Scott Douglas Jacobsen: You grew up as a Catholic. You went to Holy Child School, Cape Coast as well. What is your story as a youth growing up in a religious household? What was the experience?
I attended Catholic schools, St. Theresa’s School in Accra from primary, junior high school and in Holy Child School I got my Senior high school education. They were one of the best schools at the time and provided us with the best teachers in all subjects. The major criteria for admissions was to be a Catholic and I was baptised at the St. Theresa’s Parish so it was easier for me to gain admission. In primary school, we had ‘Worship service’ on Wednesday mornings as part of our curriculum and from 1st grade, we were read the Bible and taught to understand it.
In the beginning, I did not really understand it, especially when it came to topics on the afterlife since my mother had died when I was 4 years old and I had still not come to understand the concept of death by then. I must have tried to discuss the existence of God once to my classmates, but I was told that I could go mad (mentally ill) so I stopped. I then made it a point to understand and accept Christianity because I felt that everyone believed in it and it was the right thing to do. By 6th grade, I attended catechism classes and had received my First Holy Communion.
My Senior High School was an all-girls boarding School and was built by the Catholic church in a town called Cape Coast in the Central Region of Ghana in 1946. It had been run initially by British nuns for decades and later by alumni of the school. It was strict and aimed to form students into ‘women of substance’ who would grow up to be the best in the country at home as good wives, at work, and in the Catholic church.
Obedience, discipline, and morality were the core teachings there with religion and especially Catholicism at its core. It was compulsory for all students to attend Mass at least 3 times a week and observe ‘The Angelus’ prayer’ 3 times a day. Most of the students were Catholic, but we had Anglicans and Protestants of various denominations as well. I became more exposed to Christian Charismatic teachings, joined nondenominational prayer groups and underwent a period of ‘being born-again’, which cemented my belief on God. It was there I had my ‘Confirmation of the Holy Spirit’.
Due to my mother’s death, I was brought up partly by my mother’s family and later by my dad’s. My mother’s family is mostly Catholic and conservative who encouraged and supported me to be a good Christian and was proud of me whenever I hit a milestone in my religious life. My father’s side of the family is mostly Anglican and also went to church often, but were more liberal and reformed.
I was encouraged there to think for myself and I learnt to care for myself and my sister at an early age since there was no mother-figure and my dad was not really ‘there’ either. Staying at my dad’s, my sister and I grew up with lots of books and educational programs on satellite TV, which at the time was expensive for most homes to have. As my mother’s side taught me to be obedient and subservient in their understanding of being respectful, my father’s side of the family encouraged me to ask questions and express myself freely.
You de-converted and became an atheist in 2007. What were the major reasons, arguments, evidence, and experiences for the de-conversion?
I had finished University where I acquired my BA in Linguistics and Modern Languages and I had made lots of friends in the expat community. At the time, I had come to realise that I had certain views such as feminism that a lot of Ghanaian men were not interested in due to cultural and religious reasons so I seemed to connect well with foreigners. Dating a Serbo-Croatian then, I became familiar with the Eastern European community in the Capital, Accra.
I came to realise that most of them were non-religious as most people from Europe tend to be including my partner although they were baptised in the Orthodox church. I also started to notice that whenever I made religious statements, there would be a short awkward silence and a change in topic. I felt then that I was not doing my job properly as a Christian if I could not teach them about the Word of God and pass on the teachings of Christ. It was at this juncture that I set on a personal course to do objective research on the origins and importance of religion, especially Christianity, in order to properly inform my friends about it. We had Satellite TV then as well so I gave more attention to programs on channels like the HISTORY channel, which at the time showed objective documentaries on the life and times of Jesus Christ and the origins of the Bible.
This was eye-opening because all my life, I had watched the same type of movies and documentaries which were shown every Sunday and especially on Christian Holidays, but those ones had certain relevant information left out of it and they also did not give archaeologically documented information so came my first ‘shocks’. I also watched the Discovery and National Geographic channels for scientific documentaries on evolution the possibilities of life on other planets and these baffled me further because I had been taught to believe in only Creationism and I did not know there was another way of explaining how humans exist. At that point, I had not gotten any information to preach with and I had no one to talk to about my findings.
I went through stages of grief, disappointment, sadness, anger, and finally stopped going to church. Even when I stopped going to church I felt that God would strike me with lightning for disobeying him or ‘betraying’ him, but as time went by and nothing bad seemed to happen, my fear lessened. I did not know how to explain it to my family and friends. So for years, I kept my non-belief to myself and gave excuses for not attending church and sometimes hoped that I could be proven wrong with my non-belief so I could go back to worshipping God but that time never came.
