An Interview with Dr. Leo Igwe — Founder, Nigerian Humanist Movement
Leo Igwe is the founder of the Nigerian Humanist Movement and former Western and Southern African representative of the International Humanist and Ethical Union. He holds a Ph.D. from the Bayreuth International School of African Studies at the University of Bayreuth in Germany, having earned a graduate degree in Philosophy from the University of Calabar in Nigeria.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Was there a family background in humanism, secularism, and rationalism?
Leo Igwe: There was no family connection to my embracing humanism. I found humanism, secularism, and rationalism during my education. My grandparents were traditional religionists. My parents were born traditional religionists, but like most persons of their generation, switched religion while growing up.
They became Catholics not really by choice, but due to existential needs and necessities. My father told me that he embraced Christianity because that was the only way he could get formal education.
My father was trained as a teacher and he taught in primary schools until he retired in the late 80s. My mother dropped out when she was in Standard Two. My mother was — and still is — devoutly religious, but my father never took religious seriously.
Today, I describe my father as an agnostic. I served as an altar boy when I was in primary school and later went to the Catholic seminary where I was trained to be a priest. I left the training in 1994, and started the humanist movement in 1996.
It was while in the seminary that I came into contact with the idea of humanism. I found the humanist outlook to be more realistic than religion. Humanism related to me directly, to human beings that I saw and interacted with.
That was unlike religion that focused mainly on gods and spirits, which I could not see or really interact with. I also noticed that religion encouraged people to be dishonest, to claim to be seeing what they are not seeing or to be in communication with somebody when they are in communication with nobody.
Religion encouraged fakery. So, some of these issues led to me embracing humanism.
Jacobsen: What is the state of these world views and movements in Nigeria?
Igwe: Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, the socialist movement was very popular in Nigeria but the movement has been less visible and in fact has almost disappeared since the soviet bloc disintegrated.
I also heard about the pan-Africanist movement, which was effective during the anti-colonialism and anti-apartheid struggles. I do not hear so much about it these days. Apart from these ‘worldviews and movements’, the movement prominent in the region is religion, especially the Christian and Islamic movements.
Religious worldviews overshadow other worldviews. Religious movements override other movements. The most prominent movement in the region is religion. We are only beginning to see the emergence of non-religious movements, such as the humanist/atheist movements rear their heads.
However, these worldviews are far from commanding the influence and followership like the faith movement. I hope with the advent of the internet and the spread of information. We will witness a phenomenal growth of humanist, secularist, and rationalist movement in the region.
Jacobsen: Of those prominent irreligious individuals in Nigeria, who has the most impact in changing the policies, the legislation, the culture, and the scientific literacy of the country? Also, outside of individual effort, what about associations, collectives, and organizations?
Igwe: It used to be Tai Solarin but Solarin passed away in the 90s. Now, the most eloquent irreligious individual voice in Nigeria is our first Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka. Soyinka is an eminent literary scholar.
He has consistently argued for tolerance and respect for the humanity of all in the face of religious intolerance and extremism. Soyinka has not minced words in condemning the unconscionable religious gladiators in the region that have often turned the country into a theatre of absurdity and holy wars.
He has been consistent in his condemnation of the jihadists and crusaders who often orchestrate religious bloodletting in their quest to implement Sharia law or to further some self-styled divine mandate.
While I cannot say for sure how impactful his rational appeals are on policies and programs, Soyinka’s statements are sources of hope and light at times of darkness and despair. I can say for certain that on occasions when religious extremists push the nation to the brink.
When religion blinds and people are unable to see or think clearly, when fear and fanaticism loom very large, Soyinka is a voice of rational sanity, thoughtful courage, and moderation.
Apart from the individual voices such as Soyinka, there are no active irreligious associations making impact except the emerging irreligious bodies such as the Nigerian Humanist Movement and its affiliates.
Jacobsen: What research points to the increasing secularization and scientific literacy of the general populace?
Igwe: Gallup polls point to increasing religion and scientific illiteracy. In fact, not too long ago, Nigeria was polled to be the most religious nation on earth. However, one can point to the emergence of active humanist and free thought groups in the country as an indicator of the rise of secularism.
