Nigeria’s undercover atheists: In their words

Kaduna, Nigeria – Denouncing God can be a dangerous thing in Nigeria, where religion is the rhythm of life.

Atheism, considered blasphemy by many, is a largely underground movement that’s hard to quantify but increasingly reported among millennials.

Atheists come together in private on WhatsApp groups and use pseudonyms on social media sites to share ideas.

The Nigerian population of nearly 200 million is split almost evenly between Muslims and Christians with sizeable followers of traditional spirituality.

“As a clergyman, this makes me sad that today we have people in Nigeria going in for atheism,” Gideon Obasogie, a Roman Catholic cleric tells A Jazeera. “The effect of this will be terrible. For one who says there is no God, he can do all kinds of horrible things … I feel this will lead to anarchy and chaos.  The rise of atheism in Nigeria is not wonderful news.”

In recent months, Nigerian atheists have registered three pro-secular organisations: Atheist Society of Nigeria, the Northern Nigerian Humanist Association and the Nigerian Secular Society.

“We need these organisations as a space for people to come out,” says Mubarak Bala, who helped to register the groups. 

Bala attracted media attention in 2014 after being admitted to a psychiatric hospital in Kano by his parents when they found out he was atheist. 

He says his father and uncles held him down for 30 minutes and forced him to take medications given by the psychiatrist, who told him “everyone needs God”.

“People began secretly contacting me, telling me that they too, don’t believe in Allah. Even Christians told me they don’t think Jesus is God and they just have questions about the whole religion thing,” Bala said. 

Most keep their beliefs secret.

Bala is the only atheist who allowed Al Jazeera to use his real name.

Al Jazeera travelled to three cities – Kano, Kaduna and Abuja – to meet some “undercover” atheists in their twenties and thirties.

Kenneth: ‘My family told me I am possessed’

“I grew up a rebel. I grew up a black sheep in the family. If I go to church, I go because I am forced to go to church.

I’ve never believed anything, so at a point, the pastor of the church I was attending with my family told me that I am possessed with an evil spirit because I was always questioning God and the Bible.

Kenneth said he’s always been the black sheep of his family, asking controversial questions about religion [Chika Oduah/Al Jazeera]

As an atheist in Nigeria, you will be ostracised. 

Up to today, I have many people who keep their distance from me simply because I ask a lot of critical questions about religion. Many of them don’t even know I’m now an atheist.”

Jiddah: ‘I realised Islam didn’t have my interest as a woman’

“I’ve always had questions, unanswered questions right from childhood. 

It’s not like I was the ideal Muslim girl, because I did a lot of things that Islam did not permit me to do such as wearing men’s clothing – meaning trousers – going clubbing, having premarital sex.

Basically, I realised Islam didn’t really have my interest as a woman. As a child at the Islamic school, I would always ask, ‘Where is God? Why can’t we see him or her?

What I got was a beating, serious flogging because you shouldn’t ask such questions. 

The breakthrough came I guess when I met Mubarak [Bala]. I found him on Facebook and I sent him a friend request.

(Note: Before receiving death threats, Jiddah said she would use the site to criticise Islam and had 8,000 followers. She has now closed her account.)

Then, we began to talk about religion. Mubarak would say, ‘It’s just like me telling you there’s a cat right here and you can’t see it. Why would you believe anything like that?’ 

So gradually, I just rid myself of that belief in God and it’s been liberating. 

But it’s heartbreaking because you really want to talk to your friends about these things and explain to them because you want them to feel what you feel. But you just can’t.”

Shehu: ‘A scholar can declare you an apostate’

“In Islam, I used to see stuff that didn’t correspond with reality. I tried to study Islam but I kept seeing more and more things that I just couldn’t believe I was reading.

I went to school in Malaysia and learned about intellectualism and what I learned blew my mind. I was learning about science that broke down the myths of religion. Things just became clear.

I came out and told my father, thinking he would understand. It backfired.

Shehu said he was beaten in school by a teacher at the age of 11 for challenging religious doctrines [Chika Oduah/Al Jazeera]

We come from an Islamic royal family in northern Nigeria.

