Atheism in a time of dying… Or, public relations and the life of an icon. By Cornelius Antonie.
Former president of South Africa and recipient of the Nobel peace award, Nelson Mandela, is spending time in hospital again. At 94, every time he enters a health care facility there is sheer panic that it may be the end. These tend to be extremely emotional periods for the whole country. As usual in times like these, the media is full of calls by government, religious and other groups to pray for him.
This is an awkward time for an atheist. There’s a fine line between tolerating religious freedom and allowing yourself to be subjugated by those of faith. Toeing the line between sensitivity towards the needs and perspectives of others while standing your ground concerning your own views is not a simple task, especially when there is so much emotion involved.
Often people may wonder why one would make a fuss during such a sensitive time. Why do I choose to wilfully stir the pot in this delicate situation? Why am I being such a selfish atheist?
To that I can only reply that my reaction is a response to the insensitivity and lack of consideration of others. If being unselfish requires me to tolerate intolerance, then I’d rather be selfish. So often people are lost in their own self-righteousness, and they fail to realise that what they perceive as insensitivity towards them is a reaction to their own insensitivity. In such cases, the blame should always be placed squarely on the first offender.
Should I simply accept the trampling of my rights out of respect for Madiba, or should I stand my ground? There is no occasion, not even the health concern of a global icon, in which disregard for my humanity should be tolerated. Somehow I am convinced that Madiba would approve.
Two notable incidences occurred, as is usually the case on these occasions. The first was the presidency’s call for all South Africans to pray for Nelson Mandela; the second was a statement by the South African Council of Churches that it’s the duty of every South African to pray for Nelson Mandela. While it was very similar statements, my reaction to both varied significantly.
When a government spokesman calls on South Africans to pray, I feel excluded from the proceedings. What am I supposed to do? Pray? How do I do that? Does my concern for Mandela’s health not matter?
I’m not all heartless. Well, at least not all the time. I understand that prayer is comforting to some people, and who am I to complain that people shouldn’t pray during difficult times? Even if it seems pointless and a complete waste of time to me, others may feel it’s an important part of their process.
I am willing to compromise. May I suggest an alternative, more inclusive statement? A government spokesman should rather call on South Africans to keep Mandela in their thoughts and prayers. It sounds like the same thing, but it’s not. I can certainly keep a sympathetic thought out of concern for Madiba without succumbing to any superstition, while those who do wish to entertain the supernatural are not alienated either.
When a religious organisation claims that it is the duty of every South African to pray for Mandela, the statement should be rejected outright. Calling a religious practise a duty as a citizen is discriminative towards those who do not share the same religion, and the thought should not even be entertained.
It is troublesome, however, that such declarations are widely reported by the media while nobody seem to question the constitutional validity of such statements. Religious groups have the freedom to make any proclamations regarding their faith, and adherents to their faith. However, claiming that everyone should join in with their religious practice as a national duty is not only arrogance on their part, but also insulting.
If a religious practise is claimed as a national duty, it’s implied that I am a second class citizen because I do not comply. This is discrimination on religious grounds.
I understand that the religious have a right to practise their faith. I would recommend that their organisation call it a duty for every practitioner of their religion to perform the appropriate ritual, as in, it’s the duty of every Christian South African to pray for Nelson Mandela. When a Christian group calls on other Christians to perform a duty, I am being excluded. However, I do not mind at all, because by not being Christian, I already made it clear that I do not wish to be included. It leaves me free to honour Mandela in my own way.
I may be sympathetic to Nelson Mandela and the concerns of the myriad of well-wishers, but that does not mean I should step back, compromise myself, and allow for my rights to be ignored. Disregarding a basic human right offends the legacy of Nelson Mandela. After all, if anything, Mandela is respected because he stood up for those rights.