Atheism and the State of Belief in South Africa

By Glenn Ashton · 8 Nov 2008

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Picture: Kaleo Church
Picture: Kaleo Church

South Africans are by and large religious people, with deep spiritual commitment. According to the 2006 annual report released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labour of the US State department, over 80 percent of South Africans identify themselves as Christian, with four percent from other religions – Hindu, Muslim, Jewish. It is interesting to note that 15% of South Africans decline to list any religious affiliation. It is amongst this group that the atheists, those who reject a belief in a god or specific spiritual entity, belong.

It is quite remarkable that this group is so small in South Africa. After all even in the USA, one of the most religious nations on earth, only 75% of the population identify themselves as Christian. Europe is a veritable atheist hotbed. 

Yet the South African version of Christianity is a far more broad and encompassing smorgasbord of religious eclecticism. Many Africans hold parallel beliefs in ancestral systems of spiritual belief that are shored up through their conversion to various exotic branches of the Christian church. 

So, are all Christians in South Africa truly Christians? Or is it that there is some seminal recognition of a godhead amongst the panoply of ancestors, which serves to create some structures that have been manipulated by the interests of generations of colonial evangelists, seeking to save the souls of otherwise lost sheep?

Mathole Motshekga has taken this a step further and through his Kara institute has attempted to return African spiritual roots to their true home. This system is based on ancient Egyptian and other African beliefs related to ancient gods, traditional astrological beliefs and recognition of the spiritual aspects of Ubuntu, that all serve to place it in a contemporary local context. 

Whilst Motshekga does not directly challenge Christian dogma as such, the very concepts he promotes stand to inevitably erode the hold of monotheistic religion in Africa, given its grounding in accessible, traditional spiritual beliefs. It is worthwhile considering whether the renaissance of African roots religious concepts may in time tend to shift people towards a more atheist ideology?

Atheists are almost by definition inclined to question mainstream religious beliefs. While modern atheists may find their spiritual homes under the umbrellas of Buddhism, of Wicca or witchcraft or perhaps more commonly, under a more nebulous rejection of reliance on a central godhead, it is uncommon to find a total rejection of any sort of spiritual or moral ethos amongst atheists. 

Instead, it appears that most atheists base their spiritual foundation upon internal, self defined beliefs that may be unique, stand alone systems on the one hand or on the other encompass broader non-theistic spiritual beliefs, such as Buddhism. The question then arises as to whether atheists can aspire to enlightenment, in a spiritual sense? There would seem no reason to not do so but would that negate the relevance of the atheist moniker? 

A strong argument could be made that a large proportion of the self-defined 80% of Christians in South Africa could actually be – if they were granted the space to objectively examine their spiritual structures - more closely aligned to atheism than to Christian monotheism. After all, the influences of ancestral and traditional beliefs are often stronger than those of formal churches amongst African people. Are ancestral beliefs theistic or are they atheist? It can be argued that many of the formal African Christian churches simply play on the spiritual insecurity effected by colonialism and apartheid and then employ this as a tool to gain power and leverage over human spiritual vulnerabilities.

Equally, many atheists are drawn from the wider formal religious pool, including 'lapsed' monotheists – be they Christian, Muslim or whatever. The precepts of atheism run strong and deep, and most importantly, are tolerated in modern South African society, both constitutionally and socially.

There may be some truth in claims that much original, progressive and unfettered conceptual intellectual interrogation within the larger national spiritual dialogue emanates from within the group broadly encompassed within the atheist collective. 

It is also interesting to note the role of communists in the atheist discourse. Here a logical ideological system is used as an instrument to displace any hint of god in the human machine, consequent on dogmas such as religion being an 'opiate of the masses' or on the subbornation of the individual as part of, and responsible to, the collective - and not to god. 

This can be argued to be the logical, spiritual conclusion of Cartesianism, evincing the triumph of subjective scepticism and mechanistic rationalism over superstition. Cartesianism, in its most extreme, as epitomised by Communist groupthink, reduces humans to little more than machines, or ants or bees in the hive, each a part of the greater collective. 

It can be argued that this sort of thinking places communism in the position of having replaced mainstream religious mumbo-jumbo with dogmatic quasi-intellectual mumbo jumbo. It is questionable as to whether this is progressive or has been beneficial to the greater social or spiritual discourse, given its repetitiveness and inflexibility. What is however useful, is to have logic supplant dogma, as questioning communists, unfettered by prescribed dogmatic discourse, tend to do.

It is also interesting to note the resurgence of Wicca or nature based witchcraft in the west and examine this against the rise of Africanist beliefs. Wicca tends towards atheism in that it recognises rather our own power as individuals through the exercise of intent, rather than through the input of deities. This has much in common with traditional African beliefs.

