The Fate of Non Believers: Understanding the Challenges to Atheism in Africa

By Leo Igwe

My main task in this piece is to answer the question: Why is it difficult and sometimes dangerous to be an atheist in Africa? In answering this question, I outline the risks and difficulties that non theists face and how they play out in everyday life. I draw from the experiences of atheists in Nigeria, Ghana, and Zambia in answering this question and in supplying materials for further discussion and reflection.

Atheists across Africa face personal, social, economic, state and organizational challenges.

Personal Challenges: What kind of atheist to be.

As individuals, atheists grapple with the fact of their unbelief, their realization that there is no god. Atheists struggle to come to terms with their disbelief in a deity. This struggle entails deciding where and when to take a stand and how to come out as a disbeliever in god. Atheists grapple with whether to maintain a strictly non-theistic stand or entertaining a sit-on-the-fence, agnostic, may-be-there-could-be-some-god-out-there approach. Many atheists often have to confront the challenge of what kind of atheist to be-a closeted atheist or an atheist in the open; an atheist activist, who is assertive of his or her rights or a passive one who does not want to rock the theistic boat or ruffle theistic feathers in any way. For those living in a very intense religious environment, this personal challenge is often designated as a crisis of faith. Atheists experience this crisis not really because faith in god makes a more compelling case for truth, meaning and morality but because atheism has social implications.


Social Challenges: What Will they say? What will they do?

Human beings are social beings and their behaviours have social angles. In addition to their personal challenges, atheists contend with possible reactions of their family and community members, that is, what family members and friends would say and their other responses to their atheism. This is actually where atheists encounter much of the risks and dangers-that is how the society judges or treats them. To illustrate this point, a comment that was posted on the face book page of a Ghanaian atheist, G.A (14 October 2019) is quite appropriate. He said:
“I’ve been told before that my atheism is a show off. To be honest, being atheist in this country is painful. It means being at “war” all the time. It means standing against family, risking the support or being primed to lose that support at any moment for your worldview. Atheism means the social comfort that the church gives to others is out of reach for you. Add Feminism your position and things gets even tense (sic), you are threatening the very foundation of the patriarchal family structure. You now not only have to fight for yourself but with and for women whom the structure oppresses. If you are a humanist on top of that, now you’ve taken it to another level, your solidarity with LGBTIQ people now makes you a clear enemy to everyone around you who would have been a friend, brother or sister.

Truth be told, Atheism/Humanism/Feminism is a costly thing in our current social environment. It is only fun when you’re with like-minded folks, otherwise you have to be fighting at many fronts at all times”.

As this quotation shows, atheists deal with the social costs of their atheism. And as GA noted, the response from the social is a form of war, a painful social fight at different fronts that may likely destroy the base of one’s support or comfort. This social assault comes in different forms.


Atheism: A Form of Sickness?

In some cases, embracing atheism is equated to some psychological problem or crisis. A friend of a Nigerian atheist, the Northern Atheist (N.A) posted this message online:
“Recently I added the acclaimed Northern Atheist, on my friends list. In fact, I requested for the friendship. So far I found two things intriguing: First is the way people condemn him whenever he makes post that violates their system of belief, which I find really funny. But I understand why (or so I think). He was once their own. Now they cannot contain the reality of him being on the other side of the coin. The second thing I have learned from his posts, so far, is the conflict between conscious(sic) and ego. Instead of the dude to concentrate on preaching what he practices and calling upon people to the salvation that freedom offers, he resorts to ridiculing other people’s system of belief, which is tantamount to denying/questioning their choice (read freedom) of worship.

That’s not even the point I am trying to make. What I have realized about N.A is that he is in a very difficult situation. His knowledge (read consciousness) of God (Allah in this case) on one and his egoistic self on the other put him in a situation of conflicting resurgence of a problematic. He cannot denounce his announcement of not believing in God just like he cannot free himself from the nagging awareness of His existence. That’s what I have learned so far. I may be wrong”.


