The National Association of Catholic Theology Students, Dominican Institute, should be commended for this opportunity to interact and bring a humanist perspective to interfaith dialogue in Nigeria. I hope other catholic theology and philosophy students and institutions would borrow a leaf from you and ensure that a humanist perspective is included and integrated whenever issues regarding religion or faith are discussed. A humanist viewpoint is an ethical non-religious perspective that is based on reason and common humanity. This presentation is important to me for two main reasons. First of all, I am an ex-catholic seminarian. I spent twelve years, as a student and a teacher, in four minor/major catholic seminaries in Southeast Nigeria before leaving the training, that was, some months into the theology program. Since then I have completed a doctoral degree program in religious studies and wrote my thesis on witchcraft accusations in Northern Ghana. I hope to return someday to finish the theology program that I started at Bigard Memorial Seminary Enugu in 1993!
More importantly, I exited the catholic faith and since the 90s, I have been working and campaigning to grow the national humanist movement in the country. Recently I have been involved in facilitating a dialogue between people from faith and no-faith communities. I have been drawing attention to the importance of beginning a conversation with the growing constituency of non-religious people in the country, popularly known as non-believers or kafir as the case may be. In November last year, after years of hard work and efforts, we at the Humanist Association of Nigeria organized, with Imam Ashafa and Rev Wuye of the Interfaith Mediation Center in Kaduna, an interfaith and belief dialogue in Abuja. That dialogue was the first of its kind in Nigeria and Africa. For the first time in the history of this nation, persons who openly and publicly identify as humanists and atheists sat side by side with faith leaders, and discussed ways to improve understanding and relationships. I hope that dialogue becomes a model and a feature of interfaith and belief affairs in the country.
All faith and no faith traditions are constantly in communication and conversation. Everyday, people from various faith traditions communicate and interact in offices, buses and markets. Religions and beliefs are always talking to each other. Religious and belief groups are always interacting with one another. In some cases, the relationship is marked by cooperation, in other cases, it is marked by conflict. Religious and belief groups try to convert one another or eliminate and destroy one another. Do not get me wrong, I support the clash of ideas. Religious and irreligious ideas, not persons, should clash. Because it is only when ideas clash that the best insights that could improve our lives would emerge. Religions and beliefs are too important and affect lives and societies in so many ways that it is unhealthy and immoral to oppose a clash of religious and irreligious ideas. It is a disservice to humanity to shield theistic and non theistic beliefs and notions from critical evaluation and inquiry.
However, if a clash of ideas is not properly managed it could lead to a clash of persons and communities as is currently the case in the country.
At a time that Nigeria is going through a crisis of enormous proportion, largely rooted in religious differences, it is quite thoughtful to emphasize a 'dialogic' approach that stresses common grounds and fosters common good amidst the tension, division, chaos, hate, discord, mayhem and bloodletting in the land. This crisis has affected everyone both believers and non-believers alike. People of all faith and none have been victims. Churches and mosques have been attacked. Many clerics and the faithful have been abducted and killed.
The worsening situation of religious conflict is an indictment of the interfaith dialogue project in the country. It is a demonstration of the lack of effectiveness of the conversation as we know it. The Nigeria Interreligious Council (NIREC) leads the Interfaith dialogue. Incidentally, NIREC, by its nature, constitution and operation, lacks what is required to realize an effective dialogue and mitigate religious conflict and crisis in the country.
NIREC comprises an equal number of "Christians" and "Muslims" who meet intermittently at the state's expense to discuss issues of religious interest. NIREC members meet with politicians at the federal and state levels where they talk about interreligious relations. But the impact of this council has been superficial and cosmetic. Apart from taking photographs with the president and governors and issuing press releases, NIREC has not added any significant value to the project of interfaith or belief dialogue in the country.