You studied French at the University of Ghana for a Bachelor’s degree in Linguistics and Modern Languages (French and Spanish). Was this education assistive in personal and professional pursuits during postsecondary education and post-graduation?
Yes, it was. Actually, at the time, the University of Ghana did not give much room for choice by students. They mostly took subjects you excelled in from High School and gave you subjects in that field to study and since I passed exceptionally in English, French and Geography, I was given the Language subjects. I grew to enjoy Linguistics which was a social science program and it interested me greatly as its history taught me a lot about who we are as humans and how far we have come in terms of communication in our development as a species.
I studied various courses in pragmatics, phonetics, syntax, linguistics in Ga (my local language) and Linguistics in English. In Spanish, history and literature formed a big part of our studies and French grammar as well. As Ghana is the only Anglophone country in Africa completely neighboured by Francophone Countries, it became integral that I learnt it as it could get me a long way in the job market although I never really used it much in my career. It came in handy in translating for visiting clients, contractors. I loved studying Spanish for the love of it and linguistics helped me in my career as an administrator in creating and reviewing company documents. I speak 3 local languages and knowing 3 more foreign languages came in handy in my social life meeting people from all over the world.
How did you become an activist?
I became active in activism after joining the Humanist Association of Ghana. I gained confidence to ‘come out’ then as atheist and I wanted to help share what I knew now just as I was as a Christian but this time, based on evidence. I also realised how religion was destroying my country and continent due to ignorance, lack of education, and human rights abuses, and I felt I had to do something to help change things for the better. I felt that if I knew of an alternative to the dogmatic teachings I was given, I might have been atheist earlier and maybe, I could give someone else the opportunity to be a freethinker, which I was never given.
Were parents or siblings an influence on this for you?
My family had no idea that I would turn out to be atheist/humanist. I used to know that my uncle (father’s brother) who moved to the USA over 40 years ago was a deist by then, but never got the opportunity to discuss it with him until now. My sister’s godmother was also a German atheist, but it was never discussed perhaps because I felt it would be rude.
My sister left the Catholic church to become an Evangelical youth prayer group member while I was turning atheist. It was not until 2 years later that she became atheist. Even though we are so close and tell each other everything, it wasn’t until 3 years after her de-conversion that I got to hear about her story during a HAG group meeting. I definitely had no influence from Family. The best they helped was by giving me a good education and logical reasoning skills.
Did you have early partnerships in this activist pursuit? If so, whom?
Not really. I did not know about humanism until after I joined the Freethought Ghana group from which HAG came. Once I was introduced to it and I was able to recognise that humanism describes my personal philosophy of life, I began to identify as a humanist. The group then organised the 1st ever West African Humanist Conference in 2012 and after learning what steps other groups across the West African region were taking, we started to realise the importance of organising and formalising our group from a social group to an activist group.
The conference also gave the group the opportunity to meet other groups and their representatives that are working on humanitarian projects on human rights activism such as now Minister for Gender, Children and Social Protection, Honourable Mrs. Nana Oye Lithur who spoke to us on the LGBT situation in Ghana at the time, Mr. Gyekye Tanoh of 3rd World Women’s rights group, Mr. Leo Igwe a renowned African humanist from Nigeria who was then doing his research in Ghana on Witchcraft accusations in the Northern region for his PhD in Germany and other humanist groups from Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Nigeria. They gave us an insight on what they had been doing and gave us ideas from which HAG was inspired to join in.
Do you consider yourself a progressive?
Yes, I do. I am of the view that as a humanist who bases her ideas and decisions on logical reasoning and human value, I have had to rethink a lot of negative dogmatic beliefs, superstitions, and culture. I believe that Ghana, and Africa as a whole, is knee deep in ignorance and social dogma, and that is why we remain undeveloped for the most part. I love my country and my people of various tribes and cultures and for that, the need to create a better future for our next generations urges me on to fight age-old systems that stagnate our progress as a people.
Does progressivism logically imply other beliefs, or tend to or even not at all?
Progressivism, in my opinion, has not got to do with any belief in the supernatural or deities. There has been no proof of that and so moving forward for me, would mean totally discarding those beliefs and critically thinking of ways people can create better systems of living as a civilised nation that takes into account the responsibility of the well-being of its people.
However, I personally believe also that people have their right to association as enshrined in our constitution and therefore, need to have their rights respected but monitored so that its members and the general public are not badly affected by negative religious practices that would infringe on their rights. Rather, the religious can also be freethinkers with progressive views using religion as their source of inspiration.
How did you come to adopt a socially progressive worldview?
