The Necessity of Atheism: A New Agenda for Nigerian Youth

Introduction

The purpose of this article is to (a) stress the need for the development of a more freethinking society, particularly among the Nigerian youth, so as to arrest the increasing intellectual aridity crippling our society; (b) offer some personal reflections on the nature of skepticism; (c) examine religious phenomenon in Nigeria and suggest a more robust secularist agenda for the country.

From 5-7 January 2007, the Sixth World Atheist Conference took place in Vijayawada, Andhra Pradesh, India. It attracted over 600 participants – atheists, freethinkers, humanists, rationalists, anti-superstition activists, and the like – from all over the world. The theme of the conference was: “The Necessity of Atheism”, which I have chosen as the title of my article. In the conference report, published in the Australian Rationalist (Nos. 75/76, pp. 71-75), Dr Bill Cooke from New Zealand writes:

Atheism is necessary if you have the planet’s interests at heart. The necessity of atheism is apparent both for intellectual and for moral reasons. There is an austere beauty and simplicity to atheism, which has been ignored, denied and sneered at, but not answered. The real argument for atheism is the moral argument. Morality is a social necessity and not divinely ordained.

Similarly, Mr Vikas Gora, one of the Indian conveners of the conference, notes:

Science is based on facts and is not driven by emotions. In religion, the emotional aspect is resulting in fanaticism and violence. For their spread, religious institutions have been dumping millions of dollars in Asia and Africa as the West is becoming post-religious. Youth should be encouraged towards critical thinking and given freedom to question and explore.

These are the perspectives I would like to amplify here. It is interesting to note that the Government of India has established a National Knowledge Commission, whose purpose is to propagate scientific, rationalist, secularist knowledge rather than religious dogmas, despite the fact that Indian spirituality is ancient and runs deep. Unfortunately, such a commission has yet to take root in Nigeria.

Religion seems to be the default mode of our national life. The lives of most Nigerians, outside their homes and workplace, revolve around the frequent visits to the church, the mosque, the ancestors’ shrine, or the local diviner. We revel in our characterization as one of the most religious countries in the world. Each year, largely at government expense, our citizens spend vastly more money in Israel, the Vatican and Saudi Arabia than the citizens of those nations spend in our own country. Yet it must be said that our excessive emphasis on religion is having a corrosive effect on our national psyche and, ironically, undermines our integrity at the international level. The world mocks our strange religiosity. At a time when much of the developed world is moving towards a post-religious society, we are still enmeshed in vibrant and more virulent forms of religion. Members of the National Assembly have put religion in the forefront of their political agenda, by, among other things, organizing public prayer sessions. Mega-church preachers minister to millions whose money they extort to build ever more grandiose mega-churches. Incumbent politicians, who in the last elections used all the apparatus and resources of state to ensure “victory” at the polls, proclaimed that “Leadership belongs to God.” Senior members of the educated class, who should be progressive role models for youths, are in the forefront of spreading the new superstitions. We are apt to associate superstitious beliefs with our illiterate compatriots back in the villages, but in fact it is the educated elite in this country that should be blamed for giving faith a more dangerous new lease of life. A former governor of Anambra state, who was a medical doctor and a Christian, once admitted having paid occasional visits to the infamous Okija shrine in that state. Medical staff who work round the clock to save lives tell us that it is God that heals patients. All leaders of the mega-churches are university graduates who hypnotize their audiences with outlandish “spiritual” stories and fake promises of salvation and easy riches. God seems so central to our lives that we invoke him at every turn. Again Richard Dawkins: “Much of what people do is done in the name of God. Irishmen blow each other up in his name. Arabs blow themselves up in his name. Imams and ayatollahs oppress women in his name. Celibate popes and priests mess up people’s sex lives in his name. Jewish shohets cut live animals’ throats in his name.” It is sad that the banalities of human life should be anchored on the name of God. Excessive recourse to God reflects society’s acute sense of anomie and fatalism. What is needed is rational courage in the face of frightful adversity.

No society has really developed materially and morally when its citizens are trapped in religious superstitions. Much of the moral and scientific progress made in the world over the centuries – from the time of the ancient civilizations through the horrors of the Medieval and Spanish Inquisitions to Helen Ukpabio’s strange brand of Christianity and Mexico’s Holy Death today – has been largely due to the onslaughts of rationalists against entrenched religious orthodoxies. Contrary to popular belief, most religions do not value human life, since it is held that life in the “other” world is superior to life here on Earth. According to Bishop Matthew Hassan Kukah, “the life after is a higher, superior manifestation and redefinition of the life here on earth.” (How does he know? Where is the evidence?) Religion therefore encourages martyrdom and holy wars in defense of faith. As Richard Dawkins has argued: “If death is final, a rational agent can be expected to value his life…and be reluctant to risk it.” It is precisely because religion has devalued human life that people are murdered or encouraged to die in the name of God, to become martyrs. Religious history is replete with instances of savage wars and terrible human sacrifice. One only needs to read J.G. Frazer’s The Golden Bough to see how horrendous the whole history of mankind had been bathed in bloodshed as a result of primitive superstitions. Modern organized religions are scarcely models of virtue, either. The entry in the *Catholic Encyclopedia* on the “Inquisition” defends this medieval practice of unimaginable torture and death of heretics as follows: “religious belief [is] something objective, … a gift from God. …the Church [is] a society perfect and sovereign, based substantially on a pure and authentic Revelation, whose most important duty must naturally be to retain unsullied to this original deposit of faith; … orthodoxy must be maintained at any cost.” In other words, human life must be subordinated to the dictates of faith. Nonbelievers, on the other hand, place immense value on life. The whole essence of Marxism, for example, properly construed, is the acute criticism of human greed engendered by cutthroat economic competition and the ultimate realization of human potential and happiness here on Earth.