As you can see, even though this friend of the N.A added that he could be wrong, the sentiment captures a widespread reaction, that is a pathological framing of atheism. Friends and family members respond when a person comes out as an atheist thinking that one’s declaration of atheism is a symptom of sickness. An atheist is seen as somebody who is out of his or her mind. People react by thinking that a person becomes an atheist due to some frustration, disappointment, ‘difficult situation’ or a ‘conflicting resurgence’ (whatever that means). They think that one must be mentally sick to say that there is no God. And as suggested in the quotation, one sign of this mental illness is ‘ridiculing other people’s system of belief’.


Some years ago atheists in Nigeria witnessed a situation where family members of the N.A took him to a mental hospital after he renounced Islam. Many people had wondered why relatives could take such a measure in reaction to one’s renunciation of Islam. A way to explain this psychiatric interpretation of atheism, ‘Islamic atheism’, is that the family members in question had considered this step, that is taking him to a mental hospital, as a form of ‘care’ and ‘rehabilitation’, as a way of correcting the maladjustment. Their thinking is that atheism is of no benefit at all in this world and in the next. After all, the penalty for apostasy under sharia is death in this world and hell fire in the hereafter. So they had wondered how anyone in his or her right state of mind could embrace atheism. And the Christian Bible puts it a bit differently in Psalm 14:1 that the fool has said in his heart that there is no God.

Interestingly a psychiatric interpretation of atheism is well known and get often alluded to, but there is a dearth of similar explanations of religious behaviours such as speaking in tongues, divine revelations, receiving prophecies and communication with the gods, throwing stones at the devil in Mecca etc. Unfortunately, attempts to provide such insights are often misunderstood or better resisted, violently resisted. Part of the social challenge to atheism is that atheistic expressions are deemed haram (forbidden); efforts to highlight absurd religious and theistic beliefs are often seen as insulting the religious gods and prophets, and a serious offence. Meanwhile theistic faith traditions are filled with narratives that ridicule atheism and unbelief, and equate atheists to fools, to psychiatric patients and also to criminals. In fact theistic traditions impose economic costs on unbelief.


Economic Challenges: How to survive as an atheist

Atheists often wrestle with how they will survive after going open with their unbelief. This is a serious concern because one way that theism legitimizes itself is by undermining the economy of atheism, by defunding unbelief, and yes, by monopolizing the belief market and capital. Put differently, theistic religions try to put atheism out of business. As noted by G.A. embracing atheism has socio-economic implications. The decision could lead to the destruction of one’s means of livelihood, loss of job, and business opportunities. Part of the personal crisis that atheists experience is weighing the costs, the economic costs, of their atheism; the impact that unbelief could have on their lives, future and survival. A campus organiser in Ibadan told me sometime ago that freethought was not marketable as he explained his inability to get other students to join his ‘group’.

This concern is vital because given the harsh economic realities in the region, few atheists are ready to risk or jeopardize their means of livelihood-jobs and businesses. Many do not want to lose the support that they are receiving from their family members especially if they are still dependants — students or unemployed or the aged. In this case many atheists end up not believing but still belonging to faith organisations. They attend and participate in the church or mosque activities of that rich uncle or that in-law who lives abroad and sends money to support the family. They belong as a way of ensuring the continued flow of support, and their economic survival.

Many atheists do not want to lose their jobs or their customers. They teach in schools where they are forced to lead in morning devotions. Some atheists work with governments that observe national days of prayer and as civil servants they attend or coordinate these state functions. Some atheists work in banks and in others firms that start the daily businesses with worship and devotions. Refusal to take part in these theistic businesses could lead to their dismissal from their positions.

It is important to note that part of the economic challenge is that atheists have to confront the allegation that some real or imaginary financial benefit is the reason for their atheism.

