How a Nigerian Became an Atheist

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It is almost anathema to declare oneself an atheist in Nigeria. There are serious disabilities attached to that label: in some jobs, at social functions, in politics. In the institution of higher education where I teach geography, there are over 650 people on the workforce, about a third of them being academic staff. Yet I know of no single individual here who has ever openly identified himself/herself as a non-believer, with the exception, of course, of myself. All claim to be either Christian or Muslim. But Nigerians are not as religious as they claim to be; the level of social dysfunction (e.g. corruption) is so abysmal that  it contradicts the notion of religious country. (By contrast, the most socially harmonious countries in Scandinavia are among the most atheistic in the world.) Nevertheless, there are many Nigerians who in their private lives have a skeptical cast of mind but are too frightened to express it openly for fear of social discrimination and obloquy.
It
is for this reason that I wish to use Richard Dawkins’ forum for reason
and science to tell especially Nigerian (and African) youth to come out
to exercise their rational faculties for the liberation of their
societies from the forces of superstition and economic backwardness.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu once remarked that the idea of an African
atheist is a contradiction in terms. I believe this to be a complete
delusion, since it suggests that all Africans are by default religious.
Yet even in Tutu’s South Africa there are thousands (perhaps millions)
who are non-religious. Although frantic efforts have been made to
discredit atheism, I would like to reassure the youth that atheism is a
very healthy state of mind, embraced by very enlightened people. It is
by no means a fringe phenomenon. Indeed, latest statistics show that
non-belief is rising steadily all over the world.

I would like to relate here how I became a non-believer myself. I
am doing so because I believe such childhood experiences are fairly
common among young people, although the forces of
tradition and education do
all they can to stifle them in later life. I was born into a
Christian family in
a village where my father was an elder in charge of the
local Anglican Church. (He
was unusually liberal for his time, and would welcome
almost any question from
his children.) As a kid I used to attend church service as
a matter of course.
It was a community in which Christianity and Islam blended
rather easily with
traditional fetish and ancestor worship, with a heavy dose
of divination, which,
out of curiosity, I even learned in my youth from a
prominent diviner. (My
belief then that the mechanism of divination was partly
“logical” and partly
due to chance was confirmed years later after reading the
anthropologist S.F.
Nadel’s study of the subject in his Nupe
Religion
.) 

At about the age of five or six, I lost a
half-brother who was
only slightly younger than I. He was buried close to the
pitch where we used to
play football together. One day, while playing on the
pitch, his thought
suddenly crossed by mind, and the most important thing I
remember was the idea
of original sin and its attendant punishment, which had
been imparted to us in
church sermons. I said to myself, “What sin had this
little boy committed in
this world to deserve punishment wherever he may be now?
Why should I be
punished for my father’s crimes? Better when I die I
should not rise again
to suffer someone else’s sins. Let me just rot in the
grave.” This childhood
wish for mortality has remained with me to this day, when
it now seems pretty
clear to me that the evidence for immortality is, after
all, practically nil;
and I know of no serious atheist who really believes in
life after death.

 The second incident occurred a few
years later when I was in primary school, again in the
village. The most
powerful medicine man in the locality had asked three of
us kids to weed his
cassava farm in return for cash. When the work was done,
the old man came
around to telling us that he had prepared some powerful
charms for each of us,
which were worth many times the cash. The charms, he said,
would enable us to
pass exams easily. I wasn’t happy with this decision,
though I dared not show
it openly. The charms, called laya in
Hausa, had an opening on one side on which the old man had
instructed us to be
sprinkling a certain type of perfume from time to time.
After collecting my own
laya, I went home, wrapped it in a
piece of paper and buried it in the bush nearby under a
large tree for easy
identification. I did not tell my parents about it. Weeks
later the old man
would ask about the charm, and I would lie that I was
doing as he had
instructed. When the exams came and I passed well, I knew
that the medicine man
was not to be trusted. One’s efforts alone were sufficient
to ensure success;
there was no need to appeal to charms. Moreover, the fact
that he could not
detect my lying made me dismiss him as an unreliable
charlatan. I was thus very
skeptical of the claims of medicine men, including claims
about witchcraft. But
I kept the doubts to myself, and continued to attend
church service.

 In secondary school, I came
face-to-face with philosophical books that really seemed
to satisfy my
intellectual curiosity and reinforce my religious doubts.
The first truly original
work of philosophy I read was Plato’s Euthyphro,
which I stumbled upon in the school library. The feeling I
had on reading this
Platonic Dialogue was rather like the feeling Richard
Wright tells us, in Black Boy, he had on
reading H.L.
Mencken for the first time: a feeling of pleasant
surprise, awe, beauty and
fascination with the extraordinary power of human
reasoning couched in the
written word. In the Euthyphro, here
is Socrates, almost at his best, relentlessly taking his
interlocutor to task
on the nature of piety. It seemed remarkable to me that
people were reasoning
in this marvelously logical way more than 400 years before
the time of Christ.
After reading the Euthyphro several
times, I used to devote about half of my time in the
library to my school
subjects and the remaining half to philosophy books,
although I also did read
some religious literature (e.g. James Atkinson’s Rome and Reformation in the Christian
Foundations series), as well
as popular astronomy. 

I was determined that henceforth
only logic would guide
my way of looking at things. But perhaps the most
important and enduring
influence which ultimately shaped my pattern of unbelief
was the teaching of my
Bible Knowledge (BK) teacher, an avuncular English
priest of the Anglican
Church, in my fourth year in secondary school. On one
occasion, the BK master, as we
fondly used to call him, told the class that Jesus
probably drank water during
the 40 days and nights He allegedly spent in the
wilderness. The BK master advanced
some scientific arguments to prove
his case, citing in particular the maximum number of days
it was possible for a
human being to go without water. This remark, in an
unintended way, cast doubt
on the other “miracles” of Christ. On another occasion,
the BK master said
the origin of incest was in the Old Testament, since there
was no way we could
account for Cain’s wife bearing him children without
assuming that he had mated
with his mother Eve. It was a startling remark; I was
truly astonished at the
utter frankness of this white priest. That was the first
time I was hearing of
the word “incest”, and the BK master explained its meaning with
brutal clarity.

 These remarks by my BK
master, which today would probably not be uttered by our old-fashioned
professors of theology in the universities, was the last straw the broke
the camel’s back: from that point on I was never a member of any
religious sect again.

Gilbert Alabi Diche

Email: gilbertdiche@gmail.com; gilbertdiche@yahoo.com

Mobile phone: +234 7038626878

Written By: Gilbert Alabi Diche
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3 COMMENTS

  1. Thank you for sharing. It is always interesting to read atheist accounts from repressive cultures. They usually come from very strong willed and clear thinking people who often had a little reprieve from religion by having parents or other influential adults around with a more liberal perspective. This reinforces my belief that childhood indoctrination is key to religion’s survival, it makes organisations such as the Good News Club in the US that much more insidious and something to be fiercely resisted.

  2. his childhood wish for mortality has remained with me to this day, when it now seems pretty clear to me that the evidence for immortality is, after all, practically nil;

    I would say absolutely nil!

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