George Ongere is the Director of the Center for Inquiry-Kenya, and a colleague and friend. Here we talk about atheism there.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: How prevalent is atheism in Kenya?
George Ongere: Atheism is currently gaining popularity in Kenya. The media has gained interest at the rate through which young people are currently abandoning religion. In her article in the Daily Nations, which appeared on July 3rd 2013 with the title, The Rise of Atheism in Kenya, Vera Okeyo brought the stunning reality of how young people were abandoning religion and embracing Atheism. It became public trending rage and talk in the weeks that followed with religious personalities claiming that young people in the country were being misled to embrace unethical realities. Even though the article received negative comments condemning the young people who had abandoned religion, the article made three different hallmarks in Kenya. First, it introduced the term “Atheism” to the general public where Kenyans, even at the rural, came to the reality that there was an alternative life stance to religion, where people could live without believing in God and any supernatural entities. The importance of this popularization is that a good percentage of the population started to distinguish the term with other confusing ideologies like devil worshiping. They understood that Atheists did not believe in anything supernatural be it Satan, Witchcraft or God. Secondly, it gave rise to militant Atheism in Kenya. It gave courage to personalities like Harrison Mumia, the President of Atheist in Kenya, to start militant atheism in the media. Third, it popularized organized Atheism, where one of the organizations that got fame during that time was Freethinkers Initiative Kenya (FIKA) since it was featured in the article. Lastly, because of the interest of Atheism, live debates between religious people and Atheists started to be hosted live in the Kenyan televisions.
With the rise of technology where many young people can gain access to the internet and find reading materials that gives alternative view to religion, young people are embracing skepticism, humanism, Atheism and other radical ideologies that makes them non religious.
Jacobsen: What is the state of atheism in social life in Kenya?
Ongere: Atheism is still a life stance that is still looked at with suspicion in many Kenyan cultures and societies. Many people who have embraced atheism still fear to come out of the closet for fear of being dismissed by their relatives and friends. The challenge is the way religion has corrupted Kenyans to believe that it is the best model to all the realities. Religion has captured all institutions including marriage, family, work, and institutions of higher learning where most people socialize.
Whereas many people, even close relatives, might be aware an individual is an atheist, they might not be comfortable around the person. Particularly areas that challenge atheists who are still in their youth are relationships and dating. Most women tend to believe that people who subscribe to religion will make good husbands than those who are atheist. Particularly, marriages in Kenya still follow the traditional procedure where the parents play important roles in marriage, where they have to know the people engaged to their sons and daughters by doing background check. It means that people who do not believe in God might be trapped where the parents refuses their child to be married to someone who does not believe in God. Additionally, most Kenyans still believe that a perfect acceptable wedding is a religious one that includes a wedding presided over by religious personnel.
Nevertheless, young people in Kenya are trying to change the situation where religion does not influence relationships and friendship anymore. The social media have brought free flow of information where the youths get a lot of materials concerning atheism and they are starting to accept it as a reality. I am optimistic that religion will not be of much influence to them.
Jacobsen: For those in North American culture, or Canadian culture, what is something that they will not be likely to know about irreligion in Kenya?
Ongere: Most people in the west still have the belief that finding Atheists in Africa is fictional. “Africans are notoriously religious” a renown quote by John S. Mbiti, who was is an authority in Africa religion, believed that Africans will at no time abandon religion. The quote has shaped western scholarship and judgment about Africa religiosity such that they cannot imagine of some Africans living without religion. However, what most people in the west do not know is that scholars like Mbiti used short-sighted binoculars that could not see the future clearly. Mbiti did not know that technology could expose people in Africa, mostly the young to alternative views to religion. One of the best happenings in Kenya is that the Atheist movement is courageous and they have challenged some of the doctrines of religions, talked about separation of church and state, the removal of compulsory religious teaching in primary schools and they have also put the government to pressure to have then registered. The government refused to register the Atheist Movement in Kenya arguing that the group was unconstitutional since Kenya was founded on religious principles. The case is still in court where the movement has accused the attorney general and the head of register of society of denying them their fundamental rights of registration.
Jacobsen: How has Christianity hurt Kenyan citizens and the development of the country?
Ongere: In Kenya, people who subscribe to Christianity are the majority and are estimated to be about 84.4% and followed by Muslims who are about 9.7%, 2.4% to non religious people and the other remain to traditional African religions and others. Thus, Christian religion is dominant in the country thus most of the current cultures are influenced by Christian principles.