The eighteenth-century European Enlightenment movement, whose members were mostly freethinkers, ushered in a new era for mankind, as it did much to undermine many of the dogmas of the Christian Church and paved the way for the establishment of truly secular societies in Europe and America. In Nigeria in the twenty-first century, we have scarcely begun the Enlightenment journey. Part of the purpose of this article is to show the way through.

What is atheism?

Because of certain misconceptions about the nature of atheism, I shall devote a few paragraphs to the clarification of some issues related to unbelief. First of all, let me say that unbelief is a very healthy state of mind. Just as a religious person may find satisfaction in his belief in God, so the atheist is at peace with himself when he contemplates the Universe and anchors his morals in this world. However, whereas the believer works on blind faith, the atheist insists on evidence and clear, critical thinking.

To describe oneself openly as an atheist or a secular humanist is almost anathema in Nigeria, and carries potential obloquy. But some of us bear the label proudly. An atheist is someone who does not believe in God, gods, spirits, witchcraft, devil, heaven, hell, or anything called “supernatural”. This denial of the “supernatural”, in true atheist tradition, is not based on a lazy, dogmatic, armchair dismissal of religious claims, but on a systematic examination of such claims and finding them to be either lacking in evidence or weak in logical consistency, or both. A secular humanist is someone who insists on human freedom – that human beings alone have the capacity (or no capacity) to solve their own problems and that there is no need to appeal to any hypothetical being such as God or witches or ancestors or totems as an ally. There is no real difference between an atheist and a secular humanist; and I shall here attempt to make no hair-splitting distinctions between the varieties of unbelief, e.g. between positive and negative atheism, or between atheism and agnosticism, freethinking, rationalism, secularism, materialism, skepticism, non-belief. These philosophical positions are united by a common world-view and methodology: demand for evidence in factual matters, logical consistency in arguments, and moral values rooted in this physical world.
Professor Ernest Nagel, in an essay titled ‘Philosophical Concepts of Atheism,’ states that atheism: (1) “rejects the assumption that there are disembodied spirits, or that incorporeal entities of any sort can exercise a causal agency”; (2) embraces the scientific method and temper of mind, holding “that controlled sensory observation is the court of final appeal in issues concerning matters of fact”; (3) insists that, in moral issues, “The stress on a good life … must be consummated in this world,” and attempts “to repress human impulses in the name of some unrealizable other-worldly ideal” must be vigorously opposed.

The distribution of atheists is almost as widespread as the distribution of believers. The current world’s population is about seven billion. Of this, it is estimated (by the CIA World Facebook based on a 2004 survey) that the proportions of nonbelievers and atheists are 12.5% and 2.4% respectively, corresponding to 875 million and 168 million, with a combined total of 1.043 billion, thus representing more than 15% of the entire world’s population. Unbelief or atheism is, therefore, by no means a fringe phenomenon. According to Wikipedia, in 2004 the BBC conducted a survey in 10 countries and found that the proportion of atheists ranged from 0% in Nigeria to nearly 40% in the UK, with an average of 17%, a figure not too far from the world’s average. In Europe, according to a 2005 Eurobarometer survey, only the tiny island state of Malta, where Catholicism still makes divorce illegal, recorded 95% believers and Spain, which still embraces the Catholic faith with all its medieval tenacity, had 81% believers. Estonia and Sweden, by contrast, were the most atheistic countries in Europe, with over 80% of the population in each country professing atheism. A 2009 study in the UK showed that over 60% of teenagers did not believe in God. In the developed countries of the West atheism is more prevalent among scientists and leftist intellectuals. Nearly 79% of members of the UK’s prestigious Royal Society are atheists, and 93% of USA’s members of the National Academy of Sciences do not believe in God. Numerous studies have shown a negative relationship between religiosity and education level, or, as Richard Dawkins puts it in *The God Delusion*, “the higher one’s intelligence or education level, the less one is likely to be religious or hold ‘beliefs’ of any kind.” In a 2006 survey of the relationship between national IQ and religious belief covering 137 countries, Nigeria scored a low IQ of 69 with 99.5% of believers (putting the country in the same league as Niger, Burkina Faso and Haiti; the respective figures for Sweden are 99/36%; see Intelligence, 37, 2009, 11-15.)

In matters of morality, one study showed that in the US, divorce rates were highest in the so-called “Bible Belt” of the South, where the rates were about 50% the national average. It was also found that divorce rate among “born-again Christians” was 27%, compared to only 21% among atheists. The 0% atheists reported for Nigeria in the 2004 BBC survey could be attributed some respondents’ fear of social stigma, discrimination and possible persecution, for certainly there are atheists in the country, as there are even in deeply conservative Islamic countries such as Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. But, as I argue below, Nigeria as an intensely “religious” country is not only a contradiction but a tragic illusion.

Frantic, if unsuccessful, efforts have been made to discredit atheism. In their 2009 book, God is Back, John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge gleefully proclaimed the ascendancy of religion – a new surge in religious revival – and the apparent demise of atheism. They claimed that “the global drift toward secularism has been halted.” But I think the obituary they had written for atheism seems premature. Atheism is undoubtedly on the increase. The American secularist philosopher Paul Kurtz has estimated that “There are perhaps one and half billion people on the planet today who are nonreligious and their numbers are growing.” In August 2012, a global opinion poll showed that atheism had indeed increased by 13% worldwide since 2005. Ireland and the USA recorded the most remarkable increases.
This article is primarily addressed to the Nigerian youth, on whom the future of the country largely depends. The older elite, whose thinking has been ossified and warped by decades of religious indoctrination, bigotry and prejudice, is unlikely to have a change of heart. It is easy to see why many people would not want to be identified openly as atheists: fear of social stigma and exclusion. A young man or woman wishing to wed must profess belief in God and regularly attend religious service if a priest or imam is to officiate at their wedding. An old man nearing his grave would not be so audacious as to openly deny the existence of God, if he wished to be given a decent religious burial. A promising young politician would advance nowhere if he professed atheism at a rally. A would-be employee must be “God-fearing” if he is to secure a job in some establishments. It is lamentable the sickening level to which we have descended in our quest to be religious, in our desire for political correctness.

