A few years ago I met a man in Ghana who claimed to be a traditional African religionist. He was putting on some exotic costumes- some multi colored clothing and beads, holding some bits and pieces of ritual making tools. He was pretending to have some supernatural powers, and to be communicating with invisible forces. In the course of our conversation, he asked me the religion which I belonged to and I said that I had no religion, that I was an atheist. And he quickly retorted. Are you not an African?
For this man, being an African means that I must profess a religion willy nilly. I must profess belief in god even when according to LaPlace, I find no need for that hyposthesis.
I guess this could happen to a black atheist person anywhere in the world. When one introduce oneself as a non believer, there is a tendency that some people would ask- "Do you really mean it?" "Why?", "What happened?", "Are you not a black person?". People query you and make it seem as if you are a black person and an atheist, you are not truly black or your blackness has been corrupted. As a black person, one is expected to be religious or theistic, to belong to one theistic group or the other. Professing no religion-being an atheist, agnostic, skeptic or freethinker is ‘imitating white and western people’.
But right now things are changing, things are slowly beginning to change.
We find ourselves at an exciting moment in the history of freethought in black communities world wide. In Africa and the United States, black non theists are coming out. Atheists, agnostics and freethinkers in black communities are beginning to organize. They are making their voices heard. Even though the situation remains dangerous particularly for atheists from evangelical, penticostal christian families or muslim communities, many freethinking black people are leaving the closets and going open and public with their freethought. There is a growing visibility of black people who are godless and proud. I hope other closeted atheists, skeptics and freethinkers in other parts of the world would emulate this initiative and join efforts with us in dispeling the forces of dark age ravaging our communities and in working to realize a cultural renaissance.
In black communities non theists still face so many challenges. Many atheists feel lonely and alone. They yearn for safe spaces where they can come out and express themselves as atheists, and exercise their full human rights as human beings and contribute to the growth and development of their societies. But they cannot find such spaces. Atheists are denied their freedoms as a matter of norm, law, tradition, policy or piety.
In many black communities around the world, atheists cannot meet or identify themselves publicly as atheists. Those who institionalized theism made atheism a thought crime for a purpose- in order to maintain theocratic tyranny in the world. Those who organized theism in form of religion made atheism a scary, frightening and horrible idea in order to perpetuate religious superstitions and ensure that the fallacies, delusions and pretensions of theism go unchallenged. Theistic teachings are treated as dogmas and as divinely revealed. Questioning them is an act of blasphemy, which is a crime publishable by death in many countries. Making mockery of sometimes religion’s laughable claims is a capital offence.
Theists made atheism ‘the Forbidden Fruit’ and command the faithful not to eat it less they die. And in many parts of the world there are self styled soldiers, militants of god or allah who are ready to spill the blood of any real or imagined ‘infidels’ at the slightest provocation. These divine mercerneries leverage on a faith system that treats them as saints, not scoundrels, as heroes not bloodthirsty criminals, as ‘normal and healthy’ human beings not psychopaths. These religious bloodletters are motivated and mobilized by their theocratic backers and funders in this world and a god that promises them post mortem rewards in paradise.
Theistic regimes use force and intimidation because they know theism rests on a weak foundation and is based on flimsy evidence and therefore cannot withstand any serious challenge or critical scrutiny. They know that many theistic claims are absurd and can get intelligent and thoughtful people to draw up cartoons or make caricature of them. They know that it is only in a situation where atheism is a taboo that theistic nonsense and absurdities could thrive and flourish. A statement credited to a Sunni muslim leader, Yusuf Qardawi says ‘If we didn’t kill the apostates, Islam wouldn’t exist today.’
And why should Islam or any religion need the blood of apostates or infidels to remain in existence. What should keep Islam or any religion in existence is not the killing of non believers but the validity and veracity of its claims, the persuasive nature of its teachings and the force of its examples not its bloodshed, not fear, not fatwa. A truth claim does not need violence to prove or to preserve itself. The force of logic, fact or evidence does not need the force of arms to exist. It is error not truth that shrinks from critical examination or inquiry. It is only a lie or falsehood being foisted on people as truth that can be kept in existence by force.
If there were a god there would have been no crusades or inquisition. If there were truly an Allah there would have been no need for a jihad or sharia law, no sharia courts sharia police. etc Allah doesn’t need anybody to defend him/her; Allah does not need anyone to fight for it or its cause. If there were a god there would have been no religion, there would be no popes or bishops, priests, prophets or divine messengers, no sheikhs, mullahs, ayatollahs, or imams. Theistic establishments are aware that their emperor has not clothes, though they insist he has. That is why they need and use force, violence, threats and intimidation to keep people from acknowledging the nakedness of the emperor or from questioning other counter intuitive notions about the source of their sacred texts, the birth and life of their founding prophets and what happened to them at the end of their lives.
Hence they outlawed, criminalized, ‘haramized’ , immoralized and sinnified real or imagined atheism.
Many christian believers often cite this biblical verse, Psalm 14:1 which says: The Fool has said in his heart: There is no God”. Now imagine if we are to rewrite that statement to read: The Fool has said in his heart, Jesus is the son of god and the saviour of the world or The Fool has said in his heart, There is no other god but Allah and Muhammad is the prophet. One will be accused of offending the sensibilities of christians or muslims, as if atheists do not have sensibilities too. The statements will be taken to be expressions of christianophobia or islamophobia which is enough to get fanatics raging and rampaging, going on a killing spree, burning embassies, murdering diplomats while the moderates stand by, watch, and castigate those who provoked their fanatics. One will be accused of making denigrating statements about religions when scriptures and sermons are filled with denigrating statements about non believers and apostates, about women, children, and gay people. Few people are sensibly offended when religion is used to sanctify witch hunting, homophobia, subordination of women, genital mutilation, the killing of non believers, persecution of minorities, extortion and exploitation, fraud and deception, sexual abuse, and domestic violence.
And this is particularly the case in black communities. Hence promoting atheism and freethought is a laudable project with great promise and possibilities in terms of social change, intellectual awakening, reformation and transformation in the black communities.
Leo Igwe, as a member of the International Humanist and Ethical Union, has bravely worked for human rights in West Africa. He is presently enrolled in a three year research programme on “Witchcraft accusations in Africa” at the University of Bayreuth, in Germany.
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