The freethinkers of Addis

Ethiopia is a deeply religious country with the two Abrahamic religions—Christianity and Islam—being the dominant ones. Though they are not big in number, atheists are now slowly becoming part of Addis Ababa’s populace. Atheism is, in the broadest sense, the absence of belief in the existence of deities. Arguments for atheism range from the philosophical to social and historical approaches. Rationales for not believing in deities include arguments that there is a lack of empirical evidence and the problem of evil among others. That is what Ethiopian atheists are saying attracted them to the idea, writes Tibebeselassie Tigabu.

“Technically everyone is an atheist, if there are 320 million gods and you only believe in one of them, then you are 99.99999687 an atheist,” reads a meme that is posted on a Facebook page called Ethiopian Atheists. This was not easily ignored and a heated discussion followed on the comments section of the page regarding the “existence of a deity”, “the sin for denying the bible”, “salvation” and “afterlife”.

Scrolling down the page, one can see people challenging the Adam and Eve story regarding the Creation. In addition, quotes by atheists curtailing religion, the big bang theory, revolution and other ideas are discussed. One of the comments states that religious people form relationships with someone they cannot prove actually exists equating to children’s imaginary friends.

With 14,522 members the page is controlled and clearly states that trolling, spamming, bringing up unrelated topics, scams, personal attacks, harassment and any kind of cyber bullying or violence are against the values of the page. The members discuss issues like which are the best countries to live in as an atheist, and question various religious institutions, prayer, divinity, evil vs. good. They also try to give rational justifications to phenomenon such as natural disasters, blizzards, earthquakes, tornados, drought, diseases, wars, crimes, violence.

The page describes how Ethiopia is the cradle of Homo sapiens, is the pioneer to worship different gods, follow Abrahamic religions (monolithic religions) and to establish laws. On the other hand the page stresses the existence of a freethinker (a philosopher) by the name of Zerayacob, who transcended time to enlighten and bring new ideas against all odds and whose ideas were shoved aside by religious elites.

“We now have reached yet another era, where freethinkers no longer are willing to comply with the oppressive aspects of religions and are passionately willing to promote a culture of freethinking in Ethiopia,” reads the page’s description. “Welcome to the page of folks who lack belief in gods,” it states.

Most Ethiopians have a very strong bond with religions. For the vast majority of Christians and Muslims religion is a guarantee to salvation. From outfits to greetings and rituals, all have been – in one way or another—influenced by religion. Somehow the concept of God is incorporated in every aspect of life.

In a paper entitled Congregated an Assault: The Cropping-up of Ethiopia’s Unbelievers on Facebook, the author, Solomon Mekonnen, also strengthens this point which says that Amharic is intrinsically entangled in religion even in simple greetings like “tena yistilign” (literally translated as may health be given to you) a giver of health who by virtue is God. “Whether one believes in God or not, the familiar and common response to a “how are you”, contains a “thanks to God”.

Though the present generation has platforms like social media to express their beliefs, the generation of the 1960s, who embraced Marxism, Communism and Anarchism were considered to be atheists and their beliefs were not accepted by the society. They usually quote Karl Marx’s popular phrase “Religion is the opiate of the masses”.

Political scientists like Gebru Mersha (PhD) challenged his students regarding the existence of God. “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opiate of the masses,” he used to say quoting Marx.

Most of them were denounced by the society with some extreme responses. For instance, there was a story of a woman who was cursed by her priest father. Learning in East Germany in the 1970s she explicitly told her to parents that she does not believe in God when they asked her have her wedding with a church ceremony. Her father casted her away and did not attend her wedding. He went to the extreme and told her not to be at his funeral. Many Ethiopians do not take it lightly and that is why they say, “Education should not lead to not believing in God.” These conversations are resisted strongly and the example is the reaction against a renowned writer and social critic Bewketu Seyoum. He was assaulted by religious fundamentalists for an article he had written in a newspaper.

Though some atheists are bold in expressing their discomfort with religion, many of them do not dare to confront their parents in revealing that they are nonbelievers.

He does not want to be labeled as an atheist but Daniel Bekele (not his real name) does not believe in the existence of God or, for that matter, any deity or supernatural power.

At a young age he started questioning the existence of God but the questions started to take shape when he was in high school. “Would I be a Christian or follow a specific religion, if I was born in a different circumstance?” he asks. With all the miseries in the world such as destruction, war, poverty and hunger answers like “God works in mysterious ways” does not make sense to him.

“In this aspect, God becomes an issue of convenience. Religious people tell me what God wants me to do and how God works but they fail to tell me answers such as why all these destructions happen in the universe,” Daniel says, adding that a deity is portrayed in a very archaic way which he could not comprehend at all.

He did not choose to voice these questions for a while and was arguing and challenging himself. Finally, he was ready to talk with his trusted friends— that was not easy. “You can come from anywhere in the world and whenever a debate regarding religion starts people will say lightning will strike you,” Daniel says mockingly.

