Sunday, 1 March 2015

Interview With Founder of 'World's First Atheist Orphanage'


Five days ago, Hank Pellissier from the Brighter Brains Institute -- at which I'm an honorary fellow -- sent me information about an ambitious new project he was fundraising for. He is teaming up with Bwambale Robert, Director of the Kasese Humanist Primary School to build the world's First Atheist Orphanage in strongly religious Uganda.

I'll admit that at the time I was too wiped to check it out the piece he included in his email by VICE writer Zoltan Istvan, a futurist transhumanist who is also a fellow at Brighter Brains. (Note that this organization is open to both religious and atheist contributors so there is a fair bit of what many would consider woo. However, they have done excellent work in Uganda.)

You can find the GoFundMe fundraiser page for the new orphanage here.

A few days later, Hemant Mehta picked up the story on his Friendly Atheist blog. Although he was open to the idea of a secular orphanage, there was something about the active promotion of atheist values which rubbed him the wrong way.
"Pellissier, who considers himself open to spirituality, says that orphans who are religious will be welcomed into the orphanage. But the education, culture, and emphasis will be on an atheist and secular experience."

I hope this is just a case of sloppy journalism and that they mean the education and culture the kids receive just won’t be religious in nature… but if they’re crossing the line into actively teaching kids that God doesn’t exist, I’d feel very uncomfortable telling anyone to support them. If Christians did something similar, we’d call it brainwashing. Even though I agree with the Humanists on the God issue, it’s something the children must figure out for themselves.

Teach them how to ask questions. Teach them to respect the scientific method. But don’t teach them to reject God before they’re old enough to fully understand how religion works.

Atheists can help these kids without pressuring them to adopt a non-religious stance themselves.

The crowdfunding campaign page is here if you’re interested. I have no plans to make a donation.
This made for some colourful and energetic exchange on the comments section. I shared some of Hemant's concerns and so contacted Bwambale Robert to ask some follow up questions. You'll find the interview below.

I can see this possibly being a sort of rift issue in the atheist and Humanist community as it grows and increases its ability to provide education, child care and even healthcare to groups in need across the world. How much should we encourage the questioning of religion and normalize or even champion atheism within highly dependant and vulnerable groups?

Is it acceptable if the orphanage founders have as one of their mission goals the reduction of religion -- otherwise known as an increase in atheism? I would say yes, but many might consider this too much like religious orphanages with goals to indoctrinate kids. These people might only see organizations like Doctors Without Borders as being an acceptable model.

Meanwhile, for those who do see religion (read: superstitious belief) as part of the problem, goals to reduce its grip on younger generations may seem noble. It would then boil down to how secularism is actually implemented and how open and free critical thinking and unfettered exploration of ideas is encouraged. Are children with religious beliefs still respected or is atheist dogma forced upon them?

Of course, from an outside observer -- when the rubber hits the pavement -- a properly secularly run orphanage is indistinguishable from an atheist freethinker orphanage, regardless of anyones motives or personal religious beliefs. Religious and non-religious both can do secularism.

Except for one thing. Unlike any other orphanage, when a child or parent asks a caretaker a question in confidence about a god, the answer here will be unique. Those working at this institution will be the first in the country to not be afraid to honestly answer, as atheists, that there is not evidence for a god; that they are atheists and that's Okay -- they are still good people. I wonder how often these words are spoken in a country like Uganda.

Now, without further ado, the interview. This was done informally over email and Bwambale's mother tongue is not English. Aside for a couple of very minor corrections, I left the responses intact.

1) Describe the primary goal of this new orphanage and what sets it apart from other orphanages in the region.
To improve lives of orphaned children in our community through allowing them have access to the basics of life and enjoy a better life like the rest of children.

What sets it apart from other orphanages is that its foundation is secular in nature where we shall allow children to grow freely without any dogma or indoctrination whether Atheism, Humanism or religion.

We shall however expose the children to the scientific method where we shall enlighten them on the usefulness of science in attempting to improve life on this planet. We plan to promote evidence based learning in compliance our government policy of promoting science and technology in combating global challenges.

Children from our orphanage will be well versed with ideas from anything that might come across their minds ranging from religion, religions, our universe and what is beyond. We shall emphasize a lot on promoting critical thinking.

There will be no worshiping of any religion, performing rituals or orphans putting on holy signs as done in religious based orphanages but we shall try as much as we can to respect their religions and if the children so wish will be allowed to practice their beliefs in nearby places of worship but not at the orphanage - On this point, we shall be available to defend ourselves why such practices are not considered important.
2) How old will these children be?
Orphans into the orphanage will not be more than 18 years. Only vulnerable orphans will be considered after thorough screening. We will try as much to keep the numbers low but we shall try help out other orphans outside the orphanage access education or skills training at the orphanage.
3) Will there be religious instruction of any kind? Will there be any discussion of atheism? If so, how will religions and atheism be presented?
There will be No religious instruction of any kind, yes, there will always be a discussion on Atheism, Religion, Humanism, Free thought and Science.

