According to a recent worldwide poll called, The Global Index of Religiosity and Atheism, Africa is the world’s most devout region. Even with the global decline in religiosity, the black continent has the least number of self-proclaimed atheists in the world.
In Nigeria, 93 percent of the nation’s respondents say they are religious. (This percentage is smaller than Ghana’s.)
Perhaps fewer Nigerians would identify themselves as religious if there were assurances of safety if they 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. The situation of atheists depends on many factors - the part of the country where you live - the Christian dominated South or the Muslim dominated North. It also depends on if you live in rural or urban areas, and your 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 people to admit being an atheist. Reactions range from 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. People are made to believe that atheists can corrupt their minds or ‘souls’, and lead them to hell fire and eternal damnation. The whole idea of atheism is scary to many Nigerians, because most believe all initiatives should be founded on god, no matter how absurd or vaguely conceived such an idea is.
Nigerians socialize and marry along religious and theistic lines. Belief in god plays a prominent role when marriages are contracted. Self-proclaimed atheists may find it difficult to get marriage partners unless they are ready to convert, renounce atheism, or conceal their atheism. The dream of most young Nigerians is to marry in a church or mosque and have their marriages blessed by a clergy member, even though there are no indications that ‘blessed marriages’ succeed better than those contracted without such theistic theatrics.
In Nigeria, anyone who goes 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 a humanist stand where I was working during an event in Abuja. After a short discussion on what humanism was about, she said she would have nothing to do with any of her children if they renounced Islam. Most children are not ready to go against what is often perceived as the divine will of their parents.
They prefer to pretend, and to present themselves as religious and theistic. In Nigeria, family and community links are very important because the Nigerian state is not as developed as states in the western world. People rely on their families and community members for care and support. Consequently, families often exert tyrannical control 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 their duty to bring their children up in a theistic way. For a child to profess atheism is generally seen as 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 Nigeria and atheists find it difficult getting jobs. Very often, employers demand to know people’s religious affiliation during recruitment process. Many people are forced to profess a certain religion in order to secure a job. Many atheists prefer not go open with their atheistic identity because they do not want to jeopardize their chances of getting a earning a living. Indeed, many atheists who do open up with their godless outlook risk being sacked, demoted, or remaining unemployed. Most businesses including state functions open with prayers which everybody is expected to say as a demonstration of goodwill. As an atheist, refusing to pray could easily be interpreted as a mark of ill will.
In the area of education atheists face many challenges. Schools in Nigeria were originally started and are still managed mainly by Christian and Islamic bodies. Religious indoctrination is dominant in the school system, in a mixture of schooling and faith traditions. Teaching and preaching, instruction and brainwashing go together; 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 politics, atheism is also a hindering factor. A few years ago, a Nigerian president said that nobody who opposed Islam could succeed politically in Northern Nigeria. 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 key role in the nomination, election and appointment of political candidates. Going public with one’s atheism is making oneself politically unelectable; it is like committing political suicide.
The situation is even worse in Muslim dominated communities in Northern Nigeria. Muslim majority states in this part of the country are implementing sharia law. Under sharia law, apostasy is a crime punishable by death. To be an atheist is more or less to be an apostate, an infidel or a criminal. There is really no space for atheists to operate. Being an atheist is a matter of life and death. 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 passing a death sentence on oneself, like handing oneself over to be executed.
In addition, atheistic expressions are often regarded as blasphemy, which is another offense punishable by death or long prison sentence. An expressive atheist can be branded a blasphemer, and risk 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, public space. The result is, in Muslim communities, atheists live in constant fear of their lives. At the very least, they are socially and politically invisible. People who know they are atheists, treat them as third class citizens.
I do maintain, however, that there are some positive signs out there; the situation of atheists in Nigeria is slowly improving.
The poll I mentioned earlier 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.
This development can only 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 before. 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 late Christopher Hitchens - has emboldened many atheists to leave the closets.
Still, atheists in Nigeria have a long way to go before they can be treated with full dignity and respect. Improving the situation of atheists will not be an easy feat to achieve. It will require a lot of courage, sacrifice and struggle.