Why Atheists Struggle to Come Out in Africa and Beyond

People who do not believe in God are the oldest and most persecuted minority in the world and still face great struggles in coming out.

Atheists marked an international atheist day on March 23. This date has been set aside to highlight the struggles of atheists worldwide. People who do not believe in God are the oldest and most persecuted minority in the world. Incidentally, little attention has been paid to their predicament, to the ways that unbelievers have been treated; to the struggles that they have waged, and the oppression and violations that they have suffered and endured. To understand the significance of this international day, it is pertinent to put into perspective the trials and tribulations of atheists.

It is important to note that the persecution of atheists is a cultural universal; it takes place in some form or the other in various societies. Persecution of atheists is as old as theism. No doubt, in today’s world there are variations in the ways that atheists and unbelievers are treated. Atheists are freer and are treated with more respect in some countries than in others. That notwithstanding, atheism has yet to become a global normal. So why does it require so much effort for someone to come out as an atheist?

For a long time, theists have resisted the normalization of atheism. God believers have placed non-believers in a social cage. They have made atheism risky and dangerous. Think about it, there is nothing wrong with atheism. Non-belief in a god is a position that harms no one. It is a commonsensical stand and a hallmark of a free society. Unfortunately, over the millennia, theists have continuously shut the door of freedom against atheists, alienating, criminalizing and demonizing them. They have made it seem as if atheism is a threat to human well-being or an offense against society. Theists have proposed various misrepresentations of atheists.

The Kingdom of Brunei is set to implement sharia law, under which it will persecute homosexuals, adding to the already strict measures taken against non-Muslim people in the country. Image: Myanmar Times

Theists have hijacked social sensibilities. They have continuously marketed this narrative that conflates social and theistic sensibilities. Thus atheism has largely been seen as a deviation and a social taboo; a sentiment that is out of sync with the norm. Even in western secular societies where atheists claim to be freer, people still do not want to be seen offending religious sensibilities. People are punished or sanctioned for causing religious offence. In fact it has reached a sordid extent that legitimate criticism of religion, especially Islam is seen as a form of racism. So, as a vocal atheist, one risks being accused of racism.

Meanwhile, theists are never penalized for “offending” atheistic and non-religious sensibilities, for peddling lies and falsehoods. They are not punished for speaking disparagingly about atheists and godless persons. Theists get away with designating people who say there is no god as fools. But atheists who openly lampoon Jesus beliefs, highlight absurd notions of Allah or ascribe prophet Muhammad’s doctrines as foolish, mistaken or absurd risk being sanctioned or executed with impunity. In fact, while theist expressions, which include demonizing atheists and inciting violence against non-believers are justified as an exercise of freedom of religion or belief, atheistic expressions are easily framed as blasphemous or as ofensive to religion. Atheists and theists are not treated as equal citizens. And this double standard, this imbalance in the treatment and representation of atheists makes it difficult for non-theists to openly declare their lack of belief.

Unlike theists, atheists strive so hard to publicly identify themselves as non-believers because the political system is rigged against them. Over the centuries, power has been theisized, and theism has been politicized. Theism is more than a confessional statement. It is a narrative to acquire, dispense and legitimize power. Churches, mosques and temples are power-broking institutions. Theists have made it seem as if power comes from professing belief in God; that power is gained by identifying as a believer in God or in Allah, not as a disbeliever. Thus atheists are automatically disenfranchized.

In the theistic power equation, atheists can only be subjects, or slaves. In theistic governments, atheists can vote, but they cannot be voted for. Atheists can be governed but they cannot govern. They cannot rule because all authority, according to the theistic mindset, comes from God. Any one who does not believe in God cannot be entrusted with power. So, in order to rule or govern, atheists in most cases have to suppress their lack of belief and pretend to be theistic. Simply put, atheism or assertive disbelief in a god is politically disabling.

Furthermore, atheists struggle to come out and openly identify as atheists because the law has been theisized. In the constitutions of several countries, God is invoked as the source of authority; many republics are covertly or overtly aligned to one god or the other, especially the Christian or the Islamic god. National flags bear religious signs and state functions often commence with prayers or services to one god or the other as a matter of law. In Muslim majorit societies, sharia law is in force. Cases are tried in sharia courts and the sharia police prosecute offenders. Elected officers are bound to uphold sharia law. Even in situations where the statute books provide for freedom of religion or belief, freedom of expression for all individuals, atheists do not enjoy such freedoms. In sharia implementing societies, it is an offence to renounce Islam or to insult religion. And atheistic expressions are too often seen as forms of insult on religion.

Theists have hijacked social sensibilities. They have continuously marketed this narrative that conflates social and theistic sensibilities. Thus atheism has largely been seen as a deviation and a social taboo; a sentiment that is out of sync with the norm.

So it is a huge struggle for atheists to come out. People who do not believe in God are not allowed to exercise their full human rights. They are not accorded the same rights as theists. Theism has hijacked the human rights system and in many places dictates which rights atheists can enjoy. Depending on the part of the world where they live, atheists are denied the right to life, freedom from torture, inhuman, and degrading treatment, freedom of thought and expression, freedom of association and assembly. It is either that the basic freedoms are completely denied, or atheists are so restricted and their rights not equally upheld. Atheism divests people of their humanity and dignity.

In addition, theism has also usurped the economy and constitutes a narrative for wealth acquisition, for securing jobs, alleviating poverty and acquiring businesses and contracts. The god economy rules the world. And the flip side is that the god economy wrecks atheists and impoverishes atheism. The god economy makes it difficult especially for atheist persons who are trying to be rich or to excel in their businesses to openly identify as non-believers. In many countries across the globe, atheists who want to make it financially or economically must pocket their atheism.

Theism has used its tax-free status to accumulate wealth and become a huge commercial enterprise. As financial stakeholders, churches and mosques compel businesses and other establishments to pander to their whims and interests. And of course this inquisitional climate alienates atheists. Thus having hijacked the society’s moral, political and socio-economic formations, theistic religions wield enormous influence to the detriment of non-theism and non-belief. Theists are literally holding atheists hostage in many places. They have placed severe limits on the atheistic space and spread, freedoms and liberties. Theists have made the coming out of atheists a serious challenge, a daring and dangerous undertaking. This should not be the case. Just as in the case of coming out as a theist, asserting one’s disbelief in a god is a right and should be protected. Coming out as an atheist should not entail so much struggle in Nigeria or anywhere in the world.

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

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