The fate of non-believers: Understanding the challenges to atheism in Africa


“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 fulfil 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, 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.

The End