Personally, I have always been progressive since I was young. I was a member of the Wildlife club and Girl Guide Association since Junior High School and in Senior High School, I became President of the Wildlife Club of my school as well as held the position of Public Relations Officer of the Student & Youth Travel Organisation (SYTO) in 2002. With these organisations, I advocated for the rights of animals and the plight of near-extinct species, the rights of girls, participated in various donations and awareness campaigns such as HIV/AIDS and Breast Cancer.
I believe that becoming atheist made me more aware of my passions and my part to play in advocacy and the promotion of human rights based on the realisation that there is no one and no god to help us other than ourselves as people.
Why do you think that adopting a social progressive outlook is important?
It is very important since our lives and our well-being depend on the environment and the kind of society we are in. Having bad cultural practices, harmful traditions, and laws could lead us backwards rather than providing us with a bright future for ourselves and the next generations around the world. I have grown to witness and live with hearing cases of child abuse at homes and in schools, seeing child trafficking on my streets, the handicapped begging, the mentally ill left naked to roam the streets, people dying of diseases that could have been prevented or cured, the loss of trust in policing and the judicial system and the effects of bad governance, bribery, and corruption on a populace.
People are growing ever so desperate that they are falling for the con of others using religion as a means of using them for their sexual perverted desires and money. Poverty is driving people to abandon their loved ones or accuse their own mothers of witchcraft in order for them to be put to death or banished from their communities for life. It is important that we do away with these in our societies as we have come to know better and rather look to our past which in the Akan language has a term called “Sankofa” which teaches us to learn from our past to build a better tomorrow.
As a progressive, what do you think is the best socio-political position to adopt in the Ghana?
A major investment into Ghana’s educational system and the review of our school curriculum. Almost all government and private schools are influenced or owned by religious institutions and they dictate what should and should not be taught to our children. It is in schools that major indoctrination starts and stifles freethinking in children. It is also there that teachers are given a right to beat up children to enforce ‘god’s will’ of the “spare the rod, spoil the child’ culture. If our educational system is revamped as our 1st President, Osagyefo Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, a humanist himself, started and envisioned it to be, Ghana could have a well-educated and empowered workforce to develop the country in all the other sectors.
I attended the first University built by Osagyefo Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, The University of Ghana.
You became a member of the Humanist Association of Ghana (HAG) in 2012. You helped organised the first ever West African Humanist Conference (2012), which was sponsored by the International Humanist and Ethical Youth Organisation (IHEYO). What tasks and responsibilities come along with volunteering and organising for the HAG?
At the time, our group was quite small but vibrant.
It was an exciting time to meet other Ghanaian atheists and agnostics and we were very pleased that IHEYO would entrust us with organising such a big event despite us being so new as a group. We did not have any formal leadership or an Executive Committee at the time so most of this was planned by volunteering members especially Graham Knight who helped to bring us together and started the Freethought Ghana group. I was then working for an Australian Mining Company out of Accra so I made myself available to attend and help with last minute preparations like picking up delegates from the airport to their hotel and vice versa after the event.
During the event, I volunteered to be at the information desk where I helped to register attendees, distribute pamphlets, notebooks, pens and provide drinking water. I also took it upon myself to film the conference since the funds were not enough for photo and video services. I also represented the group for interviews by local and international media. To be a volunteer, to me, is about helping however, wherever and whenever you can. Whether financially, using your skills or socially, any help at all goes a long way to achieve a successful event and team effort makes it even more motivating, fun and organised.
In Ghanaian culture, what are some of the more effective means to teach critical thinking within the socio-cultural milieu?
Ghana is made up of a culturally diverse population. It consists of roughly 100 linguistic and cultural groups. These groups, clans and tribes, although very different from each other, have certain similarities in various aspects of their culture. In Ghana, a child is said to be raised by the whole village rather than just the nuclear family. Traditionally, information was passed on from generation to generation mainly through song and dance. However, in modern days, education not only begins from home but in schools, mainstream media such as TV, radio and religious institutions. As humanists, our focus has been with the youth in schools and social media.
What about modern scientific ideas?
Most of the understanding of things around us are taught from home by parents and extended family members who usually pass on what they learnt from their elders. This is mostly dogmatic and superstitious rather than scientific even though the end result is meant to educate. Educational institutions are good grounds to teach modern scientific ideas. Ghana can boast of some of the best science institutions such as the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology as well as research centres such as the Noguchi Memorial institute.
We also have some of the most renowned Medical Teaching hospitals in the West
African region such as the Komfo Anokye and Korle-Bu Teaching Hospitals. Ghana
has the only Planetarium in West Africa which is 1 of only 3 on the continent,
which HAG members patronise and promote. There are also science programmes and
quiz competitions amongst schools on TV.