NIREC has failed to include representatives of other faith and non-faith traditions in its activities. It has restricted its membership to handpicked Muslim and Christian leaders excluding other stakeholders and representatives of traditional religion, Bahai faith, Judaism, and humanism. NIREC has enthroned an interfaith dialogue that is a communication or conversation between two faith parties, refusing to talk to, converse and communicate with others. At the moment, what goes on in the name of interfaith dialogue in the country is a dialogue of the "people of the book"; it is an interAbrahamic faith dialogue, a Christian-Muslim dialogue. And should that be the case? Not at all. NIREC's approach shows the conceit and high-handedness that have characterized the relationship between the Abrahamic faiths and others. It reinforces interfaith division, exclusion, and alienation.
The religious crisis in Nigeria is complex and complicated. It not a Christian-Muslim issue. It is not strictly an interfaith or an intrafaith crisis. Sometimes the crisis takes on ethnic, political, economic, and social dimensions. The crisis is local and international. It is a clash of the same and different faith traditions. It is a conflict within and without faith communities. The religious crisis is a conflict between Christians and Traditionalists, Muslims and Traditionalists, Traditionalists and Traditionalists, Christians and Christians, Muslims and Muslims, Christians and Humanists/Atheists, Muslims and Humanists/Atheists, etc
To resolve this crisis, the operation and constitution of NIREC need to be reviewed. The restriction of the formal communicational or conversational space to two faith traditions should discontinue. NIREC's insistence on a dialogue between two faith traditions needs to be revisited because it does not align with ir/religious realities in the country. The interfaith dialogue as currently executed in Nigeria exacerbates tension and further aggravates the problem that it was meant to solve. The conversational space should be open and inclusive of all interests and representations of faith and no faith traditions driven by the following values, common values.
Humanity: People of faith and no faith traditions share a common humanity and that should be emphasized in interreligious communications and relationships. Before becoming Christians, Muslims, or traditional religionists, before we began to identify as believers or non-believers, we were human beings. This realization should be the driver of the interfaith project. Being human is fundamental to religions and philosophies because without human beings there would be no religion or belief. While religions stress the importance of humans, within faith traditions, belief in the idea of a divine is adjudged supreme and superior to humanity. Human beings are subordinated and subjugated to the divine. Human sacrifice still features directly and indirectly in religious dealings. Many faith traditions sanctify the idea of killing human beings for blasphemy, apostasy, to appease and placate their gods, or to assuage some violation of religious sensibilities. Religious crisis often manifests in situations where believers openly and publicly show disdain and utter disregard for humankind. There have been instances where people from faith traditions engaged in violence and bloodletting for alleged desecration or insult of their god, prophet, or their holy book by others. People of all faiths and none should work together to uphold the common humanity of all and resist the tendency to violate or suffocate humanity in the name of a faith or belief.
Human Rights: Respect for human rights is a value that is shared by people of faith or no faith. Human rights are inalienable entitlements of all humans. They constitute another common ground for dialogue because people from all faith traditions cherish their rights and liberties including rights to life, and shelter, right to freedom of religion, belief and expression, right to assembly and movement, and from torture and discrimination. Humans want their rights to be respected, protected, and guaranteed. As humans, we long to be treated with dignity despite our belief or non-belief. Human beings detest humiliation, oppression, and degrading treatment. Religions and other outlooks that feature in Nigeria exist and operate as a result of the exercise and assertion of human rights. But religion or belief has often been used to justify the violation of human rights. Religions have been used to tyrannize over the lives of others and deny people who believe or worship differently including those who do not believe or worship at all their basic rights and liberties. Respect for human rights is central to any effective dialogue because a dialogue is an exercise of equals not a conversation between a master and a slave, a prince and pauper, the king and the subject. For instance, in southwest Nigeria, there is been a crisis over the wearing of hijab as part of the school uniform. This crisis has led to violence in some areas. Dialogue is necessary to resolve this issue. Muslims are arguing that a ban on wearing hijab in schools is a violation of their right to freedom of religion or belief. They claim that their religion, Islam, demands that their girls wear hijab as part of their official dress. Now if Muslim girls are allowed to officially dress as demanded by their religion, the same facility should be extended to any other Nigerian females and children. That means every child Muslim or non-Muslim, should officially dress as demanded by his or her religion or belief. Anything short of this is discrimination and enthronement of Islamic privilege and it is unconstitutional.
