Is it harder to "come out" as an atheist if you're black?

Liam McLaughlin speaks to members of the London Black Atheists group about the consequences of their decision to turn their backs on religion.

For many, having a religion is an important part of belonging to a community. Photo: Getty

When Clive Aruede’s twelve-year-old daughter asked him “What is science?” he couldn’t have known quite how much it would change his life. But when I meet him in a gloomy bar in Borough, Clive pinpoints this innocent question as the beginning of a long and arduous journey towards atheism.

The phrase he uses is that he “came out”, which implies that he had been hiding ‘in the closet’ – that he felt the beliefs or lifestyle of an atheist would be seen as objectionable to wider society. But being an atheist in the UK is hardly controversial. In the 2011 Census around 14 million people – a quarter of the UK’s population – claimed to have ‘no religion’. But for Clive this didn’t matter, because Clive is black.

According to figures from Christian Research in their 2005 English Church Census, black people are much more likely to be religious than most other demographic groups. The census showed that though black people only made up around 2 per cent of the population at the time, they nonetheless accounted for 7 per cent of churchgoers nationwide, and 44 per cent of churchgoers in London. In fact, at the time his daughter asked him about science, Clive was included in these figures because he, too, was a practicing Christian – a Eucharistic Minister, no less.

Lola Tinubu also fell into this demographic, though she had already been questioning God and religion since she was young. “It started with the tribal culture,” she tells me. “I asked my father about his relationship with my mother because I didn’t understand the inequality, and he said ‘That’s what God wants’, so that bothered me.” But despite her growing doubts throughout her teenage years, she went along with the tide of belief. When she came from Nigeria to the UK, she even joined an Evangelical church and preached in public. She laughs about this, and supposes she did it mostly because she needed to feel a part of a community.

For both Clive and Lola, like many millions of other black people, belief in God was never a matter of choice – it was just a fact, like the sun or the sky. The Bible held all the answers to any question they could possibly ask, and church formed the backbone of their social life. They grew up attending church every Sunday – filling the rest of their time with Bible studies and prayer meetings. Neither ever had the space to ask why.

For Clive though, the moment came when his daughter asked him about science. As he researched a response for her, he discovered a world of fascinating information he hadn’t known about before, which began to make him wonder if the Bible really did have all the answers. He was determined to find out more, so he read up on science regularly, and the tensions between what he was learning and the received wisdom of religion only got more strained.

Eventually he felt he had to make a choice. He could either continue believing in the supernatural power of God or instead embrace all he had been reading, and accept that science, not God, is responsible for the natural world. It was an extremely difficult process, but he settled on accepting atheism. For someone of Clive’s background, the social ramifications of such a decision are huge, but as a part of his “coming out”, he sent an e-mail to all his contacts, designed to explain himself. He was immediately inundated with outraged messages and attempts to prove he was wrong. Two people even flew over from Nigeria to talk with him in person.

For Lola, the final straw for God and religion came when her religious father visited from Nigeria. It turned out he enjoyed watching popular science TV shows. “That’s the irony of it!” says Lola. “He loves science!” But when he saw how genuinely interested in science she was, he told her “Facts are not the same as truth.” Lola realised that this absurd statement was “cognitive dissonance – he couldn’t reconcile his own beliefs with the facts.”

That was it. First she began asking difficult questions in Bible study. Then she stopped going to church altogether. She also stopped going to other social functions where prayer would form an inevitable part of the program. Her friends would often call, asking where she was, imploring her to come to the next event. But she couldn’t. Her self-imposed absence from a primary social hub of Nigerian culture – church – left her with no friends or social life, and this warm, vivacious woman ended up spending a year in treatment for clinical depression. It is often “a very long journey” for black people to become atheists, she says.

It was the same for Clive: “It’s been a very uncomfortable experience.” As far as his friends and family were concerned, “It was like claiming I was a demon or a devil.” He says it is still causing problems within his family, and this shows how difficult it is to become an atheist from a background where religion is everything. He stresses that for many black people, “Religion is woven into the whole texture of your life. It’s everything. It’s reality…part of your identity.” 

One nation under God

One of the most important revelations Clive and Lola had upon accepting atheism was seeing in full the corrosive effect religion has on their homeland, as well as many other countries in Africa.

Nigeria is a complex mesh of ethnicity, language, and religion, with much diversity and mixing amongst its people. Broadly speaking though, according to the CIA World Factbook, Nigeria’s religious make-up is 50 per cent Muslim, 40 per cent Christian, and 10 per cent indigenous beliefs, such as the Yoruba religion. Non-belief doesn’t even figure in the statistics. Islam is predominant in the twelve northern states, to the extent that they are all under partial or full Sharia law, where blasphemy can be punished by execution. The central and southern regions can be thought of – with many caveats – as majority Christian.