Path to Childhood Skepticism

I should perhaps say something briefly about how I became a nonbeliever myself. I was born into a Christian family in a village where my father was an elder in charge of the local Anglican Church. (He was unusually liberal for his time, and would welcome almost any question from his children.) As a kid I used to attend church service as a matter of course. It was a community in which Christianity and Islam blended rather easily with traditional fetish and ancestor worship, with a heavy dose of divination, which, out of curiosity, I even learned in my youth from a prominent diviner. (My belief then that the mechanism of divination was partly “logical” and partly due to chance was confirmed years later after reading the anthropologist S.F. Nadel’s study of the subject in his *Nupe Religion*.) At about the age of five or six, I lost a half-brother who was only slightly younger than I. He was buried close to the pitch where we used to play football together. One day, while playing on the pitch, his thought suddenly crossed by mind, and the most important thing I remember was the idea of original sin and its attendant punishment, which had been imparted to us in church sermons. I said to myself, “What sin had this little boy committed in this world to deserve punishment wherever he may be now? Why should I be punished for my father’s crimes? Better if I die, one should not rise again to suffer someone else’s sins. Let me just rot in the grave.” This childhood wish for mortality has remained with me to this day, when it now seems pretty clear to me that the evidence for immortality is, after all, practically nil; and I know of no serious atheist who really believes in life after death.

The second incident occurred a few years later when I was in primary school, again in the village. The most powerful medicine man in the locality had asked three of us kids to weed his cassava farm in return for cash. When the work was done, the old man came around to telling us that he had prepared some powerful charms for each of us, which were worth many times the cash. The charms, he said, would enable us to pass exams easily. I wasn’t happy with this decision, though I dared not show it openly. The charms, called *laya* in Hausa, had an opening on one side on which the old man had instructed us to be sprinkling a certain type of perfume from time to time. After collecting my own *laya*, I went home, wrapped it in a piece of paper and buried it in the bush nearby under a large tree for easy identification. I did not tell my parents about it. Weeks later the old man would ask about the charm, and I would lie that I was doing as he had instructed. When the exams came and I passed well, I knew that the medicine man was not to be trusted. One’s efforts alone were sufficient to ensure success; there was no need to appeal to charms. Moreover, the fact that he could not detect my lying made me dismiss him as an unreliable charlatan. I was thus very skeptical of the claims of medicine men, including claims about witchcraft. But I kept the doubts to myself, and continued to attend church service.

In secondary school, I came face-to-face with philosophical books that really seemed to satisfy my intellectual curiosity and reinforce my religious doubts. The first truly original work of philosophy I read was Plato’s *Euthyphro*, which I stumbled upon in the school library. The feeling I had on reading this Platonic Dialogue was rather like the feeling Richard Wright tells us, in *Black Boy*, he had on reading H.L. Mencken for the first time: a feeling of pleasant surprise, awe, beauty and fascination with the extraordinary power of human reasoning couched in the written word. In the *Euthyphro*, here is Socrates, almost at his best, relentlessly taking his interlocutor to task on the nature of piety. It seemed remarkable to me that people were reasoning in this marvelously logical way more than 400 years before the time of Christ. After reading the *Euthyphro* several times, I used to devote about half of my time in the library to my school subjects and the remaining half to philosophy books, although I also did read some religious literature (e.g. James Atkinson’s *Rome and Reformation* in the Christian Foundations series), as well as popular astronomy. I was determined that henceforth only logic would guide my way of looking at things. But perhaps the most important and enduring influence which ultimately shaped my pattern of unbelief was the teaching of my Bible Knowledge (BK) teacher, an avuncular English priest of the Anglican Church, in my fourth year in secondary school. On one occasion, the BK master, as we fondly used to call him, told the class that Jesus probably drank water during the 40 days and nights He allegedly spent in the wilderness. The BK master advanced some scientific arguments to prove his case, citing in particular the maximum number of days it was possible for a human being to go without water. This remark, in an unintended way, cast doubt on the other “miracles” of Christ. On another occasion, the BK master said the origin of incest was in the Old Testament, since there was no way we could account for Cain’s wife bearing him children without assuming that he had mated with his mother Eve. It was a startling remark; I was truly astonished at the utter frankness of this white priest. That was the first time I was hearing of the word “incest”, and the BK master explained its meaning with brutal clarity. It was from the BK master that I learned to appreciate the value of critical thinking.

