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An Interview with Dr. Leo Igwe on Founding the Nigerian Humanist Movement (Part One)


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Publication (Outlet/Website): In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2019/06/01


Dr. Leo Igwe is the Founder of the Humanist Movement in Nigeria. He discusses: family background; personal background; benefits and downsides of conversion; and how one founds a national humanist movement.

Keywords: Christianity, humanism, Islam, Leo Igwe, Nigeria, religion.

An Interview with Dr. Leo Igwe on Founding the Nigerian Humanist Movement: Founder, Nigerian Humanist Movement (Part One)[1],[2]

*Please see the footnotes, bibliography, and citation style listing after the interview.*

1. Scott Douglas Jacobsen: You’re from Nigeria. You’re the founder of the humanist movement in Nigeria. It’s the most populated African nation-state as well.

Dr. Leo Igwe: Yes.

Jacobsen: There is a there, there. What is geographic, cultural, religion or lack thereof, background for you?

Igwe: I was born into a religious family in a village in Southeastern Nigeria. Nigerian villages are known to be more religious for many reasons. Sometimes, it is because of a lack of effective education, and necessary infrastructure.

Sometimes, development comes with infrastructure that makes people question and that liberates them from primitive fears and uncertainties. Born shortly after the Nigerian civil war, life was very hard. My part of the country was devastated. Life was very challenging for me and my family members. Religion was what gave a lot of people some sense of hope and enabled them to cope with the dire situation. Religion per se may not have delivered substantial relief. Religious organizations were providing humanitarian aid to my part of Nigeria. So, a lot of people were moved by such initiatives.

As we all know, religion is not only all about charity. Religion is about so many other things. So, as I was also growing up, I started noticing a lot of abuses, a lot of excesses in the name of religion. Rampant imputations of magic, witchcraft and superstition, claims of faith healing, as the case may be, made me question religious and supernatural notions.

I started to question things as I advanced in my education. Eventually, everything translated into my founding the humanist movement in Nigeria.

2. Jacobsen: For those who grew up in a non-religious home in Nigeria, and became religious, what are their reasons for doing so, typically? Also, when someone grows up in a religious home in Nigeria, leaves the religion later on, and then rejoins another religion at a later point, what are their reasons for doing so as well?

Igwe: I must say that people who describe themselves in Nigeria as non-religious are in the minority. Those who veer from religion to non-religion are “first-generation” humanists. These persons constitute the humanist or the non-religious movement today. Otherwise what applies is more of people moving from one religion to another religion.

Conversion by force and by choice has been going on since the Western missionaries came to Nigeria and Africa, and Islamic and Arab colonizers came from the Middle East. But what we have is mainly people moving from African traditional religion to Christianity, or people moving from Christianity to Islam or Islam to Christianity as the case may be.

I have known people who moved from being non-religious to being religious. It is not something very significant in our own part of Nigeria. What happens more often is people changing from one religion to another. Switching religion is risky but it depends on which religion and in which part of Nigeria the switching is done.

In terms of people leaving from non-religion to religion, we don’t have this tradition yet. People in most cases are born into one religion or the other. Even though, recently, there are people who say to me: “Yes, I used to be like you. I used to be an atheist. But now I have found God.”

As I have earlier noted the risk in changing religion depends on where one resides and which religion is dominant there. Is a Christian converting to Islam in a Christian environment or in a Muslim dominated area? When persons who profess Christianity change to another religion or non-religion, they face persecution if they live in predominantly Christian areas; it is the same for Muslims converting to Christianity or non-religion in a Muslim dominated environment. Comparatively, those who renounce Islam are worse of.

3. Jacobsen: What are the benefits of conversion to a Nigerian citizen? What are the costs that they may not be taking into account?

Igwe: The benefits are enormous because religion constitutes the basis of identity and solidarity. Religion makes people feel at home and become socially connected. People risk a lot by converting or leaving religion. It is like disconnecting from society. Religion makes it easier for people to access certain amenities more easily, e.g., education, because the schools are controlled by religious organizations. If you want to teach or attend these schools, there is enormous pressure to convert to the school’s religion. Sometimes, religion can help access healthcare programs because missionaries introduced these healthcare centres. Hospitals have become platforms for the propagation of religion. People are under pressure to take on the religion of the institution that owns these places. Religion has enormous political value. Political Christianity and political Islam are immersed in a stiff battle to dominate Nigeria. If you want to succeed politically, a former president of Nigeria once said, “You cannot oppose Islam”. And I want to add, you cannot oppose Christianity.

So, religion is a potent tool for political mobilization and legitimation. “I am a Muslim like you.” “I am a Catholic like you.” “Yes, let’s have a Catholic for president.” “Yes, let’s have a Muslim for president.” A one time governor of Zamfara campaigned on the platform to introduce sharia law which he eventually did. So politicians find religion useful. During the election period, the politicians become more religious. They go to church or mosque more often. They do a lot to appeal to the religious voters; to the religious base.

4. Jacobsen: Founding a freethought movement via humanism in Nigeria, that’s an incredible feat. It is unusual. By implication, it makes you an outstanding person. How did that happen for you, in terms of finding humanism? How did this happen for a Nigerian subculture in terms of founding the humanist community there?

Igwe: Yes, I am happy that you used the word “subculture.” That is the way that I describe humanism or the irreligious culture. Humanism could become the dominant culture some day. There are subcultural trends that are critical of religion. They’re not very visible. They are not prominent. While growing up in this society, a lot of people were critical of religious claims. But they were not outspoken and did not found a movement. At best they were individual freethinkers. This is because a lot of stigma is attached to atheism, irreligion or religious criticism.

While growing up, I studied the works of many philosophers. I noticed that the subculture of humanism has reached a point where it could be more visible than in the  past. I thought that humanism could be brought to the cultural table, to compete with the dominant culture, religion. If possible, humanism could beat back the religious cultural trend and check its excesses.

What made me do it is because there is a lot of benefit in founding a humanist movement in a religious country such as Nigeria. I found it socially valuable, beneficial, and advantageous. I think that my own society would be better off if the subculture of freethought and critical thinking get noticed and gets positioned at the table, and able to challenge the dominant religious culture and its excesses.

Look at the world and how the forces of religious extremism are ravaging different parts of the globe. Look at the horrific scale of human sacrifice and persecution of women,  the abuse of children, and inhumane and degrading treatment going on in the name of religion.

When religious bandits perpetuate these abuses, they think that they can get away with them. Religion operates with this veneer of unquestionability and impunity. Religious claims are presented as if they are eternally right and true. With this, religious actors, experts, or personalities get away with a lot, a lot of lies and falsehoods, a lot of criminalities and atrocities.

Because they know that nobody can question those things.

I found questioning religious claims liberating. In a situation where these claims are not questioned, a lot of people are misled. A lot of people suffer. A lot of people have been unable to question religious claims in my society. If they had done so, they could have known that one cannot make money using human body parts. They won’t engage in the murder and mutilation of human beings. The subculture of critical thinking and freethought is gaining ground and inspiring cultural renaissance. I founded the humanist movement for this purpose, to help move the society forward.

Appendix I: Footnotes

[1] Founder, Nigerian Humanist Movement.

[2] Individual Publication Date: June 1, 2019:; Full Issue Publication Date: September 1, 2019:


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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