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Uncertainty and The Culture of Criticism

27 June 2012, 10:36

If we reflect upon certain crimes we are bound to find that their proximal causes are of two natures: ignorance and undue certainty in questionable or false ideas. Mihlali Mazantsi was a 7 year old girl who, by the will of her mother, Nomaxabiso, was sent to church where she was to be healed by faith. It was suspected that her epilepsy was the result of demon possession and consequently an exorcism was in order.

God willed not, apparently, that the child should survive; nor was the faith of her mother rewarded with anything but misery. When the mother arrived to check on her daughter’s health she discovered that her daughter had been beaten and was vomiting violently. She was rushed, then, to hospital, but the doctor could do nothing to save her life [1].

Donis Mahlangu, at one stage the sole breadwinner of his family, lost functioning in his legs and can therefore no longer work. One of his sons had to leave school in order to make money for the family – I do not suspect that his future is incredibly bright. He was disabled by Sangoma Peterson Molefe. Donis approached the sangoma due to a severe illness, the diagnosis of which was demon possession, and it was thought that he might be exorcized of this demon if covered under a blanket topped with burning coals and hot stones. Donis began to burn and begged to be released; the Sangoma denied him this, maintaining that the pain indicated the imminent release of the demon. His legs consequently no longer function, and he remains regretful and crippled [2].

The doctrine of faith-healing is subscribed to by the predominant [3] Zion Christian Church [4]. A further point of concern is the overwhelming faith in ‘traditional medicine’ in which over 80% of the population seeks medical attention, first, from traditional healers [5]. The situation is made worse by a strong belief among the population that ‘western medicine’ is somehow improper for ‘Africans’, and that what Africans really need is ‘African medicine’ [6]. Against this particular notion I have written elsewhere that, “The validity of Western [values and institutions] … does not depend upon the geography in which [they] arise, but rather on a rational observation of how they concur with, or aid against, some set of defined standards” – in this case: health.

People have been murdered, or violently assaulted, because they were thought to be practitioners of witchcraft. I remember two such examples: both of which involved the violation of elderly – though apparently suspicious – women [7].

These beliefs are made more real by their manifestation in popular media. The Daily Sun, to begin with, has a weekly column (in its sister publication, Sunday Sun) known as the ‘Corner of Faith’, set up to promote stories of an explicitly religious – and therefore unreal – nature.

Apart from its Christian messages it is peppered with other gems of nonsense, the following being simply a small example from a brief period last year. “I think someone is trying to do evil things to me and had send vutha to destroy my home (7-11-2011, Page 5)”, “This is the work of evil sent by people to try and kill the business. Rabbits are among the animals sometimes used by evil people to do their dirty work (18-11-2011, Page 3)”, “I now believe the neighbours words were a curse that led to his death – because his mum is a Sangoma (25-11-2011, Page 1 (continued on page 2))”, “God works in many ways to perform miracles. Never forget that God has made this possible (28-11-2011, Page 6)”, “Only the power of the Almighty God can deliver you from such spirits. Evil Spirits are real (8-01-2012, Page 1 (continued on page 5))”

What makes this noteworthy is that the Daily Sun is the most widely read newspaper in South Africa [8]. It is aimed primarily at the black working class, and it can be said that much of its readership connects with these frequent stories of religion, magic, and demons. It should be with unbearable embarrassment that Media24 continues to fund this newspaper, which does nothing more than to promote beliefs that are, at best, false and, at worst, dangerous.

The belief in witchcraft, however, is not limited to be the concern of elderly women in South Africa; it is a belief that affects Africa as a whole and one that has produced great and needless agony for countless innocent people.

“African witchcraft…is fundamentally a primitive belief. The increasingly well documented ritualistic abuse and murder of African children…as a direct result of these depraved beliefs is appalling and unsettles both the heart and the mind…The belief system that led to this despicable waste of human life not only needs challenging, but combating with a committed urgency…We should tacitly tolerate this no longer. We must make it clear in strident terms that faith-related child abuse has no place in this country, nor in the modern world.” [9]

I have made my case, I think, that there are some crimes that continue to plague humankind either as a result of ignorance, or of undue certainty in false ideas. As is evident from the above quote our chief concern should be to repudiate those who have undue certainty in dangerous beliefs – and this requires repudiation of faith, tradition, and of many examples of religion.

Since certain crimes can be accounted for only by reference to some strongly held certainty, I imagine that there would be some value in uncertainty about those propositions, which might pay dividends by means of peace and stability. Had Mihlali’s mother been less certain that the proper treatment for epilepsy lay in divination I am inclined to think that her daughter might have suffered less. Were Donis more skeptical about the supernatural claims of witchdoctors, perhaps his son might still be in school. Were people less convinced by claims of magic, perhaps they would be less prone to do violence. Of concern to South Africans: ‘corrective rape’ most certainly would be diminished were people less strictly adherent to traditional values regarding gender stereotypes [10]. Of concern to an African denizen generally: It is quite sure that gay people would live a life of less fear and torment were we to place less certainty in the values either of our forefathers or of our religions [11].

There is value in uncertainty which tempers our judgments, and therefore minimizes the severity of our actions. This arises from critical thought and an acceptance of the limits of human knowledge and is consequently opposed to claims of absolute truth derived from a synthetic absolute authority.

