By Leo Igwe
A warm welcome to all delegates from Abuja and from the states of the federation including those who are joining us online via face book or twitter. I am so delighted for this opportunity to explore the risks and challenges that those who renounce religion face in Nigeria. Thank you so much for your courage, and for creating time to be at this event. This convention is special for so many reasons. It is the first time that the humanist/atheist movement is focusing on an issue that connects the non religious community in this country no matter how the not-religious choose to self-describe, atheists, agnostics, humanists or skeptics or freethinkers.
Leaving religion is a big issue in many families and communities. Most Nigerians are born into one religion or the other and are compelled and pressured to keep professing that family religion even when they believe otherwise. So, renouncing a religion is a challenge to many people whether they live in the east or in the west in the north or in the south, in Christian-dominated areas or in sharia implementing states. In fact a mere mention of renouncing one’s faith elicits hostile reactions and suspicions.
That is why for every delegate who has made it to this event today, there are hundreds and thousands of others who could not attend. This is not because they did not have the resources to participate; they could not afford the money for transportation or accommodation. No. This is not because they are sick or at work or have some engagement. Not at all. It is because of fear and concerns over their safety. It is still dangerous to be an atheist or an apostate in this country. This is what an apostate from one of the northern states recently posted on a humanist platform:
“Hello everyone! My name is Aminu Garba I live in Kano. I am an agnostic. I graduated from the Faculty of Law Ahmadu Bello University Zaria in 2017. At the moment, I am at the Nigerian Law school in Lagos. I have been an agnostic for almost five years now. Most of my close friends know that But I have been too afraid to come out of the closet. I hope being here will help accelerate my evolution into a full blown atheist. Thank you”
This message resonates with many people at this event and many more out there. But we must admit that it is not a peculiar Nigerian situation. Recently, a Saudi woman who fled and got stranded in Thailand said this regarding why she did not want to go back to her country: “They will kill me because I fled and because I announced my atheism,” she said. “They wanted me to pray and to wear a veil, and I didn’t want to.”
Hatred or persecution of apostates does not apply only to islamic countries and societies. Those who come from other religious, Christian, traditionalist, Jehovah Witness backgrounds know how difficult and dangerous it is to come out and declare oneself an apostate.
For a long time people who exit religious have lived in fear. They fear for their relationships. They fear losing their jobs and businesses. People who disbelieve in God fear that they could be outed, persecuted, prosecuted, jailed or even killed, not for committing any crime but for saying I do not believe in a god or religion. Non believers fear that they could be sanctioned directly or indirectly, covertly or overtly; that the religious establishments, religious families, religious bosses and business partners could unleash psychological, structural and physical violence on them. For centuries and millennia, holy wars have been waged to justify the crimes that were committed against unbelievers. Scriptures that both christians and muslims contain verses that literally urge believers to kill nonbelievers. People who renounce their religion have been treated as criminals and as outcasts. They have been denied their basic human rights.
It has become urgent that we change the conversation around the issue of religious belief and unbelief in Nigeria. First, this will help Nigeria present a more reliable and realistic religious statistics to the world. It is often stated that there are about 40 percent christians and 40 percent muslims in Nigeria. It is not clear how Nigeria arrived at this percentage. Nobody bothers to ask: are these people Christians and muslims by choice or by force?
It has become pertinent to query and find out the actual percentage of Christians and muslims in this country because the religious statistics in Nigeria includes those who are neither christians nor muslims; Nigerians who have renounced their religion but cannot openly and publicly identify as non religious because it is not safe to be an ex christians or an ex muslims.
So the humanist movement is here to help Nigeria change its course by presenting a more realistic religious demography to the world. We are here to help Nigeria live up to the ideal and constitutional provision that upholds the right to freedom of religion, which includes freedom from religion. We are here to help the religious establishments live up to the ideal that there is no compulsion in religion. Look, if there is no compulsion in christian and islamic religions, why are ex christians and ex muslims operating underground? Why are they afraid of their lives and safety? Why are apostasy and blasphemy criminal offences? Why are blasphemy killers not brought to justice? Why is it an offence to question or criticize christianity and Islam? These questions must be posed, and answered. These questions must be part of the conversation and campaign for the realization of a Nigeria where individual can embrace or renounce religion without fear of being persecuted.
So are you among those people out there trying to figure out when or how to free yourself from religious tyranny and oppression? Are you a non-believer and you feel lonely or you think that you are alone in your doubts and disbelief? I want to say to you: you will not walk alone, you are not alone in your doubts, questions and disbelief. Even though we may live far apart from each other; even though we may not see face to face or may not be connected online or offline, be rest assured that you are not alone in this struggle to free yourself, and speak your mind, express your thoughts and be who you are without fear. Yes, the humanist and atheist movement will walk with you.