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An Interview with Rick Raubenheimer and Jani Schoeman on Silver Linings, Secularism and South Africa, and Community (Part Two)


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Publication (Outlet/Website): In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2019/08/01


Rick Raubenheimer is the President and Jani Schoeman is the Former President of the South African Secular Society. They discuss: silver linings; niche needing filling by SASS; freedom from and to religion, and secularism; representation; fun activities of community; and final thoughts.

Keywords: Jani Schoeman, Rick Raubenheimer, secularism, South African Secular Society.

An Interview with Rick Raubenheimer and Jani Schoeman on Silver Linings, Secularism and South Africa, and Community: President and Former President, SASS (Part Two)[1],[2]

*Please see the footnotes, bibliography, and citation style listing after the interview.*

1. Scott Douglas Jacobsen:I want to focus on two or three gray threads, there. One, unfortunately, you lost your father at age eight. I’m sorry to hear that. But also, when you were going through the Christian education, the Jewish education, transcendental meditation, these yogis, and an IM, you meet your wife, or who would become your wife, Judith.

Rick Raubenheimer: Yes.

Jacobsen: Within that context, you noted that you were consistently skeptical of these belief structures, or these belief structures around these practices, coming to a head with Dawkins and Dennett in the latter 2000s. What does this state about these practices, whether it’s the spiritual but not religious, or the formal religions, as being not entirely bad in terms of some of their consequences or derivatives?

Raubenheimer: Particularly from the i am training, I certainly grew. I think I became a better person. It was said of the i am training that one-third of the people, it had no effect on, one third got worse, and one third got better [Laughing].

Jacobsen: [Laughing] That’s good.

Jani Schoeman: Certainly, the techniques didn’t have a favourable effect on everybody. It was derided as a cult at various times, and so on.

I think there’s only one offshoot of it still going, which is called Quest. If you look for that on various blogs, there are people who refer to it as a cult, as well, and using psychological techniques, which is actually illegal in South Africa because there’s this Act which reserves doing psychology for people who are qualified psychologists, or psychotherapists.

2. Jacobsen: What was the niche needing filling through the foundation or the organization?

Schoeman: I think there wasn’t really an existing atheist community, especially in Johannesburg, that regularly met up in person when I first started the group. That was something that I couldn’t find when I was looking, and when I was going through my hard times and my deconversion. That’s why I started the group.

Ever since, we’ve discovered a few more niches within the secular community, I guess you could call it. There’s another organization that we support quite a bit, which is an organization that took the public schools to court last year in order to… Rick maybe you can say what was happening there. I think you will be able to describe it better.

Raubenheimer: Essentially, South Africa, as you probably know, in 1994, had a transition to democracy from the Apartheid system. Along with that came a largely secular constitution, rather like yours. There’s an invocation to God at the beginning, and then after that, it doesn’t get mentioned, basically.

We have a Bill of Rights which says that the state and people in the country may not discriminate against people on various grounds, including religion, belief, lack thereof, sexual orientation, skin colour, age, et cetera. The Constitution, particularly with the background of Apartheid that was based on racial discrimination, the new constitution very much focused on human rights, liberal model of treating everybody equally.

In fact, the orientation of the Constitution was not that difference is tolerated, but that we are the rainbow nation; and our differences are celebrated. This was built into the school curriculum as well. The idea was that schooling would be inclusive. The schools’ policy is such that schools may not favour, push, indoctrinate, proselytize any religion, or lack thereof.

This didn’t find great favour with the people who had come from the Christian National Education background. It’s been an ongoing battle since then to convince them that yes, actually, it’s not okay to state that a school’s ethos is a Christian ethos, that, “We follow Christian principles at this school,” that, “We will start assembly with prayer,” and things like that.

This active gentleman in the Cape, in Stellenbosch, called Hans Pietersen, who has some children in school and was finding this was happening – and he’s an atheist – found a set of pro bono lawyers, and they took six schools to court because they were favouring religion in school which was, in fact, against the state schools policy.

The Department of Education came in as a friend of the court to support the application. The long and the short was that the– A full bench of three judges found that the school’s policy must be upheld, and religion may not be favoured in schools. There may be religious education. In other words, people may be taught about religions, but they may not be religious – I’m looking for the right word here – indoctrination. Jani, give me the right word.

