From the professor of medicine who lectures at the prestigious University of Ibadan, to the almajiri destitute who roams the streets of Kano, to the wealthy real estate manager in Port Harcourt, to the lowly nomad of arid Baga, there is one thing that connects these people - religion. Religion permeates every facet of the Nigerian society and influences the collective mindset of its people. Religion supposedly makes people good except that the evidence does not support this claim. What we know is that our society is plagued by all the inequality, injustice and atrocities that one rarely encounters in the godless Scandinavian societies, to use just one example. Our high degree of religiosity has not translated into good governance and prosperity for our citizens. The reasons are not far-fetched, and are discussed below.
One thing is undeniable – our society needs a change of attitude and values. So how can we do things differently?
Mr. Biodun Aiyegboyin teams up with the secular humanist and commentator on Nigerian socio-political and religious matters, Dr. Ijabla Raymond, to explore these issues, and more.
Biodun Aiyegboyin: Can you tell the readers a bit about yourself please?
Ijabla Raymond: Yes. I was born into a Christian family in northern Nigeria. I trained as a medical doctor at the University of Ibadan but I currently practise in the United Kingdom.
Biodun Aiyegboyin: So, how did your journey into atheism or agnosticism start?
Ijabla Raymond: I would say it began in the fourth year of medical school. A friend that I sang with in Deeper Life Campus Fellowship became ill with cancer. To cut a long story short, she suffered and died despite prayers that were said round the clock.
This made me to start asking difficult questions, particularly around the subject of suffering. I discussed these with various pastors that I encountered during the course of my journey but was not satisfied with the answers I got.
One day, I had what you might call an eureka moment - it occurred to me that perhaps the reason there were no satisfactory answers to my questions was because the whole God thing was made up.
I do not like labels a lot because they often mean different things to different people. I find that it is easier to describe who I am or what I believe in. My position is that – I have not seen any evidence to support the claim that God exists. Having said so, I'm very confident that if God exists, He is not the entity described in the Abrahamic religions. This position is based on my knowledge of these religions.
Biodun Aiyegboyin: I understand that you don't like labels. But I see that your belief aligns with agnostic atheism.
Ijabla Raymond: Yes, I think that description fits. I am also a strong advocate of secular humanism – the worldview that humanity is capable of morality and self-fulfillment without the need for the belief in God.
Biodun Aiyegboyin: You are an outspoken critic of religion generally. What motivates you?
Ijabla Raymond: You have observed correctly. I criticise religion generally, not just Christianity.
Let's begin by giving credit where one is due. Religion has done some good e.g. charities. In Nigeria, the missionaries built schools and hospitals, and abolished the killing of twins in Calabar.
But religion has also done a lot of nasty stuff e.g. jihadist terrorism, homophobia, the suppression of women's rights, witch-hunting, the exploitation of gullible and vulnerable people, the unending feud between African Christians and Muslims etc.
In my view, religion has outlived its usefulness. It may have served a purpose in the era of superstitions and ignorance. But we now live in the age of reason and tremendous scientific advancement, and I find it absurd that people should desire to regress to medieval mindset.
Contrary to what some religions teach, man is capable of independent morality without the need for a belief in god(s). Morality predates religion - if you disagree, you'd have to explain to me how Christians and Muslims know that slavery is wrong seeing as this is endorsed in their holy books.
I agree with Robert Green Ingersoll when he said: “Christianity has such a contemptible opinion of human nature that it does not believe a man can tell the truth unless frightened by a belief in God. No lower opinion of the human race has ever been expressed.”
Biodun Aiyegboyin: Some people will not agree with your opinion that religion served a purpose even back then. They might argue that religion has been, and continues to be a stumbling block to the overall progress of the human race. What is your view on this?
