OPINION: ATHEISM AND CHANGING RELIGIOUS LANDSCAPE IN NORTHERN NIGERIA

The impression remains that Northern Nigeria is overwhelmingly religious. Mainly populated by Christians, Muslims and traditional religionists, the idea is that no atheists exist in this region. However, the religious demography of Northern Nigeria is undergoing a rapid change. Nonreligious and religiously indifferent persons in this part of Nigeria are going open and public with their doubts and unbelief. This trend has been going on for some time. Freethinking persons from Northern Nigeria attended the atheist and humanist meetings that were held in Ibadan in 2001, in Abuja 2011, in Lagos in 2012, 2017, and 2018. These delegates came from sections of northern Nigeria where many would assume that no atheists, skeptics or freethinkers existed. Although it remains dangerous for religious dissenters, unbelievers, and apostates to meet openly as a group in many parts of Northern Nigeria, freethinking, religion-free individuals are recently becoming very active and assertive. They are a part of the relatively unknown Humanist Association of Northern Nigeria, which for safety reasons, carries out its business mainly online. Unbelievers are actively involved in other secular and rationalist programs.

It may interest you to know that this month (April), some unbelievers in the region met at the capital of Benue state, Makurdi. Although a handful of people were at the event, it was quite significant. That meet up was the first ever gathering of atheists and skeptics in Benue state. According one attendee, the meeting was an interesting and worthwhile experience. Atheists forged friendships and robustly exchanged ideas, discussed and debated issues. The meeting started with an introduction and later, attendees shared stories of how they began to question religion, and their subsequent social and intellectual journey.

According to one participant, everyone gave an account of his or her experiences. And it was like “no matter what road you took, we arrived at the same conclusion: atheism”. According to one of the attendees, the stories were positive and inspiring: You might want to expect bile and seamless anger and pain; of course, you could feel that in good measure, and they’re nothing to be ashamed of! We should be angry at injustice and unreasonability. But bile wasn’t all there was about it! We have family members, friends, and acquaintances that are part of this (pardon me) madness which we see daily! So it was mostly feelings of pity and amusement! More reason, less emotion! It was all so interesting. One of the participants described the meeting in Markurdi as a “Journey to Reason, Love, Beauty and Friendship”. He recounted his impression of the event: I woke up right on time on Saturday, April 7 because I don’t sleep soundly when I have an important event in mind for a next day. I had been told about two or three weeks ago about an event I really wanted to attend – The Atheist Society of Nigeria meet-up in Makurdi, actually, the first ever! The meeting was scheduled for 10:00am; because of my anticipation and anxiety, I couldn’t really eat my food.

The participant eventually made it to the venue. According to him: At exactly 10:00, I had arrived Makurdi. I made necessary calls and then biked to the venue. When I got there, I met quite a scanty house – many who had wanted to come were not able to make it. Our primary host, the guy behind the whole idea (a slightly bigger version of him than I’d seen in the picture, but still easily and recognizably the same person) dressed in all white suggested a change of venue, which was a very welcome idea. We moved to a bar opposite a very noisy church -this was actually great , but another devastating effect of religion to be considered for discussion- noise pollution. But it was a great place! This attendee summed up the main pattern of the conversation at the meeting:

A child questions God(s) at an early age, is shushed and asked to desist, gets more curious, reads the Bible (with reason, and you know reason can never go with religion) and realizes bit-by-bit how much of a myth/folktale they’ve been taught! Then the quest to understand life from a perspective that is independent of religious lies, more reading, a feeling of being alone, then discovering that there are other people like them! According to this attendee, there were people who thought that organized religion was bad but had not found an irrefutable proof of a God’s existence yet!

He further noted: I guess because we were few, it was an open floor! Everyone was contributing to the robust discussion! I made so much sense from the exchanges -from the issue of patriarchy to sexuality to politics to parenting and family dynamics, to the economy of Nigeria and Benue state. We just kept discussing robustly! At some point, I noticed that some people who were sitting close to us listened in occasionally with interest! The organizer said some people could not attend the event due to fears and concerns over the reactions of their friends and family members. Other meetings like this are slated for Jos in Plateau state and in Kaduna in the coming months. These meetings will also be another first. The upcoming events in Jos and Kaduna will focus on how humanist ideals and values will help in addressing the ethno-religious crisis in Northern Nigeria.

So atheism is making in roads in northern Nigeria in a way that has never been the case. Atheists in the region are becoming proactive and socially engaged. They are leaving the closet, and are meeting openly and publicly, online and offline. This development is changing the religious/belief landscape in the region. It is challenging the stereotype that all persons in Northern Nigeria are deeply religious and theistic. Northern Nigeria stands to benefit a lot from this atheistic epiphany because atheism is set to become a potent force for sociocultural transformations. Proactive atheism will be a counterforce to theistic nonsense that is so entrenched in the region. It constitutes a veritable mechanism to tackle religious extremism and other violent superstitions that are ravaging contemporary Northern Nigeria.

Written by Leo Igwe.

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