By Leo Igwe
Nigerians who are born into one religion or another are compelled to keep professing that religion-family religion even when they believe otherwise. So renouncing a religion is a challenge to many people across the country whether they live in the eastern or western Nigeria, in the northern or in the southern part of the country. Apostasy is associated with so many risks and dangers.

People who exit religion fear that they could be attacked or killed by state or non-state actors. They fear for their relationships; that they would be rejected by their parents, brothers, sisters and cousins, their wives, husbands and children. They fear that they could lose their jobs and businesses. People who disbelieve in God fear that they could be outed, persecuted, prosecuted, jailed or even killed. Unbelievers fear that the religious establishments, their religious families, religious bosses and business partners could sanction them directly or indirectly, covertly or overtly. An apostate from one of the northern states recently posted this message on one of the platforms:

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.

Yes, the fears of apostates are real. The concerns are not made up. In fact, fear has become the way of life for non-believers in this country. And the time has come to call out these apprehensions and all those who drive such fears and anxieties. Those who create the dangerous situations that keep non-religious persons in the closets need to be exposed.

It is important to state that non-believers are not afraid of the Gods. They are not concerned about what the gods will do to them in this world or in the so-called hereafter. No, not at all. Non-believers fear what god believers would do to them if they go open and public with their views and identities. Apostates are concerned about the harm that religious individuals, men, and women, rich and poor, able and disabled, the elite and commoners, state and religious officials, clerics and lay people in high and low places, from same or other ethnic groups do and could do to them. The religious upbringing that Nigerians receive conditions them to be offended by the presence and perspectives of non-believers, and to treat apostates without respect. Believers are brainwashed to think that criticizing religion is a form of insult or blasphemy. They are made to feel angry and hateful and entitled to persecute and attack with impunity those who question or criticize religious beliefs.

I started questioning religious notions when I was a child and often parents, friends, and family members frowned at my queries. They often dismissed me as ignorant, naive or as someone who thought that he knew too much. Others warned me to be careful or told me to shut up. In the past, relatives who were in stronger financial positions threatened to withdraw support and in fact actually withdrew their support in anger over my atheism. They tried to blackmail me, calling humanism a form of Satanism and devil’s worship. They told my parents and friends that I belonged to a secret cult. They did everything they could to portray me as a dangerous person, a source of bad influence in order to drive a wedge between my parents and me or to woo me back into religion.

I started to have issues with religion at a very early age. As a child, I went to the nearby streams very early in the morning to fetch water. Those days, we were warned to be careful because we could run into spirits, ghosts or Mami Wata. With a mixture of anxiety, fear, and expectation, I looked forward to one day seeing, or encountering Mamiwota or a spirit but I never did. Occasionally there were cases where people who came to the rivers and dumped cooked food such as rice, in addition to some candles and soft drinks. They said that the food and drinks were for Mami Wata and that Mami Wata would come out at night to eat them. But after a while, I noticed that chicken and goats within the area ate up these food items. And I wondered whether these animals were the Mami Wata. As a child, I was struck by the fact that local priests sacrificed goats and chicken and sprinkled the blood and scattered the feathers of the chicken at local shrines and took away the real meat. I often queried if and why the gods only ate the feathers of chicken while the priests and families ate the meat.

I was brought up a Catholic and while going to mass I passed by some other churches and shrines and I wondered why there were many religions and churches instead of one. I wondered why people went to certain places to worship God. After all, God was said to be everywhere. I wondered why people prayed and talked to somebody who could not talk back. Why did people say that a spirit wrote a book when in actual fact, human beings wrote it. Why did they lie to me? Why did they lie to my face and kept lying to the face of the people? Why did they compel me to believe or to keep believing what I thought was untrue and incredible, that which had no evidence? While growing up I felt like being religious was like being held, hostage. I felt like religion was a form a social prison.

Religion was like a large fenced compound with an entrance gate that was wide open, through which people freely entered but could not freely leave because there was no exit door. So to escape from the compound was a dangerous undertaking. People had to jump over a barb wired fence that was heavily guarded by thugs and vigilante groups who made sure nobody escaped. So many people stayed inside the walls against their own will, longing to escape someday. Occasionally, they tried to scale the fence when the guards were asleep or looking away. Those who tried to escape were often beaten, shot, mobbed and forced back into the premises. A few who managed to escape sustained bruises. In fact, some of those brave fellows are here today to share their stories, struggles, and experiences. Leaving religion is much more than doubting and disbelieving in gods and rejecting religious dogmas. It is a quest for freedom, self-discovery, and emancipation.

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