The overwhelming impression is that Africans are deeply religious and theistic. Indeed, surveys have repeatedly revealed high levels of religiosity and theistic belief in the region. Unfortunately, there has been limited focus on atheism in Africa especially on the experience of atheists. The way and manner that atheists in Africa are treated have largely been overlooked. What atheists encounter in the course of their lives has not been adequately highlighted. This article shows that atheists experience hate and intolerance, physical and psychological mistreatments. This piece argues that the apparent invisibility of atheism in Africa is linked to these experiences. In other words atheists are treated in ways that compel them to hide their atheism.
I have had the opportunity of meeting and interacting online and offline with African atheists. I have participated in many first freethought forums in Ibadan, Lagos, Accra, Banjul, Yaounde, Lilongwe, Kampala and London. At these meetings, the excitement was palpable. Local participants were hugging and embracing each other. Some of the attendees had been in contact with each other via facebook for years but never met physically.
At the atheist meeting in Lagos in 2017, there were two categories of participants: first-timers and the old-timers. First timers were those who were attending an atheist event or encountering atheists/atheism for the first time. The first time participants looked aloof and cautiously milled around trying to make sense of the strange gathering, trying to connect with the rest. Among the first-timers were religious attendees who presented themselves as atheists, undecided fellows who came to the gathering out of curiosity or for some untoward purpose.
First timers usually avoided group photographs and the selfies because they did not want to be outed. They were still trying to make up their mind and so they wanted not to be officially identified as atheists yet.
The old-timers were the celebrity participants. They interacted freely because they already knew some of the participants and were familiar with atheism. They moved about relaxed, confident and shaking hands as if saying: Thanks for coming! Good to see you! Old timers were taking selfies, and group photographs. For the old-timers, the feeling was more of: So we made it at last! That of relief. Participants at the gatherings in Uganda, Malawi, and Ghana exuded similar sentiments. When meetings broke up, they could be seen discussing in small groups in the corners, sharing jokes and laughing hilariously. Some of the jokes that they cracked are ones that could earn one a fatwa from the muslim Sheikhs and Ayatollahs of this world or get one excommunicated from the church. Old-timers usually led these discussions while first-timers listened, shaking their heads intermittently. The discussions usually focused on the experiences of these atheists; how they coped with social/religious pressures.
Old-timers recounted the different ways that they used to navigate the religious terrain, how they dealt with family members, friends, customers, employers, and coworkers. Very often, first-timers nodded, stared, smiled and asked some probing questions to gain more insights into the atheist life world.
Apart from these conference spaces, atheists in Africa used the social media to share ideas and experiences of religious oppression and discrimination, including how they were fighting back. These experiences are articulated under the following themes.
Hatred and Intolerance
Some atheists said that religious believers disliked them, and did not accommodate their views. According to one atheist from Zambia: It’s amazing how much hate and intolerance comes from religious believers while their religions tend to teach the opposite. It just shows how religion has been captured by a few individuals who put their own human take and rules on it. People must be left to believe what they want to believe as long as they are not causing anyone harm. They should not be stigmatized and intimidated to believe. Indeed, religions teach love and tolerance. But they promote violence, hatred, and intolerance too. Atheists in Africa live in societies that detest non-believers. They come from countries where atheists are hated for who they are, for being atheists, for disbelieving in a deity. Atheists reside in communities where atheistic viewpoints are treated with so much antagonism; where non-religious propositions are not recognized, not accorded a place on the table of ideas and beliefs.
Many atheists recounted how they were sometimes forced to keep quiet during conversations or compelled to suppress their own ideas because such views and opinions could be deemed offensive. While these atheists live in societies that claim to value freedom of religion or belief, freedom of thought and expression, such freedoms are not extended to them. Atheists who live in Muslim dominated communities are worse off. Their situation is more dangerous because, under sharia law, it is a capital offence to renounce or criticize Islam; atheism is haram.
Many atheists feared religious believers and recounted how they were careful in dealing with their devout relatives especially those who could betray or harm them. Actually, the god idea did not perturb atheists. The real source of their terror and anxiety was god believers. Atheists feared that theists might react angrily and violently towards them. Unlike believers, atheists lived in constant fear of being perceived as offending the sentiments of theists. In fact, many atheists narrated how they tried not to be seen to be offending the sentiments of believers; how they tried not to present themselves as non-believers who were anti-religion.
