atheism, africa

Invisibility of Atheism: Exploring the Phenomenon of Worldly Religion in Africa

 Atheism is a term that is not often associated with Africa and Africans. Studies have rather linked both ancient and modern Africa to religion and theism. The overwhelming impression is that Africans are hard-wired to mystical thinking and magic. In fact, a scholar of religion, John Mbiti, described Africans as notoriously religious.

Of course, many events that take place in Africa attest to this ‘notoriety’, whether it is the new religious movements that are emerging in different parts of the region, the violent campaign to implement Sharia by Boko Haram militants or rampant accusations and abuses in the name of witchcraft. In this piece, I discuss why religion/theism appears to be so visible in Africa and atheism invisible.  And I attribute the situation to the worldliness of religion in Africa. What do I mean by that?

Religion has often been presented as a spiritual and supernatural ideology; as an otherworldly phenomenon that is divested from mundane ends and interests. No doubt, religion is a transcendental notion but it is much more than that. In highlighting belief in god, there has been too much emphasis on popular credulity and superstition, on abstract ideas, doctrines and dogmas. The material perks and benefits that are often used to lure and procure conversion and confession have largely been ignored.  The ‘metaphysical’ strand of theism is often highlighted but the physical (bread) element is overlooked. This bread aspect, the worldly aspect of religion, is my concern in this piece.

By worldly religion, I mean religion that is driven, motivated and sustained by a here-and-now, material, this-worldly interests, gains and benefits. Worldly religion is not content with praying for the kingdom to come. It works, fights, conquers, strives and struggles to realise that kingdom on earth as Christians say in their Lord’s Prayer. It is a daily bread religion. Central to propagating or embracing religion is the satisfaction of mundane needs and desires such as food, shelter and clothing; accessing socio-political capital and financial power.

Religious propagators distribute or promise goods and opportunities that appeal to the material desires of the people in return for religious conversion and commitment. They use religion as a device to legitimately acquire, dispossess, or lay claim to people’s property including money, livestock, cars, and houses.

Not too long ago, a friend from Sudan told me a story of how a Muslim man converted to Christianity in his country. This conversion narrative may not apply to all who have changed their religion in Sudan, but it contains insights which are pertinent to my argument and to understanding religion/god-belief in Africa.

As narrated by this friend, the man needed money to pay his child’s school fees, and approached the Muslim establishment for some financial loan but they declined. Then the man went to the Christian aid group, and they gave him the money. This man left Islam and converted to Christianity. When his former Muslim colleagues asked why he left Islam, he told them that since they could not support him financially and the Christians did so he embraced Christianity. In this case, financial need not a special encounter with the Christian god was behind the switch from one faith/god to another.

This bread religion is not peculiar to Abrahamic faiths. In fact, worldliness features heavily in the indigenous religious enterprise. But worldly religion has been so manifest in contemporary Africa due to fierce competition for members, power and influence by the ‘world religions’ of Islam and Christianity.

Indigenous Gods for Sale

Material entitlements sustain the priestly offices and duties. These material benefits motivate people to take up these positions as priests and diviners. A lecturer at the Institute of African Studies at the University of Ghana told me that the work of a shrine priest in his community in Northern Ghana was more lucrative than that of a university lecturer.

Indigenous religions thrive mainly in agriculture-based communities. Religious rituals are devices which these experts who double as healers use in growing their economies, in acquiring food or life stock for their own use and survival. People who are seeking spiritual and divine help bring or forfeit cash, food and other goods to the gods. These forfeited items automatically become the property of the priests. Priests ask those who patronise their shrines to bring money, goats, cows and chickens for sacrifice. Sometimes religious rituals involve eating and drinking that often exclude those who provided the materials for the rituals! Shrine priests and other members of the priestly class take part in supposed ritual activities which ultimately augment their meals. These material accessories help in sustaining and in ensuring the survival of theistic interests and beliefs. They motivate people to act as if they believe in these gods even when they doubt and disbelieve. I recall a brief encounter with a diviner in the North of Ghana. I went to see him in the course of trying to understand the link between divination and witchcraft. The diviner asked me to pay about 5 dollars before I could see him. I declined and I offered to pay a dollar. In the course of the bargain, he said “Look I have children” and pointed at some children in the compound. “What do you expect me to use in paying their school fees?” At one stage, he told me that if I could pay twice the amount, he was ready to give me all the items he used for divination. He said he would later replace them. Locals call these objects that diviners consult ‘gods’. In the end, I paid about 3 dollars for a consultation.  I did not try buying the gods because I had no need for them.

The fact is that traditional priests benefit and profit from these gods whether their existence is actual or imaginary. Priests have vested interest in making people think that these gods exist. However, the economy of indigenous religion/gods has been shrinking due to severe pressure from the worldlier Christianity and Islam.

Worldly Christianity, Business and Private Jets

European missionaries brought the Christian faith to Africa, but they did not get Africans to embrace the Christian god by merely presenting the spiritual belief in the Jesus god. The missionaries made conversion to Christianity economically and politically rewarding. They provided worldly benefits to those who embraced their supposedly otherworldly deity.

One of these worldly goods is education. Missionaries built schools in rural communities and used these facilities to educate and convert people. They coerce people into believing and worshipping the Christian god. Churches in Europe and America sponsored and subsidised these schools and seminaries. They made it possible for families to send their children to school. My father told me that he embraced Catholic Christianity because that was the only way he could get a formal education. He went on to become a teacher in mission schools. Missionary education was a mechanism to promote the Christian god, but also the gateway to acquiring skills and employment. Such circumstances hardly give people the room to question aloud the existence of God. Even if people doubted or disbelieved, they are unable to voice their objections because of their educational and employment interests.

