A group calling itself the Freethinkers of Kenya Association aims to encourage and promote secularism in the country.
While US President Barrack Obama toured Africa, the American Supreme court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act, the biggest obstacle towards marriage between American same-sex couples.
In a rebuke of a statement made by President Obama welcoming the Supreme Court’s decision and urging African countries to recognise the rights of homosexuals, Deputy President William Ruto made a blanket assumption that all Kenyans are unified in their thinking and behaviour by their belief in God.
Statistically that may be true. A 2010 report on International Religious Freedom by the US State Department estimates Christian population at 80 per cent, Muslims at 10 per cent while the remaining 10 fall somewhere among Hindus, Sikhs, Baha’i and indigenous religions. It is therefore easy to assume that although some membership cards may be inactive, everybody belongs to at least one house of worship.
Amidst ear-cracking club bangers in a tiny pub is a meeting with a sprinkle of Christians among a surprisingly large number of atheists. An atheist is a person who does not believe in God. A few of them joke about having left their red horns and tails at home for the evening, a reference to how most people associate them with devil worship because of their views.
This particular group of atheists belong to a larger organisation, the Freethinkers of Kenya Association (Fika). Fika is not organised atheism. Freethinkers are practitioners of free thought, a philosophical viewpoint that holds that opinion should be formed on the basis of logic, reason and empiricism rather than tradition or other dogma.
Fika is therefore a patchwork of atheists, believers and agnostics (people who are unsure or undecided about the existence of God) who share this philosophy.
Ssemakula, an ICT manager and an atheist, describes this chapter of Freethinkers as a group that aims to encourage and promote secularism in Kenya.
“We want to promote the idea that government and public life should be separate from your personal and religious life. Part of our goals is to ensure that public services are offered regardless of your religious affiliation and also that laws and legislation are not done purely for any specific ideology,” explains Ssemakula who is Fika’s chairman.
He cites Kenya’s laws prohibiting homosexuality, stating that although the group may not necessarily advocate for the legalisation of same-sex relationships, they feel that acts should not be criminalised to pander to one or two ideologies as Kenya is a multi –ideology country.
“In Kenya right now, it is not legal to be a heterosexual and neither is it illegal to be a heterosexual; it is simply not dealt with at all in law. Things like homosexuality should be dealt with in the same process. We should not even be discussing them in law; it is a matter of taste or preference,” he says.
The belief among many non–believers is that we enter this world without any religious affiliations or as born-atheists so to speak. In his 2006 best-selling book The God Delusion, English biologist Richard Dawkins stated: “You can’t say it too often. I’ll say it again. That is not a Muslim child, but a child of Muslim parents. That child is too young to know whether it is a Muslim or not. There is no such thing as a Muslim child. There is no such thing as a Christian child.”
Most of the atheists present share this view despite being products of deeply religious households. They each have a unique story about how they eventually parted ways with both the religion that was drilled into them from birth and the concept of God.
“I read the Bible,” explains Ssemakula. “I was about 12 or 13 when I first read the Bible from cover to cover. When you are brought up Catholic, you read what the priest tells you to read and he gives his interpretations.One day the priest asked us if we had ever read the entire Bible. We were given a structured study guide and in a period of one year we were supposed to have read the Bible in a specific order. I thought why don’t I do it differently instead and I opened page one and went through it until It Is So (Amen). I was shocked. Even as young as I was then I thought there is something very wrong with a book that is saying these kinds of things. But because I had been in this religion all my life I was still afraid of not believing. I read it a second time and was convinced that this stuff cannot be good. I know a lot of people would disagree with me, but the Bible is the most evil book I have ever read. It supports practices that in the modern world would literally have you thrown in the dudgeon and the keys thrown away if you were to follow what it says.”
“For me it was the direct opposite,” says Gibson (not his real name), a lawyer working in Nairobi. “I was raised in a religious family and I was a Christian for a very long time. But mostly it was because I was limited to that book. The change for me came in Form Two when the theory of evolution was introduced and I had access to a library with a wide range of books beyond the Bible and set books. It made me realise that there are other ideas about our origin and what we are. The theory of evolution made me look at the history of the Bible, Christianity, Islam and many other religions and I realised that they were all artificial constructs. And there are many other perspectives as to the origin of man and many other things. Analysing all this information from different perspectives made me realise that it is impossible that there is a God.”