I am relating these childhood experiences because I believe they are fairly common among young people, although the forces of tradition and education do all they can to stifle them in later life. Children are extremely inquisitive. Take the apparently innocent question, “Who made you?” which many people have asked me. When I answered, “Of course, my dad and mum made me,” they felt as though I had been rather flippant in my response. But when I asked them back, “Who made God?” they got alarmed, as though I had uttered something terribly profane. Yet, it is one of the most fundamental and profound questions in philosophy and theology which even an average child might ask his dad. Richard Dawkins, in *The God Delusion*, has argued that theologians and religious people have a problem on their hands regarding God and the creation of the world. For a being to have created an entity as complex as the Universe, that being must itself be so complex as to require an explanation of its own existence, a process which, carried to its logical conclusion, would lead us into an uncomfortable endless regress. It is not enough to say that “God created Himself”; it is also important to explain, in a coherent manner, how and why God created Himself. The traditional argument from design states that if you found a watch on a lonely beach you would suppose that it was made by an “intelligent” being. Dawkins’ argument is that since the watch is a complicated gadget, only a complex being could have made it. The same argument applies to God and the Universe. Dawkins, however, has also shown, in his *Climbing Mount Improbable*, how even the human eye could have progressively evolved by chance over eons of time, without the intervention of a divine being. Another important insight from Professor Dawkins is that if science cannot explain something, neither can religion. The supposed “great” questions of theology are, in fact, ultimately scientific questions. Did God create the world? Is there a place called heaven or hell to which the dead are consigned? Was Jesus born of a virgin mother? Did Jesus feed 5,000 people with a fish and a loaf of bread? Was the Shroud of Turin used to cover the body of Christ? These are genuine scientific, rather than theological, questions. Indeed, radio-carbon dating has revealed that the Shroud of Turin is not as old as the time of Christ, thereby undermining the theological argument in its favour. Even in ethical matters, it has been demonstrated recently by Sam Harris in his book, *The Moral Landscape*, that the origins of moral values seem to be in the human brain, independent of any divine source.

Theology, thus stripped of an intellectual status, has become an empty pursuit. This was brought home a few years ago by Edmund Standing, who wrote a scathing article against the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, who had earlier delivered a diatribe against the New Atheists. In his criticism, in which he ably defended atheism, Standing lay bare the true nature of theology, thus:
“The theologian does not approach the basic tenets of Christian faith as possible truths to be tested for logical consistency; he or she instead begins with the conclusion that a series of internally incoherent, pre-scientific, and fantastic ‘beliefs’ derived from ‘faith’ are true, and then attempts to dress the beliefs up in the clothes of intellectual credibility. Theology is not in this sense a proper academic pursuit, but is instead the attempt to mask superstition in a fog of pseudo-intellectual verbiage.”

It is highly unlikely that many of our professors of theology in institutions of higher learning could today have the intellectual courage and integrity to tell their students the kind of thing my BK master taught us in secondary school. Even eminent teachers of science, who claim to be religious, would be too frightened to make such frank admissions, overzealous as they are to defend their faiths. Indeed, it was disturbing to find, recently, the National Universities Commission sponsoring a science and technology programme called “Voyage of Discovery” on NTA International and dedicating it “To the Glory of God.” Religion should be kept a private affair. You could be a first-rate scientist or scholar with a great religious passion, but it would be detrimental to your intellectual enterprise to allow your faith to be unduly obtrusive.
*Religious phenomenon in Nigeria* Some 15 years ago, a colleague invited me to a gathering of the Grail Movement of Nigeria. I was reluctant to accept the invitation; however, out of deference to his apparently liberal attitude, I decided to accompany him there. His hope was that since the guest speaker was a respected professor of physics, his arguments might appeal to me so much that I would perhaps be convinced of the validity of faith. To my great disappointment, the guest speaker, who was chauffeured to the venue in a shiny Mercedes-Benz car and appeared more like a traditional ruler than an academic, dwelt almost entirely on the activities of witchcraft. When somebody asked him how he came to have such detailed knowledge of witchcraft if he himself was not a member of the cult, he replied that he could tell witches by certain manifestations of their behavior. I wondered if this could really be a university teacher of science. I had expected him to use the laws of physics to shed some light on the phenomenon of witchcraft, if that were possible; instead, he talked in awe of witches. This is one aspect of Nigerian religion: enlisting the services of “scientists” and other educated people to justify blind faith.
In July 2009, a group of about 150-200 followers of Helen Ukpabio’s church, Liberty Foundation Gospel Ministries, attacked a conference organized by the Nigerian atheist Leo Igwe in Calabar, under the auspices of the Nigerian Humanist Movement and the UK charity Stepping Stones Nigeria. The conference was to discuss the problem of widespread child abuse (abandonment, torture and killing) in Akwa Ibom and Cross River States. In her book *Unveiling the Mysteries of Witchcraft,* Ms Ukpabio has written that “If a child under the age of two screams in the night, cries and is always feverish with deteriorating health, he or she is a servant of Satan.” This dangerous pronouncement had led parents and communities to systematic maltreatment of innocent children accused falsely of witchcraft in southeastern part of the country. International organizations had earlier brought the problem to limelight. A good Nigerian, Sam Itauma, set up the Children’s Rights and Rehabilitation Network to take care of abandoned child “witches”. At the same time a law was adopted against accusing any child of witchcraft. Ms Ukpabio immediately initiated a lawsuit against this law and the individuals connected with it, alleging that it “infringes on her freedom of religion” and seeking the sum of N2 billion (about $13 million) in damages. According to Wikipedia, “In Nigeria, many preachers not only identify possessed children but charge dearly to perform exorcisms.” That is why Ms Ukpabio is getting richer and her church spreading wider. It is another aspect of Nigerian religion: Pentecostals’ claims that they can spiritually “heal” one or two patients at a rally while leaving vast numbers, including innocent children, to suffer unbearable pain in our hospitals.

