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 is among the most prominent African non-religious people from the African continent. When he speaks, many people listen in a serious way. 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 risks in leaving religion in Nigeria.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What are some risks that come with renouncing religion in Nigeria?
Dr. Leo Igwe: Various risks are associated with abandoning religion in Nigeria. However, these dangers depend on which part of Nigeria that one is living and then one’s social status. Generally, the risks include ostracisation, abandonment, and severance of family and community ties. In the Nigerian situation where the state is weak and ineffective, severance of family ties can be quite traumatizing. Those who renounce their religious faith are treated as an outcast, as individuals who have betrayed the family trust. For instance, a Nigerian woman who renounced her religious beliefs has this to say regarding how the family reacted:
My parents and I attended the Deeper Life Bible Church in Lagos. While in the Children’s Church at Akowonjo, I wondered how God received and spent the tithes that were collected. Several years later, I discovered the lies in religion. One of them was the constant message that Christ was coming. Unfortunately, he refused to show up. This led to my doubts and then, I started to connect the dots. Immediately my parents got the news of my unbelief, they threatened to disown me. They deleted my phone number from their phones. My mother told me not to call her again.
Many young persons across Nigeria suffer a similar fate or find themselves in the same predicament. Those who renounce their religious faith run the risk of loss of employment, political and business opportunities. Apostates suffer mob attack and murder, arrests, harassment, prosecution, imprisonment, and execution. Nigeria is one of the countries in the world where apostasy is a crime and the state could execute those who renounce their faith. And, this is especially the case in the sharia implementing states in Northern Nigeria
Jacobsen: How will those risks in renouncing of religion in Nigeria manifest themselves at the individual and the collective levels?
Igwe: At the individual level, the risks manifest through threatening telephone and text messages, -and these days- via Facebook messages and emails. Individuals who abandon their faith are denied freedom of thought and expression. Apostates are censored online and offline. Religious believers regard them as enemies of the society and as persons who should be silenced, neutralized or eliminated. They designate the writings of religious disbelievers as blasphemies, as insults on religion, on God or on Allah. In fact, apostates are criminalized for who they are and also for what they say or write. At the collective level, there is a denial of rights to association and assembly. Atheism is an underground movement in many parts of Nigeria due fear of mob violence, persecution and prosecution by the state.
Jacobsen: How can those risks be reduced?
Igwe: Separating religion and state is critical to reducing these risks and dangers. Hope lies in a state that is not biased for or against any religion. Unfortunately, this is not the case in contemporary Nigeria. Religion and politics mix in such a way that hampers the ability of the Nigerian state to exercise the right to protect atheists, apostates, blasphemers and those who criticize religion. The situation is more dangerous in the sharia implementing states where Islamic jihadists operate with impunity. In these places, the state must disestablish Islam and sharia implementation otherwise it will not be able to decisively deal with these risks. In fact, throughout Nigeria, Christian and Islamic religious privilege must be abolished and nonreligious, irreligious and critics of religion must be treated equally before the law. The government must recognize the criticism of religion as a human right and as an intellectual duty not as a punishable crime.
Jacobsen: How can these be combatted at the policy and political levels?
Igwe: The government needs an inclusive policy that treats religious believers and critics, those who embrace religion and those who renounce their religious faiths, those who have no faith equally. The government should stop portraying itself as Christian or Islamic government, but as a government of the Nigerian people whether they are religious, nonreligious, irreligious, anti-religion, critical of religion or religiously indifferent. There is a need for an effective human rights policy that emphasizes the right to freedom of religion and freedom from religion, including the right to practice one’s religion, change one’s religion, criticize religious beliefs openly and publicly. The risks that are associated with leaving religion will drastically reduce if an open society where people can freely profess, renounce and criticize religion is enthroned.
Jacobsen: What is the upcoming event?
Igwe: The event is a humanist convention that focuses on leaving religion in Nigeria. At this meeting, attendees will explore the risks, challenges, and opportunities that are associated with abandoning religion. The main aim of the event is to provide a space for those who have renounced their religion to share their struggles, stories and experiences. Too often, Nigeria is portrayed as a deeply religious nation, as mainly Christian in the south and muslim in the north. The country is presented as if there are no atheists, skeptics, agnostics or freethinkers in the region. What is often ignored is that there are real dangers that go with leaving religion and that in some parts of the country renouncing religion is a matter of life and death. This event is convened to address this challenge and to devise means and mechanisms to minimize the risks and dangers in leaving religion.
Jacobsen: How can people become involved?
Igwe: People can become involved by helping to publicize the event on social media, sponsoring or supporting attendees. Nigeria has made international headlines as one of the countries being ravaged by Islamic extremism. Indeed religion is at the root of many problems that the country is facing. In the past years, Boko Haram militants have killed and kidnapped thousands of Nigerians and displaced many more. In Southwest Nigeria, a religious crisis is brewing over the wearing of hijab by Muslim girls in public schools. So it is important to highlight this initiative that is meant to foster secularism, tolerance, reason, dialogue and human rights in one of the world’s most religious nation.
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Dr. Igwe.
Igwe: You are most welcome.
Image Credit: Dr. Leo Igwe.