This is an ongoing and new series devoted to the South African Secular Society (SASS) and South African secularism. The Past President, Jani Schoeman, and the Current President, Rick Raubenheimer, and the current Vice-President, Wynand Meijer, will be taking part in this series to illuminate these facets of South Africa culture to us. Rick and Wynand join us.
Here we talk about marriage officer applicants in South Africa.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Let’s talk about some of the formal opposition to SASS. As you were noting to me, some of them comedic, and educational at the same time. What have been some of the oppositions to SASS? How have you dealt with them? How have you learned from them?
Rick Raubenheimer: Let’s talk about our experience with the Department of Home Affairs in trying to register as an organization that can designate marriage officers. We originally were prompted by one of our members who wanted to become a marriage officer.
We discovered that he needed an organization to back him. Being a secular person, he asked if SASS could back him. He had already got the information that Home Affairs needed to Home Affairs, but then he needed a recommendation from an organization.
So, we inquired of Home Affairs. They said that they wanted a list of 250 members with their signatures to prove that we were an existing organization. The fact that we were a non-profit organization registered with the Department of Social Development didn’t cut any ice for them.
They were keen on knowing that we were a national organization. We went to quite a lot of trouble because we are a national organization for members to sign online. We would send them electronic proof of an electronic signature, which we duly did.
And they rejected it [Laughing]. We did a bunch of to-ing and fro-ing. We asked them, “What do you really want?” They appeared to be moving the goalposts for a while. I had a quite sharp conversation with Mr. Gunning’s superior, “sharp” from his side.
The next day, he was quite reconciliatory. It was amazing. It was as if he had a bad day and then had a good night’s sleep and felt better the next morning. The goalposts came to rest on giving a list of 250 member names with South African Identity numbers.
We have identity numbers that start with our birthday in the form of 2-digit year, 2-digit month, 2-digit day. Then there is a number below 5,000 if you are female and above 5,000 if you are male, and then with digits at the end. Those mean a variety of things.
The ID number can be verified as being a valid ID number. So, we then created a whole campaign again. We emailed all the people who signed up for the first time. We put the thing up on the website.
We ended up with something like 320 if I remember correctly after publicizing this on social media and phoning a few people. Then the two aspirant marriage officers phoned their contacts. We sent more to them.
They did duly approve of us. That was our experience with Home Affairs, as far as that was concerned.
Then as we mentioned in the preamble, now
, that we can register marriage officers. We have had various applications from theists. We point people at the SASS mission statement and ethos, which includes the naturalist worldview.
We say very early on, “Do you support the SASS mission and ethos?” The only choice is, “Yes.” We say, “Are you prepared to do marriage ceremonies free of supernatural content?” The only answer is, “Yes.”
We say, “Are you prepared to do same-sex and heterosexual sex marriages?” The only answer is, “Yes.” There is, “Are you prepared to do counselling?” It is an optional one. Anyway, people will blithely skim through these, “Yes, yes, yes, carry on, no problems.”
Then we ask for motivation, “Why do you want to become a secular marriage officer?” At that point, we can quite easily get things like, “Oh, I am a pastor at so-and-so congregation. I wanted to marry my congregants.”
Raubenheimer: We also get, “I am a prominent member of x, y, z church.” We don’t see it is in the motivation, but we also ask them for sample ceremonies.
Raubenheimer: For example, in fact, we had one very recently. I hadn’t gone through the ceremony when we copied it in. We put this one on Google Docs, so the whole team could see it. But I started reading it.
And oops! This chap is mentioning God!
Raubenheimer: He has 4 citations of God! He has got several references to several biblical verses.
Raubenheimer: Now, in fact, Wynand can tell you more about how this one got through the cracks. He set up various protections. But due to technical website issues, he turned it off. So, the person had got through right to that point.
I emailed him to say, “I noticed that you’ve ticked all the boxes saying you’re a secular person and everything else. You’ve agreed to the terms and conditions and everything else. But I see that you’re citing God and making biblical references in your marriage ceremonies. Can you clarify for us?”