Schoeman: They can’t be coerced into a religion. They can’t be indoctrinated. That’s the right word, I think.

Raubenheimer: In other words, they can’t be taught religious observances, or to observe their religion. They can be taught about what the various religions do. Equal time must be given to all religions, as the court emphasized that our differences are not tolerated, they are celebrated.

They have an ongoing battle where parents of secular humanist children report their schools when the schools try to force religion on the children, which still happens regularly. The organization, which is called OGOD, which is quite a fun acronym, and has offended many people, much to Hans’s delight, then sends them a letter and points out the court judgement to them, and says that, “We will take you to court as well if you do not toe the line.”

3. Jacobsen: One thing, with secularism and the cases you gave, how does that respect the freedom to, and freedom from, religion? How does the principle of secularism do that, in other words, making a fairer society for everyone?

Schoeman: The thing is, secularism is the principle, but in South Africa. I’m thinking again about public schools. Because we have so many religious people, and especially Christians, they just bulldoze over that principle. I don’t know. It’s going to have to be people like us, and people that care to stand up. That try and personally just bring it under people’s attention and then hope; it’s difficult to do in practice.

Raubenheimer: Yes. There’s a lot of work to do because the schools are one issue. As happens in the United States, I’m not too sure what degree in Canada, but the schools tend to support religious activities, like religious camps, and school premises being used for services, even if it’s after hours, which they can do. There are lots of cases where we really need this.

One of our big projects, which I think you need to be aware of, is the secular marriage officers, for example.

Schoeman: Up until now, there have been no secular marriage officers officially in South Africa, up until our organization started registering them a few months ago. This was another battle that we have with the government because we are only the second organization that’s managed to convince Home Affairs to give us the authority to do that. The first institution that did manage to do that only, I think, had two marriage officers, and they weren’t existing for 10 years, so they weren’t really succeeding in that way.

Raubenheimer: They’re Cape-based. They don’t have a national footprint. If you think of the geography of South Africa, there’s Cape Town way at the south-west corner, and we’re more up in the north-east. We’re the economic hub, and Cape Town is more of the holiday hub.

Schoeman: Touristy.

Raubenheimer: There are very different vibes between the two. Cape Town is very laid back. Johannesburg is very industrialized, go-getters and so on. We do have associates in Cape Town, as well, and we’re trying to establish a branch there, as well, but they’re very laid back, as I say.

Schoeman: So, laid back.

Raubenheimer: Just to get back onto the marriage officer. Since we announced that we were able to get marriage officers certified, we’ve had about 20 applications. We’ve got them in various processes. We have our first certified marriage officer certified last year, and we have a few others who must write their exams still with their Department of Home Affairs. 

Jacobsen: Well done.

Raubenheimer: Before that, essentially, if a secular couple wanted to get married, they would need to either find a compliant pastor of some sort of religion, and they do exist- which in fact, Jani did – or one would go to a magistrate for the official ceremony,  and then have somebody do an unofficial ceremony.

Schoeman: You have a court wedding. That was our choice. You have a court wedding, or you convince some sort of pastor to do a lekker secular ceremony for you, which, at Home Affairs, is unlawful.

Raubenheimer: The other thing with Home Affairs is that we have two acts that govern marriages, essentially. There is a Marriage Act. The Marriage Act declared that marriage was between a man and a woman. This fell afoul of the Constitution because it says that there may not be discrimination based on sexual orientation.

What they should have done then, was simply to amend the Marriage Act, but to mollify the churches, they passed a new act called the Civil Union Act, which allows for same-sex marriages, and heterosexual marriages. Our officers are certified under the Civil Union Act. We require them to do both same-sex and heterosexual marriages, which has brought a lot of the gay community in to either want to become marriage officers or essentially support us. That’s been quite handy.

There was an exemption in the Civil Union Act, that a state official, who is officially obliged to marry people, could because of religious convictions, opt out of marrying same-sex couples. In practice, this meant that in pretty much all the smaller Home Affairs offices, anywhere outside the major centres, a same-sex couple couldn’t find anyone who would marry them.

Thanks to one of our smaller political parties (COPE), that provision has now been removed from the act. However, the department has got a year to implement that, so we’re probably still going to be at the forefront of organizing a gay marriage.

