“Are you Muslim or Christian?”, she asked me right after the usual where-are-you-from and what-are-you-doing-in-Nigeria. We were eating lunch side by side at a roadside buka in Abeokuta, opposite what I would later find out was the Alake’s royal palace.
The question came out of the blue, and it struck me as a possible equivalent to "Do you have a boyfriend?" in Thailand, that is to say the type of small talk which feels completely natural in a certain context, but baffles the newcomer by its perceived bluntness.
I had been in Nigeria for just over a week, so I was very much in the position of the awkward newcomer unsure of what the right answer was. I understood the inbuilt assumption that being an atheist or a Buddhist wasn’t an option. The alternatives were plain and mutually exclusive: either this or that. You don't get to be neither and maybe a bit of both.
Bite-sized spiritual journeys
The reality for me isn’t so simple. I grew up Christian, fell off the wayside in adolescence, had a change of heart in my twenties, converted to Islam. Now I can’t say that I belong to either community, though I still have a profound appreciation and respect for all manifestations of faith.
In that moment, I understood that my friendly lunch companion was trying to establish common ground, something to stand on and to understand each other in the few minutes it took for us to eat our amala. Of course, an honest answer would have been ‘neither’ but I wasn’t ready for the long soul-bearing conversation that would certainly follow.
I like to think that I’ve come out of the successive transformations a more circumspect person, less clear cut, maybe even a bit more mature in my approach to beliefs. But it's hard to share these things with a stranger between two bites and a sip of water. Where do you start, when the ground seems to keep shifting under your feet?
This question that called for a one-word answer opened up a complex web of thoughts. Like the role religion plays in our self-representations and in our sense of belonging. Like what may be lurking behind the labels 'Muslim' and 'Christian'.
Religion can put us on a path to peace and connect us to the fragile parts of our humanity but in its most problematic incarnation, it may also blind us to our past and prevent us from engaging with the beauty life has to offer. Adebayo Adegbembo highlighted the frustration of such limiting attitudes in his Medium piece 'How Well Do We Know African Deities?':
“Would you eat at a Nigerian restaurant with images of Esu, Sango or any Yoruba Orisa visibly present?” I asked my colleagues as we sat enjoying a Chinese buffet one fine evening. We were all Nigerians and their answers sounded familiar: ah! I no fit o! It’s against my religion. It’s a sin. God forbid! Idolatory! Tufiakwa!
Yet atheism comes with its own potential for intolerance when it veers towards a simplistic condemnation of all forms of religious expression. I believe that just as there are destructive religious beliefs, there are fundamentalist atheisms that perpetuate an us-versus-them mentality. Not sharing a spiritual belief with other people does not necessarily lead to completely rejecting any participation in or appreciation for religiously meaningful collective rituals. Even as an atheist, you can enjoy gospel music, join a crowd circling around a temple and later look up in reverence at the pure elegance of a minaret. In fact, you can do all this thanks to your lack of religious affiliation, not in spite of it. Not belonging gives you the luxury of appreciating every religious tradition.
For those of us who grew up in a religiously marked environment, it’s also important to recognize how much this heritage ties in to our cultural background. Once you find peace along all the threads that have coalesced into your current place in the world, you can start to reconnect with the stories that once meant so much to you and still do, though they have passed through the sieve of your unbelief.
I wonder if it’s possible to find a secular take on togetherness, to return to that wonderful human warmth of standing as one in prayer. In my experience, there is little of this kind of joy to be expected outside of a religious context. As a Kenyan atheist friend of mine puts it, "what’s the point of getting together to NOT worship God?".
We can find comfort and community in smaller ways too: in the elaborate preparation of the meals, in the chitchat that inevitably bounces off the pans and fills up the kitchen, in the sharing of the food (the love?) with others. Concerts may be as close as it gets to communal bliss. Think of it as hundreds of strangers gathered in one place to share an intense emotional experience, each wrapped up in their own stories, but united by the music.
In this quest for meaning-making outside of strict group boundaries, we stand to learn a lot from Japan. In an Aeon article on Japanese people's religiosity, Christopher Kavanagh addresses the idea that participation in religious rituals transcends the need for a shared belief in the supernatural because it is not predicated on exclusive membership:
[...] it is entirely unremarkable for a Japanese person to be taken to a Shinto shrine to receive blessings as a young child, get married in a Christian service, and eventually have a Buddhist funeral. Religious pluralism is not merely tolerated – it is a fundamental feature of the Japanese religious environment.
Ritual-making in Japan seems to contain the essence of what I consider attractive about religion: the bonding and the subtle orchestration of events that give life its tempo. I think a lot about the beauty of participating without any implied pressure to adhere to a dogma.
Removed from the rigidity of a compulsory belief system, the rituals achieve a lighter togetherness. Of course it’s not to say that ritual can be created out of nothing. The events described by Kavannagh draw on cultural material common to Japanese people, which infuses the ceremonies with meaning.
So here is a thought experiment. Could we reimagine and aggregate the foundational stories of our own cultures and find that edge where we stand in awe of the collective breath? I sure hope so.