My dad, he went to the NGO I was working at. He was a board member and told them to fire me. So they did. 

Then he brought a woman for me to marry so I could just conform and be normal. 

My dad prevents me from telling anyone about my beliefs. Here in Nigeria, a Mallam – a respected Islamic scholar – can declare you an apostate as an atheist and order you to be killed, just like that. So I’m undercover.”

Peter: ‘Why is it that Christianity had to come through conquest?’

My mother was quite religious. Every Sunday, we’d go to a Catholic church. 

The religion, Christianity itself, came in through several tools. Slavery, colonialism and of course, the subtle colonialism, which is missionary style.

So my question has always been, why is it that something that I need had to come through in such an inhumane way? Why is it that it had to come through conquest?

Peter, an IT professional, was raised by a mother who is a member of the Roman Catholic Church [Chika Oduah/Al Jazeera]

Some people were put to the sword and they had to take it whether they liked it or not. 

For my safety … if folks find out I’m an atheist, I could lose out on work opportunities (Peter is an IT professional). If people here in Nigeria find out I’m atheist, I think that would be the death of my reputation. Religion is a scam.”

Freeman: ‘The killings here over religion do not help’

“The killings that happen so much here in Nigeria over religion do not help. 

I came back home one day from school and I learned that a lot of houses had been brought down by our people, Muslims, just thinking that they did that for God. 

I watched somebody being burned to death on the road. I was coming back from school. I actually had friends, my Muslim friends, who went out to kill Christians and they asked me to join them and they actually believe they were doing it for God.

They said it’s God’s wish. They said that’s what God wants them to do and that it’s also what the Quran says. It really makes me upset.” 

Nasir: ‘My father said I should leave or he’ll kill me’

“I am against Islam entirely. Not just the way it’s practised, but against it fully. 

My parents, they know I don’t believe in God.

My father is an Islamic scholar and one day he called me and my mum, and he asked if it was true, [if] what he was hearing about me being an atheist is true. I said yes.

So, he brought out a knife. He wanted to kill me. I was telling him, ‘Wait let me explain to you.’ 

He said, ‘How can you explain to me?’

Nasir’s father tried to kill him when he found out he no longer believed in God [Chika Oduah/Al Jazeera]

I was scared actually and we were struggling, me and him. Then my mother seized the knife. My father said I should leave the house or he’ll kill me at night. So I left the house and started living at my workplace.

My father sent me away and then a relative talked to him and told him I changed my mind and told him that I’m no longer an atheist. But my father knows that’s not true.

Some of my relatives keep me away from their children because they say I will corrupt them.”

Ayuba: ‘It would break my mother’s heart if she knew’

“My mother will call me and say, ‘Have you been giving your tithes to the church?’ 

Like, if you don’t pay, then you’re stealing from God and God will punish you for that. So, it’s like a way of indoctrinating people, trying to put fear in people.

Ayuba said he always felt different from other people. His mother is an avid church-goer [Chika Oduah/Al Jazeera]

I grew up in ECWA (Evangelical Church Winning All, formerly known as Evangelical Church of West Africa).

The whole story of the Bible and creation, I don’t know. My mother, it would break her heart if she knew I am atheist.”

Abdul: ‘My father started preaching against me’

“I told my father that I don’t believe in prayers any more. He was grooming me to become a mallam, an Islamic scholar, like him. 

He never encouraged me to go to Western schools. Even when I went to university, I just did it on my own.

He started preaching against me a few years ago. 

He’s an Islamic scholar so people listen to him. Him preaching against me, you know, someone could take action to harm me.

Abdul says his life is at risk. His father, a Muslim scholar in northern Nigeria, condemns him in his sermons because he is an atheist [Chika Oduah/Al Jazeera]

In his sermons, he would say, ‘Just imagine, my son went to Western school so now he believes there is no creator. He thinks he is smarter than all of us and he gets his notions from a computer,’ because he used to see me on the computer. 

I see my father and other religious people as victims of their beliefs. I had to stop going to my family house.”

These interviews were edited for clarity and length.

All of the interviewees’ names, aside from those in the introduction, have been changed to protect their safety. They also requested their ages were not published, out of fear of being identified.

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