I was once watching Pastor E.A. Adeboye of the Redeemed Christian Church of God on television. He was relating an incredible story of how he was once about to travel from Benin City to Lagos, a journey of more than 300 km, and discovered that he had very little petrol in his car which couldn’t possibly have taken him to Lagos. There was apparently petrol scarcity in Benin City. He therefore turned to God to perform His miracles – and, sure enough, the little petrol took him to Lagos! Pastor Adeboye is a mathematician, who once taught at a university, and it seems natural to wonder why such an intelligent man should tell the world this kind of story. In doing so he had sacrificed the hard facts of science to the absurdities of religion. To make the story credible, he should, first, have told his audience how many litres of petrol he actually had in his car at Benin City, as indicated by the fuel indicator, while convincing his audience beyond reasonable doubt that the indicator was working properly. Then there were several towns along the expressway between Benin City and Lagos; couldn’t he have refueled in one of those towns? His audience, of course, was not permitted to ask any such questions; they simply roared, “Praise the Lord!” On another occasion, he told a packed audience of how his prayer intervention was once instrumental in getting a rural road paved with asphalt, after years of neglect. According to Wikipedia, Pastor Adeboye’s church is reputed to have built the largest auditorium in the world at the cost of N7.7 billion while he flies around in an aircraft purchased at over N4 billion. President Goodluck Jonathan has received blessings from him. This is yet another aspect of Nigerian religion: telling audiences outlandish stories and pretending that they are divinely inspired. Since the average Nigerian likes to hear mystery stories, preachers capitalize on people’s ignorance and feed them with absurdities. (Nigerians’ insatiable appetite for mysteries is attested to by the fact that many of the so-called Nollywood movies are essentially based on the activities of witchcraft and other occult forces.)