Today churches have universities across the region. Pastors use their own private jets. In Nigeria, Christian faith organisations own most of the private universities in the country.  Churches or church people also build hospitals and clinics. They set up farm projects, transportation companies and other businesses. These schools are named after saints, or have religious mottoes. For instance, a very popular Christian university in Nigeria is called The Redeemer’s University. The redeemer here refers to Jesus. Another Pentecostal church called its own tertiary institution, Covenant University.

A high school in Imo state in Southern Nigeria is called the Holy Ghost College. Another is Emmanuel College. I taught in a private Christian school in Ibadan in South West Nigeria called Ise Oluwa which means the Work of (Christian) God. As a teacher in this school, one is forced to lead the pupils in morning prayers and devotions whether one is a Christian or not; whether one believes in god or not.

A popular transportation company in Nigeria is called God is Good. Another one is named Ekene Dili Chukwu which means Thanks be to God. Many of these companies start the day’s business with prayer. In fact, some of them have some pastors that pray and preach to passengers shortly before they depart.

A Nigerian Catholic priest owns a chain of institutions and businesses including Madonna University, Caritas University, Our Saviour Polytechnic, Our Saviour College of Education, Our Saviour Primary and Secondary Schools. He also established Our Saviour Diagnostic Centres and Madonna Hospitals. These schemes provide much-needed jobs to people, but at the same time, they contribute to perpetuating god-belief.  They provide these services in exchange for a profession of faith in the Christian god, or at least in return for some lip service to the Jesus god.

You may now be wondering: But what is in a name? After all, those who bear Christian names still end up becoming atheists. Don’t they? People who attended Christian schools and seminaries worked at Christian establishments – such as this author could still end up becoming atheists or atheist activists. But I make bold to say that there is something in the name. There is materiality and worldliness in the name.

To better appreciate the challenges that atheists face in this intense religious environment, it important to note that part of the official ritual at these places is to start every activity with prayers in which all the workers and students are expected to participate. Refusal to take part in such godly activities due to religious apathy or unbelief could lead to termination of one’s job or education. And in a country where educational and employment opportunities are so limited and unemployment benefits are non-existent, many people do not want to take such risks, even the most ardent atheists.

Sharia, Money and Power

Worldly religion applies also to Islam. Nothing has been more revealing in this regard than my brief encounter with a famous Muslim woman in Nigeria, the late Hajia Bilikisu. In 2003, Hajia Bilikisu visited the stand of the Nigerian Humanist Movement during the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting that was held in Abuja. She saw an inscription on one of our banners that read: “Keep Mosque and State Separate”. Hajia Bilikisu stared at it for a while, smiled and said: “If we separated mosque and state, where are we going to get money to finance our Sharia courts”. I almost replied to her: “But Allah the most gracious and most benevolent is there and should be able to send you money directly from Paradise”. I did not.

Like Christianity, the spread of Islam had material motives and drivers. Islamic religion was introduced and promoted across Africa not by a mere preaching of the Quran or by teaching people to believe in Allah as the only God and in Muhammad as the messenger. Islamisation of Africa involved commerce, extension of financial and political support and patronage to those who converted to Islam. Belief in Allah was and is still the key to this-worldly kingdom of Islam. Embracing the Islamic god came with material benefits, business and financial incentives. Islamic foundations in North Africa and the Middle East provided sponsorship for scholars and preachers of Islam in Africa.  They financed the construction and management of mosques and Quranic schools, and provided local converts funds to study Islam or Sharia Law at Islamic universities in North Africa and the Middle East in return for their championing the spread of Islam in their various constituencies.

Worldly Islam is evident in the introduction of Sharia in Nigeria. Sharia law was first introduced in 1999 by a state governor, Alhaji Sani Yerima. Yerima introduced Sharia to fulfil a promise he made during his election campaign. Other Muslim majority states in northern Nigeria subsequently introduced Sharia Law. With the adoption of Sharia as state law, politicians used state money to fund the Sharia court, and Sharia police. It became the duty of the state to construct mosques, and sponsor pilgrimages.[Unfortunately, Hajia Bilikisi was among the Nigerian Muslim pilgrims who died during a stampede in Mecca in 2015]

The government fed Muslims during the month of Ramadan and financially rewarded converts to Islam. In addition, the implementation of Sharia Law entailed the Islamisation of state structures, education and businesses. Schools, hospitals and clinics automatically become Islamic property.

In the case of Islam, worldly religion ensures that state money, jobs, contracts and other benefits and opportunities went to merchants and consumers of Islamic faith not to doubters and disbelievers in Allah. While Islamic theocrats used the implementation of Sharia Law to woo voters and win elections, the Muslim faithful in return reward the politicians by voting them into power. The Muslim faithful get politicians elected to ensure the continuous flow of cash to them. Consequently, politicians compete and try to outdo each other in worldly Islam; in using state resources for the benefit those who believe in Allah.

Religions wield a lot of worldly power and influence and use their power to sustain the belief in God or Allah. They hold atheists and atheism hostage. Propagators of god-belief take advantage of the harsh economic situation in Africa. They make god-belief rewarding socially, politically and financially. And in a situation where state institutions are weak or are under the total control of these worldly ‘world religions’, there is limited space for atheists and atheism to thrive and flourish. So, atheists are mainly in the closet. The future of atheism lies in effectively confronting, counteracting and resisting the power and pressure of worldly religion.

Leo is a blogger, human-rights advocate and a Humanist from Nigeria.

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