A chapel used for discipleship training, Jos, northern Nigeria. photo: S. Audu (2024).

There are many ‘harams’ – things that are ‘religiously forbidden’ – in Nigeria: Boko (‘Westernisation’) is haram, atheism is haram, agnosticism is haram, secularism is haram.

This article is a brief story of how I fell into one of the harams, that is, how I became non-religious. To begin with, I will briefly explain how I became a Christian, my experience as a Christian, and finally, how I became non-religious, and the experience of being non-religious in Nigeria.

The thing led to my becoming first a Christian and then non-religious was the quest for meaning, a quest which originated from my horrible experience of poverty, hunger and starvation, and from the kind of person I am.

There are many ‘harams’ – things that are ‘religiously forbidden’ – in Nigeria: Boko (‘Westernisation’) is haram, atheism is haram, agnosticism is haram, secularism is haram.

As a child, I was told there is God and that he is all-knowing. Inquisitive by nature, I asked my teachers, ‘How can he know all things? Do you mean God can hear and see my thoughts?’ Instead of an answer, I was shunned and treated like a fool for my supposed childishness and ignorance.

I was born in Kayarda-Banram, Bogoro Local Government Area, in Nigeria’s north-eastern Bauchi State, to a family and community racked by poverty and starvation. I have been through the experience of starving for days and have also seen others, especially the aged, starve to death. I have seen others hire themselves out to work for a whole day for a measure of grain, while still others around me have died from common diseases such as cholera, malaria and typhoid. I have heard the materially poor describe their brutal experiences of injustice and exploitation from their oppressors, the rich. Some rich men used their wealth to bribe the authorities and falsely claim the land belonging to the poor. Confronted with these horrible evils on a daily basis, I began to ask myself the age-old question: Why do people suffer, and what is the solution?

This question became the turning point in my life and the beginning of my quest for meaning and truth.

In search of an answer, while herding cows, I found a worn and torn book on the ground. I could not tell what it was about because it had no cover and most of its contents were removed or worn out. This book led me to the Bible, or the ‘Good Book’, as I preferred to call it. On one of the pages of the torn book was a subject that captured my attention: ‘The Book I Like the Most’. Reading through the remaining pages under this heading, I saw that the writer was talking about the Bible. He (the writer) gave the impression that the Bible was the Book of Books and contained an answer to every question. Before this time, although my parents were Christian, I had been ignorant of Christianity and never devoted myself to any Church activities other than, at most, the weekly Sunday worship.

Confronted with these horrible evils on a daily basis, I began to ask myself the age-old question: Why do people suffer, and what is the solution?

Curious about my discovery and anxious for an answer to my questions, I borrowed my parents’ Bible and began to read it day and night with passion. Reading through the books of the Torah and taking them literally, I thought I had found the answer to my question: that sin, as Christianity proclaims, is the problem. Man must learn to blame himself for the problem of evil and suffering. Convinced by this answer – which I only later realised was simplistic –, I became a zealous Christian and a local evangelist, preaching repentance and a law-abiding life as the solution to this problem. I prayed and fasted, sometimes for days, sometimes for weeks. I read the Bible every day, and never failed to go to the local shrine (the so-called ‘house of God’) and to participate in all its activities, such as choir, Bible study and Sunday School. I even founded a Bible Study Group.

I once led my group members out to Fulani settlements to evangelise [the Fulani are a primarily Muslim people in West and Saharan Africa]. After ‘preaching’ to one or two of them, a certain Fulani man confronted us. He could not believe that we had made the decision to preach to them on our own, that we were ‘sent’ to do so. He carried a cutlass to attack us with, but somehow changed his mind, and instead decided to report us to the community leaders. After he did so, we were fined three thousand naira! The news went viral and we, especially myself, became an object of mockery in the whole village, until I regretted my actions.

To demonstrate my commitment to my newly discovered faith, I decided to become a pastor for life. I had previously wanted to study biotechnology and atomic and nuclear physics, but I dropped all of these because the Good Book says, ‘Everything shall pass away’ (Matt. 24; Rev. 21). I was discouraged. I felt there was no point committing my life to something that would soon pass away.  I started to lead the life of a faithful Christian and pastor. As described above, I became more zealous and holier than the pastors in our village, so much so that everyone around called me a pastor, and I was happy. I conducted visits, gave alms, and did other ‘good deeds’. Every morning I made sure I went round the neighboring houses and greeted everyone. I dedicated my life to supporting the aged and the needy. I shared my food and served some with firewood to warm them, especially in the harmattan season.

The building from the outside. PHoto: S. Audu.

In preparation for becoming a pastor, I decided to take a a Diploma in International Missions and Evangelism (2009-2012), and a BA in Theology (2014-2018). I served with the Church of Christ in Nations (COCIN) as a Local Church Council (LCC) pastor for eight months in 2013 before I left for my undergraduate degree at the Theological College of Northern Nigeria. While studying Theology at TCNN, I became more aware of numerous theological issues and debates over issues such as the Trinity, Christology, the tribe of Israel, and the inspiration and infallibility of the Bible.

After years of studying and wide reading, I found myself questioning religion and all the beliefs which I had once held as the absolute truth. I found myself asking the big questions: Does God exist? Did he create the world? How did we come here, and why? What is man? Is man inherently evil or good? What is final Destiny? What does it mean to be human? Will the future still be human? What kind of knowledge will guide us?

