Nonbelief in Nigeria: Can Critical Thinking Thrive in a Deeply Religious Society?

A church in Nigeria. (Photo by SIM, CC BY-SA 2.0)

I was born in Nigeria and brought up by staunchly Christian parents who, with strict discipline, imposed upon me their Christian values and ideals. When I was a child, my parents, particularly my father, read Bible passages out loud to me every evening during family devotions. This was always the worst time of the day for me, never one I looked forward to. My father would then proceed to give a long, boring sermon. Depending on his mood, when I fell asleep he would either ask me to stand up or kneel down, or he would flog me. He encouraged me to read the entire Bible and to memorize several passages. Right from my mother’s womb I was tagged a Christian child. I had no choice about it. Christian dogma was forced down my throat, and I was, of course, expected to swallow it all without question.

We were Pentecostal/Charismatic Christians, as most people in Southern Nigeria are. Even many in Orthodox churches more often identify with one Charismatic fellowship or another. Besides Christians, there are also a good number of Muslims, traditional religionists, and animists in Nigeria. One can easily sense the tense interreligious struggle in the air. Nigerians are generally religious and spiritual. We believe God is responsible for everything that exists and happens, and we believe that he can intervene whenever called upon. When there is any problem in one’s personal life, family, or even the nation, one simply has to pray. And pray some more. If the answers aren’t forthcoming, keep praying. We are always in a search for the best way to serve God and to be served by him, and so it’s not unusual for Nigerians to run from one church to another, from one prayer house to another. If the condition goes from bad to worse, we even change religions. But never do we abandon religion entirely. We believe in miracles. We believe dreams are real. We believe in such things as demons and spirits of the dead. We also believe in local “native doctors” and “witches” who have power to heal and afflict, bless and curse, and to divine the future. It is in this deeply religious and superstitious environment that I grew up.

I became a devout Christian by the age of seventeen. As a Christian, I read a wide range of Christian literature—classic and contemporary, historical and doctrinal—in my private study, which I took seriously. I was also devout in church attendance and rose to become an ordained minister.  And so, I can say that I am sufficiently acquainted with the Christian faith and almost all that it entails. What I have seen in my eighteen years of passive Christianity and seven years of active Christianity are numerous doctrines that differ from each other so much one may ask if they really come from the same religion. The same goes for many other practices and forms of worship. This inconsistency could be baffling to a new and sincere convert who wishes to practice his or her new-found faith in the best way possible. Even worse, this could prove repulsive or to a lesser extent, silly to the young believer or nonbeliever, what with the diverse doctrines and practices of the different denominations that all claim to be the one, true type of Christianity, not to mention the attendant violence that normally accompanies such fundamentalism and eventual schisms.

As I grew older, I observed that everyone around me was simply convinced that the religion he or she was born into was the one true religion while all others were not only false, but also reprehensible. How convenient, I thought. Their defense for their religion was narrow-minded and illogical. I, on the other hand, was not judging the religion of my upbringing or those of others around me; I was not questioning which was better or which had “divine” approval. I was instead scrutinizing them, exploring their essence and ideologies. This was due to my appreciation of the scientific method as a young science student and my deep love for education and the pursuit of knowledge. Luckily, I went to some of the best schools around and read some of the best books, secular and sacred alike. They fueled my rational mind. Besides, I had always been quite precocious. I came to discover that religion demands the suspension of one’s judgement. I am a rational human with a healthy dose of skepticism. I just cannot see how I can ever live with the unintelligible. I can no longer induce a trance-like illusion of understanding to conceptualize these beliefs, much less integrate them into the rest of my knowledge. Perhaps the mistake my religious parents made was providing a sound education for me and a learning environment in which critical thinking thrived. God should have known better and impeded them. After all, many of his prophets in our church prophesied with an infectious assurance that I was going to be a “great man of God.”

In retrospect, I consider my forceful religious labelling and indoctrination as a young, vulnerable child to be a form of child abuse. Nevertheless, I should be quick to thank my semi-literate parents for providing me with a sound education, which enabled me to form my own opinions. Arguably, 99 percent of Nigerian parents are religious, however, they owe it to their children to provide them with a sound education and an environment where critical thinking and skepticism can thrive. The government should also endeavor to incorporate critical thinking into school curricula and seriously defend the civil liberties of believers, nonbelievers, and young children.

If we lived in a society of mature adults, we would allow people the respect and freedom to believe anything they like so long as they don’t impose it on others. Just because we may think it wrong or nonsensical shouldn’t matter. My problem with Christianity and religion in general is not that anyone believes it—that is their right. What I challenge is the way it has been imposed upon people and impressionable children through the use of fear, guilt, violence and the suppression of critical thinking and alternative thought.