Christianity has hurt the country in many ways. To start with, the country is suffering from the HIV/ AIDS scourge. In the current times, about 1.6 million people are living with HIV and there are about 62, 000 new infections. In 2016 alone, about 36, 000 people died of AIDS related deaths. Moreover, about 64% of the adults infected were on antiretroviral drugs and about 65% of children were on antiretroviral treatment. In this way, the people diagnosed with the disease are amongst the vulnerable population that has been targeted by Christianity. There are many cases where Christian denominations have carried out healing crusades and advised these people to abandon taking antiretroviral drugs and this has contributed the many deaths that would have otherwise be living happily. Moreover, religion has brought about stigmatization of people with the disease. Mostly, most religious people believe that people who prostitute are the people who should have the disease. As such, many people would not come in the open and declare their status for fear of being discriminated. In this way, Christianity has thwarted the efforts to prolong the lives of HIV/ AIDS.
Moreover, Christian belief has made many poor people to be exploited through healing missions that involve trickery. The best case in Kenya was that of a re-known rich pastor of the Salvation Healing Ministry Victor Kanyari who was conning people by using trickery. Through radical journalism, the pastor was exposed of conning people by using magical tricks. Un ware, the followers of the church sold their properties to get such healings. There are many Christian denominations who still used these tricks to exploit their victims and driving them into poverty.
To add on, Child trafficking has been linked to many religious organizations. One of the prominent cases in Kenya was that of UK-Based Televangelist Gilbert Deya who was famous for the miracle babies. Deya claimed to give people miracle babies that were given by God to people. However, it was discovered that the Deya was in a network of a scheme that linked themselves with cartels that stole children in delivery rooms and trafficked them abroad. Currently, the preacher is in the toughest prison in Kenya; the Kamiti Maximum Prison.
It thus demonstrates how Christian religion as a belief does not help Kenya progress in any way.
Jacobsen: Has it helped develop in anyway?
Ongere: It would be biased to say that Christianity has not helped Kenya in any way. First, many great institutions of learning were launched in Kenya through Christianity. The missionaries in Kenya, who were in their mission to spread their religions, did many positive things to the places they were involved in. They even penetrated the rural areas and built schools that gave rural folks a chance to get educated and improve their lives. Moreover, religious institutions have also been involved in many social justice issues. They have helped the poor, orphans and built hospitals that have helped many Kenyans.
However, when looked deeply, even though Christianity brought help in Kenya, their motive behind such efforts discredits the assistance they brought to Africa. Christianity was a tool that was used to colonize Africans and they did not even intervene during the harsh rule that Kenyan underwent under the colonialists. The education and the help they brought were to tame Africans not to resist the subjugation that they were being put under. This was even captured by first Africa President and Desmond Tutu. They said, “When the missionaries came to Africa they had the Bible and we had the land. They said ‘Let us pray.’ We closed our eyes. When we opened them we had the Bible and they had the land”. As such, it is inevitable that most Kenya would not be impressed much by such efforts.
Jacobsen: Where are some educational, political, and social-cultural initiatives on going to improve the knowledge about an acceptance of atheism in Kenya?
Ongere: Campus Activism, organizing of debates and workshops on topics of Atheism, science, reason, free inquiry and humanist values are some of the initiatives that are going on to promote the acceptance of atheism in Kenya. When I became the director of the Center for Inquiry in Kenya in the year 2007, Atheism was still strange to many people and the atheist movement had not even started actively in Kenya. I knew I had a big task to steer the development of skepticism and rationality at the institutions of higher learning and in the community using the youth organizations that I was involved with.
The first step was to start an On campus group at the University of Nairobi. I knew it was going to be a challenging task but with the help of CFI, I managed to hold the first workshop successfully in 2008 and the turn out amazed me. I noticed the youth were in dilemma about religion and wanted to find out if there were other alternatives. I invited speakers like Leo Igwe of Nigeria, Deo Sessitoleko of Uganda, and Betty Nasaka of Uganda. They were experienced by then and they help spread the humanist message to the groups I have formed at the campuses.
Leo Igwe at the Center for Inquiry/ Kenya
CFI Kenya sponsored Workshop at the University of Nairobi
Moreover, we have also used humanism message to start social justice programs in the rural where irrational beliefs like religion and witchcraft have thwarted human progress. In the year 2012, we came with the Humanist Orphans Program. In the rural of Kisumu, we witnessed unreason that was threatening to gag the future of the young generation. Practices like wife inheritance were spreading HIV/ AIDS and the result was that many parents were dying leaving behind children who faced a bleak future. Moreover, religion was also contributing to this demise where instead of educating the people about taking Anti-retroviral drugs, they organized healing crusades and cheat the people that they had been healed. Thus, it made the people in the rural to rule out taking anti-retroviral drugs. With many orphans left behind without any means of survival, most of them went to the streets turning into prostitution and some went to become sex slaves. We believed that with the help we got from CFI Transnational, we could help save the situation. In this way, we started the Humanist Orphans Kenya a program that educates abandoned children; provide them with uniforms and other basic materials. Saving the future generation to lead better lives is one of the humanist messages we have passed across and this has helped in the acceptance of humanism in the village.
Some of the Humanists Orphans
Image Credit: George Ongere and Wikipedia.