He says that he wants to find truth for himself and unlike many atheists he does not read atheistic books; rather he says that he understands the insignificance of himself.  “The universe that surrounds us is so vast and we (human beings) are very insignificant. We might be a bit sophisticated but we are still animals. You do not see dogs being bothered by questions like this. I believe we value our presence highly and it has made us arrogant,” Daniel says.

He explains this insignificance by citing a documentary he watched that says human’s existence can be summed up in three seconds. In addition, according to the cosmic timeline astrophysics, the age of the universe is dated from the Big Bang, which happened 13.7 billion years ago. Within the scheme of the cosmic calendar, an average human life of 70-80 years is equivalent to approximately 0.16 cosmic seconds.

Though there are unanswered questions with regard to the origin of man, evolutionary theory seem to be more practical (believable) for people like Daniel since it is based on science and facts that can be proved. He says that many people ask how the universe came into existence. “I don’t want to take the simplistic way of explaining God created the universe. In fact, I am not bothered about it. I understand humans’ limitation. Many of the things might be answered by science or many do not. But I shouldn’t be concerned at all. In this universe there is no superpower than me. I am only here for me,” Daniel says.

He says that rejecting religion and the existence of any deity has liberated him.  However, he says that he questions how people would justify slavery, the holocaust or other destructions vis-à-vis religions. “These questions do not bother me. I see phenomenon as they are. I don’t twist and try to connect them with God,” Daniel says.

He does not want to engage in arguments unless it is with close friends and people who he can engage with. Though he likes those who stimulate his brain he says that he is not naïve and knows how people have strong stance when it comes to their beliefs. “Sometimes our conversations end up with frustrations threatening our friendship. There are cases where they warn me saying that if I talk about this they might not see me again,” Daniel says.

He says that he is not pushing to have a freethinking society. Rather, he says that people can find the answer for themselves. On the other hand, Solomon Mekonen, who is highly vocal on various platforms, does not shy away in sharing his views. He also does not shy away from labeling himself as an atheist.

For Solomon, getting to where he is today was not an overnight work. It was a step-by-step journey. Especially, in the past three years, he says that he started questioning the whole “god-business”. The writings on religious books for him were “misogynist, racist, slavery condoning and genocidal”.  And for him that was not acceptable and the arguments regarding that existence of a deity were not convincing.

Though he was baptized as a Christian, he was not influenced by his family. In high school he actually chose to be involved in his religious activities where he started actively participating in Sunday school. “At some point I lost the social aspect of it. All in all, it was very difficult as you have to reassemble many things; from the way you think to the way you interact with people,” Solomon says.

Eventually, he chose to take the difficult path of discussing his ideas. That was not an easy ride. “I have asserted my disbelief quite clearly; it is my religious friends who avoid discussions about my disbelief or my questions about their belief,” he says, adding that he understands that it is a sensitive matter for many and that he respects their views. “My beloved ones have not found my disbelief to be a problem,” he says.

The only common thread that ties atheist together is the lack of belief in deities and supernatural beings. “My understanding of atheism is that it is simply the lack of belief in gods. It does not assert or claim to know gods don’t exist. It is not a positive belief in a negative one; hence, it is called negative/weak atheism.”

Kirubel Atnafu’s journey is not different from that Daniel or Solomon. His question started at a young age. He did not dare to discuss it with people until he found a friend when he was an 11th grader. Like many atheists he observes his surroundings before sharing his ideas. Sometimes his perception about people is wrong. One of those moments was at his new office. While having lunch with his colleagues, in the middle of the conversation, he made a religious joke. According to Kirubel, the feedback was hostile. “They said that I was evil,” he says. That remark was followed by offensive personal insults including being called stupid. Many of them were offended by his jokes and after that the smooth relationship he had with his colleagues was interrupted.

Though he is bold in discussing these off-limit ideas he would not dare raise it to his father. “I think if he knows, I might be expelled not only from the house but also from the country,” he says.

What amazes Solomon is how people take beliefs for granted and try to defend their beliefs (religions) using force. He heard about an atheist guy who was beaten up because of what he believed in. “I am not going to clash with a speeding car,” he says.

He says that he is an agnostic atheist. Agnosticism addresses knowledge; atheism addresses belief. The agnostic says, “I don't have a knowledge that God exists.” The atheist says, “I don't have a belief that God exists. In that regard, Solomon does not believe in the existence of any.

For people such as Daniel, believing in God is not liberation. “It is a prison,” he says. “For religious people it is easy to answer. For me my questions still remain. It is not only me; I don’t think Stephen Hawking finds it easy to accept this avowal,” he adds According to Daniel, choosing this lifestyle means that people have nothing to live for and they lose comfort.

Even though he feels that it is hard, he says that he has chosen to live with reason and facts. He says that there is a growing community of atheists in Ethiopia and that is because it is a trendy thing to do or that they are rebelling against the community’s beliefs.