Leo Igwe is the founder of the Nigerian Humanist Movement and former Western and Southern African representative of the International Humanist and Ethical Union. He holds a Ph.D. from the Bayreuth International School of African Studies at the University of Bayreuth in Germany, having earned a graduate degree in Philosophy from the University of Calabar in Nigeria. Here we talk about the awakening, ongoing, in Nigeria.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: You have written about an awakening in Nigeria. You are a main vocal and public intellectual for the non-religious community in the continent of Africa and in the nation of Nigeria.
You did something few have the willingness, courage, or ability to do, which is found an entire movement in a country: the Nigerian humanist movement. What are the major developments for the observation of an awakening in Nigeria at the moment?
Leo Igwe: The developments are not too different from what led me to found the Nigerian Humanist Movement in 1996. These are mainly the pervasiveness of harmful traditional beliefs and practices and the damaging effects of religious extremism.
Unfortunately, in Imo state just like in other states in Nigeria, traditional belief in witchcraft, Mami Wata, spirits and gods, charm, ritual sacrifice and ‘Ogwuego’, (blood money), traditional bullet proof remain very strong. Modern education has done very little to weaken the hold of these ancient superstitions on the minds of the people.
The notion that witchcraft is real is widespread and those who are accused, mainly women, children and elderly persons, are often attacked and killed by their accusers. The idea that people can make money using human body parts sometimes lead ritual murder and human sacrifice.
In fact, the Abrahamic religions, which missionaries, scholars, and jihadists introduced in the country have substituted these beliefs with their foreign versions or reinforced these traditional/magical conceptions of life and realities.
The two Abrahamic faiths have succeeded in inflicting so much damage because these foreign religions enjoy enormous privilege and too often their doctrines are shielded from critical examination.
Interestingly those who introduced Christianity and Islam criticized and ridiculed traditional beliefs and practices. Now, these Abrahamic religions prohibit and penalize, and sometimes criminalize the criticism of their own teachings and dogmas.
So foreign religions are holding Nigerians, nay Africans hostage, morally and intellectually. Their bogus faith healing claims, abuses and exploitation go largely unchallenged.
Miracle pastors extort money and dispossess their church members by compelling them to sow seeds. In fact, in a clear case of human debasement and an embarrassing show of shame, Nigeria’s foremost Christian faith healer, T.B Joshua recently claimed to have healed a person of “anus cancer.”
The local media published the picture of the man who had cancer along with anatomical details showing the location of the disease. Such dubious and irresponsible claims are rampant in present-day Nigeria.
The Nigerian society urgently needs a campaign of reason to awaken the local population to the dark and destructive effects of superstitions and religious fanaticism.
Jacobsen: You contacted me regarding the upcoming work in Owerri for the humanist and freethinker (etc…) population there – in Imo State, Southern Nigeria. What is happening there? Why is it exciting?
Igwe: A lot is taking place In Imo state that warrants a secular response. Centuries of Christian proselytization have turned the area into a stronghold of Christianity. Furthering the humanist alternative has become a necessity in order to challenge Christian religious privilege in the state.
The Christian establishment tyrannizes over the lives of the people. Christian churches control the schools and use these institutions to indoctrinate children and youths. They make it difficult for them to think outside the Christian/religious box.
Due to the Christian monopoly of the educational system, there is virtually no significant space for freethinking and critical inquiry. Imo state is witnessing a proliferation of Pentecostal and charismatic Christianity.
The activities of these ministries damage the environment. Miracle priests and pastors have been ordering the felling of trees and the clearing of forests, which they claim to be the hideout of evil spirits.
Recently, one of the miracle pastors, Fr. Modestus Chilaka, claimed to have resurrected a man from the dead, after the corpse lay in a mortuary for three weeks. A culture of dogma and blind faith makes the people prone to believing this nonsense and other absurdities.
Also a few years ago, the Catholic church in the state witnessed an unprecedented crisis. Catholics in one of the local dioceses, Ahiara, rejected a bishop that the pope appointed to take charge of the area.