What are the main barriers to teaching critical thinking and modern scientific ideas?
Lack of infrastructure, dedicated science teachers who are poorly paid, medical personnel and government interest has made our science sector struggle as compared to more developed countries. The average Ghanaian sees science as more theoretical and career-specific than practical. The understanding of science is seen mostly as a ‘Western’ construct than a global one. This could have stemmed from the fact that most modern inventions known to us came from Europe and the USA.
As a Ghanaian and African, what seem like the positives and negatives of religion
and religious fervour on individuals and communities in Ghana and Africa in
Using the major religions like Christianity, Islam and Traditional worship, the positives of religion are that they give a sense of community, feelings of love, boosts self-esteem and gives hope and inspiration. The negatives however, are countless. Many of which include spiritual leaders taking advantage of people financially and sexually, having delusional thoughts out of superstition and religious indoctrination, self- loathing, and guilt from unnecessary thoughts, a sense of false hope, illogical reasoning, lazy attitudes towards work and charity, a false sense of entitlement, mandates to abuse yourself and others most of which turn out to be fatal, etc.
What big obstacles (if at all) do you see social-progressive movements facing at the moment?
1. Lack of governmental/State support
2. Lack of funding or insufficient funds
3. Mismanagement of funds
4. Lack of public support
5. Inadequate and outdated rules of law
6. Insufficient legal backing and law enforcement
How important do you think social movements are?
Social movements are very important especially in 3rd world countries in being the voice of the people and putting pressure on government and the people to review and approve the living conditions of people and the state of affairs of a country and its environment in the best interest of everyone. This is because despite democracy being adapted as a system of rule in most African countries, most of the time, cultural, traditional and religious biases steer the governments in the wrong direction and also because most of the countries may not have enough funding to care for its citizens and infrastructure.
In November, 2015, you became President of the HAG and in July, 2016, the Chair of the IHEYO African Working Group. What do these elected-to positions mean to you?
In the beginning of joining the humanist movement, I honestly never really saw myself as a leader. I just wanted to contribute my quota. However, I started to realise I had it in me to do great things for my group when I wrote my first article and got the most hits online! I received over 200 comments within days of posting it.
Most of the comments were negative but I felt I had left a mark and got people thinking. It also got the group recognised. I was recommended to IHEYO for a position as Secretary of the African working group in 2014 and at the time, I did not have much on my portfolio as an activist so I was so surprised and over-the-top excited when I got the news that I had been elected by international humanists who barely knew me from a record number of nominations!!! I was grateful that they read through my nomination and entrusted me with the position, which I held for 2 years.
I took it very seriously and had a lot of guidance from the IHEYO EC whose President was Nicola Jackson. I saw how long the working group had been dormant, and so many things I could do to bring it to life and so many ideas started coming to me. I increased social media presence on our Facebook page for the African Working Group and membership increased from 12 to 183 members within 2 years (It is now over 230). I also started a new Twitter page, @IheyoAfwg, with 130 followers including local and international humanists and humanist organisations. I helped create a network of African humanists and humanist organisations that are in regular communication via email, skype and WhatsApp and I discovered several African humanists and organisations that I am in constant contact with to advise and guide.
In December 2014, I together with the Humanist Association of Ghana, hosted the 2nd West African Humanist Conference (WAHC), sponsored by HIVOS and IHEYO. Please see below for links to the videos of the 2-day event which was aired live online setting a record for my group: Day 1 — Day 2– I founded the HAGtivist podcast project and started it with other volunteering members of HAG.
I had been a contributor to the IHEYO newsletter Youthspeak personally and from various member organisations in Ghana and Nigeria, and I represented the working group at the recently held General Assembly (GA) in Malta this year. I was part of the team that helped to organise the first ever continent-wide humanist conference held in Kenya called the African Humanist Youth Days (AHYD 2016) in July. This year, I knew that if I won the election as Chair, there would be so much more I could do to lead the Working group and despite a new resolution to have only Working group MOs voting this time, I came out victorious once again.
I am grateful to my fellow African humanists for their support and belief in me. It was on the same day I also received news of our election from HAG that I had also gained the position from Interim President in November 2015 to President elect in July 2016. It was truly humbling that my work was recognised and my fellow members had given me the responsibility of representing our group of highly intelligent, creative and wonderful people. These 2 positions come with the responsibility of representing Africa positively, dedicating a lot of time and resources, being passionate, bold, charismatic, firm, principled, professional, discerning, and diplomatic.
I believe that history is to be made this time round with young African humanists, and I am really happy to have the opportunity to be one of the ones at the forefront of change at this time setting a foundation for generations to come.