Community and Fellowship: a sense of community or fellowship is a common value that people of all faiths and none share. As social beings, humans cherish a sense of family and fellowship. Human beings appreciate being visited when they are sick or being comforted when they are mourning or bereaved. Although faith and no faith traditions emphasize a sense of solidarity, the fellowship is usually restricted to those who believe the same thing or worship the same god or attend the same church or mosque. A sense of community is a human need, not an invention of any religious or belief tradition. For instance, the Igbo say "Onye aghala nwanne ya" which roughly means, do not abandon your brother or sister, or do not leave your sister or brother behind. This saying alludes to a sense of connection or solidarity that transcends religion or belief.
Morality: Faith and no faith traditions value morality and emphasize a sense of right and wrong, good and bad behaviors as fundamental to human nurturing and the realization of social order, harmony, and progress. Human actions are guided by rules, commandments, standards of conduct, and social well-being. Faith and beliefs motivate people to uphold high moral standards; they are also used to justify immoral and obscene behaviors. Faith and no faith traditions differ on what constitutes the source of morality, moral icons, and other specifics. Faith and belief groups are not in agreement on the texts that codify moral values. But common moral decencies such as honesty, trust, compassion, cooperation, and kindness are widely shared and constitute a basis for interfaith cooperation and deliberation.
Knowledge and Wisdom: Like morals, knowledge and wisdom are values widely reckoned with by people of faith and no faith, and should constitute a basis for interfaith communication and conversation. The facility to know and comprehend is a part of human nature and constitution. Modern humans are designated as homo sapiens, which means wise or clever humans. The different faith and belief traditions claim to embody wisdom and knowledge, in some cases, revealed wisdom and knowledge. Religious and non-religious texts and traditions are replete with injunctions urging believers and non-believers to seek knowledge and exercise wisdom, noting the harm or damage in refusing to cultivate and embrace these habits.
Meaning: Religion and belief provide a sense of meaning to adherents. The tenets give support and serve as pillars of psychological relief. People resort to their various faiths and beliefs for comfort, hope, answers, and solutions at times of existential crisis or whenever tragedy strikes. Many people go to churches, mosques, temples, or shrines to pray. They consult their priests, Imams whenever they are going through difficult times. Religions and beliefs guide people in their reflection, introspection and meditation. Although believers and non-believers may differ in their sources of meaning and comfort and may conflict and clash in their pursuit of such meanings, a sense of purpose constitute a common ground that an interfaith dialogue project could explore.
Happiness: As in the case of meaning, people draw happiness from their religious and philosophical beliefs and practices. Thus happiness constitutes a ground of common interest in interfaith relationships. Religious and belief traditions promise happiness and bliss to their adherents, They prescribe ways and means of achieving this important objective. People of various faiths and beliefs cherish the alleviation of suffering and misery and strive to overcome sadness and despair in the society. They indulge in acts of charity, compassion, selflessness and service, almsgiving, and humanitarianism that bring happiness to them and other persons.
Care for this Life: People from all faith and no faith traditions value and care for life, this life. Even though those from faith traditions believe in some life after death, they strive to live this life in its fullness. Believers and non believers love to enjoy and savour the pleasure of this life. Religious and non religious persons try to realize a long, healthy, and prosperous life. As a common ground, religious and belief groups can work together, converse and explore ways of improving the quality of this life for themselves and everyone else.
Care for this World: Care for this world is a value contained in faith and no faith teachings and should underpin an interfaith project because people of all faiths and none cherish the protection and preservation of nature and the environment. An interfaith program should feature conversations and collaborations on how to combat pollution and climate change, and avoid the depletion of natural resources.
In conclusion, interfaith dialogue is critical for peace, progress and development in Nigeria. It presents an opportunity to foster a positive relationship, harmonious coexistence and constructive engagement and interaction of faith and no-faith communities. The above-mentioned values and ideals, though not exhaustive, provide a veritable framework for the realization of this project. They constitute common grounds and shared ideals that could be harnessed and used to mitigate the worsening religious crisis in the country.
Leo Igwe is a board member of the Humanist Association of Nigeria and Humanists International UK, and a co-convener of the first interfaith and belief dialogue in Abuja in November 2021.