Atheism for Monetary Purpose

Some atheists who have managed to survive and stay economically afloat have to contend with another challenge, that is the idea that it is all for some financial gain. In some cases, friends react by claiming that one’s embrace of atheism is for some pecuniary purpose. This allegation is made especially where there is some known or imagined financial support from the atheist movement or from abroad. I must add here that monetary consideration is a factor in the decisions that human beings make whether it is theistic or non theistic, religious or secular. Financial consideration goes into deciding to attend or not to attend that church, or that mosque; even in deciding to participate in that atheist meetings physically or virtually. The pecuniary element may be in terms of the money received as tithes or as subsidies for pilgrimages but also the money spent, saved or the ‘seeds’ sown in furtherance of theistic or atheistic affairs. In the case of atheism, people impute financial motivation in order to belittle and trivialize the decision, ridicule it and make it seem as if the decision to become an atheist is a mischievous one.

Here is a comment from the friend of the N.A. highlighting the money factor in his embrace of atheism.
“Innalillahi wa inna ilaihi raju’un (To Allah we belong To him we return).What a life we are living if a grown up man like THIS be born in Kano into a muslim family schooled at Hassan Gwarzo, and graduated from same department as I, at the same school ABU Zaria after he became 25 years of age decided to leave Islam and completely worship SATAN just because of MONEY. What is our love for money growing into? MAY ALLAH KEEP PROTECTING US AND GUIDE US TO THE RIGHT PART, AMEEN!”.

And here is a reply from N.A:

“Becoming an atheist is not easy. Drinking the blood of bats and black cats almost made me quit. But what can one do, alas! The money is in dollars. It paid off in the end. I love you Satan, Lucifer, you are the God”.

So part of the challenge to atheists in this region is addressing such imputed economic — monetary- motivations for atheism. Many atheists may not have the wit and intelligence to respond the way that the N.A did.

And as noted in the quotations, the devil is designated as the invisible hand that guides atheism.

Satanization of Atheism

Atheists in this region have to contend with the fact that they are accused of being Satanists, that is, devil worshippers. As Satanists, atheists are seen as embodiment of evil. Many atheists find it difficult to comprehend this Satanist label. For them, since they find no evidence for the existence of god, how could anyone think that they could actually worship the devil, another imaginary entity. The fact is that many theists find it difficult to believe that atheists indeed do not have something that they worship at all. They assume that atheists must have their own ‘god’ and their own ‘church’ or their own ‘mosque’. Hence they often conclude that atheists worship Satan. A man who reacted to the registration of Atheists In Kenya said the decision was like licensing ‘devil worshipping’. Their thinking is that denying the existence of god creates a belief or worship vacuum that devil’s worship fills. In some places people go a bit further by equating atheist groups to secret cults.

The assumption is that disbelieving in god creates a community gap in the lives of atheists and secret societies and occult rituals fill this space. So people think that atheists belong to some cults where as N.A sarcastically noted they drink the blood of bats and black cats and revere Lucifer.

Atheism: Lacks Conscience

Furthermore, atheists have to contend with the notion that they are people without morals. An atheist from Zambia, Mr H. posted on his face book page how a friend reacted when he told him that he was an atheist.

“I’m an atheist, I told him and all he had to say was that he only wondered the kind of evil I was capable of doing despite my innocent look. He said someone who did not believe in the existence of God must lack conscience because he could do anything to anyone without fear of God’s punishment”.

The thinking is that the atheist’s freedom from fear of divine punishment constitutes a moral liability. The assumption is that the fear of God’s punishment is a necessary condition for morality. This kind of reasoning has been used against atheists before now. In 1940, the British philosopher, Bertrand Russell secured as appointment to teach at a university in New York. But a woman opposed the appointment, describing him as “lecherous, libidinous, lustful, venerous, … aphrodisiac, irreverent, narrowminded, untruthful, and bereft of moral fiber. As in the case of Mr H, and reechoed in Russell’s, people consider atheism as an outlook without a moral compass. They consider atheists as mean and vicious, as persons who act or can behave without any restrain or qualms.


