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The Changing Face of African Humanism

Posted: Thu, November 22, 2012 | By: Leo Igwe

Recently, Africa was polled as the most devout region in the world. The outcome of the poll gives credence to the well known description of Africans by John Mbiti, as “notoriously religious”. According to the Global Index of Religiosity and Atheism, 89% of respondents call themselves religious.

Despite this high percentage, it is worthy to note that the number of religious Africans is dropping. Though Africa is still the world’s most pious region, there is change in its religious demography. Part of this is due to the growing visibility of organized humanism and free thought activism in Africa and around the globe. Humanism provides an ethical and philosophical alternative to dogmatic religions and supernatural faiths. It is the life stance for non-religious people. 

In Africa, providing an alternative to religion is a herculean task and a dangerous undertaking. Africa is a deeply religious society.

All aspects of African thought and culture are permeated by spiritual and supernatural beliefs. There is no dignified place for the godless, for the faithless or for people who want to live their lives free from religious dogmas or superstitions. Even where such spaces exist, the religious believers have made them dangerous and deadly. They have made seeking an alternative to religious life threatening, an invitation to ostracization, discrimination, exclusion and murder. 

Atheists are demonized and equated to people without morals. Africans are brought up to believe that there is no alternative to supernatural faiths. Seeking an alternative to religion is generally perceived to be a futile venture - like seeking something that is not there or something that cannot be found. The humanist alternative is taken to be alien to African thought and culture. The result is that many African humanists are compelled to remain in the closet, paying lip service to a god that they do not believe in, or to religious dogmas that mean nothing to them. Religious absolutism has orchestrated a simmering crisis of meaning and moral decadence, a false sense of religiosity, religious hypocrisy and notoriety.

In recent years, the religious landscape has been changing. A slow but significant wind of reason is blowing across the region. This wind of rationalism has impacted the religious distortion of reality with promises and possibilities of more profound changes in the years ahead. Humanism has made significant inroads in many countries that were religious and superstitious strongholds, it has become more visible in many countries, making positive impact on the lives of Africans beyond the humanist circles.

Increasing numbers of humanists in Africa are leaving the closet, to go public with their humanist views and identity. This is something unheard of a few decades ago. Humanists in Africa are becoming affirmative. They are declaring ‘Yes we are here’ ‘Yes we exist’, “Yes we are godless and proud”. Humanists are asserting themselves as forces to be reckoned with in terms of African thought and culture. 

Organized humanism is growing from strength to strength, with groups emerging in different parts of the continent: South Africa, Malawi, Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Liberia, Nigeria, Ghana, Congo DRC, etc. The momentum of humanist activism is rising. The new groups translate the humanist alternative into reality. They serve as forums and spaces for humanists to meet, exchange thoughts and ideas, and provide a sense of community and family feeling which most freethinking people in Africa lack. 

Some of these groups meet physically but many more meet online. The internet has helped tremendously in furthering the cause of organized humanism in Africa. Many African humanists can now meet - online - without fear of attack or persecution. They have web sites, blogs, facebook and twitter accounts which they use to communicate, interact, exchange news and share ideas, sometimes in countries where a physical meeting is unthinkable.

In Nigeria, Uganda, Malawi, South Africa etc., humanist groups have embarked on various projects to further the humanist cause. In Uganda, humanists are working to promote secular humanist education and rehabilitate victims of forced prostitution. They’ve established four schools where students are taught critical thinking skills. Christian missionaries from Europe introduced formal education in Africa, using education as their main a tool of evangelization. Religious organisations - particularly Christian and Muslim groups - dominate and control most of the schools, and they use them for conversion and proselytization. Faith groups determine what students are taught. In most cases they approve only teaching or instructions that are in line with their faiths and dogmas. Even in public or state schools, instruction is largely faith based. State authorities allow the dominant religious groups to decide and determine the content of the curriculum. 

In Botswana, a new humanist group, Springboard Humanism, has recently been formed; it’s the first of its kind in the country. It is already working to bring humanist perspectives to problems facing the nation. The group is also working to empower women from ethnic minority communities with education and training - all this in a country where many people blame problems like poverty and unemployment on the supernatural.

In Nigeria, Kenya, and Malawi, humanists are campaigning to combat witchcraft-related abuse, which is a huge problem in the region. Many Africans still blame their problems and suffering on witchcraft and magic. Suspected witches are often attacked and killed. In most cases those who are targeted are vulnerable members of the population - women, children, elderly persons and people living with disabilities. Humanists are rescuing and rehabilitating victims of this violent campaign as part of their effort to spread the message of reason and compassion.

Lastly, humanists in Africa have in the past decades organized conferences and seminars to further the cause of critical thinking and free inquiry. Local and international humanist events have been held in Nigeria, Uganda, Malawi, Senegal, South Africa etc. In November, the Humanist Association of Ghana is hosting its first international humanist conference. The theme is West African Humanism in Action. The conference will focus on humanism and the rights of women and children in patriarchal cultures and the rights of lesbian and gay people, combating religious superstition and exploitation, and the promotion of critical thinking. 

With more of such meetings, the face of African religion and atheism will keep changing. The number of self-proclaimed atheists will continue to rise. Brighter prospects lie ahead fo tackling and eradicating the faith-and-superstition-based abuses which are ravaging the continent.


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