4. Jacobsen:With bringing in homosexuals into the fold, through secularism, what has been a relatively perennial issue in the secular community across the globe, as far as I can tell, there tends to be a lack of women being represented in leadership positions. That shows up in who are the public intellectuals, who are the ones doing the speaking tours, and engagements, and who are the ones writing the most popular books. I think that’s generally true.

Jani, as the founder and [Ed. Former] president, as a woman of a secular organization, and to your point, Rick, about bringing homosexuals into the fold, what can we do within community to better represent women in those leadership positions, as well as finding a context in which women feel more comfortable coming into the fold because often neither of those are the case?

Schoeman: I wouldn’t say we are actively doing anything about that right now, which is something for us to consider. It is a difficult thing to do. I don’t know what can be done. I’ll have to think about how we can do this or focus on this a little bit more.

Raubenheimer: In fact, it is so that SASS is largely male and white. We’ve had a lot of good interest from women as secular marriage officers. Several of them are lesbians and active in the gay community. Because our marriage officers will be part of the leadership structure, that will, I think, bring quite a balance in, both from the gender point of view and from the sexual orientation point of view because we haven’t had much representation of gays in leadership in SASS either.

For us, even the more pressing question is how we bring people of another race in. As I say, SASS is largely white now, and that’s a concern for us because the population is largely black and Christian.

Schoeman: I don’t know how much of the SASS leadership knows this, but I’m bisexual. It’s not something I go around advertising but I’m thinking maybe I should do it a bit more. Obviously, we have a lot of overlap when we’re finding that we have overlap with the gay community and the LGBT community.

We have had interested black and Indian people, and Asian people. We’ve had various people come to the meetings, and stuff, and show interest, but I’d like to up that a bit more.

5. Jacobsen: What are some of the fun activities that you do within the community, as the original organization was, essentially, an atheist Meetup?

Jani: We still have that component. We still do our Meetups. It’s a mix between exploring Joburg. We do especially scientifically orientated sorts of outings. Just this Sunday, we went to a science museum called Sci-Bono. It’s mostly for children. There was a rock art expedition there, and a whole thing on archaeology, which I so, so, so loved. It was amazing.

We’ve been to the Cradle of Humankind. I don’t know if you know about the Cradle of Humankind in South Africa. We’ve got some cool paleontological, and archaeological sites in Africa, and specifically South Africa, so we do a lot of those sorts of outings. We’ve done outings where we go to the breweries and just drink beer and gin, and stuff. We do all of it.

The other sorts of things we do are more discussion-orientated Meetups. These normally take place at somebody’s home. Most of the time it’s at Rick’s home, Rick’s and Judith’s home. We’ve had everything from, “Why are you an atheist?”, to secular parenting, is another one. We had a psychologist come and talk to us about secular parenting once. We do all sorts of things.

Raubenheimer: One of our leaders is looking this year at establishing Camp Quest in South Africa. You’re aware of Camp Quest?

Jacobsen: Yes.

Raubenheimer: They’re looking to broaden internationally and we’re looking to possibly, in about a bit short of a year’s time, have the first Camp Quest camp in South Africa. That will be great fun, as well. That joins in with secular parenting.

Schoeman: I must say, something I also discovered quickly upon establishing SASS was that there’s really a need for people, for parents who have no- there are no activities for non-religious activities for children. The Christians and the churches have all their camps, but there’s nothing really for the atheist kids, if you can call them that. Kids of atheist parents. People have a lot of questions around parenting when it comes to secularism and atheism and bringing up your child as a free thinker.

That’s also a niche, I think, that still needs to come to existence in South Africa, that we haven’t really tapped into yet, but we have touched on it.

6. Jacobsen: Any final feelings or thoughts in conclusion based on the conversation today?

Raubenheimer: I think we should have another one [Ed. Search “Ask SASS…” at]

Schoeman: I wanted to mention in my history, quickly, that I was a Young Earth Creationist up until the age of 21. Just something I didn’t say, which I think is significant because I went basically from that to atheism. There was no in-between.

7. Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Jani and Rick.

Appendix I: Footnotes

[1] Rick Raubenheimer, President, SASS; Jani Schoeman, Former President, SASS.

[2] Individual Publication Date: August 1, 2019:; Full Issue Publication Date: September 1, 2019:


In-Sight Publishing by Scott Douglas Jacobsen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Based on a work at


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