Alton Mungani is the Co-Founder, Editor, & Curator of Zimbabwean Atheists. Here we talk about his life, work, and views.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: In terms of your family background, what is it?
Alton Mungani: I was born in a small city in the middle of Zimbabwe called Gweru. The last in a family of four boys, I was the quiet, reclusive boy who stayed in his room and read a lot. I was quiet because my three older brothers were closer to each other, often had what I thought were abrasive personalities; and would often gang up to pick on me. So I decided that the best way to avoid that was to keep out of their way. My parents were middle class labourers, and for the first six years of my life, we lived in a high-density suburb. After my parents built a house in a middle-low density suburb, we moved; my brothers changing schools, and being six years old, I started my primary education at what was regarded an ‘A’ school in the city. For secondary and high school, my parents insisted on sending us all to boarding school, which we all did. My brothers eventually all left the country and are living and working outside Zimbabwe. My parents are now retired, and I still stay at home with them.
Jacobsen: What is the personal background? Your story leading into the present work as a Zimbabwean freethinker.
Mungani: From childhood, I was always a literary gourmand. I would pore over every book I could lay my hands on with a feral hunger. I did not care whether the book was ‘for my age’ or not, whether or not I actually understood what I was reading, but I read still. I exhausted the books at home, and I basically spent every free second in the school library. This hunger for knowledge was to be the foundation of my being a freethinker, way before I realized it. My family identified themselves as Adventists, even though we were never really the super-devout types. My father drank and smoked (still does), and since that is ‘frowned upon’ by Adventists, he was never too enthusiastic about church. The rest of the family would go to church here and there; and I had a stint where I was particularly religious. I was in the church choir, would participate in activities, and was generally a ‘good Christian’ (hic). But that was not my only religious exposure. I have an uncle who is of the Rastafarian religion that I grew up around. I would talk to him about almost everything, and he encouraged my inquisitive mind. He would give me more books to read, and we would discuss and debate what I would have read. Through him, I realised and appreciated religious diversity.
The ghosts of the books I read would haunt my every waking hour. A lot of the books were of the philosophical tilt, and my inquisitive mind began to question even further. My adventures in philanthropy began to buttress my love for humanity. I learnt and taught myself that human rights needed to be respected, regardless of race, sex, orientation, tribe, or social position. I got to realise that while offering service in one way or another, many organisations sometimes violate certain rights, be it intentional or otherwise. Being a freethinker got me to understand that religion, especially brand-name religions (as Rami Shapiro calls them), have a tendency to violate certain human rights, and the victims are none-the-wiser because the violation has been clothed in such a way that they think the violation is to their benefit. I became a personal champion for enlightening people on their rights and how not to be victimized.
Jacobsen: What were some pivotal moments in life for you, in terms of atheism?
Mungani: As a liberal mind, the transition into atheism was not a momentous event, but a gradual realisation and awakening, combined with disillusionment. Living in a society that is predominantly Christian, many sceptics and freethinkers have stayed silent, in fear of discrimination and labelling. That said, I can say some of my pivotal moments are when the religious not only acknowledge, but even respect my atheism. A vivid example is when I attended a social gathering where the deliberations were usually preceded by a prayer. On that particular day, the moderator of the gathering mentioned that there was not going to be any praying involved. This, of course, was received with dissatisfied murmurs from the crowd. At the end of the event, the moderator walked up to me and explained that he had prevented the praying because I was in the room, and he did not want to offend me. That gave me a warm feeling, because where the religious can be so entitled as to want monopoly over offense; it was a confidence boost to know that there are people out there who respect humanity regardless of religious leanings or none at all.
Another pivotal moment with regards atheism, was when I wrote an article that was published in a national newspaper in 2017. The article was a treatise in support of a proposed new curriculum for primary and secondary education in Zimbabwe. The curriculum had secular leanings, advocating for the tolerance of the diversity of cultures in Zimbabwe, as well as advocating for a more science and technology-based approach to education; thus championing reason, objectivity and free enquiry in schools.
Jacobsen: What were some important books for you?
Mungani: The most important book that solidified my conviction as an atheist was The God Delusion by Professor Richard Dawkins. I received the book as a birthday present from my cousin; and I did not put it down until I finished reading it. After the first read, I studied it more, making reference to other books and the internet. I looked for and began reading his other books, namely The Blind Watchmaker and The Selfish Gene, which I still read here and there. Sam Harris’ The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation were other books of value to me. Of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Christopher Hitchens’ God is Not Great – How Religion Poisons Everything. This book remains a personal favourite.
Jacobsen: Who have been pivotal mentors or figures in global and then African, even Zimbabwean, free thought for you?
