Africa, home to growing number of Christians and Muslims, contends with atheists, too

Thousands of Catholics sing as they wait to welcome Pope Francis to Nairobi, Kenya, on Nov. 24, 2015. Africa has traditionally been a deeply religious continent. RNS photo by Fredrick Nzwili

NAIROBI, Kenya (RNS) — When the doors swing open every Sunday morning, churches in Africa welcome thousands of new followers.

On this deeply religious continent, both Christianity and Islam are on the rise. But small groups of determined atheists are challenging Africa’s grip on faith while seeking recognition and more followers.

Across Africa, groups have emerged stressing science and critical thinking as a better way of understanding the natural world.

One such group, Atheists in Kenya, has gained prominence and is now campaigning for a public holiday, Atheist Day, on February 17.

“We are asking the government to declare a public holiday as a way of raising awareness of atheism in Kenya,” said Harrison Mumia, the group’s president.

On the holiday, the group would convene “godless” parades while promoting freedom of religion and human rights in the East African country where more than 80 percent are Christians and about 10 percent are Muslims.

“We want to promote science and skepticism, and have an approach to morality that is rational and humanistic,” Mumia said.

Atheists in Nigeria are also becoming more vocal, pushing for public policies that are not influenced by religious belief but by critical thinking and science-based evidence.

“We have formed a legal body — the Atheist Society of Nigeria — to push for the vision of secular Nigeria,” said Calistus Igwilo, the group’s president.

Atheists have organized in most sub-Saharan African countries, including Ghana, South Africa, Zimbabwe and Uganda.

The groups say their numbers are on the rise, but membership is still relatively small.

Atheists in Kenya estimates it has 650 members in 2018, up from 60 in 2014, and boasts a social media following of more than 10,000. The Atheist Society of Nigeria counts about 5,000 members.

Harrison Mumia, president of Atheists in Kenya, in Nairobi. RNS photo by Fredrick Nzwili

“This is quite remarkable, considering that very few atheists are willing to come out due to the stigma associated with being an atheist,” said Mumia.

Clerics and scholars are confident atheists will face an uphill battle in attracting a wider following. The future of Christianity lies in Africa, and by 2060, more than 4 in 10 Christians will call sub-Saharan Africa home, up from 26 percent in 2015, according to Pew Research Center.

In addition, 27 percent of all Muslims will live in sub-Saharan Africa by 2060, according to Pew. By contrast, atheists compose about 2 percent of the continent’s population.

Jesse Mugambi, professor of philosophy and religious studies at the University of Nairobi, said atheism and agnosticism are shunned in traditional African thought.

“Many Kenyans consider Kenya to be a God-fearing country,” added Mumia. “Atheists are therefore considered devil worshippers.”

Some atheists have been laid off from work for refusing to participate in religious practices. Others are disowned by their families.

“They look quite strange (on) the continent where the concept of God spreads wide, even to the heart of African traditional communities,” said Wilybard Lagho, vicar general of the Catholic Archdiocese of Mombasa, in Kenya. “It is a very difficult task.”

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  • There is good news form Africa, the Middle East and india — as Atheist numbers grow — although in may cases atheists have to stay in the closet or be in danger. This below, from the article is disgraceful…

    -> “Many Kenyans consider Kenya to be a God-fearing country,” added Mumia. “Atheists are therefore considered devil worshippers.”

    Yes, both Christianity and Islam are growing fast in Africa because of birth rates…sadly they will be killing each other more rapidly also…in fact they already are as Saudi money and American missionaries use Africans for a religious proxy war.
    Secular people must provide a more rational alternative to the religious tribalism infecting so much of Africa and the world.

  • Unfortunately it’s not only in Africa that the fear of rational non-belief is so great that people who think that they are going to Heaven have to demonise the absence of belief.

    When an individual has sunk effort, money and time in to an irrational course of action that has failed to provide that which they hoped it is more comfortable to pretend that “everyone believes in something, and most peoples’ something is more stupid than mine”. than to admit the probability that supernatural belief leads to squandering wealth, health and happiness.

