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The rise of atheism in modern Kenya

Wednesday July 3 2013



By VERAH OKEYO [email protected]

In the deeply religious society that is Kenya, Ssemakula Mukiibi stands out like a sore thumb over his beliefs... or, more appropriately, lack thereof.

The 45-year-old computer scientist says he does not believe in the existence of God, even though he would like to have a supernatural being to revere. He has gone through various holy scriptures, read acres of print regarding religion, and listened to thousands of sermons about life and the hereafter, but he is still not convinced that a supreme being exists.

Ssemakula is part of a growing group of Kenyans who are atheistic and who, unlike before, are not doing anything to hide that fact. 2010 statistics show that 2.5 per cent of Kenyans, about one million, were religiously “unaffiliated”, a slight increase from 2009, when 922,128 reported themselves as belonging to “no religion”.

The unaffiliated comprise atheists — who do not believe in any supreme or divine being or deity — and agnostics — who claim that no man has gathered enough knowledge to prove, beyond reasonable doubt, whether such deities or beings exist or not.

What is striking, however, is not the numbers, but the fact that these “dissenters” were brought up in very religious homes and environments. Ssemakula, for instance, was once a staunch Catholic who “slowly drifted away from the faith”.

“It was a gradual process,” he says.


For Damaris Muga, however, the shift was abrupt. Born to an ordained minister, one would expect her to have had her mind warring with her conscience at the time she decided to shift gears. But no, she just “felt” it and jumped ship. “There was no transition period,” says the web developer. “I just knew it. There were no drum rolls because it was that simple, like the day you know one and one make two.”

No spiritual void

To her, the most surprising fact is that, after growing up in a strictly religious family, she does not feel as if like she has any spiritual void within her. “I’m just me,” she says. “I do what I do every day.”

Most Kenyans have no time for the likes of Damaris and Ssemakula whom, they argue, vilify faith in God out of sheer ignorance and arrogance. As a result, these two and their ilk rarely confess their disbelief in public.

But technology has given them a break. The Free Thinkers Initiative in Kenya (Fika) runs a web page in which over 1,000 atheists congregate to share their experiences. Through the page, the group has organised various forums and one is scheduled for August this year in Nairobi. Both Muslims and Christians are invited.

According to most members of the group, a society without anyone paying allegiance to any faith would be better. “The mass murders that have happened all over the world in the name of religion and sectarian clashes are greater than the death toll of the atomic bomb in Japan,” one member writes in a group conversation.

In response, another chips in: “The regions with the highest population of unaffiliated members are most food-secure, peaceful and have the best social services globally, such as Norway and Denmark.... Look at Africa, the most religious of all places and how people disregard life and the well-being of even the most vulnerable.

“I am talking about how religion works against any progress, how it keeps people passive, waiting for their prayers to be answered, how it keeps people dumb, refusing science and medication. In short, anything that really works and is productive is rejected (by) religion.”

While some say the rise of the “nons” means the country’s reverence of God is growing weaker, religious scholars disagree. Dr Loreen Maseno, the head of the Religion and Philosophy Department at Maseno University, is one of them. She says it is almost impossible to talk about atheism and agnosticism in Kenya because, since time immemorial, the African way of life has no separation between what is sacred and what is secular.

“Ours is a way of life rather than a faith,” she says, adding that in Africa such values are “integrated into all departments of life from the time one is born to his death”.

“One, for instance, cannot attend or conduct funeral rites, then claim to be atheistic because funeral rites in the African context are acts of worship. Religion and culture in Africa are one and the same thing,” says Dr Maseno.

While she acknowledges that there are atheists and agnostics in Kenya, she adds that it is difficult to quantify or reach out to them because of lack of disclosure.

Frank Macharia, one of those who have remained in his cocoon for fear of stigma, agrees, saying he would not dare say he does not believe in God when every landmark in his life and family has been credited to the miraculous intervention of God.

That fear of stigma is also part of the reason those who have garnered enough courage to proclaim their disbelief are not evangelical about it. Damaris says her preacher father knows about her stand “but is in denial”. When she goes to see him, he does not press her to go to church, but when they pray before bed, the supplication becomes a family affair. “I just sit there and listen,” she says, “because I respect my father.”

The non-believers will have to struggle for a long time to find acceptance at the marketplace because religion is still a very important part of the lives of Kenyans. Even though most local faiths were brought to sub-Saharan Africa by missionaries from Europe and the Middle East, they have managed to sink deep roots locally, their doctrines shoving traditionalists into oblivion.

Pastor Joseph Wambua of Heaven’s Gate Worship Centre in Naivasha believes in the supremacy of monotheistic religions over any other, and attributes the growth of atheism to the emergence of a “knowledge society” that has empowered people to question everything.

“That knowledge-seeking is both a blessing and a curse,” observes Pastor Wambua. “Because of it, many people are able to get the most out of their faith by conducting research on matters such as the history of their respective religions, while others have lost it entirely as they succumb to ‘evidence’ that disputes the existence of the supernatural. It is difficult to ask someone to take the Bible literally when some portions of what is written there have been challenged archeologically.”

Knowledge acquired in class, he explains, is laid on the foundation of rationality and evidence, but matters of faith are hinged on belief.

“There is nothing in the holy books that addresses the question ‘does God exist?’ because it is assumed that when you pick up the Bible or the Koran, you are already convinced that there is a being higher than yourself,” he says.

Atheism, therefore, is gaining currency because intellectual aggression is exposing the bankruptcy of religion without much defence from believers.
Richard Dawkins, considered one of the “four atheist horsemen”, is a Kenyan-born scholar based at Oxford University and author of God’s Delusions, a book that criticises religion. He and other star atheist scholars have brought forward substantial evidence to show that violence, savagery, intolerance, and injustice sanctioned by Christianity and Islam have caused immense suffering to mankind.

Their credibility has been fortified by the fact that economic and technological icons who have laid the foundations of most of the principles used in the world are either atheists or agnostics, among them Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, Microsoft’s Bill Gates, Richard Branson of the Virgin Group, and Father of Psychology Sigmund Freud.

Even celebrities like actress Jodi Foster, Lance Armstrong, Uma Thurman, and Morgan Freeman have joined the bandwagon.

On the local scene, Pastor Wambua notes that most new atheists are young, indicating that their loss of faith has been mostly aided by the technological advancement of the present age.

He wagers that with generational replacement — the gradual supplanting of older generations by new ones — the number of the unaffiliated may increase.

Pew Forum, an American research firm, records the median age of most atheists and agnostics in sub-Saharan Africa at 20, compared to 34 in nations such as Japan and Europe, indicating that the popularity of religious affiliation is directly proportional to technological and informational exposure of any region.

So, what is the problem? Why are more and more young people running away from God?

Both Pastor Wambua and Dr Maseno cite “disappointment in religion”. Most atheists perceive present Kenyan clerics as “too concerned with money and power”.

Christine Ndegwa, a Christian who prefers watching sermons on television to attending church, agrees, saying most pastors she has come across have “unholy sexual proclivities and live lavish lifestyles as the congregation languishes in poverty”.

“They cannot talk to me about morality any more,” she says.

Other than religious discontent, Dr Maseno also attributes the change to another possibility: Cross-cultural intermingling that has created room for people from other countries to come to Kenya and socialise local people into liberal thinking.

For instance, Belgian Paul Van Beveren has been in Kenya for eight years and is confident that, even though he has no substantial proof that he has converted people to atheism, he has made them think about the importance of religion in their society.

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