Mungani: Secular activism worldwide has seen many champions over the
years. From figures with a science-oriented tilt like Richard Dawkins, to
comedians like Seth Rogen, I find inspiration from the small, seemingly
insignificant acts, to the grandiose discoveries like stem-cell research.
In Africa, I have been inspired by the works of Leo Igwe and my personal friends Takudzwa Mazwienduna and Gayleen Cornelius, who continue to champion free thought and humanism against numerous odds.
In Zimbabwe, the interactions through social media platforms like WhatsApp groups, I have grown to realize that my country is full of intelligent freethinkers, who are chock full of knowledge and innovative ideas.
Jacobsen: When you look at the landscape of the frauds and religious charlatans, and fundamentalists, in Zimbabwe, who are prototypical examples of it?
Mungani: The scourge of zealous Pentecostal Christianity in Zimbabwe has crippled the psyche of millions. Self-stylised ‘prophets’ captivate the minds, hearts and pockets of many Zimbabweans. Names like Prophet Walter Magaya of PHD Ministries and Prophet Emmanuel Makandiwa of UFIC Church are the prototypes. They have made multi-million dollar businesses out of the pockets of none-the-wiser people. The frauds attributed to them are too numerous to mention. We would keep at this ad infinitum.
Jacobsen: What are ways to overcome magical thinking in Zimbabwe?
Mungani: More than anything, a strong re-education is required. The people of Zimbabwe need a crash course in disillusionment. They need shock therapy to shake off the Stockholm Syndrome they suffer from, in the name of western religion. The majority of the problems that riddle the country would dissipate if the people let go of their imaginary friends. Only then can we overcome magical thinking.
Often, it is not the laity or the followers, but, rather, the corrupt leaders who take advantage of the laity or the followers who endorse magical thinking and utilize this to take advantage of them. Of course, this can take religious or secular form with, sometimes, the worst forms of encouragement of us and them thinking with racism and other forms of bigotry and xenophobia. What are some effective means by which to empower the laity or the followers, or the general public, to be more skeptical of these corrupt leaders, religious or secular?
The laity needs to be taught that it is totally fine to ask questions. We have a tendency of putting leaders on a pedestal, thus somehow making them the absolute authority. It doesn’t help that the leaders themselves claim ‘divine endorsement’, and catch the laity at their weakest. From an elemental point of view, the followers must deign to ask if indeed ‘God’ sent the Israelites to sack Jericho (since the Bible is where they get the majority of their justification); then move further to ask why this leaders claims that that leader and his followers are wrong, and why he thinks he’s right.
Scepticism is borne of inquiry. If one can enquire of anything, then it’s simply the next step to be sceptical of that thing you inquired of.
Most importantly though, the laity needs to learn to laugh at themselves. Laugh at yourselves when you ask questions. Laugh because you realise that you could have asked all along, but you didn’t. Laugh because you realise that all along you’ve been living your life how someone else wants you to live. Someone who probably died hundreds of years ago and should have never been listened to in the first place. Laugh because now you can, where you couldn’t before! Laugh because why not?
Jacobsen: Any recommended authors on atheism or freethinking in Africa?
Mungani: Atheism in Zimbabwe is still in its infancy. Due to the high levels of religiosity in the country, many freethinkers are ‘in the closet’ while they communicate on social media platforms, that’s just about it. We are trying to instigate an awakening of sorts; where the more atheists and freethinkers come out, even more are encouraged to rear their heads. Social stigma and persecution has kept many potential bestsellers from being published, if only their writers had the freedom to put pen to paper. Many families are religious, and in some cases, if one family members reveals that they are atheist, that may lead to disdain, or in extreme cases, ostracizing of said confessed atheist. That has, unfortunately, meant no published authors on freethinking in Zimbabwe.
Jacobsen: Who are some of the important figures in the history of freethought in Zimbabwe?
Mungani: Freethought in Zimbabwe has only recently seen the light, in a manner of speaking. As I mentioned above, we are only beginning to spread our wings. In our very brief and almost non-existent history, I make reference to the aforementioned Takudzwa Mazwienduna, who has written numerous articles on freethought on different online publications. Shingai Rukwata Ndoro is one other figure who has been very vocal on social media platforms, openly challenging politicians and religious leaders alike to toe the human rights line.
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Alton.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-books, free or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott: Scott.D.Jacobsen@Gmail.com.
Do not forget to look into our associates: Godless Mom, Nice Mangoes, Sandwalk, Brainstorm Podcast, Left at the Valley, Life, the Universe & Everything Else, The Reality Check, Bad Science Watch, British Columbia Humanist Association, Dying With Dignity Canada, Canadian Secular Alliance, and Centre for Inquiry Canada.
Other Resources: Recovering From Religion.