  • “Many Kenyans consider Kenya to be a God-fearing country,” added Mumia. “Atheists are therefore considered devil worshippers.”

    People who believe in supernatural beings can’t seem to accept that there are other people who don’t.

  • Old news. The first Homo sapiens some 200,000 years ago in Africa probably counted a number of atheists among them.

  • Messaging matters. If an atheist is considered a devil worshipper, then being a non-theist, a not-theist, needs better explanation. Truth be known, the world is in desperate need of more people who are disinterested in so much “God’ stuff yet with tolerance for the human message of Jesus for us to love one another, or at least try to. A bunch of people otherwise just arguing with each other about whether Revelation end times or Islamic end times are “correct” are what? How about trouble? Is that a good word for them?

  • Jesus, as Rabbi teacher extraordinaire, enters the world of numerous competing views and opinions. He offers people the opportunity to be born from above by repentance of sins and receiving his Spirit into their lives in Matthew 9:35-38. Some will respond favorably, most will not. In Matthew 13:24-30, Jesus explained in his parable of the wheat and the weeds growing together, that different and competing ideas with flourish together until the harvest. Jesus offered this opportunity to the Jews first, then to anyone who chooses to respond to his offer. Multiple perspectives will compete for attention. Jesus offers numerous miracles and his resurrection from death, as reported by numerous eyewitnesses of his experiences, as evidence of his ability to save a person from their sins and rebirth their lives by his Spirit as explained in Luke 24:44-48.

  • Atheism is rationally bankrupt & unsupportable in both America and Africa. It is the original Nothingburger.

    Order up some John 3:16 instead. Get something that will stick to your bones.

  • It appears probable that everyone must have been atheists before the first barbarian human man invented the first gods in his own image.

    Today globally the third largest and fastest growing human demographic are non religious and religion is almost moribund within the best educated and most developed nations of the world.

    It has been written that “religion poisons everything” . If that is the case, education and free secular democracy is proving to be the antidote to that poison.

  • According to the annually published “Global Peace Index”, the top ten most peaceful nations today are also the ten least religious free secular democracies the world has ever witnessed. No communist totalitarian state ranks among them. Neither does the guns and his crazy USA.

    The totalitarianism of communism is entirely similar to the totalitarianism of religion and the most peaceful and best educated nations reject both.

  • It’s interesting that you name two backward regions of the world that remain blighted by religion while the most peaceful, educated and prosperous secular democracies of the world are those in which religion is almost eradicated.

    It’s written that “religion poisons everything” and history and contemporary conflicts confirm that fact. The best news for humanity is that freedom, education and secular democracy have already proved to be the antidote to that poison and other totalitarianism .

  • You must mean yes?
    The least religious nations are the most peaceful and that should be the aspiration for those countries and regions still blighted by the childish nonsense of religious superstitions.

  • What does communism have to do with this? Mind you the only reason Communist states tend to be Atheistic, is because repressive regimes don’t like to share power with the church. They replace god with the state. This has nothing to do with reason and science based modern atheism.

  • rationally bankrupt? As every major sect of Christianity is embroiled in vast scandals involving covering up decades of child abuse and protecting the abusers, Islam is dragging half the planet into repressive regimes and intellectual dark ages, but you’re calling Atheism “rationally bankrupt”? I do believe your book of fairy tales has something to say about throwing the first stone sir.

  • Yes, of course: the Soviet Union, North Korea, China, Vietnam, Cambodia, and so on.

    There’s no millions of dead there, nothing to look at, move along.

  • Very good story. But why use the word “contends” in the headline? That makes it seem like atheism is a problem that has to be grappled with, a threat to the “real” Kenyans. Are science and reason things to “contend” with? Shouldn’t they rather be embraced?

  • “It is the inevitable result of atheism”

    Wrong. In every case the atheism came after the communism as a means of diverting power and worship to the state. Western Europe is rapidly accepting secularism, without gunpoint and count among them by far the most peaceful and prosperous nations on this planet for their troubles.

