A program of the Center for Inquiry
I am going to share with you the reasons why I do not believe in God and why I have devoted the past twenty years to campaigning against the harmful effects of religion and superstition.
Perhaps it may be helpful to tell you a bit about my background and how my upbringing contributed in shaping my attitude/disposition toward religion and supernatural beliefs.
I was born into a religious Catholic family in a rural village in southeastern Nigeria. I served as an altar boy when I was in primary school, helping the priest at the local church. I did my high school and part of my tertiary education in Catholic seminaries where I also worked as a teacher. My parents were traditional religionists. Like most people of their generation, they switched religions while growing up. My father told me that he embraced Christianity because that was the only way he could get a formal education. The same applied to my mother, who dropped out after primary school.
Professing Christianity guaranteed access not only to education but also to employment and health care. It also ensured success in business and politics. So people in my community tried to identify as Christians. I say they tried to present themselves as Christians because I know that most of them, if not all, retained their traditional religious beliefs, which they observed mainly at night or when they faced serious problems such as terminal diseases.
So I grew up in an environment that was and still is religiously diverse, where people professed different faiths and worshipped different gods at different times.
For some time, I pondered the relevance of the various religions and gods that millions of persons in my country professed to believe in, perhaps not surprisingly given the numerous and persistent challenges such as hunger, poverty, unemployment, insecurity, and diseases that people faced on a daily basis.
I lost count of the places where people worshipped gods or spirits—in the open market, at the football field, at motor parks, along the highway, on the hills or in the forests, in uncompleted buildings, beside streams and rivers, in buses, cars, and airplanes, in huts and mansions, even in laboratories and libraries. Nigerians could use any place for prayer or for fellowship.
In addition, Nigerians used their life savings to construct expensive buildings, magnificent churches and mosques, which they called houses of gods—all while they languished in poverty. Let us not forget, these were actually places where spirits, not human beings, were supposed to “live.” In some parts of Nigeria, building mosques was a state project, lauded as a judicious way of using the state’s limited financial allocations. Meanwhile, many of those who contributed to building these houses of God had no decent apartments of their own. They lived in huts, slums, and shanties. Some were homeless or lived on the streets!
In fact, I was puzzled at what people described as a god or as materials that had divine powers. They included cowry shells; pieces of stone, cloth, rocks, and metal; wooden, plastic, or waxed materials; carved items; wine, wafers, oil, or kola nuts; even a handkerchief.
People kept bones of dead animals and sometimes skulls of humans, pouches containing dead insects, or smelly decayed dried human or animal body parts in special corners in their rooms, under their pillows, in their pockets, around their waists. Many Nigerians, including the educated, believed without question that these items could make their businesses flourish, get them to succeed in politics, and protect them from dangers, death, and disease.
I wondered at what point these objects and artifacts became abodes of the divine or channels for the spirits.
I was often shocked by what people did in the name of worshipping God or professing a religion. I saw priests and priestesses pray, talking to material objects as if they were human beings—actually, superhuman beings.
Medicine men and women, prophets and prophetesses, stared at wafers, dry kola nuts, pieces of chalk, or some wine; they held carved images or other artifacts, calling them “Father,” “Grandfather,” “Almighty,” “Alpha and Omega,” or “the one who speaks and it is final,” singing praises to inanimate objects.
Sometimes people looked up to the empty skies and made gestures toward the heavens as if they were addressing someone who was actively paying attention. In the process, they behaved as if they were engaged in a serious conversation or as if slightly drunk, talking, murmuring, singing and laughing, soliloquizing. People uttered meaningless syllables, mere gibberish, and you know what? They called it speaking in tongues or “speaking the heavenly language,” as if by calling what could pass as a symptom of mental disturbance by some other name they transformed it into the mark of a sound mind.
Millions of people spent valuable hours every day, week, month, and year—time they might have devoted to productive ventures—talking to different gods, expecting miracles and divine intervention in their lives.
Nigerians killed fellow Nigerians for “desecrating” religious objects or materials such as the holy books. So religion could really be a force for harm, division, and destruction. I came to understand that extremely religious people could be dangerous! They gave us the holy wars and human ritual sacrifice. Those who were ready to kill their own children or who actually killed other human beings in pursuit of some imagined will or directive from God were praised and presented as role models, not as vicious characters!
Religions encouraged hate, lies, mischief, violence, and impunity, preaching respect for peddlers of falsehoods and absurdities.
All this is why, in 1996, I started the Nigerian Humanist Movement to highlight these dark and destructive roles of religion and superstition. I started the movement to draw attention to the debasement of human lives and violations of human rights in the name of God, faith, and tradition, and to take on religious extremists including witch- and demon-hunters.
Fortunately, in the past two decades our campaign has gained some momentum within Nigeria and beyond. We have worked to promote humanism as an alternative to dogmatic religions and superstitious beliefs. Along the way we have provided a sense of community to nonbelievers, atheists, agnostics, and freethinkers. People whom others call infidels, apostates, and blasphemers have received support in a way that has never been the case in the history of the region. For instance, in 2014, Nigerian humanists launched a campaign that led to the release of Mubarak Bala, who had been sent to a psychiatric hospital by his family after he renounced Islam.
We have also extended support to victims of witchcraft-accusation and ritual-related abuse. Humanists have worked to rescue children who were abandoned in Nigeria due to witchcraft. In a country where religion and politics often mix, the Nigerian Humanist Movement has campaigned vigorously for the realization of a secular, tolerant, and democratic society.
However, the humanist campaign has not been without challenges. I have been arrested, detained, and beaten up by those who opposed my work. I have been attacked and robbed by a mob of witch-believers. People have threatened my life and those of my family members. I have been the target of blackmail, litigation, and character assassination.
But my “spirit” is unbroken. My head is unbowed. The campaign of promoting humanist values goes on. That is why, in the months and years ahead, I plan to continue working and partnering with groups and individual activists to extend this message of reason, intellectual awakening, and enlightenment to other parts of Africa and beyond!
Leo Igwe, founder of the Nigerian Humanist Movement and founding director of the Center for Inquiry Nigeria, recently completed a doctor- ate degree in religious studies at the University of Bayreuth in Germany. He is the chair of the Humanist Association of Nigeria and recipient of the IHEU 2017 Distinguished Service to Humanism Award.