It was originally planned to take place in Kaduna. It was planned as a small Café humanist-que event A handful of people were expected to attend the program. However, the event never took place. Violent clashes in Kaduna led to a reconsideration of hosting the event in the city. There were concerns that some of the participants would stay away. Local activists advised that the event should be postponed until after the elections or be moved to Abuja where there would be limited concerns regarding security. The event was eventually moved to Abuja. Moving the event to Abuja meant that the plan had to change in terms of budget and scale. It would be a much bigger, national event, at least to maximize the opportunity of hosting it in this capital city. The last time a major humanist event was held in Abuja was in 2011. In fact, as the capital of Nigeria, Abuja was appropriate as the place to begin discussing the risks that apostates face at different levels. The event’s topic: Leaving Religion: Risks, Challenges, and Opportunities was a theme that captured everyday life, desires and aspirations of humanists, atheists and freethinkers in the country.
Nigeria is often said to be a deeply religious society with about 40 percent Christians and 40 percent Muslims. Less than 5 percent are designated as non-religious. However, many Nigerians profess religion or belief in God out fear of being victimized by their families and communities. In fact, if a proper census, that is devoid of fear, intimidation, threats of violent and nonviolent sanctions, is conducted, there may be more Nigerians who are non-religious or religiously indifferent, atheistic, agnostic than religious and theistic.
The date of the Abuja program, January 12 was not convenient to many humanists. It was quite early in the year and some had expressed reservations because they would still be in the festive mood. The organisers expected 30 to 40 participants. At the end the day, the number of attendees was much more than that. The convention succeeded beyond the expectations of the organisers . Over 55 persons attended the event. Many participants came from outside Abuja-from Lagos, Ebonyi, Kogi and Akwa Ibom. Other attendees came from Kano and Kaduna. Messages from leaders of atheist, humanist and freethought organisations were read at the event. These messages came from Nick Fisher from the American Atheists, Dan Barker from the Freedom from Religion Foundation, Giovanni Gaetani from the IHEU and Roslyn Mould from the Humanist Association of Ghana, and the outgoing Chair of the African Young Humanist Workgroup. In his opening statement, which Ikechukwu Okechukwu read, Dr. Ijabla Raymond noted the challenge of leaving religion in Nigeria. He said:
“Atheism can be quite isolating and lonely. Some friends and families will abandon you from the moment they discover you no longer worship like them. From that moment you will bear the title of an infidel. If you describe yourself as a humanist, I find that many Nigerians immediately think you belong to a secret cult and regard you with great suspicion. I welcome the fact of us holding humanist conventions and our challenge is to try and dispel this myth and raise awareness and understanding of humanism. For some people, losing friendship and family can lead to anxiety and depression, and perhaps even suicide. But these are problems foisted by an unaccepting community on the individual and not that atheism is somehow a hopeless state of existence. In some cases, there can be the use of physical threats to induce the atheist to recant as illustrated by the experience of our friend, Mubarak Bala”.
Dr. Raymond then contrasted the situation of atheists in Nigeria with that of Europe:
“Churches are being converted to pubs and restaurants in these places because they cannot find the numbers to maintain church membership and look after these buildings. The advent of social media has transformed human relationships. You can now befriend people who are thousands of miles away from you and belong to communities, which share similar values to you but which do not congregate in the traditional sense in a physical edifice. I felt alone when I stopped believing nearly a decade and a half ago. Today, I am addressing you fine people without having met any of you in person because of the connection we share, made possible only by the miracle of the Internet!”
He then went to highlight how leaving religion positively influenced his life:
“In my experience, it is possible to live a very enriching and fulfilling life without religion. I have become less judgemental of, less prejudiced against, and more tolerant of people who are different to me. Like most religious Nigerians, I used to think gay people deserve the wrath of God and deserve to burn in hell for their sexual orientation. I used to believe that people of other faiths who did not worship Jesus will burn in hell, and deservedly so because they rejected the gospel of salvation. Jesus described himself as the way, and no one goes to God except through Him. And in John 3:16, the Bible tells us that whosoever believes in Jesus is saved but whoever does not believe stands condemned. Religion calls for respect but it gives none. In my view, it is both arrogant and disrespectful to call people who believe differently to you sinners or infidels. It is arrogant to believe more than half of the world’s population deserve to burn in hell for eternity for not believing in your deity. Since leaving religion, I have rid myself of such arrogance and intolerance”.
