In world's most religious country, humanists rally for secular space

A group of humanists is looking to find its niche in Ghana, recently ranked most religious in a survey of 57 nations.

Robbie Corey Boulet/AP
Moussa Toure Zeguen, (r.), a former militia leader, stands in church in Accra, Ghana, Oct. 21. In Ghana, ranked the most religious of 57 nations in a survey, a group of humanists is trying to find a foothold.

In Ghana, where deeply held religious beliefs unite much of the population, a new group has formed around a shared disbelief in religion.

The Humanist Association of Ghana practices a philosophy that is mostly unheard-of in Ghana, which a recent survey ranked as the most religious country in the world. Nonetheless, the group has already made waves in West Africa.

Last weekend, the association hosted humanists from across the region for a conference in the capital of Accra, where attendees listened as speakers discussed the impact humanists could make on West African society. Lecturers talked about how humanists can stand up for gay and lesbian rights and against traditional practices like witch hunts. One talk dealt with whether humanism is compatible with belief in God. 

“The humanist movement isn’t really about converting anybody or forcing anyone to think a certain way,” says Monika Mould, a member of the group. “It’s just about giving people a way to say, ‘I can make my own decisions and I can think my own thoughts.’”

Humanism is a philosophy based on emphasizing humans over deities or religious texts. While many humanists are atheists, it’s not required, and some humanists believe that someone can practice the philosophy while still being religious.

Nyame in many names

Nonetheless, humanism is seen as at best an oddity, and at worst an offense in deeply devout Ghana.

On the streets of Accra, everything from taxis to restaurants and real estate offices seems to be named after “Nyame,” the word for God in the local Twi language. The trend carries into politics: The country’s largest opposition political party has the slogan, “the battle is the Lord’s,” on their campaign posters.

A recent survey by polling firm WIN-Gallup International said that 96 percent of Ghanaians are religious, the highest percentage of the 57 countries polled. Nigeria came in second, with 93 percent of people claiming religion.

About 70 percent of Ghanaians are Christians, 17 percent are Muslim, and the rest belong to traditional religions or other theologies, says Kwabena Asamoah-Gyadu, a professor of African Christianity and Pentecostal theology at Trinity Theological Seminary in Accra.

Even before Christianity reached the continent, religion in much of sub-Saharan Africa was practiced in public, Mr. Asamoah-Gyadu said.

“We live in a country where, unlike the Western world, even financial institutions open business daily with prayer. Parliament opens daily with prayer,” Asamoah-Gyadu says. “If you are a humanist and you are in such a society, it’s very difficult.”

Zero percenters

Atheists are a tiny minority in Ghana; so tiny, in fact, that the WIN-Gallup survey said zero percent of Ghanaians identified as such.

Amanor Apenkro, a member of the association who identifies as atheist, says he’s lost a girlfriend and had insults yelled at him on the street because of his nonbelief.

“I don’t try to hide it, but I don’t tell people either,” Mr. Apenkro says. “Because you tell people and they think you are evil. They can’t even believe that you don’t believe.”

But not believing is becoming prevalent worldwide.

The number of religious people dropped globally by 9 percent since 2005, according to the survey, while the number of atheists rose by 3 percent.

The poll also showed that less-prosperous countries tended to be more religious, while the ranks of the faithful were thinner in countries with more money.

Still a poor nation

Though Ghana has recently posted impressive growth rates based on exports of cocoa, gold, and oil, much of the country is still impoverished and underdeveloped.

“We pray for everything, and if there’s a god out there that’s listening to us, we should be the most developed,” Apenkro says. “The people who don’t pray at all, or pray the least… seem to be far ahead of us.”

James Yamoah, dean of faculty at Ghana Christian University College and a commentator on religion, says he sees nothing wrong with engaging Ghana’s humanist population. But he says a backlash could occur if the humanists become too forthright with their beliefs.

“Of course, we can’t doubt the fact that the devil is sometimes behind these things,” Mr. Yamoah says. “But there is always the possibility of engaging some people and winning them back. And it won’t come back from any kind of argument, it will come from a reasonable discussion.”

Ms. Mould says she thinks there is room for humanists in Ghana’s religious landscape, regardless of the odds.

“I know a lot of people who are religious, but have their doubts about religion, [and] can understand the value [of] critical thinking,” Mould says. “As long as you arrive at whatever decision you take though rational thinking, then you’re on the right track.”

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