Scott Douglas Jacobsen: George Thindwa recommended you. I interviewed him about the irreligious community in Malawi. You noted that no one has done more for the formal irreligious movement than George.
So, in light of the mutual respect and acknowledgment of contributions to Malawi’s non-religious community, I want to start with the background to provide a framework for everyone.
Did family background influence religious or non-religious perspective? If so, how? Can you recall some pivotal moments?
Dr. Paul Munyenyembe: I grew up with my paternal grandparents who were very religious. But they were too old to enforce church attendance for me. So, I only attended church if and when I wanted. I cannot say that at that time I was irreligious. I started seriously questioning religion when I was in boarding secondary school.
I could not find answers to the many questions I had about religion. So, I completely lost my faith when I was still in secondary school. So, the short answer to your question is that my family background did not really influence my non-religious perspective.
Jacobsen: Since you have seen the developments in Malawi for some time, from youth to the present, what bigger developments took place in Malawi?
Munyenyembe: In my view, the bigger developments in Malawi are that we now have an organized irreligious movement. It’s also important to note that Malawian society, in general, has accepted the existence of the non-religious in the country.
We often participate in discussions about paranormal issues. We have been able to educate society about the dangers of superstitious beliefs in violating human rights. We have a dedicated column in the Sunday Times newspaper titled “Science and critical thinking”.
Many Malawians, especially the youth, are now not afraid to come out as non-religious.
Jacobsen: How have these aforementioned bigger developments influenced the religious landscape of the country, the demographics of the nation?
Munyenyembe: While the population as a whole is predominantly religious, our views and activities have led some religious people to start questioning their beliefs. The youth are becoming particularly sceptical of religious claims.
We are confident that the non-religious community will continue to grow in numbers. Of course, we are under no illusion that religion in Malawi will disappear anytime soon.
Jacobsen: Historically, what helps the formal irreligious movement in Malawi? What hinders attempts at it?
Munyenyembe: What has been very helpful to the formal irreligious movement in Malawi has been the advent of the internet and social media. Over the past few years, it has been easy for members of our movement to instantly share views and news. Right now we have a very active Whatsapp group. We have also created a newsletter which can be read online.
In spite of these positives, our movement is facing many challenges. Malawi is one of the most religious countries in the world. It’s also one of the poorest. And so religious organizations, especially Pentecostal churches, exploit people’s poverty by promising wealth and a lot of other incredible benefits offered by them.
In this way, people flock to these churches for material gains. The more traditional churches offer heavenly rewards which are very attractive to the poor. The other problem is that the education system in Malawi does not promote critical thinking. As a result, students memorise facts and do not question ingrained religious beliefs.
Jacobsen: What authors and organizations from Malawi should the international community, such as countries like Canada, look to help out in the movement towards moderation of the bad parts of formal religion and the development of the community for those whom religion does not feel like the right life path?
Munyenyembe: The Association for Secular Humanism is the only atheist organization in the country at the moment. It needs help in different forms for the smooth running of its activities.
There are other organizations that champion secular views and human rights. Some of these are: Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation, Centre for Development of People, and Malawi Writers Union.
Jacobsen: What have been successes and honest failures in the non-religious movements in Malawi?
Munyenyembe: The successes of the non-religious movement in Malawi are numerous. They include the growth of the movement’s membership from a handful to hundreds of members today; the eradication of witchcraft-based violence and human rights abuses; organization and participation in debates on superstitious beliefs and their dangers; participation in international fora, such as the World Humanist Congress; increased visibility of the movement in electronic and print media; and others.
One of the challenges we have been facing is that of fund-raising in an overwhelmingly religious environment. As a result, we have not been able to implement some activities. Due to this same constraint, it has been difficult to organize national conferences.
Jacobsen: How can people become involved other than simply reading and becoming more informed?
Munyenyembe: We have plans to establish humanist educational institutions and also to involve the youth in sexual and reproductive health. We are also promoting human rights activism, especially the rights of sexual minorities. We are also promoting activism in transformational leadership at the community level. In future, we have plans to introduce youth camps.
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Dr. Munyenyembe.
Image Credit: Dr. Paul Munyenyembe.