There are no atheists in trenches, the old saying goes, and there aren't many more in Uganda. When it comes to poverty, disease, corruption, issues of sexuality and tribal tensions, most Ugandans believe they need God's help. Even during the weekday lunch hour, they can be found filing into the capital's churches, lifting their hands to the heavens and swaying in time to Christian rock bands and dapper pastors promising salvation. A study by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found that 97% of Ugandans are believers, and the fact that professions of atheism are invariably met with incredulity has prompted most of Uganda's freethinkers to keep their skepticism in the closet. But James Onen, a former Pentecostal Christian who once spoke in tongues, is not among them.
Onen, 35, had abandoned his once fervent Christian beliefs by the age of 20, after reading the Bible cover to cover and noting what he said were its logical inconsistencies. Hoping to promote reason and logic, the organization initially focused on the widespread belief even among Uganda's Christians in witchcraft, but it has since taken aim at religion too. Pentecostal Christianity is a particular concern, Onen says, because it promotes the belief that "we are living in a time of spiritual warfare involving evil spirits," which he says has reinforced the practice of witchcraft.
Miracle-healer televangelists are all too readily embraced as saviors, Onen complains, and prayer is often invoked as a substitute for taking action to fix everything from the capital's glaring potholes to HIV infection. First Lady Janet Museveni attributes the country's tribal tensions to a curse from God, whereas many critics suggest they may have more to do with government-employment preferences.
God has also been invoked in support of the draconian anti-gay bill that could impose life imprisonment for homosexual acts and make it illegal to house a gay person.
Onen's organization encourages debate on its Freethought Kampala blog, but where things get most interesting and often heated is at 4 Points Bar & Restaurant in Kampala's Centenary Park on the last Thursday of every month. That's when he hosts Freethinkers' Night, which encourages people of all backgrounds to weigh in on a particular topic related to religion. (Past topics have included "Is Religion Necessary for Morality?" and "Religious Fundamentalism and Terrorism.")
The typical audience at these events is no more than around 50 people, which is negligible in comparison to attendance at Kampala's churches. But it includes atheists, Muslims, Christians and even African traditionalists who manage to conduct a civil conversation despite challenging one another's beliefs. During September's session, on the issue of happiness, a Christian man said, "Everyone has a pursuit of happiness. But because you don't know where you're going, you need faith to find it." An atheist countered, "The problem is believers don't believe in themselves. They've lost that belief."
A Christian woman then said, "What makes me happy is people coming together and discussing like this."
Onen's efforts have, inevitably, led to some grumblings in the local media. The Rev. Hillary Munyaneza wrote in the Monitor newspaper that "to deny the existence of God is to deny one's existence simply because God is the ground of being and existence philosophically; He is the one necessary Being."
Still, Onen counts some church leaders among his friends. Moses Solomon Male, a convert from Islam and executive director at the Arising for Christ church in Kampala, says a lack of reason and skepticism among Uganda's believers allows the faithful to be led astray.
"You don't need religion to have a strong conscience and morality," he says, and warns that the popular "prosperity gospel" whereby Ugandans are made to "believe if you give [money to the church], the windows of heaven will magically open" diminishes the spiritual and ethical dimensions of Christianity.
Susan Muyama, editor of Pentecostal magazine the Rock, counters Onen's grim view by arguing that Christianity plays an empowering role in Uganda. "Uganda has seen war, community trauma and civil strife. Religion offers the peace and reassurance that everything is O.K. that an all-loving God is going to have your back."
Onen doesn't dispute Muyama's claims that faith has played a positive role in women's empowerment, health and education. And Muyama, for her part, believes Ugandan society has room for nonbelievers. "People have different levels of intimacy with God," she says. Onen agrees: "Why should one difference in our beliefs make [believers and nonbelievers] not be friends?"
The next Freethinkers' Night will tackle the question of which religion is the "true" one. That may sound like a disaster waiting to happen, but if Onen has his way, logic and reason will keep the peace.