Religion will be analyzed on comparative terms as they are so many and children should have a right to information. The same goes to Atheism, Humanism or Science.

All in all, we shall not be recommending children to take to any side like most religious founded orphanages do but will be up to the orphans to make decisions of their own when they grow up.
4) If a child professes their faith in a God or religion, how would the caretakers react?
If a child professes their belief in a god or gods, we shall not stop him or her. It will be there right to choose what to believe in.
5) If a child asks if God or religion is true, how would the caretakers answer?
If a child asks if God or religion is true, we shall simply say, we don’t know because we have no tangible evidence that proves he or she exists, we are not even sure whether god is male or female or both. Keeping that side, there is existence of multiples of god so far invented and so it might be very hard for one to know which god you are talking about.

On the side of religion, it remains the same story as there exists very many religions, some believing in one god and divided still, while others believe in other gods and each religion claiming to be the most right with a ticket to heaven or eternity. The same explanation applies. It will however be a greater task for us to enlighten children about the different types of religions we have all over the world.
6) Will the orphanage use the word 'atheist' in its name in Uganda? If so, is there any danger incurred to caretakers or children for using this word?
The orphanage name is BiZoHa, its an acronym of 3 personalities who have done commendable work in the world of charity, am actually the one who proposed that name, i decided it as i wanted a neutral orphanage that will welcome people from all walks of life whether you are a believer or non believer. 
7) How does instruction at this orphanage differ than the school?
The Orphanage will be no different from the stand and vision of Kasese Humanist Primary School, as usual no dogma, no indoctrinations with an element of religious tolerance.
8) Now that the fundraising goal has been met, where will the orphanage be situated physically and how close will it be to the school? Has the building been constructed yet?
The orphanage will be situated in Muhokya along Mpondwe - Fort Portal road, a distance of 10 Kilometers from the KHPS Main campus at Railway and 15 Kilometers from the KHPS Permanent home in Rukoki, Kasese District.

Constructions of the orphanage commences on April 15 this year. We are beginning with a dormitory to house 15 orphans and will be supervised by a caregiver with good reputation. Other buildings on the orphanage site will be constructed in the future as funds permit.

At the orphanage, we plan to put some classes for learning to help out orphans there access education but this will be strengthened in the course of the year, we plan also to put in vocational skills training to help out vulnerable youth acquire skills to pave their way to economic self reliance.
9) What are the next steps for moving forward with the orphanage? How can people get more information on this? How can they help?
Next step for moving forward with the orphanage requires full support of this noble project, it does not matter whether you are religious, Atheist, Humanist or Non believer, the concern here is to rescue the orphans so that they get chance to live meaningful decent lives.

More information about the orphanage can be sourced out by following the Brighter Brains Institute website for updates. You can send your donation through their website. People can be of help by donating finances generously to this cause via the Brighter Brains Institute USA.

Spreading the message about the orphanage to friends and families on social networks.
Liaising with us by holding fundraising drives in your respective areas in support of BiZoHa Orphanage.

Choosing to volunteer at the orphanage and get chance to motivate the orphans that they are very important in nation building.
10) are there any other concerns -- specifically from the article at Friendly Atheist and its comments -- you would like to address?
I thank Hemant Mehta of being concerned by making a simple write up on the orphanage on his blog however i was almost turned off when he came out with a title saying that he can’t donate to this orphanage. I guess the word First Atheist Orphanage was the catchment word that turned off most readers, as friends in the struggle for secularism, those were his opinions but i think he rushed to air out that, i know some people in the free thought world are not comfortable with the tag Atheist..... This has to stop.

We all don’t subscribe to fairies, fables or myths and i think we should all unite and support causes of this nature. The plight of Orphans in Uganda needs attention and we as people of no belief, we have a role to play in saving this.

Most of the concerns on the Friendly Atheist Blog were attended to by myself, i realized there was lots of concerns aired out which is good and very important. Your comments were eye openers.

Like I said, we are breaking the monopoly that religious people alone have no right to own orphanages, people with no belief also care about orphans. I think this will send a signal to religious people that we are not sitting back when we see some injustices committed in the name of religion; we have had of pedophile priests, pastors defiling children, children made to do hard labor, children being molested or abused.

At BiZoHa Orphanage, we shall try our level best to protect the orphans from these upheavals, we shall try to expose them to the world view where they will be made to understand better the world around them, how to be morally upright, how to think big and be beneficial to developing ourselves to mention but a few.

On this platform, i thank very much Sean McGuire for being concerned to ask me these questions and will try my best to ensure this orphanage is on track and in line with the mission and goals of Kasese Humanist Primary School.

With Science, we can progress.


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