28 August 2013
Most Kenyans are Christians with other members of the population practicing Islam, Hinduism, the Baha’i faith, Sikhism and traditional African religions. However, according to the Daily Nation, the number of atheists and agnostics in Kenya is on the increase. At last count there were about one million Kenyans (2.5% of the population) who said they did not belong to any religion. This number is relatively small but at 2.5% of the population, the religiously unaffiliated outnumber Hindus, Sikhs and followers of the Baha’i faith.
I would argue though, that there are more than one million non-believers in Kenya. Were the stigma attached to atheism removed or lessened, more people would be willing to openly admit they don’t believe that a god or gods exist. In a society where religion is so deeply entrenched it is easier to hide your disbelief rather than risk being made an outcast. It is easier to hide your disbelief than risk rejection from your family and friends or risk hurting your career prospects.
Any Kenyan coming out as an atheist, agnostic or freethinker will undoubtedly face some form of discrimination at some point. Some religious Kenyans won’t understand why anyone would renounce their religion. In another article on the rise of atheism in Kenya, one atheist speaks of a time his mother called in pastors from my own native country, Zambia, to exorcise him of his demons. The only explanation for any explanation for atheism this woman could accept was demonic possession, a form of possession so strong she had to call in preachers from another country.
The Daily Nation article is generally well written but it too demonstrates some of the misconceptions that atheists have to deal with. Consider for instance, the pentagram - a symbol associated with Satanism - that accompanies the article. Atheists in and outside of Kenya are not Satanists,* witches or members of the (non-existent) Illuminati. Unfortunately, these labels are dumped on us, especially within African settings. Though we don’t believe in a god or Satan, our rejection of god is seen as acceptance of Satan.
Kenya’s increase in atheism, however small, is a good thing. The more atheists come out and are open about their beliefs, the more they do to dispel the misconceptions and shatter the negative stereotypes. Some fearful atheists, agnostics and freethinkers who want to openly express their views will find inspiration from out and proud non-believers. And thanks to organisations such as the Freethinkers Initiative Kenya (FIKA), people who think they are alone in their views can connect with like-minded individuals. Curious theists and those who are questioning their religious views are also welcome to connect with FIKA members. Religion is still a dominant force in Kenya but with more vocal atheists, Kenya can inch closer to becoming a secular state where the rights of believers and non-believers are respected and upheld. New Atheism’s best-known figure is Kenyan-born Richard Dawkins and it looks like he may not be the last atheist activist to come out of this country.
*LaVeyan Satanism is essentially a form of atheism but those who follow the ‘religion’ do not actually worship Satan. Nor they believe that Satan or any gods actually exist.