Our politicians’ respect for religious leaders is almost pathological. As in America, any critical stance by a politician against the religious establishment is a recipe for defeat at the polls. Politicians are thus subservient to religious leaders. (One notable exception was former President Olusegun Obasanjo, who, in his inimitable style, once angrily insulted a Christian leader in Jos. But Chief Obasanjo seems to have an ambivalent attitude towards religion; for although he claims to be a “born-again” Christian, he once remarked that the only people he feared most in his life were the referee and the preacher: in both cases because you cannot question their pronouncements!)
Unseemly materialism, in the sense of indulging in worldly things, is yet another aspect of religion in Nigeria. There is a certain sense in which we can talk of “church capitalism”. Micklethwait and Wooldrige call its practitioners “pastorpreneurs”. This “pastorpreneurship” finds its clearest expression in America, but is also spreading rapidly to other parts of the world, especially Africa and Latin America. Like its more familiar cousin of economics textbooks, its major emphasis is on making money, a very mundane affair, rather than spiritual enlightenment. But it is a warped, almost immoral, kind of capitalism – a capitalism that makes “profit” out of gullible congregations while giving virtually nothing back to them in the form of social responsibility. Bill Gates, an American secularist who has made legitimate billions from his software business, has done more for the health of many African children than have all our mega-church leaders done for Nigerian children. The proliferation of churches of all stripes is in response to church capitalism. In a medium-sized town of about 30,000 people in central Nigeria, I recently counted 12 churches within a stretch of some two kilometres, on both sides of a major road. Each week these churches made enormous financial demands on their largely poor and illiterate congregations: to expand the existing church buildings, to purchase a bus or musical instruments for “evangelization”, or to send the contributions to headquarters for the material comfort of church leaders, but rarely to dig a borehole or well that would benefit the community in which the churches were located. Every right-minded person knows that a clean source of water would better prevent a cholera or typhoid epidemic in a community than the most eloquent prayers. Why should millions of our citizens fall prey to the machinations of Christian demagogues, who propagate falsehoods and extort people’s hard-earned money for the personal comfort of church leaders? “Once you cede power to an invisible force for which there is no evidence…you cede power to other human beings who can then claim to use those invisible forces [for or] against you,” so wrote Johann Hari, in a review of V.S. Naipaul’s *The Masque of Africa: Glimpses of African Belief*.
The foregoing examples of religious phenomenon in Nigeria – and particularly the aversion to secularist thinking – constitute a hindrance to our youth’s intellectual growth, and even plague the worldviews of the older generations. Not long ago, the BBC’s Zeinab Badawi, on the Intelligent Squared programme, organized a debate between the noted (late) atheist Christopher Hitchens (along with Stephen Fry) on the opposing side and John Cardinal Onaiyekan of Abuja (with Anne Widdecome) speaking for the topic, “The Catholic Church is a force for good in the world.” While Hitchens used sophisticated intellectual arguments to present his case, Cardinal Onaiyekan stuck to figures – the large number of Catholics in the world, the number of world leaders who were Catholic (even President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe is a Catholic!), Catholic charities, etc. At the end of the debate, the general consensus was that Onaiyekan “mumbled and spluttered and retreated into embarrassing excuses and evasions.” Hitchens and Fry thus “comprehensively trounced” their opponents, although Widdecome did all she could to save the situation for the cardinal. The moral of this example is that had Nigeria been a country where atheist, secularist thinking had been widely encouraged and disseminated even religious people like Cardinal Onaiyekan would have benefited from a certain kind of urbane open-mindedness. Rather, almost every aspect of our national life is dominated by religious thinking. To be anti-religion is viewed with the utmost horror. And yet the religious point of view is intellectually too narrow, too otiose, too dry, too dogmatic, and too dated to be of much use in the modern world; it is essentially based on banal platitudes that foster a timid, simple-minded complacency unworthy of an actively inquiring mind. The youth must be encouraged to break out of this straitjacket and develop their full potential.
In 2011, a programme on the FM arm of the Plateau Radio and Television Corporation (PRTVC) had some young men discussing the need for youths to embrace the reading culture. I welcomed this programme, but was rather disappointed that the sort of material they recommended for the youth was in the genre of Rick Warren’s *The Purpose Driven* *Life* – i.e. Christian “classics”. There was no mention of any secularist, scientific, philosophical, or indeed non-Christian religious literature. If you see a young man or woman these days holding a book, outside his or her school subjects, there is a high probability that it would be either a religious book or one of the numerous pamphlets promising them success in marriage or business or how to make easy money. Yet it is absolutely essential for the youth to be acquainted with varied perspectives so as to be able to make informed choice. As Prof. Paul Kurtz has noted: “We need to insist that all children have the right to appreciate and understand a wider range of cultural experiences – including the study of the sciences, the development of critical thinking, and exposure to world history, the arts, philosophy, comparative study of religions, and alternative political and economic systems.” But powerful forces are constantly at work in Nigeria to prevent the youth from gaining genuine knowledge. Some 31 years ago, when I was teaching in a government-owned women-teachers’ college, one part of the optional syllabus was the comparative study of religions in Social Studies and the other was Christian Religious Knowledge. In spite of my efforts, the Irish Catholic Sister in charge of the latter course had little difficulty in diverting the entire class to her course, thereby depriving the students an opportunity to learn about the fascinating histories of the world’s major religions, unadulterated by the dogmatic certainties of a particular religion.
The apparent ubiquity of religious belief is not hard to fathom. In an essay published in the* New Scientist* of 4 February 2009, Michael Brooks writes that “human beings have a natural inclination for religious belief, especially during hard times. Our brains effortlessly conjure up an imaginary world of spirits, gods and monsters”. Religion is thus seen as an evolutionary adaptation to ensure human survival, a point that has been more thoroughly examined by Richard Dawkins in *The God Delusion*. The fact that most people have a religious belief, however, does not necessarily make religious propositions true. As one of my university lecturers used to say, “We do not evaluate a proposition or idea according to who said it. …. Nor is the validity of a theory or idea judged according to the test of popularity.”
Moreover, as Richard Dawkins has written: “Religious faith not only lacks evidence, its independence from evidence is its pride and joy, shouted from the rooftops. Why else would Christians wax critical of doubting Thomas? The other apostles are held up to us as exemplars of virtue because faith was enough for them. Doubting Thomas, on the other hand, required evidence. Perhaps he should be the patron saint of scientists.”
The BBC survey suggesting that there were no atheists in Nigeria was probably flawed in its design, for there were certainly Nigerians who did not believe in God. Organizations such as the Nigerian Humanist Movement and Humanists without Borders have many members who are atheists across the country. (The survey result is rather like Archbishop Desmond Tutu claiming that the idea of an African “atheist” is a contradiction in terms. The spectacle of Africans going to church, mosque or ancestral shrine in droves must have seemed to him so universal that he could not entertain the possibility of a single African lacking religious belief. But of course there are African atheists, even in Desmond Tutu’s South Africa!) Be that as it may, the supposition that all Nigerians were religious, as suggested by the BBC survey, carries with it very grave implications for our moral standing, for if it were true, one would then find it hard to explain why the country should have such an abysmal social dysfunction record. For years now we have been almost at the bottom of Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index. In addition, debauchery, greed, armed robbery, kidnapping, child abuse, ritual killings, religious and political violence, divorce, exam malpractice, hubris, empty self-satisfaction, poverty, lies, immorality of the clergy, are rampant in a supposedly religious society. In short, we should be ashamed that our religiosity has consistently shown a high positive correlation with our high criminal and social dysfunction levels. (By contrast, the most atheistic countries in Scandinavia are among the least corrupt and most socially harmonious in the world.) The plain truth, though, is that most Nigerians are not really as religious as they claim to be. They use religion merely as a smokescreen, to gain social respectability. After accumulating their ill-gotten wealth, they often turn to God for long life. After rigging elections or delivering bribe-induced judgments in the courts, they organize a church Thanksgiving session for alleged “God’s faithfulness.” During Obasanjo’s presidency a minister in his cabinet accused two prominent senators (a Muslim and a Christian) of having demanded bribes to ensure his confirmation hearing in the senate; both senators denied the charges. When they were asked to swear by the Holy Books, they refused to do so, a refusal that exposed them as irresponsible liars masquerading as religious men. What moral credibility do religious people have in such a country? Of course, it is easy to argue that those who are corrupt are not “true” Christians or Muslims, but the argument is not very convincing, since there is no way we can determine who is and who is not truly religious. Noted American evangelists with vast followings have been humiliated by sexual scandals. At a school prize-giving-day ceremony in Plateau State two years ago, a Nigerian professor of history castigated the Catholic clergy in the country for loose living. And there are hardly any atheists in Nigerian prisons! All in all, the supposition that most Nigerians are deeply religious is wholly without foundation.

Secularism for Nigeria

The word “secular” simply means that which is not connected with or controlled by religion or religious bodies. According to the *Dictionary of Beliefs and Religions*, secularism is “an ideology which supports the absolute authority of secular bodies to regulate the life of society, and which is opposed to religion.” Secularization is defined as “The process of change whereby authority passes from a religious source to a secular source, and whereby areas of life formerly under religious control, such as education and medicine, come under secular domination.” Section 10 of the 1999 Nigerian Constitution (as amended) states: “The Government of the Federation or of a State shall not adopt any religion as a State Religion.” This is the clearest statement of the secular nature of the Nigerian state. It implies that neither the Federal nor a State Government has the right to favour any particular religion. Nevertheless, politicians have always found a convenient way of imposing their own religious agenda by behaving as though Nigeria were a sort of theocracy. In doing so, they have caused a great deal of tension, from Maitatsine to Boko Haram, and exacerbated the Christian-Muslim divide. In the early 1980s, former President Shehu Shagari’s government provided the sum of N20 million (worth billions in today’s naira) for the building of a national mosque and a Christian ecumenical centre at Abuja, thereby clearly violating the Constitution.