“In religion and politics, on the contrary, though there is as yet nothing approaching scientific knowledge, everybody considers it de rigueur to have a dogmatic opinion…and to be carefully guarded from argumentative competition with any different opinion. If only men could be brought into a tentatively agnostic frame of mind about these matters, nine-tenths of the evils of the modern world would be cured.” [12]

There are many things that must occur before we can recognize the value of uncertainty (tentative agnosticism) but one of these things is surely, what I will call, a Culture of Criticism. I have written elsewhere that beliefs are not to be respected, but rather they are to be critically evaluated [13]. When no beliefs (particularly those related to ‘personal identity’) are above rational criticism people we will likely make better informed decisions and act for the sake of general welfare, rather than from a perceived duty of ‘Rule Worship’ [14]. The Culture of Criticism therefore entails a skeptical attitude towards propositions from which we derive our values and consequently act.

To this there are a number of opposing forces; the one with which I am concerned will be called the Culture of Tolerance. This is an ideology which induces us to forgo serious criticism of our fellow human beings for fear of offending them and therefore in order to maintain an, albeit sectarian, peace. It celebrates diversity in every sense of the word, and see’s convergence (even on principles of ethics and direction) as a secondary and lesser goal. Jimmy Manyi last year made it clear that ethical controversies (in his case, animal rights) that exist at the frontiers of different cultures are undesirable and also impossible to resolve [15]. This is bolstered by a growing perception among leftist (and therefore purportedly ‘liberal’) movements that the world should be rebuilt from its diversity and differences [16], as opposed to converging on matters of importance through reason and deliberation. The above point to a principle that precludes the rational criticism of the belief’s of others in favor of a sectarian tolerance of difference.

The problem with what I have written is two-fold. Firstly, it would seem that it is possible (and from our history, evident too) that we should find fault in the wrong things, such as skin color, gender or sexual orientation, which may be abused by those in power. But it will be found, in any analysis, that it is unreasonable to discriminate against people either because they have darker or lighter skin, or because they possess a sexual organ differing to one’s own, or because they prefer a different kind of love to one’s own. Scepticism would find dogma to the contrary as the object of ridicule and opposition.

Secondly it might be said that the rational criticism proposed would cause sectarian violence, which is, on balance, less desirable than the sectarian peace guaranteed by ‘tolerance’. I have written elsewhere that this Historic Perspective is the reasoning behind ‘freedom of belief’ clauses – “to give separate communities the security to practice their [beliefs] in peace, without the threat of persecution from rival groups [17]”

To this I would counter that the cause of conflict arises from each group’s unshakable certainty that they have the absolute truth. If people were more open to the consideration that they were wrong about their beliefs and values, if they were tempered in their beliefs by the realization that they do not (and cannot) have knowledge of the absolute truth, then the rational criticism of ideas would have no such negative effect.

This is not a denial of ‘knowledge’ or ‘truth’. I am only proposing a clarification of what words like knowledge and truth should mean. To detail an account of this, in a properly philosophical manner, is, however, a matter for another time. ‘Knowledge’ is not a vacuous concept, and I am sure that our reason will bring us in time to converge on matters of importance. But knowledge, or justified belief, is to do with things other than an ‘absolute truth’. We must be ready to accept new evidence and better reasons when they come, and for this reason our judgments must become less radical and more tempered by a kind of uncertainty [12].

The problem is thus: crimes arise too often from undue certainty in questionable or false ideas; these crimes are therefore needless and preventable. A Culture of Criticism may diminish their frequency, but this is thwarted by the Culture of Tolerance – which must exist as the lesser evil, once more, because of people’s undue certainty in their version of the absolute truth. It is unclear that the absolute truth can be reached by rational means; but only through faith people believe, in an illusory and dangerous way, to have reached it. All well meaning people, therefore, must oppose it. To counter that not all people have this kind of faith is irrelevant and of no concern to me – the problem is that there are some people who do.

These concerns transcend academic considerations of the existence of god, or of the validity of evolutionary science – they transcend the philosophical pedantry of such discussions. They are important, I hope I have demonstrated, to South Africans in particular, and indeed all concerned and well meaning individuals. To brush these matters aside with unlettered recitals of classical philosophy is simply to have misunderstood the nature of the problem. These issues cannot be resolved by considerations of creationism or magical design.

The problem of faith, and the certainty derived from it, extends, I think, beyond matters concerning the existence of God. We must begin, I have argued, to recognize the value of uncertainty and to cultivate a Culture of Criticism. This would oppose claims of absolute certainty and wanton ignorance, from which preventable cruelty arises, and would thereby, I propose, diminish the needless suffering of our fellow human beings.


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5 - Government Communication and Information Service, South African Yearbook, 2008/09 (Cape Town: STE Publishers, 2009) 324-325

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12- Russell. B, Sceptical Essays, (1928), pp. 129-130

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14 - J. J. C. Smart, “Extreme and Restricted Utilitarianism”, in The Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 6, No. 25, (1956), pp 344-354

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16 - Cock, J (2004) “The World Social Forum and New Forms of Social Activism”, in Taylor (ed.) Creating a Better World: Interpreting Global Civil Society (Bloomfeild, CT: Kumarian), pp. 127-148

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