Religion versus Atheism in Nigeria

According to a recent worldwide poll called The Global Index of Religiosity and Atheism, Africa is the world’s most devout region. Even with a global decline in religiosity, the black continent has the smallest number of self-proclaimed atheists in the world. I think this poll clearly mirrors the state of religion and atheism in the region. Nigeria trails behind Ghana in terms of religiosity with 93 percent of the respondents saying they were religious. I guess fewer Nigerians would identify themselves as religious if there were assurances of safety and no victimization if they proclaimed and declared themselves atheists. In Nigeria, people who do not profess any religion or belief in god find themselves in a perilous predicament. They are ostracized, maltreated and discriminated against. But the situation of atheists is not the same across the country. How one is treated as an atheist depends on so many factors, such as the part of the country where one is living – is it in the Christian dominated South or in the muslim dominated North? Is it in the rural or urban areas? It also depends on one’s family background, gender, level of education, employment and income. Male atheists who are highly educated and are financially independent face less risk than their female counterparts.

In Nigeria, atheism is a taboo. It is abominable for anyone to proclaim openly that god does not exist. It is not safe and normal for persons to admit being atheist. The reactions include sardonic incredulity, shock, anger, and hatred. Atheism goes with huge costs – social and political consequences – which many people cannot afford. Generally atheists are not accorded respect. They are not treated as human beings with equal rights and dignity. In fact in Nigeria it is better and more socially acceptable to profess a belief in any god or any religion than to profess no religion and lack of belief in god. Many people will not welcome an atheist to their homes. The general misconception is that atheists are horrible human beings, the agents of the devil who lack common moral decencies. Many people are made to believe that atheists can corrupt their minds or ‘souls’, cause them to derail from the path of truth and righteousness, and lead them to hell fire and eternal damnation. In fact the whole idea of atheism is scary to many Nigerians. Most people would want not to be associated with that label or perspective. Most Nigerians believe all initiatives should be founded on god, no matter how absurd or vaguely conceived such an idea is.

Again, most Nigerians socialize and marry along religious and theistic lines. The issue of the religion or belief in god plays prominent role when marriages are contracted. So atheists – self proclaimed atheists – may find it difficult to get partners unless they are ready to convert or to renounce atheism or to conceal their atheism. Unfortunately the dream of most young Nigerians is to marry in churches or mosques or to have their marriages blessed by a clergy even when such marriages are contracted in a court or registry. There are no indications that ‘blessed marriages’ succeed better than those contracted without such theistic theatrics.

In Nigeria, anyone who goes open and public with his or her atheism risks losing family support, care and solidarity. In 2003, a Muslim woman from the North who is acclaimed nationwide as liberal and progressive in her views visited our humanist stand during an event in Abuja. After a short brief on what humanism was all about, she said she would have nothing to do with any of her children who renounced Islam. Many children are not ready to go against what is often perceived as the divine will of their parents particularly when it comes to religious or theistic matters. They prefer to pretend and to present themselves as religious and theistic. In Nigeria, family and community links are very strong and important. The Nigerian state is not as developed as states in the western world, and many people rely on their families and community members for care and support. So, families often tyrannize over the lives and choices of members. For example , most people who are born in Christian families are brought up in a christian way, attend christian schools and marry christian partners. Parents regard it as a duty to bring their children up in a  religious and theistic way. For a child to profess atheism is generally seen as a mark of parental, family and societal failure. Atheism goes with a stigma which most families abhor and do not want to associate with.

Furthermore, there is massive unemployment in the country and atheists find it difficult getting jobs. Very often, employers demand to know people’s religious affiliation during the recruitment process. Many people are forced to profess theism or a certain religion in order to secure a job. Many atheists prefer not go open with their atheistic identity due to fear of being victimized. They do not want to jeopardize their chances of getting a job (earning a living) or keeping the jobs they have already secured. Indeed atheists who go open with their godless outlook risk remaining unemployed, or being sacked or demoted. Most businesses including state functions open with prayers which everybody is expected to say at least as a demonstration of goodwill. As an atheist, refusing to pray could easily be interpreted as a mark of ill will.

Even in the area of education atheists face so many challenges.  Schools in Nigeria were originally started and are still managed mainly by religious – Christian and Islamic – bodies. Religious indoctrination is quite dominant in the school system. There is a mixture of the schooling and faith traditions. Teaching and preaching, instruction and brainwashing go together. In fact the classrooms and lecture halls are extensions of churches and mosques. Atheists in Nigeria have no choice but to receive faith-based ‘godly’education or no education at all.

In the area of politics, atheism could be a hindering factor. Some years ago, a former Nigerian president said that nobody who opposed Islam could succeed politically in Northern Nigeria. And in the same vein, I submit that no self-proclaimed atheist can succeed politically in contemporary Nigeria. Atheists stand little or no chance of being elected to an office. Nigerians vote and ‘politik’ along religious lines. Nigeria has never had an atheist president or governor and may not have in the foreseeable future. Political Islam is very strong in the North while political Christianity is strong in most parts of the south. Religious affiliations play a key role in the choice, election and appointment of political candidates. Going open and public with one’s atheism is like making oneself politically unelectable. In fact it is like committing political suicide.

But I must state that the situation is worse in Muslim-dominated communities in Northern Nigeria. Muslim majority states in this part of the country are implementing sharia law. And under sharia law, apostasy is a crime punishable by death. To be an atheist is more or less to be an apostate – or an infidel or a criminal. There is really no space for atheists to be and to operate. Being an atheist is a matter of life and death. In fact in Muslim sharia-implementing communities in Nigeria, there are two places an atheist can be – in the closet or in the grave. Proclaiming oneself an atheist is like passing a death sentence on oneself. Being an atheist is like handing oneself over to be executed.

In addition, atheistic expressions are often regarded as blasphemy, and blasphemy is another offence punishable by death or long prison sentences. Any expressive atheist could be branded a blasphemer. Such a person risks being imprisoned or murdered in cold blood by Allah’s self proclaimed foot soldiers. In 2007, a Christian teacher in Gombe state was murdered by a Muslim mob for defiling the Koran. In a region charged with Islamic fanaticism and bigotry, atheists are an endangered species and cannot survive in the open and public space. So in Muslim communities, atheists live in constant fear of their lives. They are socially and politically invisible. Atheists are treated as third class citizens who should be neither seen nor heard.

But I still maintain that there are some positive signs out there that the situation of atheists in Nigeria is improving, though slowly. For instance, the poll on religiosity and atheism recorded a reduction in the number of Nigerians who identified themselves as religious. That means more people identified themselves as atheists or as non-religious than in an earlier poll. And this development could be attributed to three factors: 1) The advent of the internet which has provided an alternative ‘safe’ space for atheists to ‘come out’, to meet, organize and express themselves in a way that has never been the case. 2) The destructive wave of religious extremism ravaging the country has caused many Nigerians to begin questioning religious and theistic claims and pretensions.3) The growing visibility of the new atheist movement driven by the bestselling publications of Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and the late Christopher Hitchens has emboldened many atheists to leave the closet.

Still atheists in Nigeria have a long way to go before they can be treated with full dignity and respect. Atheism is the most commonsensical of all commonsense notions. But like any progressive development against the backdrop of religious opposition, improving the situation of atheists will not be an easy feat to achieve. It requires – and will require – a lot of courage, sacrifice and struggle.

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