In actual fact, the fears of atheists are not misplaced. Atheistic views are often regarded as caricatures of religion, as blasphemies, and persons who express them are treated as criminals, as undesirable elements whose presence threatens societal health and wellbeing. So, to avoid being attacked and killed, and to ensure that they are not treated as criminals, as outcasts, many atheists do not disclose their atheism.
Many atheists said that believers prayed for them when they did not ask for prayers. And this was usually when they (atheists) were in need or in distress-when they were sick or were experiencing difficulties. A Nigerian atheist pointed out that after graduating from a university, he could not secure a job for some years. He approached a religious relative for help. And the relative told him to return to God. Another atheist asked for some financial assistance and was told to go to those who believed in what he believed for help.
Atheists were of the notion that religious believers often invaded their space and prayed for them, god talking and pressuring them to reconnect with God. One atheist from Zambia shared his experiences: Just when I am about getting comfortable with my atheism, I am surrounded by babbling religious folk. The father of this atheist in question was sick and had an amputation. Religious believers came to pray for the father while he was on his sick. Another atheist whose daughter had a medical condition noted: I get a lot of these we thank God, by God’s grace, put it in God’s hands talks for my medically fragile daughter. Atheists observed that religious people targeted them when they were very vulnerable, when they were in urgent need of assistance-money, job or cure. Theists used such opportunities to force God and religious devotion down their throat. They try to coerce them to start believing again. Religious believers made atheists in such situations to feel guilty or regretful of their atheism.
Some atheists noted that theists made them feel as if the problems and existential challenges that they were facing were forms of punishment from God for their atheism. The atheist whose daughter had a medical condition pointed out that some of the religous friends suggested that the health problem was God’s way to get her closer to him. Believers made atheists who were encountering difficulties to think that they were suffering due to their lack of belief, that their suffering was the price that they were paying for their disbelief, for not acknowledging god. Atheists in Africa were targeted on their need bed, sick bed and deathbed for conversion. Covert and overt means were used to turn them into believers, to ridicule their irreligiosity and pressure them to renounce atheism.
However, there were atheists who resisted religious coercion. These non-believers employed various means to deal with believers subtle manipulative and evangelizing schemes. They stood their ground and refused to bulge or cave into pressures. An atheist from Zambia explained how she used to process religious intrusions: Believers should be free of sickness, heartache, and poverty. I engage believers with a smile. They usually are surprised that I’m content, happy and normal, despite being an atheist. I like to wear my atheism with a smile. I let my life be a testimony that being good and happy does not require belief in God or gods. It makes believers very uncomfortable.
Unfortunately, not all atheists in Africa have mastered the art of wearing their atheism with a smile, or engaging in behaviours that could visibly discomfort theists. Not all atheists in the region can muster the will and courage to resist and withstand the pressures and remain content with their non-belief.
Conferences such as the ones that the Atheist Society of Nigeria organized in Lagos, and the Humanist Association of Ghana held in Accra and the facebook, WhatsApp, and other social media platforms have become spaces that atheists in Africa use to share ideas about how they are wearing their atheism, with or without a smile.
In conclusion, atheism in Africa has consequences sometimes very unpleasant outcomes. African atheists experience hatred and intolerance; they live in constant fear of being mistreated, attacked or killed for their unbelief. Atheists are often targeted for conversion on their need, sick and deathbeds. Compared to their counterparts in western societies, atheists in Africa are in a more vulnerable condition. They are more prone to being abused or victimized with impunity. Family and community structures are more effective than state institutions when it comes to issues concerning religious belief and unbelief. Living in societies without functional social support systems, atheists rely mainly on their families and friends, not on the state, when they are in need. So atheists in Africa are cautious not to jeopardize the limited options that they have or could access when they are critically in need of help.
Atheism is largely invisible in Africa because there are few atheists in the region that can effectively stave off pressures from the family and society at large. A very small number of non-religious Africans can successfully resist the entrenched religious hatred and persecution with a visible smile.
Igwe is a public affairs analyst