With a population of over 200 million people, Nigeria is a multicultural and multilingual state. Most of this population practise the three main religions of the country which are Islam, Christianity and traditional religion. But a tiny yet significant and often overlooked percentage comprises people who believe in alternative manifestations of theism and others who do not believe in the existence of any deity or supernatural phenomena. This loose group of disbelievers are called atheists, and in place of religion, they embrace humanism.
Because the country holds strong moral and religious values, the open admittance of atheism is often greeted with disapproval and negative criticism. Most Nigerians, including atheists, come from religious backgrounds and have been in one way or another, involved in some religious activities while growing up. However, for fear of being victimized or ostracized by family members and friends in a similar manner as the LGBTQ community, some atheists in Nigeria usually downplay their disbelief or shield it from the public.
In this episode, three Nigerian atheists share their experiences of religious doubt and disbelief, noting especially how and why they forsook religion.
As a kid I doubted the veracity of organized religions, particularly Christianity. I thought Bible stories failed the test of logic and observable reality. And to the questions I posed about religion, the adults in my life did not have satisfactory ripostes.
So in a way I have always been a quasi-atheist, at least as early as I could formulate a conscious thought. But by my teens, I would veer from theism fully and consciously, even as I still attended church, mostly for the beauty of the religious music and the insights of the sermons.
I already said one of the reasons I denounced theism: the illogicality of it. There are many other reasons, but the other most potent reason was my discovering that theism wasn’t a precondition for having good morals, that morality derives from the conscience and not from a close reading of the Old Testament. There are moral theists and immoral atheists, just as there are moral atheists and immoral theists.
I have been an agnostic atheist for three years. An agnostic atheist is one who does not have a definitive answer to whether or not God exists. I was raised in a religious background just like most Nigerians, specifically in the Pentecostal denomination. I was raised believing in the fundamental Christian tenets, alongside more radical concepts such as supernatural miracles, spiritual warfare, rites such as mantles and holy water, and so on and so forth. I would say I was a very curious kid growing up, I loved to learn about several topics. This curiosity extended to my personal belief system as I began to explore the beliefs of other denominations from books and other forms of literature.
My first experience of doubt was when I was an adolescent, probably 12 years old I believe, and I was in a Bible youth camp. The pastors were praying over us to receive the Holy Spirit and I was praying enthusiastically alongside them. Yet I felt… “Nothing”. Many were speaking in tongues and even falling under the anointing while I was there, anxiously waiting for an encounter but nothing happened. I would later on, after my deconversion, realize that this was because I never really was moved by the emotionally charged atmosphere invoked by pastors whenever they performed these sessions. To put it simply, I was never one to be emotionally charged by anything. I almost always approached situations with a rational mind. That became a constant experience for me. Meeting after meeting, service after service, I would pray with intensity, cry out waiting for that same encounter other people were having, yet the outcome was the same – silence, nothingness and a resulting guilt afterward wondering where I went wrong.
This backstory is relevant as these experiences were precursor to the first time ever in my life I had doubts about God. I was an older teen in another church service where the same Holy Ghost session was in action. At this point, when the pastor noticed I wasn’t praying in tongues, he singled me out and called other pastors to surround me and pray over me to receive the encounter. I waited and prayed for over twenty minutes in the middle of these ministers, yet still got the same result. They themselves intensified their prayers and singing, to the point where I just had the thought to just start speaking whatever gibberish came to mind so the session could be over. When I did, they celebrated as they thought I had finally opened myself up to the Holy Spirit and received him. I, however, was guilty. So guilty that I prayed for forgiveness after the session because I believed I had deceived the ministers of God. Yet I didn’t want to come clean with the ministers and kept it to myself.
The next day, I led a prayer session and I still spoke intentional gibberish in order not to disappoint the ministers. That’s when it hit me. Why would anointed ministers of God who supposedly spoke to God not know I was faking? I decided to test it out. Throughout the convention, I faked speaking in tongues, while anxiously wondering when one of the ministers might hear from God and find me out. But to my surprise, everyone bought it. What solidified that doubt was when the head pastor, a man who claimed to hear from God, said he heard a prophecy from God concerning me that this convention was the beginning of God using me as a minister to the nations. Internally, I almost started laughing because of the irony.
