“Everyone knows that Africans are some of the most religious people on the planet,” says my Psychology of Religion professor, a Ghanaian. I agree. Religion is a part of daily life here, percolating into our classes, conversations, and activities.
I sit next to someone new in class. After we get past names and how are you, she asks me if I’m a Christian. No, I tell her. She asks, what are you?
I’m filling out a survey for someone’s senior thesis. One of the background questions asks if I practice Christianity, Islam, Traditional African religions, or Atheism. Choose one.
I walk into a lecture hall five minutes early to find one of my classmates preaching. Everyone says “Amen!” right before the lecturer arrives, and the young preacher to scrambles back to his seat.
My group is getting together to prepare a presentation for class. We start and close the meeting with a prayer thanking God and asking for help with the project.
At home, religion is not present in casual daily conversation. No one assumes that you’re a Christian. Professors don’t ask all the Traditionalists in the class to raise their hands. Here, people want to be able to define my religious identity and understand what I believe. Answers like, “I’m undecided” or “I don’t know yet” don’t really fly, because most people I meet are in very stable places in terms of their relationship with God/the creator and they genuinely want to understand why I don’t know what I believe.
At home, I’ve been in a very privileged position because I’ve never had to decide or declare whether or not I believe in God. Due to that, I hadn’t decided. I thought about spirituality and truth a lot, and I had many conversations with friends about it. But I’ve never felt pressured to make a decision. I’ve never had to think so much about the fact that religion is part of who I am instead of just what I believe, and I’ve never felt so defined by my beliefs or lack thereof.
Because of all this emphasis on knowing what one believes, I’ve developed a sense of urgency for defining my beliefs. This has led to a decision that I am confident about. I’m an atheist. I don’t think that God exists. If someone proves that God exists, then I would believe it. Until then…
Spirituality is still very important to me, in the sense that I’m amazed by the universe. I find it awe-inspiring that elbows, iguanas, oak trees, eyesight, love, and the citric acid cycle are all the products of evolution. That gravity and magnetism and everything that defines us and all the parameters of our lives arose from chance. That I can think. The fact that the world is the way it is, despite the improbability of it all, is so amazing that I can’t comprehend it. I fall on my knees before the vast implausibility of my life.
In Ghana, “atheism” isn’t a dirty word like it is at home. I can tell people I’m an atheist and they won’t be disgusted or mistrustful of me. They may try to convert me and they will likely try to start a discussion about why I believe what I do, but they are not judgmental or outraged. Atheism is accepted here. Not that I feel victimized at home- it’s just that the negative connotation that exists at home doesn’t exist here.
I like to think that I’m equally tolerant because I don’t respond to the passionately Christian Ghanaians I meet with (admittedly uninformed) questions like, “Why don’t you see Christianity as a symbol of your own, recent colonial oppression?”
So at this point in my life I’m an atheist. I can’t say that won’t change, and I hope you don’t hate me for it.
Now, all I need is some sort of written guide that will help me shape my beliefs and behaviors! Preferably written by an expert, or even a prophet, of atheism… oh wait. I guess I’ll just read Richard Dawkins.