Ijabla Raymond: I can see their point. Like I said, you don't need religion to be a good person. I believe that's the case now, as it was 6000 yrs ago. And yes, religion has been, and still is, a stumbling block to human progress. In contemporary times, we have seen how America's evangelicals oppose stem cell research; how the Catholic Church condemns the use of condom thereby putting millions of Africans at risk of HIV/AIDS; how Pakistan’s anti-blasphemy laws have been deployed to kill muslim apostates, Christians and atheists. The examples are endless.
Biodun Aiyegboyin: You are a medical doctor and you practiced here in Nigeria before relocating to the UK. Medical doctors, as well as other professionals, are mostly religious around here. In fact, the motto of some big hospitals around here is "We care but God heals". What is your opinion on this? Do you think hospitals should promote faith over medicine?
Ijabla Raymond: Definitely not!!
I have not seen any evidence that prayers and fasting can heal illnesses. If that were the case, churches would have run hospitals out of work. Prayers make people (who are predisposed) to feel good about themselves. But that’s it – they never grow the limbs of amputees.
Most of my Nigerian friends (doctors) are Pentecostal Christians. They are well-educated people with several postgraduate degrees but, somehow, a lot of them still believe that evil spirits, witches and demons are responsible for diseases. They still believe that prayers and fasting can alter the outcome of illnesses. This makes me to draw the conclusion that religion has the power to make people to hold contradictory ideas at the same time, and that education in itself does not immunize against religious indoctrination. As you know, the leaders of many jihadist organisations are also well-educated people. The Nigerian underwear suicide bomber, Abdulmutallab, was a student in one of the UK's most prestigious universities. In 2007, Glasgow airport was nearly blown up by two medical doctors in a jihadist terrorist plot.
When I was in Nigeria, it was commonplace to see doctors, nurses, and other healthcare professionals preaching or praying loudly by patient's bedsides. You could walk to the ward and find nurses reading the bible whilst a patient was crying out in pain. I don't know how much these practices have changed. I have not seen these happen even once in the 10 years that I have lived in the UK. In this society, it is understood that prayers should not get in the way of medical treatment. It appears that rich Nigerians agree - they fly abroad to treat the most minor ailments!
Biodun Aiyegboyin: Indeed, not much has changed since your left. Perhaps the religiously indoctrinated mindset is one of the factors responsible for the poor state of our healthcare?
Ijabla Raymond: I think this is tenable even if it is difficult to prove. I know that poverty, poor health access and failure of governance can all lead to harmful health practices e.g. exorcisms and other forms of "spiritual" consultations which delay hospital presentations and often result in increased morbidity and mortality.
The poor state of healthcare in Nigeria is more easily explained by factors such as corruption, lack of visionary leadership, inconsistency of policies, brain drain, medical tourism etc. But the fatalistic nature of our religious beliefs means that we surrender problems that we can, and should, solve by ourselves to God.
Biodun Aiyegboyin: You live in a society that does not give special regard to religious beliefs, so I presume your non-belief is never an issue with friends and colleagues. How about your folks at home especially when you come visiting? How did they react to your non-belief?
Ijabla Raymond: My parents and siblings haven't stopped praying for me to revert to Christianity. They hope that God will "arrest" me someday like he did to apostle Paul. I am aware that some of my Nigerian Christian friends have been praying for me too. So I feel very special with all these prayers going on (smiles). My English family accepts me just the way I am.
I have met and befriended Christians here in the UK. From my experience, it usually takes a period of acquaintance before they talk about their Christian faith. So they are not in your face as is usually the case in Nigeria. I find this refreshing because actions speak louder than words. Back home, as you know, everyone goes to church or a mosque but our actions do not really reflect what we preach. I mean, look at the amount of corruption going on in Nigeria at both the individual and community levels!
Biodun Aiyegboyin: I notice that you focus mainly on Pentecostalism and Islam in your criticisms of religion. Let's take them one after the other. Pentecostalism is arguably the most popular brand of Christianity in Africa. What, in your opinion, is the problem with this ever-growing brand of Christianity?
Ijabla Raymond: Pentecostalism - now that's a big one! Permit to digress for minute.
