After leaving their comfort zone, atheists in Kenya are gaining visibility
NAIROBI, Kenya (RNS) – A small atheist organization in Kenya is gaining traction in the predominantly Christian nation as it tackles political ideologies and human rights issues, wading into debates outside of its criticisms customs of religion.
While the group has maintained its calls for reforms in church regulations and religious education, it has also drawn attention to plans to distribute personal hygiene supplies in Kenya’s slums and to supporting a schoolboy in need – the kind of charity that is primarily the province of church groups here.
“We are trying to impress upon Kenyans that we are not a strange bunch,” Harrison Mumia, president of the Atheist Society of Kenya, told Religion News Service. “We want to show that we can empathize with situations and also offer interventions.”
The group showed some of their new muscle in late January, after Ida Odinga, wife of former Prime Minister Raila Odinga, backed down from her criticism of what she said was botched training for clergy Christian in this East African country and illegal churches. by poorly educated clerics.
RELATED: Ex-Muslims in India find solidarity online in the face of social and familial rejection
“I sincerely apologize for any inconvenience caused as I didn’t mean to hurt anyone,” Odinga said on Jan. 28, just a day after his critical comments. “I repeat that training only enhances the service of preaching and promotes the ministry of the Word of God.”
The Society of Atheists in Kenya echoed Odinga’s call for reform, arguing that the church in Kenya has been commercialized and that legislation is needed to ensure transparency and accountability in religious institutions.
“The government should close churches that do not meet the operating threshold,” Mumia said.
But with elections looming in August, the group began reaching out to political parties to sign a statement that they would not discriminate against anyone based on their religion or lack thereof.
“When you look at our politics,” Mumia said, “there is always an affirmation that God is with us. We even have the aspect that the president is chosen by God. We call on political party leaders to assure Kenyans that they will not go to the countryside talking about God.
Their campaign is not just targeting the freedoms of atheists, but what they say is a greater good. “The political leadership needs to change and we believe that atheists in Kenya will be the driving force behind this transformation. The transformation will lead to a more equal society, where no one will be discriminated against on the basis of religion or lack thereof,” Mumia said.
In a country where 85% of the 50 million citizens are Christians, around 755,000 are atheists, according to Kenya’s 2019 population census report. Atheist leaders say their polls show a number closer to 1.5 million. “We get a lot of new members and engage with them,” Mumia said in an interview. “Kenya is changing. This should be the next earthquake.
Religious leaders have long resisted attempts by the atheist society to register with the government as an official religious group. After sustained pressure, the government issued the group a registration certificate in 2016, three years after its establishment at a meeting in Nairobi in 2013.
Loreen Maseno, a senior lecturer at Maseno University, said atheists are increasingly visible in Kenya and the reasons for their growth are complicated. Kenya has experienced a population boom in recent years and all faith groups have grown. But she added that young Kenyans, in particular, now access much more information about alternatives to traditional religions on the internet, giving atheism greater visibility.
Mike O’Maera, former editor of the Catholic Information Service for Africa, agreed that technology has spread atheistic ideas, but said rising wealth and flawed religious leaders have also contributed. . “Some influential church leaders here have flouted morality, leaving the congregants unhappy,” O’Maera said. “That’s why atheism becomes an alternative for some Christians.”
The atheist society’s philanthropy has also added to its importance, drawing both praise and criticism.
In 2020, a Twitter post alerted the group to the plight of a boy from Baringo County in the Rift Valley region, Abel Lutta, who had achieved top marks in his school exams but whose single mother, vegetable seller, could not afford the necessary expenses to send her to high school.
After seeing the post on Twitter, Mumia said, “We took it over as a company and increased the entire fee.
“We wanted to demonstrate that an atheist is human and feels for the underprivileged. There is an opinion that when we don’t believe in God, we don’t care about others. We are human beings,” Mumia said.
Ironically, Mumia recalls: “The mother called me to tell me that she thanked God for our action. It didn’t surprise me. We knew she was a religious person. We weren’t helping because of his religious background.
But the group’s donations sparked backlash from Christian clergy and some ordinary Kenyans, who urged Lutta’s mother to reject what they saw as devil’s money.
RELATED: In Catholic Italy, “debaptism” is gaining popularity
Some clerics regard atheism as any other belief that Christian missionaries encountered when they arrived in Africa. “Christianity has not found a void. There has been a traditional religion, there have been people of different beliefs and we have co-existed,” said Reverend Joseph Njakai, an Anglican priest from central Kenya.
The priest, while stressing that Christian churches also support children, accused atheists of capitalizing on poverty. He attributed their generosity, meanwhile, to a God-given empathy.
“I think they want to gain traction (advertisement) by using vulnerable people. I don’t think it’s about being human. They may say they don’t believe in God, but the element of God in them is what makes them good,” Njakai said.