For instance, the Humanist Assembly of Lagos is hosting a conference in Lagos this July. Many irreligious individuals will be in attendance. Irreligious attendees are expected from various parts of the country including Kano and Plateau states in Northern Nigeria.
Recently, such meetings have taken place in Ibadan, Abuja, Calabar, Port Harcourt, Benin and Owerri; although, these are not captured in any poll or research they surely point to a growing secular space in the country!
Jacobsen: What are some of the worst reactions to the non-believing community, from children through to the elderly, in Nigeria?
Igwe: First, it is mainly a family issue. The state gets involved in more extreme cases. But this is rare.
The reactions take covert as well as overt forms. The reactions depend on how liberal or conservative a family is. Worst reactions are expectedly from conservative families. Just to let you have a feeling of what the reactions could be.
A popular Nigerian Muslim woman who was reputed to be a liberal person told me that she would have nothing to do with any of the children who renounced Islam. Under Sharia law, apostasy is a crime punishable by death.
So, reactions to non-belief include ostracization, severance of family support, abandonment, and other forms of maltreatment. In a society where the family is virtually everything in terms of social support and sustenance, family sanction is indeed the worse form of punishment for non-belief.
Jacobsen: Of those children that are abused, what are the statistics on them? How many? What kinds of abuse? What has been one of the most bizarre and tragic cases you’ve read or witnessed of Nigerian children being abused based on superstition?
Igwe: About 15,000 children are branded witches and subsequently abandoned in Southern Nigeria and in the Democratic Republic of Congo, many of the 25,000 homeless children living on the streets of Kinshasha are victims of witchcraft accusation.
I was involved in rescuing children who were accused of witchcraft and I heard very horrific tales. There were cases of children whose family members shackled and starved for several days. Some of children were flogged with sticks and iron and had bruises all over their body.
Others had gasoline poured on them and were set ablaze in the quest to expel the spirit of witchcraft.
Jacobsen: How can religion be liberalized? In America, they had Carl Sagan and have Neil Degrasse Tyson. Is there an equivalent in Nigeria?
Igwe:. We don’t have yet the likes of Carl Sagan and Neil Degrasse Tyson. It is not because there aren’t some scientists who can disseminate scientific ideas and principles.
The science is there. The scientists are there. But the popularizing scientific will is not. This is because scientists are afraid of backlash from religious establishments. Scientists do not want to disseminate scientific ideas in a way that they could be accused of blasphemy.
Religious authorities are still very influential in Nigeria and will go to any length to suppress and neutralize any one promoting science in a way that puts religious claims into question. Science is still within the cocoon and control of religious authorities.
Religion in Nigeria has yet to attain that liberalized state.
Jacobsen: What scientific discipline would have provided the greatest inoculation against the superstitions that most plague Nigeria, e.g. astronomy, biology, chemistry, or physics, and so on? Why?
Igwe: In tackling the disease of superstition, all inoculations are needed because pseudoscience and anti-science manifest in various forms and shapes. Astronomy would be helpful in addressing superstitious beliefs regarding the universe.
Nigerians strongly believe that God, the angels, ancestors and spirits are out there, somewhere in the sky. So, the notion of exploring the planets does not intrigue or command an appeal. Going to the moon or traveling to Mars seems like venturing into the territory of the gods, or embarking on a venture that could elicit the wrath of the divine.
A discipline that sees the ‘heavenly bodies’ as an object of study not of worship will be resourceful in dispelling credulous beliefs. Biology and chemistry will provide the antidote to irrational notions of life and physics will inoculate the people against supernatural beliefs. In Nigeria, belief that human beings can turn into birds, cats, and snakes is pervasive.
This belief is not innocuous because those whom people suspect to traversing these terrains are attacked and killed. A discipline that encourages Nigerians to seek evidence or to base their knowledge or claims on evidence is an asset in the anti superstition campaign.
Jacobsen: Is Creationism an issue there too, as with where I live, Canada? It is a problem here too. Moderate double-digit levels of superstition and Creationism exist — Young Earth Creationism even.
Igwe: Creationism is not just an issue; Creationism is the issue and exists in its both young and older Earth formations. That means in Nigeria people subscribe to the notion that the Earth was created whether it is a few thousand years ago or tens or hundreds of thousands of years ago.
