Whilst attending the recent National Humanist Convention in Abuja, Nigeria, I was curious to discover how the participants had become humanists and came to attend the convention.
Nigeria is not just a highly religious country but a country in which religion is god. From the highly paid government ministers, to its millionaire pastors, to the education system, academics, scientists, the legal system and the media, religion is the foundation which informs. The particular form which religions such as Christianity take in Nigeria is not a progressive, open or sceptical variety; it is fundamentalism mixed with the worst superstitious beliefs.
Alternatives to this religious hegemony such as free-thought, humanism, atheism and critical thinking have no space to be heard, are not discussed, and are therefore concepts which most Nigerians have never heard of.
Within this context how did people get to identity as humanists?
There seemed to be two groups of people. One group had found atheism within the religious texts themselves. The irrationality, inconsistencies and lack of relationship to real life had led them to reject its claims. These individuals had had the courage (and the courage needed should not be underestimated), and the quest for truth, to question the whole ethos of the world in which they lived – Nigerian society. Respect for handed down beliefs and the ‘obvious’ truth that the gods existed were the fundamental assumptions that most never question. But they had taken the step that said thinking should not stop at a certain point and faith evoked.
The second, smaller group of people were those that had been exposed to humanist or atheist ideas from browsing the internet.
But whichever group you belonged to, attendance at the conference was either through discovering the contact details of Leo Igwe, the leader of Nigeria’s humanist movement, on the internet, or through internet copies of the press release on sites such as Sahara Reporters.
The internet had exposed almost everyone present to Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens whose books had been avidly read. Others even knew the skeptic James Randi or the sceptical British magician Derren Brown.
These ‘foreign’ thinkers were the nourishment for Nigerian humanists who had independently discovered them as fuel to the development of their own ideas. It’s only later did the Nigerians discover Tai Solarin and Wole Soyinka. In this sense, humanism is a truly indigenous movement: it was not brought like Christianity but discovered through independent thought.
The internet provides a forum, missing in Nigeria and similar countries, to have on-going debate and develop ideas. With the refusal of the religiously influenced Nigerian media to report humanist stories, the internet is the only way the movement can publicise itself, present issues and outreach.
The Nigerian Humanist Movement may be small compared to that of the churches but its presence and the continued interventions by its only full-time worker, Leo Igwe, have ensured that its tiny voice is able to project big ideas challenging the superstitious to think again.