In writing about World Humanist Day – for which we interviewed Activist and Member, Board of Directors Humanist Association of Nigeria, Dr. Leo Igwe – something nagged at my mind. There is a sizeable humanist population in Nigeria that cuts across demographics, regions, and ethnic identities, and somehow Nigerians rarely talk about humanism outside select circles of like minds.
Part of this is a lack of understanding of what humanism means. Yet, it is instructive to note that even where understanding exists there is an aversion to some of the core principles of humanism – like the bit about putting human good over that of any deity.
That last bit was a personal point of contention for a while as my understanding of the world evolved.
We asked random Nigerians what they think about humanism and some of the responses are hilarious. Thereafter we asked a handful of actual humanists how they view their humanism.
Non-humanist Nigerians on humanism
Ade and Manuel* believe that humanism is – akin to how Christianity is to them a personal relationship with Christ – human worship.
“I mean Christianity – Christ, Humanism – Human?” Ade said. He isn’t joking from the affirming head-bob from his friend.
We shared this resource with them, you may also find it instructive.
For Bibi* humanism is atheism.
“Every humanist I’ve ever come across has been an atheist,” she said with palpable frustration, “it is like ‘humanist’ is a code word for ‘atheist’ with these people.”
She doesn’t begrudge anyone using a code word if that’s what it is.
“Frankly, I don’t mind if they are atheists and using ‘humanists’ to hide, being an atheist isn’t easy in Nigeria.”
The fact is the two descriptors are not mutually exclusive.
Critical thinking with no adherence or affirmation of a divine creator or other supernatural force is invariably part of the core principles of humanism. However, because another indispensable principle of humanism is the freedom to think for oneself, it isn’t uncommon to find humanists who affirm a supernatural force of some sort.
Humanist Nigerians on their humanism.
Dami* who has been a humanist for over a decade sees humanism as simply a set of principles that exalt logic and seeks scientific explanations for life’s mysteries. He is also not averse to considering a supernatural force.
“To me, the belief in a supernatural force by itself ordinarily should pose no harm to the concept of humanism – which by my definition revolves quite entirely around empathy.
“It becomes a problem when people begin to act in ways that go against the above-mentioned tenet of humanism. When they jettison their empathy to appease said supernatural force.”
It is a completely understandable concern. Some of the worst atrocities of religion have come from people who, certain in the rightness of their position, forewent their empathy to harm others in the name of their God.
Nnaji* is a self-styled militant atheist who lives by the humanist principles of altruism, integrity, honesty, truthfulness, and responsibility derived from his human capacity for goodness.
“There is no supernatural force, just matter, energy and a lot of human hubris,” he said, “it is this hubris that made us believe we matter so much in the grand scheme of things that some supernatural force consciously designed us and continues to oversee our life.”
There is a redeeming quality in humankind that Nnaji remains a staunch believer of, however.
“For all our hubris, our immense capacity to be humane to one another, be corporative and fair remain our greatest qualities. I am a firm believer in that human capacity.”
One thing stood out in the course of the interviews that made this piece possible, that at least non-humanist Nigerians didn’t lean into hysteria and think humanists are Satan-worshipping, baby-eating, and naked dancing maniacs.
*It is important to know that all contributors here have at least a college degree.