Sunday, June 29, 2008

Giving thanks (part 1): decisions and actions

As an atheist, who do I thank for the good things that happen in my life? This is an interesting question a Christian friend of mine recently asked me. At first, I thought the question was rather irrelevant, but the more I thought about it, the more I began to realise what a good question it actually is, as it can show how differently an atheist and a theist view the source of good fortune.

I guess there are different types of good fortune: the type brought about by the decisions and actions of people, and the type that occurs through pure luck. In this post, I will cover the first kind.

When I used to be a Christian, I used to thank God when I achieved excellent marks for an exam, or if I was promoted at work. But when I pondered the question of who actually spent many nights sweating over books in intense study, or many hours trying to perfect skills in the workplace, I slowly realised that good fortune was often the result of my own actions and hard work, or the result of other people’s actions and decisions. There never seemed to be a clear indication that God intervened in anything at all. After all, how does God make it easier for me to pass an exam, or to get a promotion? Where, in the chain of events that lead to good fortune, does he interfere

I covered a similar question in an earlier post regarding saying grace before a meal. Even if I was some sort of theist, I think I would hesitate to thank a god for my food. This is not because I don’t appreciate food, or that I take food for granted. Rather, it is because I don’t see any evidence of supernatural intervention in the chain of events that results in food getting to my table.

There is the crop scientist who is trained to increase wheat yield; the farmer who has laboured many hours to cultivate crops; the engineer who designs better harvesting equipment; the food specialist who employs her knowledge to keep the food fresh during transport; and the chain store manager who deals with complex logistics to ensure that her shelves are constantly stocked. The food reached my table because of human ingenuity and hard work. Where is God in all this? So as an atheist, I don’t give thanks to God. Rather, I thank all these people for my daily bread; without them, I would starve.

Of course, I would imagine that many people thank God not so much for good fortune that has resulted from human intervention, but for good fortune that seems to happen by pure luck. Can we thank God for good luck? I will cover this in my next post.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008


Unthinking respect for authority is the greatest enemy of truth.
- Albert Einstein

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Ashamed to be South African

“To be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedoms of others.” Nelson Mandela.

If you ever visit South Africa, do yourself a favour and spend a day at the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg. The beautifully designed building provides a spectacular historical timeline of apartheid’s birth, life, and eventual death. When one walks through the hushed corridors, one is deeply moved, disturbed, as well as incredibly fascinated by the surrounding photographs, museum pieces, newsreels, audio clips, posters and props – all snapshots of what it was like to live under an oppressive social system.

As one reaches the end of the museum, one is faced with a large plaque with a list of about 30 written items. When I visited the museum last year, I looked at this list in silence for sometime before leaving, because one can argue that the entire struggle against apartheid was for the realisation of this very list. It is for these few bulleted points that many anti-apartheid activists stood their ground, and as result were beaten, victimised, held without trial, and sometimes executed.

This list is South Africa’s Bill of Rights

The end of apartheid brought democracy to South Africa, and for the first time an all encompassing Bill of Rights was enshrined in law, ensuring the equality of every individual, regardless of race, gender, age, religious belief or sexual orientation. Various basic rights – such as equality, human dignity, as well as freedom of belief, religion, speech, and association – where for the first time awarded to everyone in this country. It was a magnificent achievement for a nation which at one stage was on the brink of a bloody civil war. I think a common element in the South African psyche is a sort of pride regarding this fact: that we achieved a peaceful revolution through the ballot box; that we are somehow the torch bearers of human rights and democracy. After all, we made it work in circumstances where many others had failed.

But I’m now convinced that South Africa has no right to carry this torch any longer. Over the last few months, townships and informal settlements have erupted in violence, as mobs of South Africans have purged their neighbourhoods of immigrants. This chaos, aroused by a widespread belief that non-South Africans are stealing jobs and are responsible for crime, has resulted in many deaths and thousands of displaced foreigners, and has sent shock waves through South African society, and the world.

One is left wondering in despair: as South Africans, we should know better! Most South Africans should know what it feels like to be singled out and dehumanised because of some personal attribute, let it be skin colour or gender. Most South Africans should know what it feels like to be forcibly removed from their homes, and beaten. As a nation, one would think that we would have learnt from apartheid what the horrors of intolerance can do, and how it can destroy. But it seems as if we have learnt nothing.

I know that the causes of xenophobia are complex, and that many have suggested various reasons to why this has happened. But as I watch the violence unfolding in the news, displaced families – who have lost everything – seeking refuge at police stations and churches, I cannot see how South Africans can be proud of their democracy.

I’m ashamed of calling myself a South African.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Will be back soon!

Hi all

I must apologise for not posting recently. In May work kept me busy: I was traveling extensively around the country, and since the beginning of June Cori and I have been touring the UK, visiting friends and family. You can view her travel diary at .

I will be back near the end of the month, and will be posting again. I have many ideas that I can't wait to put down in writing. Thank you to everyone who have left comments and emailed me during this time - I will work through them all extensively when I'm back home.

All the best