“Nones” on the Increase in Africa; Risk Freedom and Family Support

Amina Ahmed, the wife of Muhammad Mubarak Bala, an atheist who has been detained since April 2020, is photograph in her home in Abuja, Nigeria, Sunday, Nov. 21, 2021. Bala was held incommunicado in police custody for so long — eight months — that Ahmed was sure he was dead. “I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t sleep. The emotional torture was too much for me,” she says. (AP Photo/Sunday Alamba)

Wives are not sure whether their missing husbands are dead or alive. The emotional torture from the unknown can sometimes prove to be too much.

Lengthy detention and its traumatic effect because one does not express a faith, is it worth it?

“It is generally accepted that to be African is to be religious,” said David Ngong, a Cameroon-born professor of religion who researches African theology and culture at Stillman College in Alabama. “It requires a lot of courage” to opt out.

Known as “nones,” atheists are among a growing global group who have no religious affiliation. They include agnostics and those who don’t profess any religion. By 2050, the Pew Research Center estimates, there could be 1.3 billion nones worldwide — about the size of the global Roman Catholic population today.

“Most of them, [the faithless] they hold their views in hiding simply because they are afraid of social consequences” such as losing jobs or financial support from their parents, said Wonderful Mkhutche, president of the support group Humanists Malawi.

Leo Igwe, who founded the Humanist Association of Nigeria and researches religion at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, agreed that nones pretending to be believers is common.

“Life is miserable,” Igwe said. “They have to live always looking over their shoulders, and they are forced to live in a very dishonest way.”

To counter the social isolation, Africa’s nones have begun connecting on social media and building support communities, with active online humanist groups in Ghana, Liberia, South Africa, Uganda and Zambia, among others.

– Ella Breedlove