While some intolerance is demonstrated towards the occult aspects of traditional African religion - as well as to Wiccan or pagan beliefs, mainly through the malign tendencies inherent in monotheistic fundamentalism - there are indeed indications that positive aspects of our collective spirituality can be examined if discourse takes place between these two closely related camps, situated on the fringes of atheism.

Those who have chosen to follow a path of theistic discipline historically tend to be dismissive of atheists. Whilst atheists can be spiritual, this is not necessarily so. Some may immerse themselves in the security of the discipline and dogma of scientific discourse, of communism, or at the other end of the scale, of libertarianism or shallow consumerism. Some may immerse themselves in hedonism or through spiritual isolation from the insanity of the modern world, gainsaying the potent role organised religion has had in shaping our collective destiny. 

Yet, it remains remarkable that although atheism was only recently defined, historically speaking, its precepts are probably as old as our reliance upon gods and the occult, devised in order to reduce the mysteries of the universe to manageable proportions. 

One thing is for certain – Atheism is alive and well in South Africa. Atheists ironically play a central role in the spiritual discourse and the evolution of the larger Pan African religious renaissance. Given our generally tolerant religious attitudes this bodes well for applying both logic and reasonableness, linked to the core humanist values of mutual respect, trust and co-operation, in order that we can more fully shape these key aspects of spiritual and human discourse. 

While these may relate to various moral and ethical aspects of our young democracy, they equally inform a wider discussion of these themes, regionally, continentally and internationally.

Ashton is a writer and researcher working in civil society. Some of his work can be viewed at Ekogaia - Writing for a Better World. Follow him on Twitter @ekogaia.

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Rory Short
7 Nov

The Spiritual Realm

For me personally the issue is not whether there is a God or not but whether there is an intangible realm which subsumes the physical, tangible realm?

The answer, based on my own experience, is that there is such an intangible realm which subsumes the physical, tangible realm. The usual blanket term for this realm is the spiritual realm. In my understanding religions are the result of humankind

Respond to this comment

7 Nov

Religion is a Waste of Time

Bill Gates said, "Just in terms of allocation of time resources, religion is not very efficient. There's a lot more I could be doing on a Sunday morning."

Respond to this comment

6 Sep

No Such Thing as Spirit

The writer seems to think that atheism is just another religion. And speaks of the spiritual aspect of life as if it is impossible to even imagine that it could be any less real the air we breathe. Well, I am sorry, but there is no such thing as the spiritual and atheism is not a belief system. I am a South African and a strong irreligious atheist. I see absolutely no reason to believe is some invisible relm or any invisible being or force. There is just no evidence for it. Life is what can be proven imperically, nothing more.

Respond to this comment

14 Nov


As Mr Ashton wrote in his semi objective that atheists are inclined to question. Now if this be the truth, which it generally is, how can one neutrally interrogate anything at all to do with spirituality, being in the sense of ghosts or what ever your imagination fancies, including Buddhism, and make a logical evidentially rich conclusion that it is not made up?

Mr Ashton accepts the reality of the spiritual realm? Well I accept the reality of the flying spaghetti monster. Thus, I am a Pastafarian. You must not let yourself be brought under the illusion that there is any proof of any kind, to say that anything religion says is 'reality'. Where are his sources to found his statement? Nowhere. Look for yourself.

A human being does not need a sub-atomic molar mass of spirituality to live a full fun 'moral' life. I am living proof. You are living proof. Your pet is living proof as well. Atheists do not need to fill any void, there is no void to fill. A study conducted in London concluded that atheists, contrary to popular belief, are much happier people then religious people. A quick google search will take you to the article.

There is absolutely nothing simple about ants and bees or humans, it becomes immensely intricate and interesting when we can brake things down and not simply dismiss what is intellectually above us. We have one such amazing organ, the brain, which allows us as humans to become more intellectually aware through a process of learning. It is far more rewarding and useful than any religious fairy tale.

Before you take what people tell you are truths or accepting truisms, you might want to do a quick Google search on its legibility, it will probably stop you from making life changing decisions which are a waste of time and money. An example you can try, the lie of 'The Secret' which was recently endorsed by Oprah Winfrey. Do a google search ' the secret scientificaly debunked', you will find a gripping explanation that goes deep into our brains for answers.

Just question everything, seek scientific answers on the net (takes 5 seconds instead of you wasting 5 decades) and you will be happier and know more. You will also find that you have more conversation material when you are socializing, making you a more interesting person.

Dare to think.

Respond to this comment

18 Jan

Atheism and the State of Belief in South Africa

How can you group atheists with Wiccans? When you're atheist, you don't believe in any kind of god/deity/higher being... Wiccans believe in a god and goddess, they don't "rule" like the christian god, but the belief in deity is there. Get your facts straight!

Respond to this comment

17 Feb


Someone who follows Buddhism is not an atheist. Buddhism conceives of god as being the entire universe. It's part of the primitive group of religions called Animism.