Now, while I had my doubts, I still clung to my beliefs for different reasons. I started in-depth research into other denominations, perhaps wondering that I may find answers there. In my search, I found apologetics. I was happy because I was listening to intelligent people validate my belief despite my doubts. Then D-day happened. The day that I could no longer hold my beliefs. I happened upon an atheist vs theist group on Facebook. Because I had learnt some apologetics I believed I was well equipped to handle the dissent from non believers and answer their questions.
I got in contact with an atheist and began to converse with him. And for every argument that I brought up for God, he pointed out the flaws in the argument and broke it down. Every single one. Kalam’s cosmological argument, the prime mover argument, Pascal’s wager, argument from experience and so on, all taken down. It caused me a major crisis of faith so bad I had to take a break from social media just to contemplate. I began to investigate, both the apologetics side and the atheist’s side and after months of study, examination, self reflection and discovery, I just couldn’t believe anymore. With the knowledge and understanding I gained, the perspectives I received, I could not truly say I had any belief in God anymore, it was not possible. The year after that was hectic, because I had to restructure my entire thinking faculty from the ground up. It really affected my personal life as a lot of trial and error of different philosophies was one of the processes I passed through. Thank goodness I came out the other end better and more stable and self aware.
I haven’t received much backlash like many other atheists as I have not come fully out of the closet due to several considerations in my life right now. One of the things I learned during my one year deconversion process was that you had to be physically, mentally, financially, emotionally and socially safe in order for you to come out as irreligious in the best possible condition. So I choose to remain in the closet till I’ve fulfilled all those conditions. The few people in my life who know, are people who either aren’t in any way related to me or people who are non judgmental/ irreligious themselves. I have had some friends who respectfully chose to distance themselves from me, which I totally understand and support. I do anticipate the huge inevitable backlash/reaction I would receive when I eventually come out due to my deep religious roots. I do hope when that time comes, I will be ready and I will be surrounded by supportive people to tip the balance of negativity I would receive for my decision.
Let’s say that from 2015, I was already questioning aspects of my religious beliefs. But I think those things can sit perfectly within dissenting theological opinions, you know. For example, I am Catholic. So, is speaking in tongues valid? You see, it’s not something you normally associate with Catholic priests, or the Catholic faith, even though some Catholic priests, in what Fr. Prof. Stan Ilo refers to Catholic Pentecostalism/Pentecostal Catholicism, now do that. So, I can remember questioning the validity of speaking in tongues and concluding that it is outright noise. Also, I can remember that I started questioning the nature of miracles. What counts as a miracle? Can sickness just miraculously disappear? At a point, I know I concluded that God is not a magician.
As for backlashes, well, I have not had any of my parents’ disown me or deprive me of anything due to my irreligious stance, and they know about it. The general reaction is that of ‘you do not know what you are doing.’ Same with my classmates and some of my friends. Some do attribute it to “too much reading of nonsense” while for some I am just trying to appear very intelligent.
But I have had clashes with my parents over some aspects like going to Church on Sunday. Initially it was like, “whether you like it or not you must go to Church with us” now, they leave me to choose saying I’m old enough to know right from wrong. I still do follow the whole family to Church at times because it is also some sort of family outing for us and there are acquaintances I can only meet at Church. So, the Church now serves only a social purpose for me.
One particular instance I can remember was all these family prayer sessions where a minister or whatever is invited to pray for the entire family. Funny enough, since I came of age I have never experienced such in my family so I was surprised when in the last two years or so, one female minister was invited. I just returned from uni on holidays and nobody told me about the arrangement till a night before the D-Day. I was livid and said I wouldn’t be participating. It caused a lot of tension in the family, and I think the minister did say something about the first son being actively part of the prayer exercise. At the end, I capitulated and joined the madness even while seething inside. Today, I think of it as one of the compromises we make for ‘peace to reign.’