Twenty first century economists coined the phrase “Africa rising”. And Africans can be sure that African Atheism is rising. The world is staggering in the light of COVID-19. In responding to this pandemic, people’s underlying worldviews are surfacing. While Christians are navigating the possibility of pain and suffering with their caring and concerned Father, Atheists are doubting the existence of such a “god.” A “god” who is all powerful and yet allowed this remarkable pain and suffering.
This is the first article in a two-part series considering the rise of atheism in Africa. The second article unpacks the question of worldview and concludes by offering four practical tools for engaging those who identify as atheists.
African Atheism and COVID-19
COVID-19 is revealing the necessity of apologetics for ordinary Christians. In the past, I have engaged widely with Atheists in Kenya through public debates, as well as personal and social media interaction. Recently, I found it striking how Atheists responded to this global pandemic. One of the members on a Facebook platform observes:
“COVID-19 is a proof that we need more scientific research institutions and laboratories and maybe more equipped health care facilities and less churches, mosques and temples, or whatever you call that place you go to meet with your imaginary friends”
While Atheists in Africa have often said that ‘Christianity is a white man’s religion’, we could also challenge them that ‘Atheism is a white man’s irreligion.’
One senses the perennial and underlying issues that are raised by Atheists. These include the relationship between faith and science, the equality of different religions as well as the skepticism towards anything supernatural. While Atheists in Africa have often said that “Christianity is a white man’s religion”, we could also challenge them that “Atheism is a white man’s irreligion.”
The Roots of Atheism
African traditional societies had a conception of God, even though their conceptions of God were not similar to the Triune God of the Christian Scriptures. This was a given fact, that led one of the foremost scholars of African Traditional Religions, the late John Mbiti to quip “Africans are religious”. Atheism is an import from the west. The South African theologian J. H. Van Wyk notes the rise of modern Atheism in the 18th century as a result of the Enlightenment.
Fathers of Atheism
At the heart of the enlightenment was the idea that humans are a law unto themselves and that reason is king. This double emphasis on human autonomy and rationality carried over into the Western thought of the 19th century in the works of Feuerbach, Marx, Nietzsche and Freud. Van Wyk summarises the various strands of Atheism as follows:
- Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-1872) viewed the idea of God as wish fulfilment and a projection of the human mind.
- Karl Marx (1818-1883) argued that religion is the opium of the people.
- Friedrich Nietzsche (1840-1900) declared triumphantly that the (metaphysical) God is dead.
- Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) considered religious faith in God an illusion and a projection of infantile desires.
These views of God spilled into all fields of study and affected entire societies. We can clearly see a resurgence of Atheism in contemporary life. In the 2000s, a movement dubbed “new Atheism” gained momentum through the work of “The Four Horsemen” – Daniel Dennett’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meaning of Life (1995), Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion (2006), Sam Harris’ The End of Faith (2004), and the late Christopher Hitchens’ God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (2007). The underlying views of new Atheism are that evolution explains the origin of the world, while science and reason alone can deal with life’s realities, as opposed to religion.
Atheism in Africa
In Kenya, Atheists in Kenya are the major organised society pushing a similar agenda. They have been receiving popular airing on television and radio stations, for their seemingly “non-conventional” views. Additionally, they have been pushing for the retreat of religion from the public square. Yet what is clear from their interviews and our engagements with them is that they have merely imported a Western idea of irreligion or Atheism. In Nigeria, Atheists are organised under the Atheist Society of Nigeria and in South Africa, Atheist Movement of South Africa.
A Sampling of Atheistic Arguments
Generally, in their arguments, some Atheists commit logical and historical fallacies. For instance, in The End of Faith, Sam Harris lumps Christianity and Islam in the same box when he equates “Jesus” to “Allah” as well as “Ram” (p35). Yet an elementary understanding of both religions reveals differing views on the person and work of Jesus Christ. Harris also contends that past injustices, such as political executions, slavery and murders, have been as a result of religion (p26). He therefore advises that we should abandon religion. This has been the similar push by Atheists in Kenya. A careful look at some of these injustices will quickly reveal that religion was not the only factor.
Faith vs. Science
Many Atheists continue to portray a shallow historical analysis. When they dichotomise faith and science, they forget the history of Christians in the field of scientific development. In contemporary society, the sociologist Elaine Howard Ecklund has debunked this accepted sentiment by showing that more than 50% of 1,700 scientists in top universities are people of faith – although her definition of faith is quite broad.
When Atheists dichotomise faith and science, they forget the history of Christians in the field of scientific development.