  • Yes. Totalitarian communist (and fascist) states are as bad as totalitarian religious regimes NB and they are all well down the “Global Peace Index”.

    The top ten most peaceful nations are also aducated, free, secular DEMOCRACIES.

    We peaceful, humanitarian free and democratic atheists hate the vile totalitarianism of political tyrannies as much as we hate the tyranny of religion.

  • Was that comment accidently meant for a different article? This OP was about African Atheists.

  • They also can’t see the irony: If believing in “God” makes you good, what does believing in the “Devil” make you? Atheists believe in neither.

  • Did you ever think that maybe if believers had wielded their power more appropriately, they might have set a better example for the secular folks that subsequently gained in (soft) power? Why do believers get a pass on their history of state-enforced bigotry and denial of freedom of conscience?

  • The way you’ve constructed your question you’ve begged the answer.

    It assumes as that the secular folks gained in power, which is debatable.

    Human beings engage in all sorts of misbehaviors.

    Being enrolled in this or that religion may alter the frequency of that, but it certainly does not eliminate it.

    That answers “state-enforced bigotry and denial of freedom of conscience”.

    Secular folks have not been particularly exempt from either behavior, either.

  • Of course.

    I am sure you were a hit at parties in college.

    Could you leave me out of the pranks and point them elsewhere?

  • Yeah sure…You first stop the non-sequiturs accusing everybody of being a heathen, commie first.

    You want to troll every serious comment…that is what you get in return — Comrade Bob.

  • Yes, my original, quite reasonable comment, above in this thread…about Atheism, Christianity and Islam…included nothing about communism until you injected it — unnecessarily.

  • Mentioning the Inconvenient Truth that everywhere atheism has ruled there has death, destruction, and miscellaneous what-not to the tune of many millions of lives is hardly unnecessary.

  • We’ll start with a few essentially secular, at least somwhat atheistic, societies.

    Japan, Denmark, Sweden, Netherlands UK, especially Scotland

  • OK — then don’t complain when you are pranked and treated as an ignorant troll.

    Regards to you, Comrade Bob !!

  • Nothingburger…Wow, you really stuck it to those skin and bones nonbelievers !!

    Gospel of John has Atheists running to the hills. Please don’t hit us with “No Objective Morality”…we just can’t handle it !!

  • Communist dictatorships used the framework of Christianity for their political structures. Incorporating its own form of theology, saints, idolatry and uncritical acceptance of authority. Stalin learned how to be a dictator from his schooling in the seminary. They are not so much atheist as they replace worship of supernatural figure to worship of the state.

  • That is unless churches support the repressive regimes as is the case with fascism. Entanglement of churches and reactionary states goes back to the beginnings of both.

    There is a compelling reason both reactionary Christians and neo-nazis find common ground on most issues.

  • Instead of worrying about whether people believe or don’t believe, how about working for human rights for all, regardless of religious belief.

  • “….everyone must have been atheists….”

    No equivocation about it.

    We are all born, atheists.

  • No need for the myths, legends, superstitions and lies to lead a good life of love and service to humanity.

  • Not only did I already to it, I provided information on it.

    None of the countries were “atheistic”.

    Have a good day.

  • Who mentioned atheistic?
    Non religious is the category of peaceful nations under discussion.

    Even the gun crazy USA has fewer than 18% of the population within any place if religious indoctrination on any given Sunday according to the attendance figures published by the American Church Leaders organisation.

  • You’re rather going on and on.

    Let’s pick the Scandanavians as an example:

    Norway –

    Until 2012 parliamentary officials were required to be members of the Evangelical-Lutheran Church of Norway, and at least half of all government ministers had to be a member of the state church. As state church, the Church of Norway’s clergy were viewed as state employees, and the central and regional church administrations were part of the state administration.

    In 2012, the Norwegian parliament voted to grant the Church of Norway greater autonomy, a decision which was confirmed in a constitutional amendment on 21 May 2012.

    Members of the Royal family are required to be members of the Lutheran church.