He writes back and says, “Cancel my application, I am a Christian and I believe in GOD!”
[Wynand’s Meijer’s wife laughing in the background – not part of the conversation, but listening into it, obviously.]
Raubenheimer: I wrote back saying, “Please tell us how you got that far through our form, so that we can make it easier and waste their time.” I didn’t mention wasting our time, which was obvious as well.
I did not hear back from him. The interesting thing is, this man is an attorney.
Jacobsen: Oh my goodness.
Raubenheimer: So, you can understand a lot of these people who are pastors or ministers have started a church, read a bit of the Bible, are good speakers in the vernacular, have a congregation, have some people who support them, and so on.
They are not what you and I would call educated people. So, we can understand them not understanding terms like “secular,” even “applications of the supernatural” or what have you, but here’s an attorney!
You would think, first of all, that he understands the concept about not lying on an official document. He understands the concept – you would hope – of reading a document before you put your name to it.
Yet, here he is, he has gone through the whole process and didn’t stint on the ceremony. He, actually, did quite a lot of work on it: writing it out, putting out the details, and much better than others who give us a few lines, which is not acceptable.
Someone gave us a one-liner for each of the ceremonies [Laughing].
Raubenheimer: So, it is puzzling where his head was. Maybe, it is a case of the idea of being secular and not believing in God was so far out of his frame of reference; that it didn’t feature anywhere in his consciousness.
That’s all I can think was the case for him. I don’t think he was deliberately trolling us. One of the ones who has come through more recently may be doing that now.
Another question included is paying for SASS membership in becoming a marriage officer, as long as they are a marriage officer.
Jacobsen: What is the big takeaway for some other organizations that want to set up a marriage ceremony program/officiant program?
Raubenheimer: You have to be very clear on what you mean by “secular.” Even now, I can screen share if this will be of interest to you. I have a big block on a yellow background above the application saying, “Please STOP NOW and STUDY the SASS Mission Statement and Ethos. Kindly note that we have a rational, science-based worldview. That supports Humanism, freethought, “Brights”, non-religion, atheism and agnosticism. SASS will NOT accept you as a Marriage Officer if you promote belief in the supernatural. This includes a god (or gods), devils, angels, fairies, tokoloshe, witchcraft, astrology, psychics, homeopathy, Creationism, crystal healing, and similar non-science.”
Jacobsen: What is tokoloshe?
Raubenheimer: That is a local…
Wynand Meijer: …Leprechaun.
Jacobsen: [Laughing] what is its power?
Raubenheimer: It is supposed to be a very little creature that steals people when sleeping.
Jacobsen: A little person steals big people.
Raubenheimer: Perhaps, they come in numbers. We’re not sure because no one has ever captured one.
Jacobsen: That’s unfortunate. What’s their colour?
Raubenheimer: Again, this is not obvious. A comic strip of ours ran a series on them for a while. But it was probably not related to the mythology. Interestingly enough, as a result of the superstition, if you go into the homes of a lot of black people (in South Africa), you will find that their beds are up on bricks, to get them higher off the ground so the tokoloshe can’t reach them.
Jacobsen: What’s the equivalent in the Afrikaaner community?
Raubenheimer: I don’t think there is one.
Meijer: We don’t have one, really. There are things we do have; it is more like karma based. die blinde sambok, the blind sjambok …
Raubenheimer: A sjambok is a type of whip.
Meijer: Yes, it is a type of whip. If you do something, and if it is not really up to standard, then die blinde sambok will come and get you. It is more karma. If you do something bad, then it will come and get you.
Raubenheimer: I don’t recall that one. And I grew up in an Afrikaans community.
Meijer: Yes, die blinde sambok. Others scare their children with the sakabula, like the Boogeyman. You say it once or twice. But there is not a whole mythology behind the thing.
Jacobsen: In some of Canada, you can do ‘ghost’ tours. In my own province, they have several. We have several. Is there something like that in South Africa like tourism for supernatural claims?