Section 38 of the Constitution elaborates further:

Section 38 (1): Every person shall be entitled to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, including freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom (either alone or in community with others, and in public or in private) to manifest and propagate his religion or belief in worship, teaching, practice and observance.

(2): No person attending any place of education shall be required to receive religious instruction or to take part in or attend any religious ceremony or observance if such instruction, ceremony or observance relates to religion other than his own or a religion not approved by his parent or guardian.

(3): No religious community or denomination shall be prevented from providing religious instruction for pupils of that community or denomination in any place of education maintained wholly by that community or denomination.

(4): Nothing in this section shall entitle any person to form, take part in the activity or be a member of a secret society.”

Despite references to “freedom of thought, conscience”, the above section contains no fewer than sixteen terms connected with religion, from which it seems obvious that the major preoccupation of the framers of the Constitution was not really with the secular nature of the country but with entrenching the central role of religion in our national life. The discerning reader will also notice that the language of Section 38 of the Constitution is essentially designed to counter-balance the influence of the two dominant faiths in the country, Christianity and Islam. Sub-section 2 is problematic: It is probably intended to prevent forced conversion, but seems to contradict Sub-section 1 which grants freedom of religion. Interpreted strictly, it also implies that a Christian teacher, for example, cannot give “instruction” to a group of Muslim students on the fundamental doctrines of Christianity, and vice versa, unless such instruction is “approved by his parent or guardian.” This is a bad clause, which should simply read: “No citizen shall be compelled to convert from one religion to another”. There is no explicit mention of unbelief, and it is thus not surprising that even in government-owned media houses nonbelievers are not usually invited to air their views. I have never heard on radio or seen on television a debate between a freethinker and a religious person in the central part of Nigeria I happen to live. On weekends, if you do not have DSTV or similar satellite networks in your home, you can be sure of being bombarded with religious platitudes by the mega-church preachers who pay enormous sums to buy prime time on the local, state-owned TV channels. This clearly violates our Constitution regarding the separation of religion and state. Even in Britain, where there seems to be a symbiosis between church and state, the government-owned BBC cannot broadcast religious programmes sponsored by the Church of England. In the USA, it would be unconstitutional to allow Rick Warren, James Dobson, Pat Robertson or Terry Jones to propagate their evangelical messages on the government-owned Voice of America. Nor can dogmatic religion be taught in US public schools.

Prof. Paul Kurtz gives the following distinguishing features of modern secularism: separation of church and state; moral values rooted in the actualization of the good life here on Earth; economic freedom; broad-based education and free inquiry; freedom of conscience as expressed, for example, in unbelief. Regarding the separation principle, Kurtz explains: “the state should be neutral about religion, allowing freedom of conscience and diversity of opinion, including the right to believe or not to believe. All citizens are to be treated equally no matter what their religious convictions or lack of them. The state does not officially sanction any religion nor give preferential treatment to its adherents.” If we put Nigeria on a score board using this characterization, the country would obviously be found wanting. The state is clearly not neutral in religious matters; state-built churches and mosques abound close to Government Houses, and public funds are lavished on other religious projects. Nonbelievers are not given equal treatment in government-owned media houses to express their non-religious views. Governments at all levels fund religious schools over which they have little or no control, while leaving their own public schools with dilapidated infrastructure and crowded classrooms.

Unfortunately, the true nature of secularism has been muddled by the religious establishment in this country. Consequently, there is a great deal of misunderstanding, even fear, about what a secular state should be. In his book, *The* *Church and the Politics of Social Responsibility*, Bishop Matthew Hassan Kukah writes: “We cannot merely pronounce secularity into being. Nor must we be under the illusion that a secular provision in the constitution makes for a secular state. Those who propagate the gospel of secularity must show that in their hearts they are genuinely committed to freedom.” I must confess that I do not understand exactly what he is trying to say here; the unwillingness or inability to adopt a definite position on certain issues sometimes drives him to seek refuge in ambiguity or obscurity. He does not make clear what he means by “secularity”, and one wonders if it is wrong to have inserted a secular provision in the Nigerian Constitution. One has to read between the lines to get to the heart of his thesis. Bishop Kukah, who has always been put in the forefront of Nigerian political agenda and is regarded in some quarters as an intellectual sage, no doubt wants Nigeria to be built on the firm pillars of Christianity (specifically Roman Catholicism). He claims that our insistence on secular principles is “self-delusion”, and urges Christians to embrace the competitive spirit: “Why should any Christian feel worried about ‘*Islamisation of Nigeria*’, when Jesus asked us to ‘*Christianise the whole world*?’” Democracy he dismisses with laconic pessimism as an “aberration”: “No democracy, no secularity of any sort.” He insists that “Faith should polish our nation if we use our land to live out the ideals of that faith.” Nigeria should prepare the conditions necessary “to receive the gifts that many religions have to give to it.” He cautions that doing “away with the power of religion … will backfire disastrously.” Perhaps in an effort to gain public sympathy, he indulges in outright exaggeration: “Today, Nigerians still fear the State. We fear its police, its security agencies and their headquarters. We fear the soldiers.” I have travelled the length and breadth of this country and have never had cause to fear any policeman or soldier or NDLEA official, as long as my car particulars are valid and I am not carrying cocaine or cannabis in my car. The only people I have to fear are the armed robbers and other criminal elements terrorizing our nation. At an American-sponsored symposium in 2007 on ‘Religious Crisis in Nigeria’, he declared that “There is no religious crisis in Nigeria” Such reckless statements are capable of diverting local and global attention away from the real problems facing the nation. Bishop Kukah even bends objective historical facts to suit his religious purpose. For example, in spite of the widely known facts about the crucial roles played by the African National Congress (ANC), Nelson Mandela and other secular individuals and institutions in the struggle against the apartheid regime in South Africa, Bishop Kukah, in the book cited above, unfairly gives greater credit to Archbishop Desmond Tutu for the fall of apartheid, on the sole ground that Desmond Tutu is a Christian. He extends the same kind of credit to other Christians who, he claims, were instrumental in the collapse of Communism in the former Soviet Union, Poland and Eastern Europe. Again, true “democracy” came to the Philippines and Nicaragua only after the intervention of the Catholic Church. All over the world, “the Churches were the main bastions for the final onslaught against these dictatorships, from Marcos to apartheid.” (He failed, however, to mention the cosy relationship between the Catholic Church and Nazi Germany during the Second World War.) Thus, his agenda for Nigeria is an exclusively Christian one, and it would be utterly unfortunate if such people were allowed to determine the political future of this country.
The dangers of mingling religion and politics may be illustrated in other ways. On Saturday 28 May 2011, on the eve of his swearing-in ceremony as the second-term Governor of Plateau State, Mr. Jonah David Jang declared at the Government House Chapel, Rayfield, Jos, that “God made covenant with Plateau State,” and that “God is aware of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.” What message such declarations were supposed to convey is open to question. He did not make clear. The real purpose of the gathering, however, was indicated by the guest preacher, the Rev. N.C. Thompson of the Redeemed Peoples Mission, who asked Mr. Jang to donate generously to the Church in Plateau State, citing the example of the former Taraba State Governor, the Rev. Joly Nyame, who, Thompson said, had donated millions of naira for various church projects in the state. These actions, including the use of state funds to sponsor individuals on pilgrimage, are clearly unconstitutional. There is no section of our Constitution that provides for the use of state funds for the religious projects. This is why we should push vigorously for a new secularist agenda in this country. Curtailing state financial assistance to religious institutions would liberate enormous funds for public health, education, poverty alleviation and other social projects. Contrary to popular prejudice, separation of church and state does not portend disaster for the social and moral fabric of the country. We may even need to redefine, constitutionally, the exact relationship between state and religion.

