Being a Skeptic in Africa

I was not born a skeptic. I grew up to find out that I am one. What makes it most interesting is that I was born in a country and continent where most people are not inclined to skepticism, where doubting, questioning and challenging recieved wisdom is frowned on by most people. Mine is a society where most people are inclined to blind belief, to uncritical acceptance of doctrines and dogmas.

I was born 41 years ago in a remote village, Mbaise, in South Eastern Nigeria. I was born into a religious home and to parents who were born animists but were pressured to embrace Christianity. My father told me that he embraced Christianity in order to get formal education. Formal education was in the hands of Christian missionaries who used it to convert the local population. That was how my father became a Christian. That was how most people in Nigeria became Christians. My community is deeply religious, very superstitious and dogmatic. There is too much emphasis on the spiritual, the supernatural and the occult. The invisible and the incomprehensible haunt the lives of the people. At the same time there is so much ignorance, poverty and misery. Generally, life was nasty, brutish and short. Most people live in fear, particularly the fear of the unknown. Most people live on the edge of development.

I grew up in an environment where going to school was a privilege not a right. I grew up in a society where, for most parents, sending children to school was not a duty but a favour which they fulfilled grudgingly. I was sent to school anyway. And I was ‘privileged’ to be sent to a mission school. I say ‘privileged’ becaused mission schools, particularly the seminaries, were among the best schools in my community at that time. So many parents looked forward to sending their children to mission schools whether they truly believed in the mission of these schools or not. Still, many families could not afford to educate their children in mission schools. They had to send their wards to public schools where children received little or no education.

Many of my colleagues dropped out of school, sometimes as a result of pressure from their parents who wanted them to get married – particularly the girls – or go into petty trading to start generating income. Many of them took up trading or technical work without any formal training while others left for the neighbouring countries with the hope of making a better living. Usually they travelled in overcrowded boats, and on some occasions their boats capsized and their journey ended on the high sea.

I spent 12 years in seminaries both as a student and as a teacher. My mother was instrumental to my going to the seminary. She told me that her aim was not to get me to be a priest but to provide me an opportunity to have a sound education. While in the seminary, I noticed the shortcomings in faith-based education. I observed the missing links in the mission school system. It opened my eyes to how clerics play god and use this vague concept to deceive and tyrannize over the lives of guillible and weak-minded individuals. I realized the promises in liberal and critical thinking-oriented education.

I found out that faith-based education was actually religious indoctrination in disguise. Schools were tools for conversion and evangelisation. The school was an extension of the church.The educational system had no room for doubt, for reasoning and critical and independent thought. It was while I was in the seminary that I began to question the traditional and Christian beliefs. But I kept those doubts to myself. I could not ‘doubt out’. I could not doubt aloud.

As a student, one of the things that agitated my mind was the prevalence of superstition and superstition-related abuses and atrocities, particularly the belief in witchcraft, the practice of ritual killing and the use of juju and charms in my society. These traditional beliefs and practices did not make my society grow, develop or prosper. Instead they caused stagnation and underdevelopment. I couldn’t find any evidence for so many irrational claims including the nonsensical doctrines introduced by Christian missionaries and Arab jihadists that darkened, corrupted and destroyed the lives of my people. Yes I began to question them and of course they started crumbling like a pack of cards. Like a piece of wax on a hot iron, these superstitious beliefs which have held my people hostage started melting away on the furnace of critical examination and rational inquiry. I started seeing some light. And as Goethe said, I yearned for more light and more light.

In 1994 I left the seminary, and later founded humanist and skeptical groups, because I strongly felt that my people needed an alternative to dogmatic religions and superstitious beliefs. I thought that was a veritable way to remain sane and to help sanitize the society. I felt that was a meaningful way to contribute to the enlightenment and awakening of my people from their dogmatic slumber. I knew it was not going to be an easy task. I knew I could fail or be frustrated or even get killed but I thought starting a critical thinking-oriented group in spite of all the risks was better than doing nothing. I am one of those who believe that people who peddle dogmatic and superstitious beliefs can only triumph when questioning and critical minds do nothing or say nothing.

For people of my age in my country, in fact for people of all ages in my nation; for people of my generation, of my race, of my colour, in my continent, a skeptic is still not a normal thing to be. The skeptical viewpoint is not something most people, like those of us present in this hall, are proud to identify with. The general feeling is that skeptics should not be seen – they should not be reckoned with. The skeptic voice –the irritating and blasphemous voice of skepticism – should not be heard. The skeptic movement should not be patronized. To most Africans, the skeptic tradition is a western ideology, not a human heritage, with corrupting influence on the society. Most people think skepticism belongs to the white culture, when in fact this is not the case.

The general belief is  that skeptical rationality goes against the norm of the society: the norm as to the way to be, the way to live, the way to ‘think’, the way to know, the way to act and react, and the way to behave. Even among the ‘educated’ or the so called elite in Africa, the skeptical outlook is a scarce commodity. Common sense is not common. There is a disdain for critical thinking. There is an art in blind faith and dogma. Most people see more sense in nonsense than in common sense or any skill in critical thinking. In fact today skepticism has limited space in Africa’s cultural and intellectual tradition.

Leo Igwe sent this piece from Australia

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