Last year, 2016, marked twenty years since the Nigerian Humanist Movement (NHM) was founded. I was instrumental in this historic exercise and have played a prominent role in the growth and development of the movement. In this piece, I reflect on what led me to start the organisation and what the last twenty years have meant for me personally and for humanism in Nigeria.
Founding a non-religious non-theistic organisation is not something one would expect a child who was born in a rural community, who did most of his education in catholic seminaries (and even taught in one of them) to do. That was not just beyond anybody’s imagination because nobody in my training or upbringing had prepared me to be a humanist organiser or an outspoken atheist. As a person who had trained to be a priest, the least thing people expected from me after leaving seminary was to continue to live my religious life quietly. But, apparently, I did not. Yes, I disappointed many who claimed that I moved from one extreme to another. Humanism is an extremist viewpoint, right? Well, that is history now. More importantly, that history has been filled with struggles because it required a lot of effort to make a Nigerian humanist movement happen.
Looking back today, I would say that the circumstances of my birth and upbringing actually prepared me for the task of working and organising to provide Nigerians an alternative to religion. I was born and brought up in a remote village in Southeastern Nigeria. That was shortly after the Nigerian civil war. My parents were born into a traditional religious setting but converted to Catholicism as they grew up. My father told me that embracing Catholicism was the easiest way of getting a formal education because schools were managed by Catholic missions. Though most people in my community professed a belief in Christianity at least publicly, they still held onto traditional religious notions and other superstitious beliefs such as ancestor-worship, the potency of charms, ritual sacrifice of human body parts and, of course, belief in witchcraft. Most people were privately traditional religionists but publicly Christian. In fact, people were trado-Christian believers. So while growing up there was a mix of traditional and Christian religious beliefs and practices. But formal education was helpful in getting me on the path of intellectual emancipation.
I started my primary education at a local state school that started as a Christian mission school but was taken over by the state in the 70s. Even as a state property, the school retained its ‘catholic tradition’. The school day started and ended with prayers and the catholic priest in the nearby church occasionally visited to preach to the pupils. While in primary school I became an altar boy and started assisting the priest at the local church. After my primary education, I went to study at a minor seminary and then studied philosophy at a major seminary and did a few months of theology. It was while studying philosophy that I learned about humanism for the first time. That was in our history of philosophy course program.
However, humanism was presented in a bad light as a spiritually corrupting outlook during the renaissance. But when I looked it up in the dictionary, I did not see anything debasing about humanism. In fact, I found humanism to be the most human of all human philosophies because upholding human dignity was central to this outlook. What I understood then was that humanism was just a philosophical perspective like other philosophical thoughts such as existentialism, idealism and empiricism. It was much later that I discovered humanism as a life stance for the non-religious, as an alternative to religion. I learned about one humanist organisation in the United States that was led by Prof Paul Kurtz. The organisation sent magazines to humanist groups and activists in Africa. The name of the organisation was Council for Democratic and Secular Humanism (CODESH) which was later named Council for Secular Humanism.
After flipping through the pages of their magazine, Free Inquiry, I learned why the priest who taught us the history of philosophy opined that humanism had a corrupting influence. I noticed that humanist articles were critical of religion, and rightfully so. Articles in the magazine challenged religious privilege, questioned its orthodoxies and dogmas, and supported the separation of church/mosque and state, the rights of minorities and the human rights of non-theistic and non-religious folks.
I left the seminary in 1994 and for years I embarked on a journey of self-discovery. I tried to figure out what I wanted in life. I thought about starting a free-thought organisation that would provide a sense of community to non-religious people and provide a platform to combat superstition and promote critical thinking. Nigeria was – and still is – a religious country where superstitious beliefs are rampant. There was so much poverty, fear and despair. Religion played an important role in people’s lives. Apart from spreading irrational beliefs, the various religions provided education and health; and thus forming the basis for family and social support and solidarity.
Providing an alternative to religion would be a Herculean task because an effective alternative to religion must take into consideration the critical services that religion provides, particularly in a poverty-stricken region. But for me, these ‘good’ deeds which religions accomplished paled in comparison to the harmful and destructive effects of their dogmas and superstitions and the havoc faith-based abuses wreaked in people’s lives.
So it was a gradual start for NHM. The early years were quite challenging because the resources were limited. Most members were non-financial. They were either students, unemployed or under-employed who were fascinated by non-religious ideas and viewpoints.
There were many issues such as caste discrimination, ritual killing, and witchcraft accusations that beckoned for humanist focus, perspective and attention. Nigerians needed an active critical voice that could awaken them, persuade them and prick their consciences. Simply put, Nigeria needed an alternative to religion.
However, such an organisation needed some funding program that could sustain it until it reached a critical mass of financial members capable of sustaining it. So the major challenge was how to get the resources to fund the movement and its activities. I continuously worried about where I could get resources to grow the organisation and guarantee some future for it. Meetings and events were limited to Ibadan and the nearby cities, communications with other contacts were mainly by post and the newsletter was published occasionally. With these events, NHM was able to register some presence in Ibadan, partner with other like-minded organisations and provide a much-needed humanist voice, and successfully organise international conferences. Some of those initial individual contacts have today grown to become chapters and affiliate groups. They are working and campaigning to promote humanist ideas and values in various capacities. The Internet has been helpful in connecting humanists and in facilitating humanist solidarity. So the humanist momentum is growing across the country and beyond. Though there are still daunting challenges, the prospects of a rational alternative to religion are bright and promising. Humanism is really set to become an effective alternative to religion in Nigeria and the Nigerian Humanist Movement is positioned to midwife this critical process. So, for me, founding the Nigerian Humanist Movement has really been a worthwhile undertaking. Yes it has been a labour of love.
Leo is a blogger, human-rights advocate and a Humanist from Nigeria.