Human RightsNigeria OP-ED 

Rethinking Apostasy and Religious Others in Nigeria

By Leo Igwe

Humanists are meeting in Abuja in early January. The objective of the meeting is to discuss apostasy and the associated risks and challenges. This meeting is special because it is happening at a time when extreme religious beliefs are ravaging the world and wreaking havoc in many places including Nigeria. The event is taking place at a time that the forces of religious fanaticism and bigotry are seeking to shut down the voices of dissent, freethought, and expression. This humanist gathering is happening at a moment in history when there is a growing religious hatred and intolerance, and at a time that the criticism of religion is seen as a crime in many places.

Throughout history, human beings have grappled with how to treat the religious other, the other sect, or the other denomination, including those who are the other by virtue of not belonging to any religion or not believing in a god. The religious other has been called all sort of names- infidels, Kafir, heretics, blasphemers, non-believers-even when these people have their own religions, their own ideas of the divine and of the world.

In the past, these differences have led to so much hatred, oppression, conflict, and bloodshed. It has turned countries and communities, families and neighborhoods against each other. Religious differences led to the jihads, the crusade and inquisition, and other ‘holy wars’. Religious zealots, who are too often motivated by the injunctions in their sacred texts and traditions, have attacked and killed, demonized and treated with indignity real or imagined unbelievers, apostates and blasphemers. They have literally held human beings intellectually, socially and politically hostage.

In response to the dark forces of religious hatred, violence, and bloodletting, the world adopted in 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). This document provided for the right to freedom of religion or belief, recognizing the right of persons to practice their religion, to change their religion and to renounce their religious beliefs. It makes it clear that all human beings who profess a religion, or those abandon or change religious beliefs are equal in dignity and right. They are equal before the law. However, in many countries, this article is not fully respected and guaranteed. In fact, article 18 of the UDHR has been misinterpreted, twisted and only invoked to protect the rights of those who profess religious beliefs, or certain religions, those who convert and embrace a religion, not those who deconvert, renounce or are critical of religious claims. States have been complicit in the persecution of those who renounce religion. Incarceration and execution of apostates and blasphemers are enshrined in the laws that govern many countries including that of Nigeria.

For a long time and in far too many places, atheists, agnostics, and skeptics have been treated with disdain and disrespect; they have been designated as criminals or as terrorists. They have been called Satanists or devil worshippers and scapegoated when tragedies hit their families and communities. People who abandon their religions have as a matter of tradition been denied their basic human rights by mainly Christian and Islamic establishments. Let’s not forget, these are foreign religious faiths. Those who introduced them were critical of African indigenous religious beliefs. In fact, those who introduced these religions killed, maimed, raped and abused Africans in the course of promoting their faiths. So, persons who leave religion or contemplate doing do so are reluctant and hesitant to go open and public with their disbelief, their views, and identities. They fear for their lives and safety. Let’s make it clear, those who leave religion are not fearful of what the gods will do to them. They are not worried about the so-called Allah’s punishment in the hereafter. No, not at all. Those who deconvert from religion are concerned about what the god believers will do to them.

In a civilized society, the force of logic and evidence not the logic of force and intimidation should guide conversations and debates. Violence should not be a way to persuade and to communicate ideas and religious disagreements as currently the case in many parts of the world.

This situation must change. Persecution and victimization of those who renounce religion must end, and end now. Believers should know that sanctioning those who hold different beliefs does not speak well of their faith. They should be ready to tolerate ‘offensive’ views bearing in mind that others may find their religious claims offensive as well. Religious ideas have logical and evidential issues. Many people think that religious beliefs are incoherent, contradictory and absurd. And in a free society, individuals should be able to say what they think about any idea or belief. Individuals should be able to express their thoughts, doubts, and disbelief. After all, that was how religions started and have been able to spread across the world.

Furthermore, how can religious believers truly demonstrate that their faith stands for peace or that there is no compulsion in religion when they routinely incite violence against unbelievers and apostates? Meanwhile, history tells us that the heretics and blasphemers of yesterday are the religious reformers of today and that the founders of the faiths of Christianity and Islam started as heretics and blasphemers.

So how can believers tell us that there is no compulsion in religion when those who are born into a faith cannot renounce it, they cannot change their religion and instead apostates have to choose between recanting and being executed?

How can believers tell us that their religion is peaceful when ex-Muslims and ex Christians mainly operate underground, living in constant fear of religious persecution? This convention presents a historic opportunity to robustly engage this situation and discuss the fears, risks and dangers that those who renounce their religious beliefs face in this country.

This event presents a platform to share, listen and understand the stories, struggles, and experiences of those who have left religion or are contemplating to leave religion. It presents an opportunity to explore ways that can be used to reduce the risks and dangers that are associated with apostasy in Nigeria.

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