Dr. Raymond noted that a non-religious outlook inspired him to live responsibly:
“I take responsibility for my own actions and do not transfer responsibility to imaginary beings. In practical terms, this also means doing something about my situation rather than muttering to myself and expecting a supernatural result. To translate this into our affairs at a national level, our elected and spiritual leaders call for national prayer (we have even had a viral hallelujah challenge). We are a praying nation yet our country continues to grope in darkness.
It is liberating do good for the sake of it rather than being driven by the promise of a reward in heaven or the fear of punishment in hell. And, since I do not believe in a second chance (or the afterlife), I try to make every moment of my life here count. My life is full of the meaning I give to it. I consider myself to be infinitely more knowledgeable than the Bronze Age people who wrote the holy books. To stop living my life based on the ideas and the paranoia of these people who thought diseases were caused by demons is the best decision I have taken in my life. It has liberated me from the bondage of fear and superstitions and to me, the freedom from these has been worth the risks I have taken and the challenges I have faced. I hope you too will come to the same position and conclusion as me”.
There were three panels in all. Zachaim Bayei chaired the first panel. Mubarak Bala presided over the second panel and Steve lead the closing session. The panelists recounted personal experiences leaving Christianity and Islam, and in a particular case both religions, and how family members reacted. The presentations generated many interventions from the audience.
Participants narrated how they managed family relationships, marriages, and partnerships with religious parents, spouses, and in-laws, including the different strategies that they used to come out to their parents and friends, children and other relatives. And other ways that they used to resist and contain religious hostilities. From the various interventions, it was evident that those who renounced their religious beliefs suffered more persecution when they depended on their religious family members for survival, for the sponsorship of their education, or when they were unemployed or employed in a religious institution or in a religion leaning establishment. In fact, one of those planning to attend the convention had to withdraw after a family member reported her to the parents. She feared that the parents could stop sponsoring her education if she went ahead to participate in the event.
Participants were strongly advised to try and maintain a low profile as dependants on religious relatives to avoid being victimized. Attendees were encouraged to try and be financially independent before going open and public as an apostate. With a good income and a job, apostates would be in stronger positions to resist hostile treatments and persecutions.
Some of the speakers recounted certain initiatives that could empower atheists and apostates. It was noted that a sister organisation, the Atheist Society of Nigeria was organizing some skill acquisition programs and cooperative schemes for its members. It was interesting to know that despite the risks and dangers of leaving religion, many participants waxed with so much optimism about the future of atheists and freethinkers in the country. Some attendees recounted how they met other freethinking friends via social media and in a particular case got married. Many ex Muslims said that they drew inspiration from the case of Mubarak Bala whose family consigned to a mental hospital after he renounced Islam. The convention ended with an election of an interim executive that Mubarak chairs. There was a social activity, the Bingo games, which Steve organized. As part of the Convention plus, some delegates, visited and met for the first time in the history of the humanist movement with the Executive Secretary of the Nigeria Interreligious Council at the Federal Secretariat, an executive of Christian Association of Nigeria and the chaplain of the Ecumenical Centre, Bishop Ogunmuyiwa. During these visits, humanist delegates raised the issue of the persecution of apostates, ex christians and ex muslims in Nigeria. They discussed the need for a more inclusive dialogue on religion.
Some of the attendees also visited the office of the Leadership Newspaper in Abuja and also met with the officers at the Kukah Center. The Leadership newspaper published a short report on the visit which highlighted the need for a more balanced reporting on religion/non religion. The officers at the Kukah center were very keen to co-sponsor events with Humanists. They noted that the center and the humanist association could collaborate in promoting religious tolerance and the separation of religion and government. The Humanist Association is planning more events in the future. In fact, there is an ongoing discussion to hold a National Campus Freethought Conference later in the year. Although it was a one-day event, the Abuja convention was a historic event.
The Humanist Association is growing both in number, strength, and spread. It plans to strengthen its partnership with both governmental and non-governmental organizations, take its campaign against religion motivated violence to the wide public and adopt other measures to minimize the risks and dangers that are associated with leaving religion in Nigeria.
Leo Igwe is a human rights activist and the founder of the Nigerian Humanist Movement. He was the Western and Southern African representative to IHEU, the International Humanist and Ethical Union. He can be reached by email HERE.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.