It is for this reason that I wish to use Richard Dawkins' forum for reason and science to tell especially Nigerian (and African) youth to come out to exercise their rational faculties for the liberation of their societies from the forces of superstition and economic backwardness. Archbishop Desmond Tutu once remarked that the idea of an African atheist is a contradiction in terms. I believe this to be a complete delusion, since it suggests that all Africans are by default religious. Yet even in Tutu's South Africa there are thousands (perhaps millions) who are non-religious. Although frantic efforts have been made to discredit atheism, I would like to reassure the youth that atheism is a very healthy state of mind, embraced by very enlightened people. It is by no means a fringe phenomenon. Indeed, latest statistics show that non-belief is rising steadily all over the world.

I would like to relate here how I became a non-believer myself. I am doing so because I believe such childhood experiences are fairly common among young people, although the forces of tradition and education do all they can to stifle them in later life. I was born into a Christian family in a village where my father was an elder in charge of the local Anglican Church. (He was unusually liberal for his time, and would welcome almost any question from his children.) As a kid I used to attend church service as a matter of course. It was a community in which Christianity and Islam blended rather easily with traditional fetish and ancestor worship, with a heavy dose of divination, which, out of curiosity, I even learned in my youth from a prominent diviner. (My belief then that the mechanism of divination was partly “logical” and partly due to chance was confirmed years later after reading the anthropologist S.F. Nadel’s study of the subject in his Nupe Religion.) 

At about the age of five or six, I lost a half-brother who was only slightly younger than I. He was buried close to the pitch where we used to play football together. One day, while playing on the pitch, his thought suddenly crossed by mind, and the most important thing I remember was the idea of original sin and its attendant punishment, which had been imparted to us in church sermons. I said to myself, “What sin had this little boy committed in this world to deserve punishment wherever he may be now? Why should I be punished for my father’s crimes? Better when I die I should not rise again to suffer someone else’s sins. Let me just rot in the grave.” This childhood wish for mortality has remained with me to this day, when it now seems pretty clear to me that the evidence for immortality is, after all, practically nil; and I know of no serious atheist who really believes in life after death.

 The second incident occurred a few years later when I was in primary school, again in the village. The most powerful medicine man in the locality had asked three of us kids to weed his cassava farm in return for cash. When the work was done, the old man came around to telling us that he had prepared some powerful charms for each of us, which were worth many times the cash. The charms, he said, would enable us to pass exams easily. I wasn’t happy with this decision, though I dared not show it openly. The charms, called laya in Hausa, had an opening on one side on which the old man had instructed us to be sprinkling a certain type of perfume from time to time. After collecting my own laya, I went home, wrapped it in a piece of paper and buried it in the bush nearby under a large tree for easy identification. I did not tell my parents about it. Weeks later the old man would ask about the charm, and I would lie that I was doing as he had instructed. When the exams came and I passed well, I knew that the medicine man was not to be trusted. One’s efforts alone were sufficient to ensure success; there was no need to appeal to charms. Moreover, the fact that he could not detect my lying made me dismiss him as an unreliable charlatan. I was thus very skeptical of the claims of medicine men, including claims about witchcraft. But I kept the doubts to myself, and continued to attend church service.

 In secondary school, I came face-to-face with philosophical books that really seemed to satisfy my intellectual curiosity and reinforce my religious doubts. The first truly original work of philosophy I read was Plato’s Euthyphro, which I stumbled upon in the school library. The feeling I had on reading this Platonic Dialogue was rather like the feeling Richard Wright tells us, in Black Boy, he had on reading H.L. Mencken for the first time: a feeling of pleasant surprise, awe, beauty and fascination with the extraordinary power of human reasoning couched in the written word. In the Euthyphro, here is Socrates, almost at his best, relentlessly taking his interlocutor to task on the nature of piety. It seemed remarkable to me that people were reasoning in this marvelously logical way more than 400 years before the time of Christ. After reading the Euthyphro several times, I used to devote about half of my time in the library to my school subjects and the remaining half to philosophy books, although I also did read some religious literature (e.g. James Atkinson’s Rome and Reformation in the Christian Foundations series), as well as popular astronomy. 

I was determined that henceforth only logic would guide my way of looking at things. But perhaps the most important and enduring influence which ultimately shaped my pattern of unbelief was the teaching of my Bible Knowledge (BK) teacher, an avuncular English priest of the Anglican Church, in my fourth year in secondary school. On one occasion, the BK master, as we fondly used to call him, told the class that Jesus probably drank water during the 40 days and nights He allegedly spent in the wilderness. The BK master advanced some scientific arguments to prove his case, citing in particular the maximum number of days it was possible for a human being to go without water. This remark, in an unintended way, cast doubt on the other “miracles” of Christ. On another occasion, the BK master said the origin of incest was in the Old Testament, since there was no way we could account for Cain’s wife bearing him children without assuming that he had mated with his mother Eve. It was a startling remark; I was truly astonished at the utter frankness of this white priest. That was the first time I was hearing of the word “incest”, and the BK master explained its meaning with brutal clarity.

 These remarks by my BK master, which today would probably not be uttered by our old-fashioned professors of theology in the universities, was the last straw the broke the camel's back: from that point on I was never a member of any religious sect again.

Gilbert Alabi Diche


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