    About 70.6% of Norwegians were members of the Church of Norway in 2017. In 2017, about 53.6% of all newborns were baptised and about 57.9% of all 15-year-old persons were confirmed in the church.

    In 2010, 10% of the population was religiously unaffiliated, while another 9%, were members of religious communities outside the Church of Norway.

    ( )

    Sweden –

    In 2000, the Church of Sweden was disestablished.

    At the end of 2016, 61.2% of Swedes belonged to the Church of Sweden.

    Sociology professor Phil Zuckerman claims that Swedes, despite a lack of belief in God, commonly question the term atheist, preferring to call themselves Christians while being content with remaining in the Church of Sweden.

    ( )

    Denmark –

    Christianity is the dominant religion in Denmark. In January 2017, 75.9% of the population of Denmark were members of the Church of Denmark (Den Danske Folkekirke), the officially established church, which is Protestant in classification and Lutheran in orientation.

    ( )

    Finland –

    With 3.9 million members, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland is one of the largest Lutheran churches in the world and is also by far Finland’s largest religious body; at the end of 2017, 70.9% of Finns were members of the church.

    In 2016, 69.3% of Finnish children were baptized and 82.3% were confirmed in 2012 at the age of 15, and over 90% of the funerals are Christian.

    Neutrality –

    Sweden, like Switzerland, is famed for its armed neutrality, which it maintained throughout both World War I and World War II.

    Finland is neutral through a bilateral agreement with the former Soviet Union, now carried forward with Russia.

    ( )

    So, now we that we understand you and the list are either confused or muddling about trying to prop up a stupid idea with bad assumptions, do yourself and everyone else a favor and move on with your life.

  • Your condition of indoctrinated delusion and denial was already self evident. No further demonstrations needed

  • I believe my post on a selection of countries on your list demonstrated that the indoctrinated delusion and denial is on your side of the discussion.

    No further demonstrations are needed.

  • You forgot the Inquisitors (Commissars) planted everywhere in Soviet society to enforce absolute conformity to Marxist-Leninist doctrine.

  • Yes, but religion is on ly dangerous when it takes ocntrol of the government (or vice versa , as with the Inquisition in Spain answerable to the king, not the pope). Is this happening in the USA? Well, could be.

  • Lol, you’d be better of as an alcoholic telling your tales at a bar full of codgers than as a snarky troll/denier of facts in defense of religion. Which probably cringes at your support.

  • Actually, both relied far less on inquisitors than propaganda would claim. Like every other repressive regime, they depended on neighbors spying on each other for some reward. People denouncing others to avoid being denounced themselves.

    Communist regimes tended to be more random and arbitrary about who was to be victimized than fascist states were. During the Great Terror in the USSR KGB officials simply had quotas to fill for the number of people to be imprisoned or executed. Mao’s Cultural Revolution was much of the same. Pretty much anything would qualify someone as a hated “kulak” without any rhyme or reason.

    BTW the Catholic Church worked closely with the apparatus of repression for fascist regimes in Spain, Croatia, and most of Latin America.

  • It’s not recorded when the first man invented the first god in his own image, but it’s possible that all our hominid ancestors were as non religious as our closest ape cousins?

  • Yes. Most fraudulent businesses of religion make claims that church attendance figures reveal as lies.

    Keep believing in garbage while religion declines and the younger generations laugh at the nonsense you fail to NB justify, defend or excuse.

    Your wilful ignorance is no excuse for your egotism.

  • I love how you’re avoiding the obvious fact that the four examples I chose from your list torpedoed your position.

    Now you’re going to do a little tapdance and claim facts are wilful ignorance.

    More hahahahaha yourself.

    One more along these lines and you’re blocked. You’re purposely wasting my time with nonsense.

  • Religion is dangerous whenever it has any power at all.
    The inquisition lasted during some 300 years and was active way outside the kingdoms of Spain.

