challenged Christian fundamentalists were able to understand and appreciate it.
Because surely, it is not that the constitutional secularist position displays any problem with religion. On the contrary, religion is both allowed and encouraged. Rather it is simply that in a democratic society, we cannot allow one particular opinion, or position or world view to be shoved down everyone’s throats, just because some people believe that they have a monopoly on the truth.