Our education system also needs a radical reorientation. The sort of science taught in our schools – from primary to university levels – is essentially science as technique, not *science as an attitude of mind.*There is no doubt that we need scientists and technologists – doctors, pharmacists, engineers, agricultural scientists, earth scientists, space scientists, mathematicians, and the like – if we are to develop and catch up with the rest of the world. The Federal Government’s directive to the tertiary educational institutions to base their admissions on a 60:40 ratio in favour of science and technology was clearly informed by these considerations. But we also need, perhaps more importantly, a new crop of men and women who can think for themselves critically. Scientific reasoning, broadly conceived, is akin to critical thinking. Critical thinking is the process of grasping the logical connections between ideas, evaluating arguments, exposing inconsistencies in reasoning, systematically examining problems (both practical and theoretical), and rationally justifying one’s own beliefs. It is based on evidence rather than prejudice. It thus goes beyond carrying out a chemical analysis in the lab or applying fertilizer to the soil in order to increase crop yield. These are the practical, utilitarian aspects of science, i.e. science as a useful observational study tailored to satisfy human needs. It is scientific temper of mind that is singularly lacking in much of our education system today. And life without critical thinking produces, according to Bertrand Russell, “a dead uniformity of character.”

Here is a species of critical thinking based on an analysis of the Christian Holy Book. If you read the Bible carefully for yourself (rather than listening to what bigoted preachers say), you will find certain passages in it that clearly contradict each other, although many Christians would tell you that being the perfect Word of God, the Bible is incapable of contradictions. Take Ecclesiastes 1:9, for example, where we are told that the world endures forever: “History merely repeats itself. It has all been done before. Nothing under the sun is truly new.” Yet in 2 Peter 3:7 we learn that the world will come to an end: “And God has also commanded that the heavens and the earth will be consumed by fire on the day of judgment …” Again, Psalm 73:1 states, “Truly God is good to Israel.” But Psalm 74:1 says: “O God, why have you rejected [Israel] forever? Why is your anger so intense against the sheep of your own pasture?” More seriously, Christians claim that the world, including human life, has a purpose – a viewpoint that has been recently popularized by Rick Warren in his widely read book The Purpose Driven Life; yet Ecclesiastes 1:1 flatly denies this: “Everything is meaningless … utterly meaningless!”

The foregoing examples should make it clear that, except for good reason, we should not base our evaluation of propositions solely on what our elders or teachers tell us. Excessive reverence for the “wisdom” of our elders is a great handicap to our youth seeking genuine knowledge; it instills in them a sense of intellectual paralysis. One of my university teachers used to tell the class: “There is no protected area, no sacred cows, no accepted truth which we cannot question, nor orthodoxy which is theoretically outside the range of intellectual challenge.” The words of our elders could well be words of stupidity. But don’t get me wrong; I am not saying you should disrespect the opinions of your parents, teachers or elders, or be arrogant towards them with your new-found knowledge. I am merely saying that you should have both the courage and humility to politely point out their errors to them. Do not ever hold any idea or opinion dogmatically. Dogmatism is the source of intolerance, and intolerance, since it is based on over-certainty, inevitably leads to violence and death. Be willing to change your mind when new data or evidence or superior argument makes it necessary for you to do so. J.G. Frazer wrote in the preface to his *The Golden Bough*, “I shall always be ready to abandon [my explanation of primitive beliefs] if a better [one] can be suggested.” This should be the guiding principle of any honest intellectual, an ideal which the youth should aim at. But in religion this virtue is usually abused or ignored.

About the Author

Mr. Diche is a lecturer in geography, College of Education, Gindiri, Plateau State.

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