The prevalence of religion in Nigeria has only entrenched it as an unquestionable absolute – a law of nature as real as the second law of thermodynamics – such that even the most intelligent Nigerians often fail to identify the causes of Nigeria’s problems, and instead believe that the supernatural is their cause and solution. As Lola puts it, “Rationality is not allowed to supersede belief.” This invariably creates an environment where democracy is sidelined and despotism can flourish. With the divine as the final judge, accountability is seen as pointless. And since various supernatural forces are held responsible for problems, politicians can often get away with no punishment. In fact, Lola tells me that when a politician is confronted with a particular problem the best response – the one which will be lauded most by the media – is that he will pray. Thanks to the central importance of religion in Nigeria and many other African countries, elites are freed of the necessary checks on power and are able to do whatever they wish. Perhaps the best example Clive and Lola can find of this attitude is under the rule of Nigeria’s dictator General Sani Abacha, when people simply said of his brutality, “God will deal with him.”

The catch-22 in Nigeria is that because religion prevents the state from properly functioning, it leads to a lack of effective institutions – most importantly a welfare state. Perversely, religion then fills this vacuum, thereby forcing millions of people into reliance on churches or mosques for their very survival – compounding the political breakdown through the social dominance of religion. Tithes and donations (normally around 10 per cent of income) effectively constitute taxes, and Christians in particular have turned this into a business where the top religious leaders can become billionaires. Indeed, Pastor E A Adeboye, founder of the Redeemed Christian Church of God – a Pentecostal church with branches across the world – is one of many top pastors in proud possession of a private jet.

Wider Nigerian culture reflects this overbearing focus on religion, with TV networks broadcasting hours of sermons and religious talk shows, and some universities requiring prayers at the beginning of lectures. In short, Nigeria is stuck. “There’s no progress,” says Clive. “All you see is more and more churches and mosques…all the effort and ingenuity of the people goes into religious activities. It’s holding us back.” Lola goes further: “In Nigeria religion is a force for evil.” She believes that if nothing changes soon, religious fundamentalism – in the form of the Islamist group Boko Haram – could cause a civil war. Then they speculate as to how many Nigerians have had great ideas but no way of realizing them due to the amount of time and space religion takes up in their lives. “If Einstein was born in Nigeria. . .” Lola says, “. . .he’d be a pastor!” finishes Clive.

One world under reason

Regardless of the rise in arguments highlighting the dogma of atheism, it has been an overwhelmingly positive experience for Clive and Lola.

While Lola’s first feeling upon becoming an atheist was sadness for everything she hadn’t known, Clive’s was anger - anger at being deceived by religion since childhood. Anger at all the wasted years and the wasted efforts stuck in the confines of religious belief. But after this wore off, the wonder and excitement of gaining knowledge took over. “I was motivated to catch up with everything I didn’t know which I thought I should know,” says Clive. Lola admits learning still makes her feel “like a kid in a candy shop.” She attends lectures regularly, loves Brian Cox, and recently went to a recording of Dara Ò’Briain’s Science Club. “It was so exciting!” she enthuses.

Her newfound happiness hasn’t stopped some Nigerians accusing Lola of thinking she is white. “They think if you’re an atheist you’re rejecting the culture and the society – that you’re a traitor, that you’ve allowed the West to take over your mind. But rationalism isn’t the property of the West. It’s universal!” In fact, “Atheism has freed me to love the world…I can go to any part of the world and belong. My tribe is the world.” She describes a recent incident where she made friends with a Chinese woman at a humanist event. She says she would never have had the opportunity to share that experience had she not become an atheist. “It was so beautiful, so amazing. . . but religion is so divisive. Everybody else is wrong. If you mix with them, you’re mixing with evil.” Clive agrees, and adds, “We’re all part of the same human society.”

Late last year Clive, Lola, and two other friends organized the inaugural meeting of the London Black Atheists. Lola says of it, “Apart from having my child, it’s one of the best things that’s happened to me. It’s given me a new lease of life.” Clive explains how important it is to have a forum where black people can come if they are experiencing doubts about their belief. Through their focus on discussing science and philosophy, it acts as a support network for black people who are already atheists, or who are grappling with the possibility of “coming out”.

Listening to Clive and Lola converse during the few hours I spend with them, I get an insight into how the London Black Atheists operates – allowing space for joint learning and sharing stories. They have already held a number of events, and are going from strength to strength. “We just got our hundredth member today,” Clive tells us. “Guess what his name is. . . Christian!”

For more information about leaving religion, visit The Apostasy Project, which provided aid to some people mentioned in the article.

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