I began to think that these questions could not be answered by religion. No discipline or institution has the perfect answer to our questions and the solution to our problems. At best, religion is a social construct and a psychological tool for manipulation and enslavement; at worst, it is the problem which itself needs to be solved. We are humans, and there is no hope of becoming some sort of superhuman sinless beings. We are not created by gods and meant to become (like) them. To pattern one’s life after what one does not know and cannot be is not only mad but heinous.

I began to doubt many Christian teachings, such as the nature of the Trinity. Yet there was one more revolutionary question that led me to break with religion: the question of whether Adam was the first human on earth, and whether he even existed historically.

I began to see religion as a game of deception and control, a system of manipulation, exploitation and enslavement, and a great brain robbery.

After researching into ancient history and mythology, I realised that the evidence indicated that the creation story, the very foundation of Christian theology, was a myth. It followed that the doctrine of the creator God, Satan, heaven and hell, sin, and the entire concept of Christology, were all a theological fabrication. I began to see religion as a game of deception and control, a system of manipulation, exploitation and enslavement, and a great brain robbery.

I therefore started to hate religion. However, at first, knowing the attitudes to it in my immediate community and country, I kept my views to myself. I struggled with this for years until I discovered that concealment was psychologically more stressful than I could bear. Therefore, I took the risk and went public with my non-belief through Facebook.

My posts attracted attention and concern from many people (Christians, of course) across the country – so much so that I received calls from numerous people, some of whom I knew, some whom I did not and who would not reveal themselves to me, asking to be sure if I was actually the one posting anti-religious posts or if my Facebook account had been hacked. When I confirmed to them that I was the one, some lamented bitterly, some offered strong warnings of God’s pending judgement against my life, some just hung up in anger and never called me again or responded to my calls. Many ‘unfriended’ me. Some of my Facebook posts were adduced by TCNN as evidence of my unbelief or apostasy.

My decision to go public via Facebook caused a predictable response: although not physically persecuted, I was shunned by many friends, near and far, and openly discriminated against. No one wanted to associate with me any more – even some of my relations and close friends from Bauchi and Plateau states. I had become an abomination and an object of mockery. To convince others to avoid and hate me too, some of my former friends, online and in person, began a campaign of name-calling and slander: I was the ‘Devil Incarnate’, ‘Anti-Christ’, ‘Apostate’, ‘The Fool’, ‘Atheist’. All this began in 2020 and is still happening.

Poster designed by S. Audu on Canva.com to introduce his ‘Centre for Creative Dialogue and Critical Inquiry’.

In 2021, I was served with a letter by TCNN asking me to leave and never come near the college premises again, because my presence there, as a non-religious person in a religious setting, was too conspicuous.

As if that was not enough, the college is still holding back my graduation certificate and, in 2023, wrote to COCIN, the Church that endorsed my application form for admissions to TCNN in 2014, to ask them to monitor me for a year. If I recant my agnosticism, they may consider giving me my certificate. If I remain an agnostic, they will withhold it, on the grounds that the certificate is given only to those who are found ‘worthy in character and in learning’. In other words, they are using religion and religion alone as a yardstick for measuring character and intellect. I have never harmed anyone or committed any crime. Yet despite this, and despite my studies, my lack of belief may mean that I am not considered ‘worthy in character and learning’.

None of this comes as a surprise: the society I live in is narrow-minded. At the national level, although Nigeria is in theory a democratic society, which should mean that citizens have the right to believe what they want as adults, in reality, religion dictates and controls every aspect of life. It almost seems like religion is the only national value, and the only law-abiding citizen is the religious one. Religious conformity is mistaken for goodness. Those who are non-religious – the freethinkers, agnostics, atheists and non-conformists – are all shunned and treated as socially and psychologically deviant citizens who deserve to be eliminated from society. They are neither listened to nor supported by society in general, nor by the government and religious institutions in particular. Rather, they are hated and persecuted, in the same way as I was by TCNN and individuals.

It almost seems like religion is the only national value, and the only law-abiding citizen is the religious one.

I tried to establish an open, non-religious society on several occasions, but was unsuccessful – owing both to a lack of financial support and to a lack of interest among friends, colleagues and others.

In 2022, I worked as a teacher of English Language and Literature in English for Senior Secondary students at a local college. In early January 2023, I started to teach the Hausa language to Junior Secondary students at another school. However, in July 2023, I resigned from my post so as to dedicate myself fully to my independent research and education. I hired a hall and opened a Centre for Creative Dialogue and Critical Reflection in Jos, Plateau State. I put up a sign outside in case anyone was interested, but no one was. I began to print and share posters, but again, no interest. It seems to me that critical thinking and questioning are ‘haram’ in Nigeria.

Even so, I still currently work as an independent research scholar in the humanities and the social sciences, although not affiliated to any research body or non-religious society. Given the lack of interest in my work, I no longer work at the Centre, but at home in my room, in Jos.

As a non-religious person, I now view life differently from how I did before. I approach it more philosophically, from a human-centred perspective. In my opinion, meaning is not to be found in religion. Rather, meaning in our lives derives from knowing that religion is an illusion, that morality depends on human reason, and that we have only one life to live. 

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