How African Secular Humanists Can Outstrip Religion

What if Humanism isn’t growing in Africa because we are not adapting to the continent’s contextual demands?

January 22, 2021

African Humanists are in grave danger and on the verge of losing all the progress they made in recent years.

With the world closed due to COVID-19 and governments heavily militarizing against civilians, Humanists are cut out from their allies and pitied against the possibility of total annihilation.

However, for 2021, it doesn’t have to be as dark and gloomy as the previous year. There are a few things they can adopt to turn this crisis into a win.

The answer may lie in simple efforts to broaden perspective.

The consequences of limited perspective.

In 1985 Coca-Cola had a similar predicament as Secular Humanists of having a poorly performing product.

Coke had 24% market share against Pepsi’s dominant 60%. Pepsi had a sweeter product and was burying them on the market.

In response to this market crunch, Coca-Cola created a new drink called New Coke. It was sweeter and was to be major challenge for Pepsi on taste. The expert market analysis research data predicted a major win for Coke but the results were quite the opposite.

People hated this new and improved Cola regardless of its supposedly better taste. In fact, the resistance was so strong that Coca-Cola had to apologize and stop making the drink altogether. To date, the New Coke launch has been dubbed the “greatest failed product launch of all time.”

Economists and analysts started looking at this irrational market behaviour. - trying to explain why people would reject something of objectively superior quality.Their findings led to a revolution in the way companies introduced and marketed their products.

Their insights can help African Secular Humanists solve the problems they are facing now. As a people looking to introduce a new socio-cultural product, they must transform the way they approach the market.

The Missing Link

The New Coke catastrophe pointed to one simple fact that people don’t always go for the objectively better option.

This doesn’t mean we are not rational beings, but it leads to the question: What do we rationalize around?

We rationalize around feelings, created associations, and stories developed around certain things. When we interact with something for long periods in different contexts, we create associative connections which evolve into habit and culture. This culture becomes our way of life, and separating us from it – for any reason will be difficult.

“Something we cannot see protects us from something we do not understand. The thing we cannot see is culture, in its intrapsychic or internal manifestation. The thing we do not understand is the chaos that gave rise to culture. If the structure of culture is disrupted, unwittingly, chaos returns. We will do anything — anything — to defend ourselves against that return.

Jordan B. Peterson, Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief

Simply put, people want to stick to what they know.

It doesn’t matter if you think you have a better product like Humanism or New Coke, your success depends on how you handle the relationship which your audience has with the old product or system of doing things.

Main Ideas to Consider.

In a world where everyone is in a hurry to paste judgement, African Humanists must do things differently.

Our top priority should be to connect with people. It’s not enough for us to just moralize and brand behaviours as dogma or digusting and leave it there.

The price we pay for thinking we are better is having to demonstrate that we are better.

There is a danger in being too sure of our ideology and methods. What if Humanism isn’t growing in Africa because we are not adapting to the continent’s contextual demands?

Anya Overmann in an interview with Scott Douglas Jacobsen [Conatus News Volume V] explained it this way:

We need to reform the way we think about ourselves and our values. We need to take a step back and ask, “What are we doing here?” We say, “We stand for all humans.” But do we, if we act like we’re superior to some humans? We need to do some self-reflection as Humanists. We need to ask, “Are we trying to value all human beings?”

Reflection is always necessary otherwise; Humanists will just look like another antagonistic group. It will only be a matter of time before they are wiped out.

1. Focus on the goal not the competition

What’s our goal as Secular Humanists and what do we need to achieve it? And is that goal the best possible goal there is to set? Are the means being used appropriate for the ends?

The past 2 decades of online African Secular campaigns have been predominantly aimed at ridiculing religion. I was part of that system too for a while till I realised how broken it was.

Back in 2013 when we started the Zimbabwean Atheists Facebook page most of our posts were focused on trolling religion. We were shipping our own propaganda against the 'dogma of religiosity' and did nothing to build the community we had.

As you can imagine, we didn’t attract that many people. Out of an estimated 6.5 million Zimbabweans online, we only had about 100 followers. Zimbabwe needed a different approach and we didn’t realise it at the time.

After a while, we ran out steam, left the page frustrated and focused more on WhatsApp. Here we had more personal interactions with our members, the curious and outright opponents. The engagement we got and the relationships that came after were amazing.

Our community grew in numbers, individual support systems and ideas. We even developed some strong ties with many Humanists across the continent most notably HALEA Uganda and Zambian Atheists.

The point I am trying to show here is that people need a community with actual humans who share life with them not dudes barking at ideologies at them all the time.

A friend of mine once asked me, “Why is it that Humanism is so broad and yet it seems the only thing we are on is attacking religion? I understand that religion is a major obstacle but, are there no other domains we could work to improve and demonstrate our philosophy’s strength and applicability?”

What came to immediately came to my mind were mental health concerns and the idea of free contribution towards personal and collective fulfilment. Many non-theists are living in isolation, hidden, and separated from the world. That comes with anxiety, depression among other chronic psychological problems. We need to build support structures for them.

Additionally, Humanists need to address the question of content accessibility for anyone who is curious about their philosophy. Maximum empathy and accessibility are the name of the game in 21st century marketing.

When I was writing the annual Humanist International report for Zimbabwe late last year, I learned that about 4 out 5 people couldn’t explain what Humanism was. They were distributed among those who had a rough idea and those who were completely clueless.

We have been making the same mistake that Coca-Cola made in 1985: Trying to beat the opponent instead of improving our sells. We should focus on strengthening our community not competing with religion.

2. Of collaborations

Society is strengthened through voluntary cooperation. Collaborations could go a long way for African Humanist organisations. What they need more than ever is diversity of solutions and broader reach.

A task that would normally take one organization about 4 years can take a year even 6 months if hubs work together.

There are so many organisations which Humanists share common ground with. I don’t see why they are not collaborating with them. Feminist organisations, Anti-Corruption task forces, Children’s rights organisations. The list is endless.

- Networking

- Sharing projects, solutions

- Collaborations

Adding Context: The Long Game

“Numbers tell a convincing story, it’s up to you to give that story a meaning.”

Unknown

Throughout history, the most successful action in moral inquiries around racism, civil and women’s rights have been anchored in statistics.

Where am I going with this?

African Humanists’ only hope of creating a reliable narrative is in the data trail they create. This includes data on their programs, problems, members or anything that might be useful.

Humanists should utilize the scientific method; Identify the problem and the solution presents itself.

It will be much easier for us to make accurate predictions and act in the system we intend to change if we have more insight into the trends in our society.

Much like Coca-Cola, we don’t want to make drastic decisions with inadequate market data.

What to do for 2021 onwards

In 2021, Humanist should lay down the foundation work now, or the decade is lost.

All progress made will be buried and they will be picked off one by one by whichever predatory force in their respective contexts. We need to harness the power in reaching out, working with people, asking for help and offering it as well.

We are outnumbered and outgunned. What happened to Mubarak Bala and so many others in the past will only get worse unless we change our goal-oriented behaviour. We also must set up structures to protect ourselves and for growth in the now and in the future. It all starts with changing our approach to focus on connecting with people and not attacking their ideas.

Thanks for reading. Share this post and save the future of African Humanism.

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