The belief is that Earth came into being through a divine decree. People often show disdain for science because it challenges their creationist ideas.
Jacobsen: What has been a big victory for the humanist community in Nigeria?
Well, the victory is significant but not necessarily big because religions still have so much influence. Religious establishment still dominates public debate and policymaking. The humanist community is only trying to provide a counter weight and indeed there is a growing momentum of humanism and freethought.
I can only explain the growing visibility of humanism by stating as American philosopher and humanist, Corliss Lamont, once wrote that humanism is the next step. Yes, humanism is the next necessary step for Nigeria. Religion has held Nigeria hostage for too long.
Superstition has caused so much confusion, darkness, and deception. Dogma has been used to tyrannize over the lives of the people. So, this is the time for change and of some transformation based on reason, science, critical thinking, and humanity. People are yearning for freedom and emancipation. Humanism is critical in delivering that change and in the realization of social renewal.
Jacobsen: What are the differences in beliefs on important secular topics between the young, the middle aged, and elderly in Nigeria? Why these trends?
Igwe: The young tend to be more curious and critical as they seek to understand life and make sense of their experiences. But as they grow older they start questioning less and try to conform.
The young people tend to hold liberal positions on issues such as abortion or gay sex because they are not in positions of authority and not necessarily interested in the maintenance of law and order.
The youths are not interested in things or in issues as established, but in issues as they think. So, they can afford to challenge existing norms. However, as they grow older and get into positions of authority, the maintenance of law and order becomes paramount — and they become more conservative.
Jacobsen: How respected is freedom of conscience, belief, and speech in Nigeria, especially, in line with the prior questions, regarding critical questions about religion and its role in society — and the status of women?
Igwe: When it comes to critical questions of religion, freedom of conscience, belief and speech is a paper tiger in Nigeria. There is no freedom in religious matters. In fact, religion is presented as inadmissible of criticism, of opposing views and opinions whether it is the status of women, of children, gay, or of non-believers.
Religious positions are cast on stones. Views that are critical of religion easily get framed as blasphemy, which is a crime under Sharia law and is punishable by death or imprisonment.
Freedom of conscience, belief and expression is not respected because the exercise of such freedom ‘provokes’, ‘offends’ or insults the sensibilities of the religious and these are epithets to canonize and legitimize state sanction or mob action.
Jacobsen: What do you think about theological and social arguments for the respect for faith, for religion, and for traditions from faiths and religions?
Igwe: Theological arguments are supposed to provide ‘explanations’ for the existence of God. That means these arguments ought to persuade and make anyone who does not know about God to at least understand that God exists.
But unfortunately, this is not the case. Anyone who takes a critical look at the theological arguments would really wonder what those who advanced these explanations had in mind. For instance, the ontological argument explains God as “that than which nothing greater can be conceived.”
The cosmological argument states that God is the First Cause (of things). Whilst the teleological says that God exists as the designer of the universe. Now how have these arguments really provided justifications for the existence of the God of Christianity and Islam, or in fact any God at all? Given that the religions do not really agree on the notion and expression of the divine, which God have these arguments proved? The Biblical that appeared from nowhere, hovered over the void, created everything, and apparently retreated?
Or the Allah god who dictated the Quran to an illiterate in a cave, sent Muhammad, and then escaped back to paradise? Is that the being than which nothing greater can be thought? Surely, I can conceive a being greater than these Christian and Islamic constructs!
This flimsy reasoning applies to the social argument of faith which says that religion has a social value and provides a moral fiber that holds the community together. First, this idea is mistaken. Human beings are social beings with or without religion.
In fact, human beings lived in communities before the invention of religion. Religion only reinforced what has been part of human nature that is community life. In fact, the greatest tragedy is that religion hijacked the human sense of community.
This tragic role is evident in the challenges and difficulties of building communities in a religiously plural nation such as Nigeria. The role of religion in terms of community building is ambivalent.
While religion fosters a sense of family or community on one hand, it causes division and strain on the other because in a multireligious environment there are competing senses of family and community. Catholic community is different from the Protestant community.
