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iDoubt: Critical Thinking and Skepticism in Africa in an Internet Age

Special Report

Leo Igwe

July 28, 2017

The need for critical thinking in Africa cannot be overemphasized because some of the dark and destructive effects of dogma, superstition, and blind faith are most manifest is in this region. The inability to question claims and beliefs is at the root of witch killing, ritual murders, and other superstition-based abuses that plague the region. Unfortunately, the spread of education, science, and human rights has not significantly weakened the hold of irrational beliefs on the minds of many. Pastors, medicine men, godmen, and godwomen continue to propagate bogus claims and prey on popular fears, ignorance, and credulity. In Kenya, Prophet Owuor claimed to have resurrected a woman from the dead. A traditional priest in Ghana sustained serious injuries while testing a magic bulletproof vest. In South Africa, pastors asked church members to eat grass and drink Dettol. They used insecticide faith heal the people. Another pastor, Bushiri, claimed to have walked on the air.

In Nigeria, there have been reports of witches crash landing in a church or at a bus stop and then turning into a cat or bird. These issues are worrisome and have made critical thinking urgent and compelling in Africa and among Africans. This piece explains a very important device for critical thinking. This tool contains programs that one can utilize in nourishing the mind and in sifting through the welter of information that one receives every day. I call this device “iDoubt.” The “i” stands for different applications: individual doubt, inspire doubt, inculcate doubt, inform doubt, and Internet doubt. I argue that these applications can enhance one’s curiosity and critical abilities and help us guard against deception, exploitation, and foolery.

Individual Doubt

The program, individual doubt, underscores the capacity of all persons—young and old, black or white, educated or non-educated, religious or nonreligious—to query and dispute notions and beliefs. Humans are doubting beings. We are questing, questioning, inquisitive, and curious animals. Questioning a claim is part of the human chemistry. In fact, critical thinking is in the human DNA. Too often the human mind boils and bubbles with questions. Unfortunately, these impulses get suppressed. The thoughts are brushed aside. Things we see on the streets or on the television or on the Internet; things we hear from family members or friends; what we read in the papers or presentations such as this, trigger questions. They provoke thoughts and ideas because they seem not to be as true or as real as imagined, expected, or stated. People are constantly grappling with the notion of appearance versus reality, truth versus falsehood. They try to reconcile what people say with what they mean. Accounts of what happened in the past or in the present—even what people say would happen in the future—elicit objections and reservations.

Very often we have questions regarding the actors behind certain events and experiences, the persons involved in a robbery, kidnapping, accidents, or murder; the roles they played, the time and place of events. The mind is curious to understand these characters or is unsatisfied with what is presented. Hence doubting attests to the mind’s thirst for knowledge and understanding. It is the driver of human curiosity and ingenuity. The mind poses and composes questions in order to ascertain, clarify, verify, or to obtain more information. For instance, some people have questions regarding the holy books. They ask: who wrote the Bible? Did Allah really dictate the Quran? Can a spirit talk? The mind boils with questions regarding ritual beliefs and traditions: Can a human head turn into money? Can a human being turn into a snake? Can human beings “fly” at night as witches? Why at night? Why can’t they fly during the day?

This application draws attention to the fact that although human beings believe and have faith, they also exercise doubt. It is important to note that human beings do not doubt exactly the same way. Human beings relate differently to issues. Things affect us in ways that we question with varying degrees of passion, nuance, and emphasis. So, doubts have personal connections, content, and intent. Our questions reflect personal experiences, frustrations, and expectations. Our doubts are unique just as we are. But these sentiments may be dormant and not overtly expressed. So we need another facility to awaken and put these critical ideas into active use, another application that inspires doubt.

Inspire Doubt

This application stresses the importance of motivating people to question. Although doubting is natural to us, we may not doubt at the end of the day. The art of questioning can be stimulated; it could be directly or indirectly provoked. Information that one reads could make the person curious and begin to ask questions. Questions also provoke questions.

For instance, in 1994 I applied to teach in a school in Ibadan that is in South West Nigeria. After going through my application, which contained my date of birth, the headmaster of the school asked me: Is that your real age? Actually, he meant to ask: Is that your real date of birth? I was confused and taken completely aback by the question. I stared at him for a while and then replied: Which one is real age? The man suspected that the question did not go down well with me and then said with a smile: “Well, I am just asking.”

This experience haunted me for a while because, until I encountered this man, I never knew that a person could declare an unreal age or date of birth. I did not know what, in Nigeria, they call “official age.” It seemed impossible and unthinkable because I have younger brothers. If I had quoted an age less than my actual age that would mean I am the same age as my younger brother! Meanwhile, my mother never had twins!