The point is that the common view of faith and science is a false dichotomy. I have made these arguments elsewhere in more depth to conclude that Atheism is not an intellectual problem. The fact that there are many scientists who are also people of faith goes to show that the challenge by Atheists that faith is unreasonable is a false dilemma. Additionally, unbelief is an integrated matter of the heart and the head as Paul notes, “They [the Gentiles] are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart” (Ephesians 4:18).
No Place for Morality?
Another question of debate among Atheists and Christian apologists is in the area of morality. Because Atheism views the origin of the world from an evolutionary lens, it does not consider any inherent purpose in the universe. Carl Sagan’s description of the universe as the “pale blue dot” has been amplified by Richard Dawkins, in River Out of Eden (p133), “The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.”
“Blind, pitiless indifference”. The logical end goal of Atheism is Nihilism – or in other words, oblivion. Consequently, some have suggested that Atheists can thus have no basis of morality. If they do, their grounds of morality would be borrowing from the objective morality inherent in the Judeo-Christian worldview.
But why has the Atheist movement found a resonance with the emerging African generations?
Atheism and African Millennials
Three things are stimulating Atheism in Africa. First, African Atheism has been popularised by the rise of scientism through Western education and the social media phenomenon (see J. P. Moreland’s comparison of science and scientism). An influx of Atheistic views in the continent has come through Africans either being educated in the West, where there is a strong secular worldview, or being connected to the global world through the internet.
A Distorted Picture of God
Secondly, caricatures of Christianity have stimulated African Atheism (such as excessive charismania). These paint a distorted picture of God as well as the Christian faith. The majority expression of Christianity in Africa is Pentecostal or charismatic, of course with their wide variety of nuance. However, the excessive versions of these have portrayed God as an ATM machine or a modern day “Santa Claus”. Based on this overemphasis on wealth and health, many Christians are not equipped with a robust theology that can deal with evil, pain and suffering in our world. Thus, when Atheists critique Christianity, they critique a false representation of the Triune God in Scripture, who is the Sovereign Lord of all.
Caricatures of Christianity have stimulated African Atheism
Thirdly, African Atheism is growing because of the retrieval of traditional African religions. This seems counter-intuitive. But with the resurgence of African millennials tracing their African identities in a postmodern and global world, African Atheists are finding a vehicle for casting the age-old assertion that Christianity is at odds with African identity. Thus, African Atheists continue to bemoan Christianity as a white man’s religion. The TGC Africa apologetics article titled, Does Christianity belong in Africa?, as well as the other articles in the series, engage Christian faith with African issues.
The Underlying Worldview of Atheism
Atheism is made up of two words: “a” and “theism”. ‘A’ is a negation. And ‘theism’ is “belief in God”. Thus, Atheism can be defined as a lack of belief in the existence of God or gods. Although Atheists themselves expand this definition, this simple definition is helpful in understanding Atheism. In terms of demographics, although small, there is an increment in the population of atheists in Kenya – currently standing at 1.6% according to the 2019 Kenyan population census. Similar and growing trajectories have also been noted in South Africa as well as in Nigeria. However, behind the tag Atheist or Atheism, lies an underlying view of the world, called scientific naturalism; that only what is tangible exists. Or stated negatively: that the supernatural does not exist.
Whether you realise it or not, whether you’ve rationalised it or not, a worldview is a lens through which you view the world.
Looking Through A Different Lens
Imagine yourself, after COVID-19 comes to an end, sitting on a sandy beach. You are there with your friend, and she has her sunglasses on. Both of you are gazing into the beautiful horizon of the ocean. You begin a conversation about the colour of the ocean. You say the blue of the ocean fits very nicely with the bright blue sky. She says “actually, the green colour of the ocean contrasts better with the blue sky”. You see blue. She sees green, a darker shade, because of the sunglasses. You are both looking at the same ocean. Why the difference?
The difference is likely because of the sunglasses that add a different perspective to the reality. In reality, the ocean is blue. But because of the lens through which you are both gazing through, it may appear different. This is basically the concept of worldview. Whether you realise it or not, whether you’ve rationalised it or not, a worldview is a lens through which you view the world.
Atheism and Christianity, and any other religion for that matter, operate on different worldviews. These worldviews have different ways of answering the deepest human questions: where do we come from? What is our meaning in life? What happens after we die? Atheism operates from a view that holds that “only what can be measured is real” – scientific naturalism or materialism. Christianity operates from a Judeo-Christian worldview, which includes the revealed truths of a powerful and personal God, beauty and the corruption of sin, good and evil, and heaven and hell, among others.
The second part of this article will further engage this underlying worldview of Atheism in Africa – that is scientific naturalism – and contrast it with a Biblical worldview. The basis will be to encourage Christians that they stand on the solid ground of divine revelation. They have the tools to engage those who are considering or identifying with Atheism.