Pentecostalism takes its name from the "Pentecost", the events of which are summarised in the book of Acts chapter 1. This was the day that the Holy Spirit supposedly appeared to the first Christians. The spirit enabled them to speak in tongues and carry out miracles.
Until Martin Luther's Reformation, everybody just did what the Pope told them. But from this moment, anyone could read the bible and interpret it as they saw fit. And then the divisions and denominations started. I think the last century has seen an explosion in the number of denominations like none before it. There are as many interpretations of the bible as there are people.
The Pentecostals emphasise communication with the Holy Spirit or "revelation". The problem with this is that anybody can claim that the voice in their head is from God. In fact, anyone can become a pastor. No qualifications are necessary- you just need to claim that God has “called” you. And there are many gullible people who would believe any claim or sentence that starts with "God".
The prosperity gospel is America's biggest export to Africa. It is a doctrine of greed, and I'm sorry to point out that this disease afflicts the Pentecostals most. In my view, the majority of Pentecostal pastors are in the business for money. Africa is so poor and corrupt that the surest way to make money is to do politics or church business. The European missionaries built free schools and hospitals from which many of these pastors benefited. Our Pentecostal African pastors have enriched themselves on the back of donations (tithes and offerings) from their congregations. But instead of giving back to their communities, they invest in diversified portfolios to create even more wealth for themselves and their families. They live large. Some of these pastors even own private jets – Bishop Oyedepo allegedly has four! Their schools and hospitals are well out of the reach of most of their followers who continue to donate to these churches in the hope of financial reward from God. Sadly, these pastors have successfully propagated the notion that Christian living or success in life is synonymous with abundance, luxury and ostentation.
Another evil of Pentecostalism is faith healing. This has become the most popular and assured method to fleece desperate and vulnerable people. You will notice that these pastors never grow the limbs of amputees but they are always making the blind to see, the lame to walk, the deaf to hear and so on. People even get paid by them to participate in carefully orchestrated miraculous healings during church services.
I am of the view that the government has a responsibility to protect vulnerable people from these types of exploitations. These charlatans should not be allowed to get away with making false representations particularly when these result in harm. As you know, many people delay their presentation to hospitals and some even stop taking their medications because of the assurance of miraculous healing they have been sold (or more correctly, that they have bought). Some have tragically died as a result.
Then there's the problem of witch hunting - if you fail an exam or a job interview, then a witch is behind it; if you have a miscarriage, a witch is responsible and so on. Not too long ago, Bishop Oyedepo slapped a young lady in front of the camera for no offence other than her claim of being a "witch for Jesus". And need I remind you that, instead of condemnation, his despicable action was greeted with a rapturous applause from his church members? This practice assumes an even more grievous dimension in many places in Southern Nigeria where children are commonly accused of witchcraft and subjected to severe corporal punishments, which occasionally result in their deaths. In one case, a three-inch nail was driven into the skull of a little girl! Regrettably, these witch hunting of children is promoted by Pentecostal pastors such as Helen Ukpabio.
Biodun Aiyegboyin: Do you agree that the success of Pentecostalism in Africa can be attributed largely to the inefficiency of government and the superstitious nature of our people?
Ijabla Raymond: Oh yes, without a doubt.
In general, religion thrives in poor or deprived societies. For instance, people will sooner consult pastors and traditional healers for health matters if hospitals are expensive, poorly resourced or inaccessible to them. Poor governance creates a vacuum which religion tries to fill. The result is what you see all over Africa.
But it appears to me that many politicians understand that religion is an effective tool for controlling the masses, and they play the religion card whenever it suits them.
Biodun Aiyegboyin: Faith healing, which you mentioned in your earlier response, is a cause for concern. A lot of people have died needlessly because they were instructed by their pastors to stop taking medication for their ailments. What do you think could be done to stop this irrationality?