Karijin, an epilepsy activist, argues that many of the religious people who she has challenged about their beliefs are themselves not sure why they believe in God. “What I know for many people when you start a debate about their religion and what proof they have about their God their stand is actually shaky. It turns out that the main purpose behind going to church is to socialise... you see you need to belong somewhere and all my friends are there.”
They emphasise that their views are not to be mistaken with anti-theism. That is they are not opposed to God, religion or its believers despite having rejected these concepts.
“We do not have a problem with religion, you can pray to whoever you want to. But you cannot attempt to force your views on anyone who does not believe in what you believe in,” explains Nduati, an entrepreneur.
But part of their disillusionment with God and religious beliefs is that although having made several positive contributions to society, particularly through what Gibson terms as “charitable acts”, religion does not take a country forward. A Legatum Prosperity (2009) also suggests that the most secular nations are also amongst the most prosperous in the world. While a study by American sociologist Phil Zuckerman, also published in 2009, indicates that belief in God does not result in a decrease in crime as murder rates are actually lower in more secular nations and higher in countries where a belief in God is widespread.
Terming religion as divisive, Wachira, an entrepreneur, says you do not have to travel far to see the negative effects of religion: “Visit a place like Mwiki on a Sunday. Every 50 metres there is a church and in some places they are separated by the same wall. It is very sad that there is a church every 50 metres making money yet there is not one clinic or school which I think are more important than churches,” Wachira says.
Brenda, a psychology student, agrees that the mushrooming of churches has done more harm than good for the society: “It shows what our society is turning into. We have become people who are blinded to reality and are willing to believe in things because we do not want to deal with the issues. We have pastors and priests claiming to heal people and making them quit their medications. One doctor (name withheld), for example, claims he can cure HIV and this is supported by a top official at the Provincial Headquarters in Rift Valley and is presented as fact in the media. This to me is a big problem because I meet people in my village who say there is a guy who is curing HIV so I have stopped taking my ARVs.”
Ssemakula adds that the fact that most mega-churches are in or near the most deprived neighbourhoods in the city, like gambling dens in the Western countries that are opened near ghettos, is proof of the exploitative nature of the church.
In a country where the national anthem is basically a prayer sung rather than said, and God's name is invoked in the preamble of the constitution, these views obviously do not sit well with most people.
Brenda says most of her family members can’t even share the same room with her because of her views while for Gibson, when his mother discovered her first born son was an atheist she flew in priests from Zambia because she believed that the local ones were not adept to the special brand of demons that possessed her son.
“My mother told them her child has been possessed by a demon but they were intelligent enough to realise it was different so what should have been an exorcism turned into a lecture. They engaged me in a philosophy debate for the next three hours after which they themselves admitted that I was entitled to my own beliefs.”
“Most of the friends I have lost were on Facebook through 'un-friending' when I posted my views on my page," says Nelson, a psychology graduate. "I have a friend, also an atheist, who has a single mum and when he told her she kicked him out. I haven't talked about it with my mother because of this as she is very devout. I think these are the challenges atheists face when living in a fundamentalist country.”
For staunch believers, one key bone of contention with none believers is: If one does not believe in God, then do they believe in nothing? And can morality be born out of a belief in nothing?
Nelson emphasizes that although atheists do not believe in God they believe in many of the same things that religious people believe; it is only that they do not associate these beliefs with God.
“Religion does not have a monopoly on morality. There are other philosophies like humanism and secularism which also provide moral guidelines. So it is not a matter of if you do not believe in God then you do not have any morals which is something we atheists are often told. The problem is people tie religion to morality which shouldn’t be the case because it can be tied to other separate spheres,” Nelson says.
What of the terminally ill patient who suddenly springs back to full health despite a second, third and fifth doctor’s opinion and the grisly car crash where not one person could have possibly survived – yet they do. Believers would say these are miracles while an atheist would say – “We don’t know!” All atheists present yell in unison.
“And we are not going to make stuff up,” says Sam, an app developer. He began to have doubts about the existence of God at age seven when adults told him about a “magic man in the sky”, “That is where I think religion came from. People saw a lot of things happening in life that they could not explain. They couldn’t find an explanation so they made stuff up. Just don’t make stuff up. If you don’t know why something is happening then you don’t know why it’s happening.”
Ssemakula says that the rising number of atheists joining Fika whether physically or online shows that there are increasing number of atheists who are willing to come out and are no longer ashamed of not believing in God.