Leaving Religion and Living without Religion in Nigeria
Nigeria is often described as a deeply religious society where most – if not all – persons profess religious beliefs without qualification. Nigeria is often portrayed as a country where the religious demography is static – everybody is religious, everybody belongs to one faith or the other. Everybody professes religion, nobody renounces religion. Nobody is critical or skeptical about religious dogmas. Non-religious and freethinking Nigerians are purportedly so insignificant. For me this is a misrepresentation of the religious demography and dynamics in the country, and the time has come for us to rectify this misrepresentation.
No doubt, most Nigerians profess belief in God and identify themselves with one of the three main faiths – Traditional Religion, Christianity and Islam. There are many Nigerians who profess minority faiths and spiritualities or some forms of religious syncretism embracing elements of more than one religion. The politics of the national census has not allowed us to know exactly the number of Nigerians who profess different faiths. Generally, in Nigeria there is a lot of social pressure on individuals to be religious and to remain religious from cradle to grave. Remove this social and political pressure on Nigerians and the religious dynamics will radically change.
A very important and largely ignored aspect of Nigeria’s religious demography is the non-believing folk. These are the ones who renounce their ‘family religion’ or those who see no evidence for the existence of God. They see no existential value or meaning in the religion which they were born into. They live their lives without professing a belief in God, without belonging to any faith. They are called humanists, atheists and freethinkers. They exist in Nigeria. They live in Nigeria.
But anyone who knows the intensive religious upbringing and bombardment every Nigerian child goes through will understand why most non-religious people are in the closet and seem not to be active or visible.
From childhood, Nigerians are brainwashed with assorted religious dogmas including the doctrine that those who say in their heart that there is no God are fools, and that questioning or denouncing the existence of God is a blasphemous and sacrilegious offence punishable in this world and in the so-called hereafter.
So Nigerians are made to believe that professing religion is a must and not a matter of choice. Hence so many Nigerians who were born into one religion or the other and who grow up to question, challenge or reject religious myths and superstition cannot express their thoughts and sentiments openly in public. Many Nigerians are non-believers in private and believers in public. They leave religion and live without religion but still remain in the closet. One bitter truth about religious demography in Nigeria is that many who identify themselves or get counted as religious believers are not. Many Nigerians who renounce their family religion still pay lip service and identify nominally with the faith of the fathers. Because Nigerians are taught and told that there is no alternative to religion, they remain ‘religious’ even when they have lost the faith.
Many people who leave religion and live without religion cannot come into the open to say so. This is not because they are cowards or they are not convinced non-believers. This is not because they are not proud to be religious non-believers. The reason is that they value life and want to remain alive. They do not want to be wasted by religious fanatics. Unlike our religious folks, non-believers do not want to be murdered or ‘marytred,’ because the so-called afterlife, which believers imagine they will inherit in the hereafter, is an illusion. In our families and communities, there is a heavy price on leaving religion and in living without religion. Those who renounce their faith in God are hated, persecuted and discriminated against. They are treated as enemies of the society. They are ostracized and despised. In some communities those who openly denounced their faith can be murdered in cool blood otherwise the person loses the support, sympathy and solidarity of the family and community including the government. So because of the risks involved many Nigerians who leave religion or live without religion do not want to openly admit it. Religious non-believers remain in the closet because they do want to die.
Until believers abandon force, intimidation, violence and persecution of those who leave religion or live without religion, religious statistics will remain false and exaggerated. It will be difficult to ascertain the exact number of believers and non-believers in this country. Unbelievers will continue to be counted and included as religious believers.
Still there are few other Nigerians who have taken the bull by the horns. They have, in spite of the risks involved, openly denounced or rejected the faith of their parents and confirmed their identity as godless and non-religious. They have gone public with their unbelief. The names that easily come to mind are Tai Solarin and Wole Soyinka. But they are not the only Nigerians who have said farewell to god and religion. There are many freethinking non-religious individuals out there in our schools, colleges and universities, in the rural and urban areas. Many Nigerians who have left religion and are living rational faithless life are doctors and nurses, teachers and students, carpenters, tailors, drivers and mechanics, wives and mothers, brothers and sisters, husbands and fathers. And they are growing in number. They may not be as organized as our religious folks but the fact is that they are here, and are going about their lives in a rational, ethical and lawful manner.
The time has come for use to acknowledge the non-religious dynamic in our society. The time has come for us to recognize that there are Nigerians who have left religion and are living a happy and meaningful life like other human beings.