Shia social sense is not the same as Sunni version. Faith or religion should not be respected to the extent that they peddle lies and deception, and fuel division, and hatred and intolerance.
Jacobsen: Who is the worst charlatan offender in Nigeria that abuses the positives of religion — societal community building and ordinary citizen activism?
Igwe: A key test of a community is how it treats the vulnerable members of the population. For me, the worst charlatan offenders are the witch hunters and the demon hunters because they ply their trade in ways that hurt and exploit human beings especially women, children, and the disabled.
Given my encounter with her and the church members, I would say that Helen Ukpabio of the Liberty Gospel Church is the worst charlatan and offender in Nigeria because of her vicious campaign against the rights and dignity of children using religion and witchcraft as a cover.
Jacobsen: What happens to those who speak out against religion, or who ask the simplest of critical questions?
Igwe: It depends on where in Nigeria one speaks out against religion and which religion is involved. In Muslim majority states in northern Nigeria, speaking out against Islam is blasphemy and it is punishable by death or imprisonment.
Criticizing Islam is dangerous not just because the state could prosecute, execute or jail the critic, but one could be killed by Islamic mobs.
In fact the chances are that one is more likely to die in the hands of the later than the former.
Unfortunately, killers of real or imagined critics of Islam are never brought to justice. In a high-profile case that recently happened in Kano, the court declared that suspected killers had no case to answer.
Jacobsen: Is prayer a standard and assumed ritual in meetings of political types, as in much of North America as well?
Igwe: Yes, prayer is a standard ritual in meetings and events. However, it is not all religious prayers that are said at all meetings and in all places. In Muslim majority sections, Islamic prayer is the standard.
Christian prayer is the norm in the Christian dominated areas of the country and both Christian and Islamic prayers at national gatherings especially in Abuja. These prayers take place despite the constitutional provision that prohibits the adoption of any religion as state religion.
Saying Christian and Islamic prayers at official meetings attests to the non-neutrality of the state in religious matters and official discrimination on religious grounds.
Jacobsen: How can formal education from the youngest ages to graduate training inculcate critical thinking, statistical principles of thought, scientific literacy, and heuristics of logic and formal reasoning?
Igwe: It is by making the inculcation of critical thinking more than a classroom, examination-passing affair. For now, science, logic, and critical thinking are taught as classroom subjects, as courses which students take with the aim of getting certificates and securing jobs.
Young people are not made to understand sufficiently that these are tools that they need to navigate through life. Heuristics of logic and formal reasoning should be taught as skills that are needed to everyday life.
Jacobsen: Who, in a neighbouring country, gives you hope for the humanistic future?
Igwe: The Humanist Association of Ghana gives me hope; yes, it does. I founded the Nigerian Humanist Movement and worked and campaigned to grow and develop it. For decades, I worked to grow and develop humanist groups in different African countries.
Many of the initiatives have fizzled out or have remained at individual activist or contact levels. So, it gladdens my heart that at last an effective humanist group has taken off in Ghana and is actively involved in coordinating the Humanist Service Corps project in northern Ghana.
A few years ago, such a humanist group sounded like a pipe dream but today it is a reality. I thank Roslyn Mould and her team for diligently delivering on this key humanist promise. I only hope that the humanist association in Ghana grows from strength to strength.
Jacobsen: Do many or some consider you a personal hero? If so, how does this feel, as an exemplar of the community of the irreligious with international reach?
Igwe: I do not think that some people consider me as a hero. I don’t really feel comfortable being placed in that box because I am not done yet. I want to keep doing my work in ways that would allow me to make mistakes and live my own life without being pressured to conform to anyone’s pattern or expectation.
However, I am aware that there are some who have said that they were inspired by what I did or have done. My feeling is this: How I wish I accomplished more and performed better than I did. I have always worked under constraints, with limited resources.
I have not always achieved as much as I would have loved to achieve I still feel that I did not do enough and has not done enough. We still do not have effective humanist, freethought, and skeptics groups in most African countries. That does not make me happy.
It is only when we have active humanist organisations in all African countries that I would feel fulfilled. And as you can imagine we are certainly a long way from reaching that goal.
Jacobsen: Thank you for the time, Leo.