They claimed that the selection process did not follow the due process. Efforts by the Vatican to compel the priests and lay people in this diocese to accept the bishop have failed. The threats and intimidation from the pope and the Vatican have so far come to naught.
The people have stuck to their guns. Although the Christian church is dominant in Imo State, there is occasionally a defiance of its authority, a challenge of its teachings, a resistance of its oppressive structures, and an opposition to its monopoly of power and influence in the region.
That is a sign of hope. The humanist forum is an initiative to deepen and sustain this culture of defiance and resistance of religious dogma and authoritarianism.
Jacobsen: It is the Bible Belt, as you noted, of Nigeria. How does the fundamentalist, Bible Belt, form of Christianity mix with traditional beliefs and practices in Owerri?
Igwe: Christianity has annexed the traditional religious complex by divinizing and adopting what it considers good and moral while demonizing what it regards as evil and wrong using the Bible as a reference point.
Given that the Bible is not a coherent text, and there is no God or Christ to confirm what is true or false; what is or is not the word of God.
A mix of Christianity and traditional beliefs are consistent with the Christian fundamentalist paradigm because verses from the Old and New Testaments are used to justify what is often designated as traditional beliefs and practices such as the belief in witches, the use of charms and the practice of ritual sacrifice.
For instance, fundamentalists Christians use Ex. 22:18 to justify the accusation and persecution of witches. They continue to tighten the ‘Bible Belt’ around the minds of people in the region.
Jacobsen: What are the penalties for public non-religiosity in Owerri at the moment, and historically? What will the public, even the police, do to you?
Igwe: As in the north of Nigeria, there are risks that are associated with non-religiosity, but public non-religiosity in southern Nigeria is not as dangerous as it is in the Islamic Northern Nigeria.
Public non-religiosity attracts social sanctions, ostracization, threats of severance of ties and relationship, withdrawal of family and social support. Nonreligious persons can be attacked especially in situations where their non-religiosity is demonized and believed to be responsible for poverty, lack of progress, illness, death and other misfortunes in families and communities.
The police usually intervene on the side of the religious attackers. However nonreligious persons in strong sociocultural positions, that is, those who are gainfully employed or those who are financially independent are better placed to resist persecutions.
Jacobsen: How does religion change the political and cultural current of Nigeria? How can an awakening of freethinking change this disaster for the principles of secularism: of a place of worship and state/government separation?
Igwe: Religion is frustrating efforts to establish a secular state, and attempts to effectively tackle religious extremism. Religion has made it difficult to put in place institutions that guarantee the rights of all individuals whether they are religious or not.
Religion has hampered the evolution of a tolerant society that does not discriminate against anybody on religious grounds. Unfortunately, states in the Muslim dominated areas are implementing sharia and officially discriminate against non-Muslims.
While states in Christian dominated areas officially discriminate against non-Christians, in a religiously pluralistic Nigeria, it is imperative that the state is secular and religiously neutral and not biased for or against any religion. This is not yet the case.
In addition, religion has frustrated the realization of a culture of critical thinking and scientific inquiry, fostering a faith-based, not an evidence-based view of the world. Religious dogma has made it difficult for Nigerians to freely exercise their minds.
It has hampered the emergence of a scientific Nigeria and the unleashing of Nigerians’ creative, inventive and innovative potentials. An awakening of freethinking will get Nigerians to realize their intellectual possibilities including the promises and benefits of separating religion and state.
It will provide a stimulus for positive and progressive change in the country. Simply put, fostering the principles of secularism will help deal a heavy blow to that last bastion of colonialism, religion.
Jacobsen: Any final thoughts or feelings in conclusion?
Igwe: Religion is a global movement that uses transnational structures to promote its agenda, spread its dogmas and undermine the separation of church (mosque) and state.
Secularists should not be content with only complaining and criticizing the dark and destructive effects of religion around the globe. Mere criticism is not enough. Secularists should put in place structures and mechanisms to counter theocratic forces. A global synergy is needed to achieve a secular enlightenment worldwide.
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Leo.
Image Credit: Dr. Leo Igwe.