Who are personal heroes within the culture?
Historically, there are many personalities that are celebrated in Ghana. Some of my personal heroes are Yaa Asantewaa, an Ashanti Queen mother who, in 1900, led the Ashanti rebellion known as the War of the Golden Stool, also known as the Yaa Asantewaa war, against British colonialism. Her courage and bravery for a woman of her time inspires me.
Our first President of Ghana, Osagyefo Dr. Kwame Nkrumah is also one of the most renowned figures in Africa. He was born in a small village in Ghana and was able to finish his education in 1 of the most prestigious institutions in the world at Oxford University, returned home a humanist and fought for Ghana’s independence from the British, making Ghana the 1st African country to be free from colonial rule in 1957. He was able to transform Ghana by providing us with our first and largest Hydroelectric dam, free basic school education, universities, science centres, Highways, our only International airport, our biggest port, etc. which we enjoy to this day.
In modern times, I have come to admire the work of our current
Minister for Gender, Children and Social Protection, Nana Oye Lithur. Although
Christian, even before her Ministerial appointment, as a Lawyer, she has helped
fight for the rights of the LGBT community despite serious opposition, worked
Pro bono to solve many domestic cases especially those against women and
children and is working tirelessly through her Ministry in assisting alleged
witches banished from their communities.
What is your favourite scientific discovery ever?
Electricity! It forms such an integral part of modern day living that I cannot imagine where we would be without it.
What philosopher(s), or philosophy/philosophies, best represent your own views about aesthetics, ethics, metaphysics, and politics?
I do not follow any philosophers in particular because I have not read about any. Instead, various documentaries have helped shape my thoughts on various aspects of life. I am a lover of nature, science and art. I am not interested much in politics and I derive my ethics from logic, constant research and debates amongst friends and members of HAG.
Who seem like the greatest anti-scientific representatives in Ghana?
What about the greatest anti-scientific and anti-humanistic movements within Ghana?
Ghana’s greatest enemy in the progress of science and technological advancement is religion. It is the only and greatest barrier because it allows for so much wrong to go on with little or no opposition. From faith healing, false prophecies, work ethics, illogical theories, women’s oppression, authoritarianism, human rights abuse, bribery and corruption, etc. Ghana is highly religious in the sense that everything that happens is attributed to a deity or superstition or both! If something good happens, it is “By His (God’s) grace”, if something bad happens, it is “God’s will” or “the devil’s work” or “a bad spirit” or “angry ancestors”. It is almost impossible to argue with people no matter how educated because of this train of thought.
Religion is not a private matter as most religious countries practice. Here, it is allowed everywhere and anyone who stands in the way of their ideology or spiritual leader is an enemy of progress to them. Most homes force relatives to pray at odd hours loudly and some go on the streets at midnight to pray or preach. In the public buses, herbal medicine traders who also double as Christian pastors are allowed to stand and preach for hours during the journey. At work, highly religious entrepreneurs and Managers force employees to sing and pray before and after work. All official meetings and occasions, private or public begin and end with a prayer. Our entire lives are circulated around prayer and worship of one deity or another. There is little space for intellectual conversations and critical thinking.
What can external associations, collectives, organisations, and even influential individuals, do to assist you in your professional endeavours in Ghana?
I implore all external associations, collectives, organisations to partner with legitimate, active organisations here especially HAG. I advise that not only should they support the work of HAG, but also keep following up on our work. You may support the activities of HAG through bringing in substantive ideas, financial aid, materials such as books, clothes, Resource persons, promoting our activities on social media and mainstream media and influential people can also visit to help promote our work and start fundraising campaigns that would be widely reached.
International women’s empowerment, equality, and rights are important to me. What is the status of women regarding empowerment, equality, and rights in Ghana?
I am very happy to be born at a time when women empowerment is starting to benefit the masses. However, there are several factors that are hampering empowerment and gender equality in Ghana, which include Cultural and religious beliefs. I wrote an extensive articleregarding this issue in March 2016.
Can humanism improve the status of women in Ghana more than traditional religious structures, doctrines, and beliefs?
Most definitely it can! This is because, humanism emphasises the value of all human beings regardless of gender and promotes wellbeing of people whereas religion and superstition creates an illusion of differences between the gender making men feel superior than women. Humanism also brings about a sense of selflessness and working to better the lives of the deprived in society which are mostly women.
Thank you for your time, Roslyn.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. Jacobsen works for science and human rights, especially women’s and children’s rights. He considers the modern scientific and technological world the foundation for the provision of the basics of human life throughout the world and advancement of human rights as the universal movement among peoples everywhere.