A recent survey by the Pew Research Center has revealed that Ethiopia is the world’s most religious nation. According to this survey, nine-eight percent of Ethiopians thinks that religion is the most important part of their life. This development should not surprise anyone because Christianity and Islam are the dominant faiths in Ethiopia, and the Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity accounts for most of the Christian population.
Though belief in God is pervasive, atheists, agnostics or freethinkers exist in Ethiopia and they are beginning to organize under different umbrella groups. Some of the atheist groups are visible online and they have face book pages, with hundreds and thousands of members, where they express themselves and socialize with people of like minds.
Recently I corresponded with two Ethiopian atheists, Yohannes and Girum, and they gave insights into the challenges and prospects of atheism in their country. Yohannes is an active member of one of the online groups. He told me that his becoming an atheist was a gradual process:
“It was rather an evolution over a couple of years. I didn’t identify as an atheist at first, nor did I know what I was becoming, lacking belief in gods, was called atheism. The main drive for my unbelief was the bible itself. I found it to be misogynist, racist, homophobic and backward”.
Girum, another atheist activist, embraced atheism after reading some books on philosophy: “Yes I’m an atheist, l became an agnostic in my teens mostly through common sense and by reading Amharic translations of different philosophical books and then after some time l began identifying myself as an atheist. I never told my parents about my disbelief in God but they knew that I had never been to Church for years and suspected that I was becoming skeptical. Yes I tell my friends about my atheism and they have no problem with it”.
Girum asserts that the deep religiosity in Ethiopia poses a big challenge to the cause of reason and free thought: “Yes, Ethiopia is a very religious nation with a large illiterate population. There is almost no space for reason and science. There is a tiny minority of atheists in the country”.
One major reason for the minority status of atheism in Ethiopia and in other African countries is because many atheists are in the closets and fear persecution by the theistic public if they go open and public with their atheism.
So, the challenge is not necessarily embracing atheism but coming out to friends and family members. Yohannes told me that he was a bit fortunate. “I guess I have been lucky with my beloved ones, they didn’t find it so much distressing. But I’ve lost some friends when I started to express my disbelief in their god or gods”. He notes that reactions to atheism vary according to family: “It depends on the particular family set up and even religious background I would say. For me, it was easy as my beloved ones are educated and accommodating. I have noticed Christian and Muslim parents and friends would react unfavorably as opposed to traditional religious people”.
Due to the socialist legacy in Ethiopia, the people are a bit more tolerant of atheism and do not find the outlook so offensive. Younger generations of Ethiopians are abandoning religion and if the trend continues, there would be a major shift in the country’s religious and theistic demography in the years ahead.
Yohannes stated that atheism could benefit Ethiopia in so many ways particularly in tackling superstition and religious extremism: “Atheism, a lack of belief in gods, could simply help the young people not to waste their energy on superstition and do something meaningful for a country riddled with poverty. Hatred amongst religious factions would diminish as many people would become irreligious”.
On that positive note, one may say that, though the present day Ethiopia may be designated as the world’s most religious nation, there are clear signs that with the flow of information, some renaissance is imminent in the country and the atheistic outlook has a great and promising future in the Horn of Africa.