President Zuma on religion and “humanity”

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As submitted to the Daily Maverick.

It’s always a surprise to find oneself agreeing with Floyd Shivambu, but if President Jacob Zuma really did say what he’s reported to have said at a church service on Sunday, he should certainly face his day in court. Not only a court involving advocates and charges of corruption, but also the court of public opinion, where he should be found guilty of a gross lack of judgement in using intolerant and divisive rhetoric to divert attention from the ANC Youth League’s criticism of him.

If a Helen Zille tweet speaking of “education refugees” can result in a week of widespread outrage, how is it the case that Zuma can effectively say that the non-religious have no humanity without (at least) equivalent levels of outrage? In fact, he should not only face criticism from the public and censure from the party, but if you support the hate speech provisions in our law, this should perhaps also be a matter for the courts.

“We need to build our nation because presently we have a nation of thugs. This is a task faced by the church. Fear of God has vanished and that means that humanity has vanished”, is what Zuma is reported to have said to the United Congregational Church of Southern Africa. We do indeed need to build our nation, but as I’ve previously argued, when it comes to moral leadership Zuma is hardly the man for the job.

The church can certainly play a part – a large and possibly effective part, seeing as the majority of South Africans are members of some church or another. And when the church focuses on respect, love, compassion and other sorts of virtuous qualities, I wish them all possible success. But when the church that our new Chief Justice belongs to endorses the view that homosexuality is a sickness that can be “cured”, it should be immediately clear that churches have no monopoly on morality.

My previous columns have frequently discussed the absence of a positive correlation between religious belief and moral virtue, but this is not the point here. Whether it’s true or not that religion can encourage those virtues, the fact remains that non-believers are in no way handicapped when it comes to discerning right from wrong. We use different standards to do so, yet mostly end up with the same conclusions as the religious do.

This is obviously so, because most of these conclusions are obvious ones that anyone living amongst others would reach. We all have an equal investment in social cohesion and freedom from fear, and shared rules make those goods possible, regardless of how we reason our way to them. In South Africa, as in many poor countries, humanity “vanishes” largely because people are materially insecure, and resort to opportunism to address those insecurities.

If your life is miserable, you’re less invested in the future, and more invested in seizing opportunities where you find them. The narrative of a harmonious “rainbow nation” only gains traction if you have reason to care for the welfare of others, and it’s not always the case that we do. The church can provide reasons of this sort, yes – but stronger and more universally respected reasons are secured when people have jobs and food, perhaps along with a government they can trust to not exploit them.

If it’s only fear of God that keeps religious people from breaking laws or harming others – or even from having humanity – then we should be seeing far worse moral crises in secular countries than we do in religious ones such as ours. And what does lacking humanity mean? Are secular folk simply lacking some moral property, or are we somehow not even human on Zuma’s reckoning? And what does it say about the moral character of the religious when the implicit claim is made that without religion, they’d suddenly discover or rediscover the impulse to rape, rob and murder?

Whether you call it “humanity” or not, President Zuma, many of us don’t do these immoral things due to the belief that it’s wrong to do them. As much as I’m willing to say that your religious beliefs are false, I’ll only start saying that you lack humanity when you act like you lack humanity – not only because you have a different worldview to mine.

Like perhaps now, where you essentially tell me and all other non-believers that we are qualitatively inferior to you and other believers. You – the man who hasn’t gone more than a couple of months without some press coverage on things like rape trials, dodgy arms-deal allegations, shady friends, financial mismanagement, corruption or reckless sexual behaviour.

I get that you need to defend yourself against the current round of attacks from Shivambu and others, and that you’re heading into a delicate situation in Mangaung later this year. You’re entitled, and would be expected to, defend yourself by rallying religious support. But you can do so without calling my humanity into question. Choosing to do so is divisive, inflammatory, and intolerant of any worldview that doesn’t accord with your belief in God.

And it certainly seems to lack humanity to me. But then, perhaps I lack the necessary qualifications to speak as a human at all.

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