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In Conversation with Dr. Leo Igwe on South Africa, Humanism, Mandela, Africa, and Critical Thinking


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Publication (Outlet/Website): Medium (Humanist Voices)

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2018/11/03

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: South Africa in particular and Southern African, in general, seems more known than other parts of the world to the entire world, especially with the history of individuals such as Nelson Mandela in South Africa and apartheid.

Of course, religion continues to play a role in the existence of the country after the death of Mandela. However, the legacy continues onward for the country and religion continues to influence the nation insofar as I understand it. Others know the situation better than me.

What seems like the progression of the liberalization of religion in Southern Africa and increase in space for those who do not have a religion in live safely and healthily in South Africa?

Dr. Leo Igwe: Post-apartheid South Africa has a mixed religious and cultural heritage and that leaves an ample space for a healthy mélange of cultures, religions, and philosophies. It is against this background that the progress in terms of liberal religion in South Africa could be understood. In spite of the region’s progress, supernaturalism continues to play an overbearing role in the lives of South Africans, especially among black South Africans. This is evident in the reports of witchcraft accusations, witch persecution, and killings in the provinces. Abuses by South African pastors who spray insecticide on their church members or order them to eat grass have made international headlines. Questionable medicinal claims by traditional healers, called Sangoma abound. However it must be noted that the government of South Africa has taken measures to combat religious abuses. It constituted a committee that inquired into the commercialization of religion. Some of the erring pastors have been sanctioned. However, time will tell if contemporary South Africans will build on the secular legacy of Nelson Mandela or allow those hard-won gains to be eroded by magico-religious beliefs. So while progress has been made to further the liberalization of religion, a lot of work needs to be done to stamp out religious exploitation and abuses in Southern Africa.

Jacobsen: How are other regions of Africa in terms of the freedom for the people to be able to find their own way within the continent and to be able to live free from religion if they so choose?

Igwe: The situation varies across the region but is quite dire in the north of Africa where Islam is the dominant religion or in other parts of the region where de facto or de jure sharia law holds sway. Interestingly, African countries have constitutions that guarantee freedom of religion or belief. But in actual fact, there is no freedom of religion in much of these places. In muslim dominated areas, what applies is ‘freedom’ to profess and practice Islam or some other nationally recognized religions. Those who are born into Muslim families are not allowed to change their religion; they cannot leave the faith of Islam because apostasy is a crime that is punishable by death. So in regions across Africa freedom from religion is not an option and without freedom from religion, the right to freedom of religion or belief makes no sense. It is utterly meaningless.

Jacobsen: Does science education tend to moderate or religious belief in African education?

Igwe: Actually religion is hampering science education in schools because religious owners and managers of the educational system treat science with suspicion and mistrust. The impression is that much scientific knowledge is corrupting. It will make students to become atheists. So to prevent this from happening, religious controllers of schools disallow or water down aspects of scientific knowledge that they consider to be in conflict with their religious teachings and traditions. So schools produce scientific illiterates. They graduate scientifically half-baked students, who believe that the dogmas of their various religions are superior to scientific explanations. Simply put, religious belief trumps science in Nigerian schools. And I think this applies to many schools across Africa. The irony is that while Christian and Islamic religious zealots who manage these schools limit science education, they send their children to study in western countries where there is a better delivery of science education. African masses need to wake up to the hypocrisy of their ruling elite and demand an optimal delivery of science education in schools.

Jacobsen: How often is critical thinking encouraged in Nigerian formal education? For example, we have some trouble in Canada as far as I know, but the general tone is one of critical thinking as good about certain topics. Religion tends to be off-limits for deep criticism.

Igwe: Critical thinking is not expressly encouraged in the Nigerian educational system because of the potential of applying the skills to forbidden topics such as religion. So Nigerian students become critical thinkers by default. With the advent of the Internet, the trend will continue as the religious grip on the educational system loosens.

Jacobsen: As you are in your fifth decade of life, you have seen many changes in Nigerian culture and education. What have been the most prominent changes in the educational system there?

Igwe: The most prominent change is the Internet, the attendant massive flow of information and the liberation of students, seekers and learners from the tyranny of teachers, clerics and other custodians of knowledge, truth, and wisdom. It is most liberating to know that today people who seek knowledge or answers to some basic questions don’t have to wait till they go school; they don’t need to consult a priest, a diviner or an Imam. Learners and seekers don’t have to rely solely on what they were told or taught, they only need some Internet access. For me, this is one prominent change that will drive other educational and cultural changes in the years to come.

​Jacobsen: ​Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Dr. Igwe.


In-Sight Publishing by Scott Douglas Jacobsen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Based on a work at


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