Sometime in the 90’s, somewhere between moving away from us doing the running man to doing Patra’s butterfly, my mother was made a deaconess at her church. In keeping with her new position, I assumed, we began to have house fellowships. We, the reluctant attendees, were encouraged to invite our friends but inevitably ended up with the same circle in the parlour, clapping and singing praise songs. My father, on the other hand, was not religious. He worshipped with us on only one occasion. He took a seat and kept his head down right until the end. I’m agnostic now and I think I understand a little bit about how he felt.
It is the peculiar mix of puzzlement and mild annoyance I feel in the middle of an office prayer session. Away from our desks and gathered in the conference room; my colleagues would kneel, jerk and pace with arms stretched out to the ceiling, throwing exhortations to God. With every prayer point given by the prayer leader (usually someone who was a pastor outside of work), a murmur would unroll then rise to a sustained frenzy only cut short by the prayer leader. We pray for the clinic, our Managing Director and our dwindling enquiry numbers. An hour later, my colleagues will walk out refreshed and relieved after outsourcing their work to God. I still envy this from time to time, that security in Christ that he can solve all the problems you are capable of solving yourself.
I envy because I did not willingly give up my faith. Despite my best efforts to tamp it in, it leaked out in puffs over a number of years, . Every couple of Sundays, I answered the altar call to give my life to Christ as I had “backslid” during the week. I would pray fervently for forgiveness for every sin I caught myself doing. I would sing and dance during service and for that moment, I would be euphoric. But my faith remained full of gaping holes. I saw devout family members be unkind to other people. We bumped ‘worldly’ music in the car and would turn it off literally as we turned into church The hypocrisy was lit! But worst of all was the fear. In secondary school, heaven, hell, demons and evil spirits were very real to us teenagers. We exchanged books written by people who were said to have died and visited Heaven and Hell. There were descriptions of demons, fire which should immolate you to ashes but never does and tormented souls. I would jerk out of sleep some nights afraid to drift off, die and go to Hell. I dreaded the end of the world and tried to head it off. A loud noise at night would have me rushing out the words “Oh lord please forgive me for my sins” so that I could make Heaven.
1999 New Year’s Eve. I was at a night vigil at church when the new millennium came, I wanted to be in the right place just in case. I could not understand this God, this sadistic being who loved you but had to scare you into loving him. I decided to stop living in constant fear.
When you lose your faith, you rarely expect the sense of abandonment. A friend told me about crying in his dorm room, his safety net gone. He was on his own and could not outsource his difficulties. God isn’t coming down to get you a job or that new car, no matter how many times you read and meditate on that verse in the bible. There is also a redefinition of your identity. In a society where you’re either a Christian or Muslim, your religion as well as your tribe is intricately woven into who you are to society. If you choose to identify as irreligious, you risk of losing your friends and even family members. Three years ago, Mubarak Bala, a self described ex-Muslim who lost his belief in God. He was beaten up by his father, two uncles and older brother, drugged and then committed to a psychiatric ward in Kano. The doctor who committed him said his atheism was a “side effect of a personality change.”
I recall a conversation I had with my father when I was much younger, maybe 12. He asked me why I believed in God. The first answer must have been the rote ‘God loves me’ because he asked how do you know, you can’t see him. Because ‘I have faith’ another rote answer. Afterwards, my head hurt and I felt like Satan himself had been sent to test me. Religion demands a surrender of Self and that in turn can mean the smothering of other people’s humanity. In this state, a man’s family can believe that he is mentally ill, a gay loved one can be ostracized and a little girl can wonder if her beloved father is the devil’s proxy.
I do not regret my loss of faith. It has spared me the excess of Pentecostal Christianity. The pastors who own private jets even as their congregation struggle to send their children to the Church owned private schools built from their own offerings and tithes. The church members who rarely question the power their pastor wields. Who don’t question when their leaders eschew the ancient act of laying of hands and grind their feet into bellies instead. Who do not look askance at their fellow members throwing and writhing their bodies on the floor at the anointing of the Holy Ghost, instead they join them.
I cannot separate these questionable acts from the comfort and happiness that comes with worship – the cost is too high. Instead, I choose happiness, peace of mind and to resolutely look at people as human. The world is hard enough as it is.