Raubenheimer: Yes, in Johannesburg, there is a ghost bus tour that runs occasionally.
Jacobsen: A real ghostbuster!
Raubenheimer: No, a vehicle, a bus, they take a tour visiting graveyards and visit houses where there have supposedly been murders.
Raubenheimer: Things like that. I don’t know great details of it. There was, for example, a famous murderer called Daisy de Melker who murdered her husbands for the insurance money. She had something like 4 husbands whom she murdered for the insurance.
Eventually, she was caught. And hanged.
Jacobsen: That’s morbid.
Raubenheimer: I think her house might be one of the items on the tour.
Jacobsen: Oh my gosh.
Raubenheimer: Yes, someone who you would not like to marry.
Jacobsen: [Laughing] following from those, are there any other moments in SASS history along those lines when accidents really happened, and you learned from them?
Raubenheimer: Yes, in fact, we didn’t finish saying what we did on the website to try to eliminate the theists. So, I’ve got this big yellow block. I finish by saying, “If you practice any religion, please do not waste your time and ours by applying. Please return when you have taken reason and reality as your guide, and abandoned superstition. Thank you for your interest!”
Apparently, people go straight past that. No problem.
Raubenheimer: They carry on with the form. So, Wynand has put in the Dawkins Scale right near the top.
Raubenheimer: If anyone is near theist side of the scale, the form says, “Sorry, we can no longer continue with this application.” We also have a question, “Are you a minister, pastor, spiritual advisor, or leader of your community?”
“Yes” is the default for carrying on.
Meijer: We have seen people who bypass by selecting the right answer on the Dawkins Scale. But then, you sit with “Are you a minister?…” We have found how to better navigate. It is to stop people from entering details.
I would say that we, generally, get 3 to 4 applications a week without these stops in place.
Raubenheimer: Yes, there were, of course, technical issues. There, Wynand turned off the code preventing people from going further. We do get people saying, “I do not believe God exists,” then they are able to carry on.
Meijer: Something else came up. This is, essentially, where the Dawkins Scale came from. We would get individuals who claim, “I am spiritual, but I am not religious,” which poses some very difficult and weird things. It doesn’t really fit in.
There was a lot of debate on it, among the leadership. As well, we posed this to our community in establishing it. Where is that line to allow somebody? Where is it when somebody is spiritual, in the sense of “I have an acknowledgement and an appreciation for that around me, and being mindful,” versus, “I am spiritual because I like crystals”?
Jacobsen: [Laughing] yes, in some sense, some people just mean “communal.”
Raubenheimer: Some people do, yes. For instance, we have turned down people where it was clear that they did not follow any established religion, but then they were practicing Reiki and crystal healing. That’s why I mention it explicitly.
So far, where we have not picked up any red flags from the application, we seem to have picked them up during the interview. Wynand, Wilhelm, Jani and Judith have been most dedicated in helping with the online interviews, which can take up to an hour each.
Another odd thing is those who seem to lose interest: I have about a dozen applicants who went to the trouble of putting in the application, which included two sample marriage ceremonies, and then doing the interview; now I cannot get them to give me the details we need for the Department of Home Affairs. They just don’t respond to emails or WhatsApp messages, and don’t answer their phones. I will probably have to lapse their applications.
Jacobsen: Returning to our subject, has there been any other formal opposition to SASS?
Raubenheimer: Not really. That probably means that we have not made enough waves yet.
OGOD, which we discussed in an earlier interview, got a lot more publicity.
Our main opposition, although they don’t oppose us directly, would probably be the ironically-named “Freedom of Religion South Africa”, which gives them the catchy acronym of “FOR-South Africa”. They are actually a right-wing Christian organisation, opposing secularism, abortion, same-sex marriage, and so on.
Amusingly, they ran a few “surveys” on their website on their issues. Various atheist Facebook groups I participate in directed members to those surveys, and we roundly outvoted them on their own site, even though they worded things deceptively.
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Rick and Wynand.
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.
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