    Christianity was cobbled together from mostly pagan components and brutally imposed upon the then known world in the 4th century. That was followed by dark ages of terror and torture, 9 genocidal crusades, centuries of inquisition and the individual torture and murder of innocent enlightened citizens like Geordano Bruno.

    Religion poisons everything but education and free secular democracy is increasingly proving to be the antidote to that vile poison.

  • The implicit core-constituent of the concept represented by the word ” god “, immediately created the implicit core-constituent of the concept represented by the word ” atheist “.

    If deadly smallpox never existed, there would be no need for life-saving smallpox vaccine.

  • Let”s face it Ben. At its very best, Atheism is nothing but Target Practice for Christians. Honestly never seen such an unsupportable & useless religion in my life.

    Re-read the article. Those poor African atheists can’t even rationally explain why Christian Africans should drop their Christianity at all.

    Can’t even rationally explain to fellow Africans how and why Gid doesn’t exist; can’t even explain why agnosticism is true (it ain’t); can’t even explain to rural Africans what defense Atheism offers against practitioners of witchcraft and curses. (It doesn’t offer ANY defenses.)
    Atheism is beyond worthless.

  • Atheism demands a clear abandonment of rational thought and evaluation. It’s the worst religion you can sign up for. Agnosticism too.

  • Science and Reason are the mortal enemies of Atheism & Agnosticism.

    If you’re stuck in the latter two, you’ve abandoned the former two.

  • Oh the irony.
    Your litany of denial and recycled propaganda has done nothing to validate, justify or excuse your wacko claims of super-spooks and magical creation of a universe FROM NOTHING by an undetected and undetectable god from nothing.

    If your ongoing humiliation is too much to bear, by all means admit defeat and cut and run from further exppsure to ridicule. Your admission of capitulation will be clear to anyone still following this thread.

    You retain my sympathy, son.

  • Your denial of the accelerating decline of religion all across the developed world is pitiful.
    All leaders of all religions recognise what you deny and the ever growing number of rotting and redundant churches that litter our villages, towns and cities makes your denial look even more ridiculous.
    My other response applauds your admission of capitulation.

  • Your belief in “the accelerating decline of religion all across the developed world” is pitiful.

    But, no matter. You’re blocked.

  • You are incorrect in referencing “god” in the singular as millions of undetected and undetectable gods and goddesses have been invented by self serving men since the first god was dreamed up by an ignorant confused barbarian.

    It is written (with good historical support) that religion poisons everything – but education and free secular democracy is proving to be the antidote to that vile poison.

  • Science and reason are the enemies of atheism and agnosticism?

    Hahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha always!

    Martin Luther had a lot to say about the evils of ‘reason.’ Here is just one quote:
    “Reason must be deluded, blinded, and destroyed. Faith must trample underfoot all reason, sense, and understanding, and whatever it sees must be put out of sight and … know nothing but the word of God.”

  • The ” God ” I’m referring to is that (he/she/it/other) which all Roman Catholics pledge their sanity – the ” God ” whose representatives on earth speak ” truth ” and the correct way for humans to think and act – to those whom they have inculcated at a very early age to fear – the ” God ” they are sole and exclusive intercessors (priests) of, in behalf of those they have already inculcated, to ” kneel ” on command and give large sums of money to these intercessors, so they might exert total and complete domination – emotionally, psychologically and physically of the kneeling ” pious ” they have so carefully hooked on a diet of divinely trans-substantiated human flesh and blood.

    The same “God ” that the Roman Catholic hierarchy and priests have ” employed ” for 1500 yrs, to turn humankind into their slaves – and the children of whom – they rape to satiate their psychotic lust for domination.

    That ” God “.

  • Others reading this column may be as gratified as I am at this sign of capitulation from the wacko creationist Bob Arnzen who runs away from further humiliation when his childish superstitions are challenged and his lies exposed.

    Being blocked is a sign of victory.

  • Just another undetected and undetectable non-existent super-spooks used by generations of men to persecute, dominate and dwindle the ignorant and the gullible then?

    Nothing original or unique and no different from millions of other undetected and undetectable non-existent spooks.

