It is impossible to escape the apathy of British people towards religion. Having lived in the UK for over a decade now it no longer surprises me when I walk into a pub or a restaurant and discover that it used to be a church.
Most of the British people I know have never worshipped in church and their church attendances are limited to weddings and christening services. This is totally different to the experience I had when growing up in the country of my birth – religion was, and still is, a way of life. Losing one’s religion could also mean losing friendships, family, job or even one’s life.
I come from a society where gay people and individuals accused of witchcraft are lynched by mobs in broad daylight. These crimes are supported by the literal interpretations of verses in the Christian and Islamic scriptures, and it might surprise the reader to know that these verses are regularly quoted by believers on social media to justify these crimes.
Welcome to Nigeria in 2016!
I was born into the Margi ethnic group in Northern Nigeria at a critical juncture. I watched the rapid conversion of my community from African religion to Christianity and Islam and with that came a loss of important aspects of our culture and identity. At the time of my birth, many members of my extended family had converted to one of the foreign religions but there were a good number who had not.
Within a decade there was a near total annihilation of our indigenous religion. And not in our wildest dreams did we imagine some of our youths would later join Boko Haram and kill family members who did not share their religious beliefs.
In my first year in university, I became “born again” and joined a puritanical evangelical Christian church. We were taught it was sinful to shake hands with women, and men and women sat apart in church. Jewellery, perfumes and television (it was called the devil’s box) were all prohibited.
If a man saw a woman he wanted to court, he did not tell her directly. He told the powerful Marriage Committee and basically lied that God had revealed to him she would be his wife. The committee would then inform the woman and ask her to pray. The committee members too would pray. Courtships only started after all parties had received confirmation from God. The courtships were short and supervised to prevent the couple from engaging in premarital sex.
It was at this time that I made the acquaintance of a lovely woman who was held in high respect by everyone I knew in the church. We sang together in the choir and, to me, she was an exemplary Christian. It was her death from cancer in my first year in clinical school that jolted and set me on the course to scepticism. I was frequently at her bedside and witnessed how much she suffered, and I could not reconcile the notion of a kind-hearted God who cares about the tiniest details of the believer’s life with the reckless abandonment of my friend who loved and worshipped Him with all her being.
This God was too busy communicating with marriage committees and their clients to notice that my friend was suffering. l began to notice how God preoccupied Himself with issues like premarital sex, homosexuality, adornment, and how He would even go out of His way to help believers locate their lost keys but would do nothing to stop malaria from killing the babies I looked after.
I saw so much suffering during my training that by the end of medical school I had concluded either God did not exist or He was not the meddlesome and omni-everything character described in the Bible.
This naturally led me to contemplate the origins of evil. I reasoned that if God existed before everything (including evil), then it must have been his idea to create evil. And sure enough, God tells us in Isaiah 45:7:
I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the Lord do all these things.
So, why punish us for something He created? Most of my Christian friends tried to get round this question by saying God gave us free will. But free will cannot exist whilst the threat of eternal torture is in place. Who in their right mind will refuse to hand over their wallet to an armed robber at gun point?
Once I stopped believing and started thinking for myself I began to notice that religion is divisive and only ever unites those within its fold – everyone outside this fold is regarded with suspicion, contempt and deserving of God’s punishment. Religion teaches believers self-righteousness but not compassion or empathy because the people who cheer as homosexuals or people accused of witchcraft are lynched are often believers.
I came to the conclusion that religion does not make people good and it can provide a reason to behave badly.
In my view, religion has caused more harm than good to African societies. Homophobia, slavery, witchcraft superstitions, child-bride marriages, jihad terrorism, misogyny and the subjugation of women are all rooted in religious beliefs. My thoughts on this subject are summarised in this article.
Very few Africans know that homophobia is the legacy of colonial rule. Nigerian Christians and Muslims were jubilant when the Nigerian government criminalised homosexuality in 2013. Interestingly, the same believers felt persecuted by the ruling of the US Supreme Court to legalise same-sex marriage in 2015.
It amazes me that people who claim their religions are tolerant would insist, with vehemence, that others should not enjoy the same human rights as them.
At the beginning of this year, Nigerian lawmakers rejected a gender-equality bill on the basis that the Koran and the Bible do not grant women the same rights as men. Our governments cannot abolish child-bride marriages because our Muslim citizens want to emulate their prophet who married a prepubescent girl.
Nigerian pastors are some of the richest pastors in the world and many of them own private jets and business empires that were acquired through the donations of their church members most of whom live below the poverty line. Some of them have television and film production companies through which they promote and propagate witchcraft superstitions with devastating consequences for the vulnerable children and elderly women who usually get accused of being witches.
Millions of Africans have been brainwashed by religion to think there is a bearded man in the sky who cares about their welfare. This attitude has unquestionably contributed to the level of poverty on the continent. I could go on and on about the destructive effects of religious superstitions on African societies.
The Internet has been a big blessing to the spread of free thought and humanist ideas. I have noticed a considerable shift in the attitude of Nigerians to religion in the last three years, and my friends have made similar observations.
I think the challenge for African freethinkers is finding a way to unite and organise beyond debating on social media, which has been an excellent launch pad for freethought. I feel hopeful that reason will replace superstitions in our society. This is the path to sustainable development because superstitions do not grow the economy. No society that desires development holds on to beliefs and cultures that subjugate half of its population or represses free speech. The time to make that change is now.
• Dr Ijabla Raymond is a Nigerian humanist and a medical doctor working in the UK.
Editor’s note: Barbara Hillary, pictured in the header for this post is the first African-American woman to reach the North Pole — a feat she accomplished at age 75 — and the first to reach both the North and South Poles! There is nothing she’s afraid of, she said, except religious people.