Interestingly, Mr H posted a response noting that the moral deficit in the theistic position and reasoning: “But I thought that is exactly the fact with most religious people. Void of their religion, they are incapable of mustering any good deeds and kindness and think it must be the same with everyone else. The only restraint they have from going completely berserk, disobedient of laws and hurting a fellow human is the belief of an awaiting punishment from a divine jurisdiction, and the only times they do good things and live morally upright is because of the expected reward from God. And more often, we see them laying their religion readily aside to commit the most heinous acts of injustice and wearing it back on when they are through, then blame it on the devil if per chance they are apprehended. If as a human, you only do the right things because of the fear of a divine authority or the promise of payment by the same authority, then you’re a beast disguised in human form…a disaster waiting to occur. A ticking time bomb!! Can’t you be good without strings attached?”
Unfortunately such a response has done very little to raise the moral ground of atheism in the eyes of many in the society. The social challenge to atheism takes a charged and threatening dimension in places where satanization and immoralization of atheism is codified in state policies and legislations.


State Challenge: Atheists as Criminals?

Atheists face an additional challenge in many countries because of the existence of state laws that could be used to prosecute them for various crimes including apostasy and blasphemy. Legal provisions exist in different countries that make it a crime to offend religious sensibilities, majority religious sensibilities. These provisions are employed to silence, suppress or eliminate atheists and freethinkers.


Under sharia law, both apostasy and blasphemy are crimes that are punishable by death. So atheism and atheistic expressions are justiciable. Although some may argue that these laws are just there in the statute books in many countries and are seldom invoked, their very existence poses a grave threat to atheists and atheism in the region.

One way that non-theists have tried to tackle this challenge is to lobby and get the state to repeal these laws. However to effectively lobby, atheists need to be organized.

Organisational Challenges: How to confront the difficulties?

The atheist movement has organizational issues that are linked to their visibility or lack thereof in several places. Few non theist groups exist in the region. Fewer individual atheists are active and much fewer are financial members. This organizational challenge is often attributed to the notion that organizing atheists and freethinkers is like herding cats. But I think it is much more than that. To confront the above listed-personal, social, economic and political-challenges, atheists need to come together as organizations, coalitions, alliances, associations and unions. Atheists need to resist this notion that atheism cannot be effectively organized. Atheists in Africa need to figure out a way of organizing that works for them and avoid blindly copying and adopting models that are used elsewhere. The organizational models that apply to atheism in Europe and America may not necessarily work for atheists in Africa. In fact organisational models may differ between countries and within countries in Africa. For instance, organizational formations that apply to Christian dominated communities may not be effective in mainly muslim areas. The urban circumstance is different from the rural situation. Thus the atheist movement needs appropriate campus, academic, parliamentary, media, educational, online, rural and urban initiatives to further the interests of atheists in all sectors and segments of the society.


Part of the challenge is also ensuring that atheist associations continue to fulfill its mission despite the political circumstances or ethnic differences. Africa is ethnically diverse and ethnicity plays prominent key role in political mobilization. Atheist organisations should guard against the ethnic fault lines and aim to take on all governments in power that violate secular values. Atheist organisations should not allow sectional/partisan interests of members to undermine their objectives.

Furthermore, atheist groups face very unique challenges due to the socio economic realities in the region. Poverty is a huge problem and sometimes constitutes the reason why people join or start groups. Given their humanist, human rights, peace and humanitarian concerns, there is a tendency for atheist and freethought groups to attract non theist, non atheist, or quasi atheist persons, NGO opportunists with ‘other’ interests and agenda. Atheist groups in this region must position themselves to effectively address this challenge.
In conclusion, the various challenges facing atheists in different parts of the region have been examined. Insights into how atheists responded or could respond to such issues and difficulties have been offered. The path to atheism is a road to reason. It is a path marked by risky turns and dangerous twists. Ensuring that the atheist movement remains on track despite these dire challenges that may occasionally yield crisis is critical to the future and survival of atheists and atheism in this region. Overcoming these personal, social, economic and political hurdles on this road to reason will be the litmus test of the resilience, vibrancy and vitality of the atheist, humanist and freethought organisations in the region in the years ahead.

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