As you can see, questions provoke questions. Doubts trigger doubt. This encounter made me doubtful of people’s ages. Since then, whenever a person tells me his or her age or their date of birth, this question comes to my mind: Is that the real age? Is that the real date of birth? From there, other questions follow: Is that the real certificate? Is that the real name? Is that the real grade? Is that the real nationality? Is that the real father or mother? Is that the real child? Nowadays, in dealing with people I devote a lot of time doing a reality check.

People may have doubts about a thing or a project; about a person’s age, qualification, or credential. One may have questions regarding changing one’s job, accepting a friendship or marriage proposal, relocating to another country, starting a new business, joining a group, contributing to a cause, etc. However, the person may be reluctant to express his/her doubts. Sometimes it is necessary to nudge people to ask questions and to disclose their suspicions. This program stresses the need to incentivize critical thinking and inquiry. It invites us to motivate persons: children, siblings, parents or peers, friends, coworkers, family, or community members to openly and expressly voice out their objections and dissent.

This application urges us to reward and not penalize critical reasoning. Those who doubt and question beliefs should be commended and celebrated. Skeptics should be honored. There should be prizes for those who ask the highest number of questions in an event like this. Some reward should be set aside for persons who pose tough questions after presentations. However, as Bertrand Russell said, some people would rather die than think. Some people would rather die than express their doubts. That is why the next application is a very important part of this device.

Inculcate Doubt

This application is closely related to inspiring doubt. The only difference is that it reminds us that questioning aptitude can be taught. Although it is part of human nature to question, doubting is something that can be instilled into others. Critical thinking is a learned process. The skills can be transmitted. Questioning claims and behaviors is not an attribute that just readily manifests on its own. Sometimes, the habit has to be nurtured and cultivated because human beings could decide not to examine or interrogate certain issues and claims.

So this application invites us to teach people to doubt and to instruct others to think critically. We can instruct people to challenge claims, examine traditional, cultural, and religious beliefs. Critical aptitude should be introduced as a subject in primary and secondary schools. People should be able to learn from a young age how to question and to doubt.

We need to teach pupils to ask questions such as: How do you know? What is the evidence? Are you sure? Why should I believe you? Can you prove it? Just as people are taught to greet, drive, run, cook, play football and tennis, they should also be taught to questions ideas and critically examine claims and beliefs. Even when people are taught to doubt they may still refuse to express their thoughts. That is why we need the next application in the kit.

Inform Doubt

This application emphasizes the need to inform others about our doubts. It urges us to publicize our critical thoughts and disseminate our misgivings. Simply put, tell others you have doubts. Tell a friend: “I doubt it.” Doubts lurk and rage in our minds longing for expression. They could dissipate and fizzle out from there. Without telling someone about them—without communicating these objections and reservations—no one would know about them. A key benefit of a doubt is lost. The power and value of critical thinking lies in its public expression and application. No one will reckon with those critical thoughts or ideas unless they are made known. Without communicating such thoughts, the ideas will not be taken into account. First of all, the benefit is lost to the entertainer of a doubt because non-expression of doubts has choking and suffocating effects. Expression of doubt is cathartic and leads to mental relief and ventilation.

In addition, informing others about our doubts nourish other persons’ doubting capacity. Critical ideas shared are critical ideas gained. Human beings are producers as well as consumers of doubts. Expressed critical thinking is an exercise in mutual intellectual nourishment.

Sometimes, the tendency is to think that one is doubting alone. Too often I have heard skeptics heave a sigh of relief that they are not the only ones who doubt certain notions and beliefs. First timers at skeptics/humanist meetings often say: “Oh I thought I was the only one thinking this way.” They make this remark after hearing others share their doubts and disbelief, and say openly and publicly what they have been thinking and expressing privately. This application enjoins us to announce it to the world that we doubt and wear the labels of critical thinking, skepticism, and rationalism with pride. This is because doubting is one of the human’s most valuable assets. It is a mark that human beings do not just accept whatever is said. Human beings consume with some taste.

So please, tell your doubts to anybody who cares to know that you have them. Even if people do not care to know, express your doubts to them; they may start caring from that moment. You may be surprised to hear their response such as: “I doubt it too” or “I don’t believe it too” or “I have been suspecting that guy” or “I also think that prophet is a fraud. This whole notion of an afterlife? It has never made sense to me,” etc. Some of my Christian friends have told me during conversations that they do not believe in the existence of Hell or in the Devil. One said to me that he did not believe that the Bible is the word of God.

Very often one may never get to hear such doubt-filled declarations if one refuses to communicate one’s critical ideas. In fact, one may not get to meet other doubters like some of you out there unless one shares openly and publicly one’s skeptical thoughts. So, don’t keep those doubts to yourself. Announce them, publicize them, tell a friend, and say to a neighbor: “I doubt it.”

