James-Adeyinka Shorungbe is the Director of the Humanist Assembly of Lagos, Nigeria. It is a secular congregation in Nigeria. Here he talks with Scott Douglas Jacobsen about the Humanist Assembly of Lagos, the impediments to both critical thinking and humanism in Nigeria, pervasive superstition, the general perception of those attending the Humanist Assembly of Lagos, and more.
*This audio interview has been edited for clarity, concision, and readability.*
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: So, you are the director of the Humanist Assembly of Lagos. What are some tasks and responsibilities that come along with that position?
James-Adeyinka Shorungbe: Essentially, organising the affairs of the organisation, charting annual programs to promote critical thinking in Lagos (Nigeria), maintaining relationships with other organisations such as IHEU, IHEYO, NHM. HAL is also a founding member body of the humanist movement in Nigeria so I was actively involved in that regard.
Jacobsen: What are some of the impediments to the education and advocacy for both critical thinking and humanism within Nigeria?
Shorungbe: First, Nigeria is a society highly entrenched in superstition. So that is a major, impediment, to promoting critical thinking. In order to address that, education and awareness has to be done. While the government is trying to improve the literacy level from its current level of just under 60%, a number topics that promote critical thinking are not being taught in schools.
Evolution is not being taught in schools. Anthropology is not taught in schools. History is not taught, and so on. So there’s education but low application of critical thinking to challenge the norm. Creationism is the only story taught in schools. So this creates an entire mindset of citizens who are highly superstitious. You also have the movie industry churning out a lot of superstition which the citizens all buy into and believe literacy as factual.
As a major impediment, superstition is a big, big problem. To address this, not enough of our message is getting out there. To be honest, I don’t think we’re doing enough to get our message out there in terms of awareness and enlightenment. We have barely scratched the surface in terms of addressing superstition in Nigeria.
Jacobsen: With a large portion of the population having a superstitious mindset, what is their general perception of the Humanist Assembly in Lagos?
Shorungbe: The few people who we have interacted with, they generally do not understand humanism or humanists. Their perception is anything that doesn’t recognise any divine being is straight evil, paganism, evildoers, etc. People we’ve had interactions with, often ask shocking questions like, “So you mean you don’t believe in God?”
When you try to get across the message that human problems and human situations can be solved by humans and are best solved by human efforts, we always get push backs, “No, no, no, you need to have divine intervention.” It is something strange to them, to the society — very strange.
Jacobsen: If you were to take a survey of public attitudes and beliefs, how many humanists can one expect to find in Nigeria, or even Lagos specifically?
Shorungbe: Because Nigeria is a very conservative society and a lot of people do not openly identify as humanists, atheists, and freethinkers, agnostics, etc. it is a bit difficult to count. Many official forms and data gathering applications usually only have the two main faiths as beliefs. However, when you go to online forums, when you go on social media, there are quite a lot of Nigerians who express themselves as nonbelievers.
There was research conducted by the Pew organisation. It stated that as many as 2–3% of Nigerians are humanists, freethinkers, and nonreligious. In a population of 180 million, 2–3% would come to 3 to 5 million Nigerians, but many are not outspoken. But in terms of the outspoken ones, we have very few humanists who are openly affiliated with humanism and agnosticism online and offline.
Jacobsen: Do you think that having an umbrella organisation will play an important part in solving issues like teaching correct scientific theories in the biological sciences and evolutionary theory in schools?
Shorungbe: Yes, definitely, it is. With an umbrella body, you have a louder voice. You have more clout. That is one of the reasons why in Nigeria a number of associations are all coming under the umbrella of the national body, ‘Nigerian Humanist Movement.’ Aside from the online community of The Nigerian Atheists and a couple of chat groups, we are still fragmented in Nigeria.
The Humanist Assembly of Lagos is one of 2 organisations that is formally registered and trying to break barriers and putting the voice out there for other humanists to appreciate that they are not alone. That you can be different. That you can be good without any divine belief. The importance of having an umbrella body is very critical. Now, with an umbrella body, we can have representation to push through the Nigerian National Assembly, through government bodies, etc. We can better organise ourselves to ensure the adoption of more scientific methods in schools — for example, becoming advocates for the teaching of evolutionary theory in school curricula.
Jacobsen: What are some future initiatives of the Humanist Assembly of Lagos? How can people get in contact to help or donate to the organisation?
Shorungbe: For the future, we will be looking to organise events that can showcase and promote humanism as well as critical thinking. Events such as film screenings, lectures, debates etc. We are also toying with the idea of a radio show to enlighten the general public and kick-start discussions within the public sphere. A radio where speakers would come on and talk about everyday human issues and how these can be addressed without thinking they are caused by divine or superstitious means.
Just to enlighten the public of the various challenges one has in life and how they can be addressed by practical action, which do not require divine intervention.
Essentially promoting humanism, freethinking, atheism, agnosticism on a national level.
Jacobsen: Thank you for your time, Adeyinka.