A glazed look is the most you can expect if you tell someone in Sub-Saharan Africa that you are an atheist or humanist. Many people do not know what either entail or actually believe that atheists worship the devil.

According to recent research by WIN Gallup International, 80% of Africans describe themselves as religious. This may be the case, but there are major differences in levels of religious belief throughout this huge continent. For example, the number of believers in South Africa is falling rapidly, while websites on which freethinkers come together to meet are gaining in popularity in Kenya and Ghana.

According to Gallup, 95% of people in Nigeria, which is Africa's most populous country, say that they are religious. What is it like to have lost your belief in this deeply religious country? A former Christian from the south and a former Muslim from the north talk about their experiences.

Pearl Osibu (32)

lives in Lagos and is a writer, for the popular soap Tinsel, amongst other programmes.
"I've always been a bit of a rebel. My family was part of a small Pentecostal church. Nothing was allowed: from earrings to braided hair and long trousers for girls. If you had done something wrong, the pastor would bellow at you from his pulpit or beat you in front of the entire congregation.

Although I was never convinced that the pastor was right, I kept my mouth shut, because I loved my mother. She was so totally 'into' it and I didn't want to hurt her. However, she died when I was just 12 and my whole family gradually stopped going to church after that.

I have only been a real atheist for the last four years or so. I always had questions, but kept telling myself that 'God knows best'. This stopped one day when a good friend of mine started to ask such probing questions that I realised there was no going back any more. My scepticism had turned into unbelief. I decided not to keep this fact a secret. This is who I am and if you don't like it, you can get lost!

I've been lucky with my friends; I've lost almost no-one. The response from my family was mixed. Recently, my father suggested that it would be my own fault if something bad happened to me, because I didn't believe in God any more. If he says anything like that again, I'm going to hang up on him. My sister spent a whole night crying when she heard the news and is still praying for me to this day. However, when I was admitted to hospital last year, she made sure that 'none' was entered next to 'Religion' on the admission form. She defends my right to be an atheist.

I am very aware of the luxurious position I am in as an independent contractor. Clients aren't going to refuse my texts just because I'm an atheist. It won't be as easy for people to 'come out' who are employees or living at home with their parents."

Sambo Jatau (pseudonym)

is a civil servant in Abuja:
"I grew up in a deeply religious Muslim family in the north of the country. In Kano, we went to the normal school in the morning and the Koran school in the afternoon. The teachers there threatened us with hell-fire so badly that it gave me nightmares. I associated belief with fear.

This came to an end when I reached the age of 12. I started at a boarding school in the middle of the country and my Koran lessons weren't a priority any more. I found this a real liberation. When I went home afterwards, I asked questions that made everyone feel uncomfortable. My father regularly gave me a beating as a result.

Although I still seemed like a good Muslim to the outside world, inside the doubts were growing. Four years ago, I read a post on Facebook about God, free will and predestination. It gave me the push I needed. Today, I have no doubts: there is no God. When I die, my body will rot and that's it.

I don't lie to myself any more about who I am. However, I have moved to Abuja, where my colleagues and the people who are close to me know and accept that I am an atheist. Our capital city is a cosmopolitan melting pot, where people from throughout Nigeria come together and don't put each other under so much pressure.

I could never live in Kano again. Life just isn't worth living there if you're an atheist. It's not that I'm afraid of the death penalty that Sharia law has imposed on lapsed believers, because I don't think it's very likely that it would actually be carried out. But, it would mean living an isolated existence, rejected by everything and everyone. Who knows, I might even want to become a politician in Kano at some stage. Unfortunately, this is a career that you can forget if you're a nonbeliever, because no-one will vote for you. This is why I haven't 'come out' yet and why I don't use my own name when I talk about my atheism: the only people who know are the ones who are close to me.

There are far more people from the north who are just like me, who use an alias when writing about their unbelief on the Internet. I know of two cousins in the same situation in my family alone. The Internet is our weapon. The information and like-mind individuals we find there help make us stronger."

About the author

Femke van Zeijl is a freelance journalist and writer who lives and works in Lagos, Nigeria. She publishes in a number of publications, including the NRC Handelsblad, Opzij, Vrij Nederland and OneWorld, and is a correspondent for the VPRO's Bureau Buitenland radio programme.