    Thank goodness no gods exist and the fraudulent institutions of religion are in decline.

  • Funny.

    As evidenced by the growing slide to communist in Western Europe, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Australia actuslky pretty much the entire developed world.

    Thanks for demonstrating what kind of ignorance and dishonesty I have come to expect of you.

    What you call “socialism” was mainstream center left policy a generation ago.

  • As freedom, peace, education and secular democracy has clearly become the “wheat” across most of the developed and non religious world, the rotting “weeds” of empty redundant churches are the evidence of the advance of peaceful civilization.

    Religion poisons everything but educatiion and free secular democracy has already proved to be the antidote to that vile poison.

  • They aren’t theist, therefore you are wrong.
    And probably don’t know what the word “atheist” means.


    atheist (n.)

    1570s, “godless person, one who denies the existence of a supreme, intelligent being to whom moral obligation is due,” from French athéiste (16c.), from Greek atheos “without god, denying the gods; abandoned of the gods; godless, ungodly,” from a- “without” (see a- (3)) + theos “a god” (from PIE root *dhes-, forming words for religious concepts).

    The existence of a world without God seems to me less absurd than the presence of a God, existing in all his perfection, creating an imperfect man in order to make him run the risk of Hell. [Armand Salacrou, “Certitudes et incertitudes,” 1943]

    If you have one of those definitions that tries to palm agnosticism off as atheism, don’t bother.

  • Etymological dictionaries don’t give you the technical definitions of a word.
    Atheism is the absence of theism (i.e.: if you aren’t theist you are atheist, and viceversa; it’s just that simple). Agnosticism may be present or not either way, and atheism can be further divided in several subgroups (e.g.: hard and soft atheism, explicit and implicit atheism, anti-theist or not, agnostic or not, apatheism, ignosticism), but at its strictest meaning atheism is just the superset of all people who aren’t theist.

    You seem to consider agnosticism a sort of “middle ground” between theism (the positive belief that gods are real) and hard atheism (the positive belief that gods are not real), right? Feel free to correct me if that’s not what you implied. In any case, that “negative” middle ground between the two “positive” positions would be soft atheism; agnosticism is a separate category, it is not a subset of atheism (although there is some overlap between agnostics and soft atheists), as some theist people are agnostic as well.

  • Etymological dictionaries tell you what the word was intended to convey.

    Theism – there is a deity.

    Agnosticism – don’t know if there is deity.

    Atheism – there is no deity.

  • As I said, “If you have one of those definitions that tries to palm agnosticism off as atheism, don’t bother.”

    You can insist anything you want.

    I do understand that people like yourself have blurred the meanings between atheist and agnostic into mush.

    Unfortunately there is an actual trail from the formation of the words and their meanings that make it clear that your approach is a misuse of the terminology.

    However, since you proceeded to start the argument after I stated “don’t bother”, I’ve blocked you.

    Better luck with the next person you try this with.

  • I’m NOT conflating agnosticism and atheism. I’ve made it pretty clear that they are not the same at all.

    Anyway, let’s see if I’ve understood the definitions you use.

    * “Being convinced that gods are a real thing and actually exist“. I think we both call this “theism”, right?
    * “Not being convinced that gods are a real thing” (i.e.: not being theist). I call this “atheism”. Do you have a specific term for this?
    * “Being convinced that gods are not a real thing and don’t actually exist“. This is called “hard atheism” (also “strong atheism” or “positive atheism”); it’s what you mean when you say “atheism”, right?
    * “Not being convinced by either the argument that gods are real nor that the argument that gods are not real“. This is “soft atheism” (also “weak atheism” or “negative atheism”). I think this is what you call “agnosticism”, is that correct?
    * “Being convinced that it is unknown whether gods are real or not“. Agnosticism.

    Did I misunderstand any of your definitions? Feel free to correct me if so.

    Also see this:

  • This same thing already happened in America and the UK during the 1970’s-1990’s. It was called the satanic panic. I have bad news for the religious living in Kenya. History is not on your side.