By Leo Igwe
At the start of 2019, humanists will meet at the Nigerian capital, Abuja to discuss the dangers and difficulties associated with leaving religion in the country. It will be a historical event because such an occasion is rare in the history of Nigeria, a country where state governments incentivise religion, giving financial rewards to individuals who convert from one religion to another.
Leading Nigerian humanists including Mubarak Bala, whose family consigned him to a mental hospital after he renounced Islam, is expected to speak at the event. Nigeria is one of the world’s most religious nations. For many years, polls have shown that Nigeria is among the most religious nations on the planet, a trend that continues in the present. Even though Nigeria has had disputed census since independence, the country is said to be divided equally between Muslims and Christians. The percentage of Nigerians without faith usually polls at below 10 per cent of the overall population.
One of the primary reasons for the high level of religiosity in Nigeria is because it is difficult and sometimes dangerous to leave religion. Many factors are responsible for this situation. First of all, Nigerians are born into religious, mainly Christian or Islamic families and communities and are raised as Christians or Muslims. During their childhood, Nigerian children attend overtly or covertly religious–Christian or Muslim–schools where their religious identities are reinforced; where girls from Muslim families are forced to wear hijab. Thus as a norm, there is no reference to a non-religious identity or to religious liberty. Being non-religious is not presented as an option.
Religion is not a matter of choice. Even as an adult, renouncing religion is difficult in Nigeria because religion plays an enormous role in politics, commerce, and employment. Being openly and publicly non-religious is a deal breaker in many respects. Their families could disown persons who declare to be non-religious and in cases where people rely on family members, religious family members, for support, becoming an apostate could lead to the severance of financial aid. Such penalties disincentivise leaving religion because they undermine education, progress and general wellbeing, sometimes the marriage and other social relationships of those who leave religion. Those who openly identify as non-religious sometimes also lose their jobs or are denied employment and business opportunities; they risk becoming failures, destitute and impoverished.
Also, leaving religion is ‘foolerized’. By this, I mean that leaving religion is seen as an act of foolishness. Many Nigerians are reluctant to openly renounce their faith because the renunciation of religion is treated as an act of stupidity. This representation of non-religiosity is usually part of the indoctrination that Nigerians, especially those in Christian communities, receive from the cradle to the grave. The narrative that those who leave religion are fools is based on the biblical verse, Psalm 14:1 which says that “A fool has said in his heart that there is no god“. Saying that there is no god is presented as a demonstration of a lack of knowledge and wisdom. So, in order not to be cast into the box of the unwise or the ignorant, many Nigerians who think that there is no god or that religion is not important in their everyday life do not try to say so. To pretend to believe becomes a way to avoid the box and to, at least, present oneself as knowledgeable and wise.
Furthermore, leaving religion is demonised. Persons who renounce their religious faith or who live as non-religious are believed to be under the influence of the devil. They are treated as agents and instruments of Satan. Non-religiosity is taken to be a form of devil’s worship. Unfortunately, this notion is quite pervasive in Nigeria. As in the case of god, people who leave religion especially those who identify as atheists think the idea of the devil is baseless and absurd. If there is no evidence for the existence of God, there is none for the existence of the devil either, they say. But the religious public in Nigeria cannot comprehend this. Blinded by their faith and indoctrination, they continue to entertain the notion that leaving religion is a straight pathway to devil’s worship. The risk here is that as agents of the devil, those who leave religion are sometimes made scapegoats when some misfortune happens. Many Nigerians who are not religious are unable to leave due to concerns that they could be demonised and scapegoated in their families and communities.
That leads us to another risk associated with leaving religion in Nigeria. Those who renounce their religious faiths are treated as the enemy of their families and the state. Leaving religion is a process that many people dislike or better, are made to dislike. Thus, the idea of leaving religion evokes hatred, hostility, and antagonism. Leaving religion is seen as a betrayal of trust and those who leave as designated as traitors. Hate poisons relationships and could lead to abuse and mistreatment of the hated. Thus many Nigerians who leave religion or who want to leave religion do not discuss or disclose their identity or intentions. Some continue to belong while not believing.
Leaving religion on Nigeria is also effectively criminalised. Those who renounce their faith are treated as criminals. This is especially the case in the north of Nigeria where Sharia law is in force. Under Sharia, apostasy and blasphemy are crimes that are punishable by death. Leaving religion is an offence against the Islamic (Sharia) states. Many Nigerians who want to leave their religious faith, especially Islam are unable to do so because they do not want to be treated as criminals; they do not want to be persecuted, prosecuted and executed by the state.
Lastly, leaving religion is dehumanised. Those who indulged in such undertaking are debased; they are attacked and killed with impunity. Many religious persons in Nigeria think that it is a religious duty to oppose the process of leaving religion. Religious persons in Nigeria act violently toward people who leave religion, including beheading, beating or lynching them. Some people of faith in Nigeria are of the notion that such horrific acts will earn them places in the paradise. Nigerians who want to leave religion are reluctant to do so because they don’t want to fall victims; they not want to present some misguided believers opportunities to ‘secure’ seats in paradise. They do not want to be liquidated or eliminated by marauding religious fanatics and extremists.
Leaving religion is a hazardous journey in Nigeria and for Nigerians. Living as a non-religious person goes with so many risks and challenges. Religions have continued to use fear, intimidation, and violence against the leavers, including those who want to live as non-religious persons. Nigerians who contemplate renouncing their religious faiths trade very carefully. They do not want to be victimised for exercising their basic freedoms. It will be difficult to properly situate religion and religiosity in Nigeria until measures are taken to mitigate the risks and dangers that are associated with leaving religion.
By Leo Igwe is a Public Policy Analyst.