Ijabla Raymond: Faith healing is a scam. Prayers and fasting do not heal diseases. If you believe that the bible is the literal word of God; if you believe in talking snakes and donkeys, then you will believe anything. In situations where their powers can be objectively tested, prayers and fasting crumble like a pack of cards. They never grow the limb of amputees. A lot of these so-called miracles are stage-managed. In the other cases, we never get to hear the true outcome of the testimonies that people give. Some people feel pressured to testify about faith healing even when they know there's has been none. Sadly, our journalists do not appear interested in investigating these issues.
The solution to this problem lies in education. That's what people like us are doing daily on social media - challenging dogmas. But I think the government has a big duty to protect vulnerable people from exploitation by those who make false representations. It is simple - prosecute anyone who makes false claims that result in harm to others!
Biodun Aiyegboyin: Now, let's talk about Islam. What is wrong with Islam?
Ijabla Raymond: Well, what is right with Islam? Look around you - from Australia, China, Malaysia, Russia, Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium, France, the Middle East, North and West Africa, the UK, to the U.S. - everywhere you look, jihadist terrorism stares you right in the face. The Quran admonishes Muslim men to beat their disobedient wives. The prophet of Islam married a prepubescent girl, and because he is regarded as the best example of conduct, teenage marriages continue to be practiced in Islamic communities. The Sharia compliant states of Northern Nigeria have refused to adopt the Child's Rights Act which prohibits child marriage. As a result, there is a high incidence of vesico-vaginal fistulas in these communities. So, here again is another clear demonstration of how religious beliefs and practices can adversely affect health and wellbeing.
You'll recall how Senator Sani Yerima and his friends in the Senate blocked a change to existing laws in the Nigerian constitution that would have made teenage marriage illegal. He and his friends cited their Islamic faith as the reason for this action. The senator who allegedly paid $100,000 to marry a 13 year old Egyptian girl has made it clear on so many occasions that Sharia law takes precedence over the Nigerian constitution.
In Islam, women do not have the same rights as men. Then there is the issue of polygamy. In principle, I have no problem with polygamy as long as it is consensual. In reality, women are forced into polygamy by financial, cultural and religious considerations, and I oppose this.
I accept that many Muslims do not live as I have described, choosing instead to live by more liberal and humanist principles. Religious people are very notorious for cherry picking passages of their scriptures and this is good; because without it, religious literalists would have annihilated us by now. The Quran, like the Old Testament, is filled with hateful and bigoted verses.
The difference between Islam and Christianity is to be found in the New Testament, which contains the pacifist teachings of Jesus Christ. Jesus taught his followers to turn the other cheek whereas Mohammed called on his followers to instil terror in the hearts of their enemies by beheadings and limb mutilations.
Today, if someone tells us that they are hearing voices in their head and that God has been speaking to them, we would question their mental health. However, billions of people around the world do not only refuse to undertake such scrutiny but they actually take offence that some folks have the common sense to question similar claims contained within the pages of medieval writings. I find this fascinating!
Biodun Aiyegboyin: Do you think if religions are reformed for example by removing the verses that promote segregation, violence, slavery etc, perhaps they could be of some benefit to humanity?
Ijabla Raymond: Morality predates religion. My view is that you don't need religion to be a good person. But I do think that the world would be a far better place if the violent and bigoted verses in religious holy books were expunged. For instance, we won't have jihadist terrorism and groups like Boko Haram, Al-qaeda and Alshabab; gay people will not be discriminated against; the internecine wars between religious groups (such as Muslims vs. Christians) or within religious groups (e.g. Shia vs. Sunni) would end.
Biodun Aiyegboyin: Finally, what do you think should be done to spread secularism and humanism in Africa?
Ijabla Raymond: This is already happening. I think the Internet is a very powerful tool for disseminating ideas and changing attitudes/values. My feeling is that secular humanism will be the dominant philosophy of the 21st century. It is my hope that Africa would be a lot different in 100 yrs from what we know now - less superstitious and more progressive.