Internet Doubt

In the business of communication today, one important facility is the Internet. This application urges us to use the online accessories to express and communicate our doubts. These accessories include websites, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp, Snap Chat, podcasts, and blogs. Before the advent of the Internet, the space to express one’s critical thoughts was limited. Many people who doubted hardly ever put their thoughts into writing.

Even when these thoughts are written, they would often not be published. The few critical thinkers who published their ideas did so in obscure journals, magazines, or bulletins that few knew about or read. With the advent of the Internet, this situation has changed. Information technology has liberated doubts and doubters. It has provided an additional space to express skeptical ideas.

To let you know how the Internet could really be vital in expressing our doubts, let us take a look at the reaction to an article that I published online, on Ghanaweb, some time ago. After a stampede in Mecca that led to the death of some of the pilgrims, I queried why those pilgrims should suffer death if Allah really existed. I have no doubt that you agree with me that this query is in order. The article titled, “Hajj Stampede: Where was Allah?” did not go down well with many readers and generated 177 comments. In one of the comments, captioned “Think Deep,” the writer said:

Writer no name is sad. I don’t know how and where to start or what to say. But my question to the writer is if you say Muslims believe Allah is omnipotent, omnipresent etc what about the God you believe in? And if your God also has any of those qualities where was he when tragedies like this happen? Just think. Think deep and you will know how seriously and wastefully you wasted your time in writing this piece.

As you can see, my piece that was itself a question has generated more questions. But this article would not have generated these questions to my knowledge if I had not posted it online. So, the Internet has been useful for skeptics and believers alike in disseminating their doubts and disbelief.

Furthermore, try and visit any of the online forums and see how Nigerians, Ghanaians, and Kenyans are waxing with doubts and critical ideas. Someone who was worried about the rise of atheism in Nigeria posted this comment on Naira land:

I was just reading a post on Naira land some minutes ago where the topic was on what constitutes a God-fearing individual. Someone commented adding that he/she is (sic) an atheist and that got me wondering. I have been seeing so many atheists on social media in Nigeria and it bothers me why there are so many of them nowadays. Are people now saying that there is no God? Do people mean that they don’t believe in the creator of the universe? How did they come into existence if they don’t believe in God? God created us all and this is what the Bible says. What is it with all these atheists? I want to understand why anyone would come to the conclusion that there is no God. It baffles me seriously. I need answers.

So, the Internet is providing a platform for believers and nonbelievers to pose questions and express their doubts, shocks, and surprises. It has become a tool for all those who are baffled by atheism or theism to look for answers. So, I say: Use it; make use of the internet. Digitalize your doubts!

Conclusion

I have explained the iDoubt device and the various applications that we can use to nourish our minds. Doubting is a mark of an intelligent and active mind. Bertrand Russell has aptly noted that the trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are filled with doubts. Questioning illumines, awakens, and enlightens. Critical thinking has the potential of saving life, money, and time. It could help diminish the harm, suffering, and exploitation that many people experience across the region. Critical reasoning is human beings’ greatest weapon against authoritarianism, tyranny, and fraud. It is necessary for active humanism and a worthwhile life because critical examination of claims is revealing and unveiling. By questioning beliefs, we free the mind from the chain of dogma. We unveil what is hidden from the other: what parents hide from the children, children from adults, leaders from the led, teachers from students, clergy from lay people, men from women, and women from men.

At the same time, doubting disrupts knowledge and truth claims. Questioning unsettles and unnerves, especially those who lay claim to absolute truth or to an unshiftable paradigm of knowledge. Doubting faults what is believed to be true or right; things as we see them and as we perceive them or things as we want them to be seen or perceived. Doubts are the harbingers of the new, of new knowledge, clues, insights, and discoveries. Critical inquiry is a marker of creative, inventive, and innovative minds. Doubting is an invaluable asset that is needed in sifting through the maze of information, the confusing and contradictory claims and beliefs that we encounter daily.

At a time when we are witnessing rampant and irresponsible claims of people resurrecting from the dead and turning into birds, goats, and snakes and in an era when pastors are walking on the air and many Africans still believe that human beings fly at night as witches and that one can make money through ritual and human sacrifice, this device—iDoubt—is a resource.

iDoubt and its different applications can be put to effective use in tackling the demon and witch hunters and in furthering the cause of proactive skepticism in Africa in this Internet age. So the next time you encounter those peddling dubious superstitious, religious and paranormal beliefs, whether online or offline, let them know in no uncertain terms:

I doubt it; you doubt it; we doubt it!

Leo Igwe

Leo Igwe is the founder of the Nigerian Humanist Movement and currently a research fellow at Bayreuth International Graduate School of African Studies, University of Bayreuth, Germany.