The majority of people in Scotland are non-religious. Same thing in Estonia. And the Czech Republic. And Japan. And Sweden. In many other countries—places like Uruguay, Iran, South Korea, the Netherlands, Vietnam, Canada, France, Israel, Australia, Germany, Hungary, Spain— non-religious people make up a large chunk of the population, hovering somewhere between 30% and 50%. Elsewhere, such as in the United States and Tunisia, the population of nonreligious individuals is still quite substantial, between 25% and 30%.
In short, although most people in the world are religious, many societies contain healthy proportions of secular people.
But what about sub-Saharan Africa?
By all estimates, this appears to be the most religious region of the world. This comes as no surprise: sociologists have well-documented the degree to which poverty, political instability, a lack of education, a lack of health care, and high degrees of existential insecurity increase religiosity. The nations of Africa—long subject to genocidal brutality, international theft, colonialism, imperialism, artificially-imposed national boundaries—suffer greatly on these fronts. And thus, religions thrives.
Yet there are still millions of nonreligious Africans. How many millions? According to a new study published by Yonatan Gez, Nadia Bedier, and Helga Dickow in the journal Africa Spectrum, a conservative estimate indicates that at least 30 million African adults are nonreligious. And while that is only around 3% of the region’s one billion people, it is still a substantial number. And because there is a strong cultural and social stigma against being nonreligious throughout Sub-Saharan Africa, and because many nations in the region maintain blasphemy laws and even make being nonreligious illegal, with varying forms of punishment, the number of nonreligious Africans is probably much higher than surveys can detect.
The stigma and illegality of secularity, while both exist throughout much of the world, are particularly potent in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Consider the travails of Leo Igwe.
Leo Igwe, from Nigeria, is a prominent human rights activist and secular humanist. Raised Catholic, he was slated to become a priest, studying in seminary during his teenage years. But questions and doubts persisted; he eventually rejected Catholicism and all religion. Active for many years in numerous secular organizations—International Humanist and Ethical Union, the James Randi Education Foundation, Atheist Alliance International, Center For Inquiry, and more—one of his main goals has been to disabuse Nigerian society of the harmful practices that result from superstitious beliefs in witches and witchcraft. Those accused of such imagined nonsense are ostracized, rejected by their families, or worse. Back in 2009, Igwe was attacked and beaten by a mob for his activism against witchcraft persecution. In 2011, Igwe tried to rescue two children who were being abused in foster homes, having been rejected by their families because of their supposedly being witches. For this attempt, Igwe was arrested and imprisoned for several days. Currently, Igwe is being harassed with expensive lawsuits, filed by religious charlatans who make a living hunting purported witches.
Or consider the case of Mubarak Bala, Igwe’s fellow Nigerian humanist. Because of his secular activism, he was recently charged with blasphemy and sentenced to a year in prison. Bala is but a single example of the many who suffer under extensive anti-atheist and anti-humanist legislation and persecution throughout Africa.
So being nonreligious in Sub-Saharan Africa is not only rare, it is dangerous. Couple that with the region’s widespread poverty and instability, and it is not hard to understand why religion is so pervasive and secularity so minimal.
But more and more seeds of reason, humanism, and freethought are sprouting. There are growing numbers of African humanist activists fighting for their rights, creating atheist community where possible, and spreading the values of secularism. Like elsewhere the world over, the internet has been a boon for creating secular community, especially amidst less-than-hospitable environs. Some prominent African secularist groups include Atheists in Kenya, Atheist Society of Nigeria, Humanist Association of Ghana, Humanists and Atheists of Zambia, and South African Secular Society. I work as Executive Director of Humanist Global Charity, which partners with humanists throughout Africa, supporting secular orphanages, humanist businesses, critical thinking workshops, women’s rights initiatives, and more.
While such secular groups and humanist organizations are dwarfed by the historical weight, financial might, political backing, and missionary zeal of the religious, they still function to provide education and inspiration for the millions of Africans who live their lives without religion.