The lonesome life of Ghana's atheists

Worshippers in Ghana. PHOTO | FILE 

Stroll down almost any street in Ghana and you are sure to find churches, religious billboards and biblically-named shops.

Sundays see a parade of immaculately dressed families heading to church, be it the introspective Catholic Church, or the popular Pentecostal or so-called "charismatic" churches that believe making noise attracts the Holy Spirit.

Some of the sick go to "prayer camps" to ask God to be cured, and the faithful pay a tithe to preachers, with some saying they have the power to heal.

Accordingly, those in this deeply religious west African nation who reject the existence of God can walk a lonely path, facing rejection from family and friends — or even death threats.

"I have had people write very threatening things and slip them in my pocket at the university", said atheist Agomo Atambire, 27.

But that does not stop a small but determined group of atheists from criticising the hold religion has on their nation, and seeking out others who feel the same.

A rallying cry for Ghana's non-believers came in the form of a 2012 WIN-Gallup International poll of 57 countries, which found that 96 per cent of Ghanaians identified as religious — zero per cent identified as atheist.

"When the Gallup poll came out we already knew that there were more than zero per cent atheists in Ghana," Graham Knight, the British founder of the Ghana Humanist Association, said.

The atheist group has around 40 members, a quarter of whom are women, with most aged between 23 and 35. They meet at least once a month to talk, take part in human rights activism and volunteer for causes.

The collective is based on living a life of "logic, reason, critical thinking, free-thought. Being selfless, helping people," group president, Roslyn Mould, 32, told AFP.

Prayer camps

Almost all the members who spoke to this writer said they grew up in religious families, but often through reading, losing family members to "prayer camps" or speaking with non-believers, they found their way to atheism.

According to Ghana's 2010 census Christians account for 71.2 per cent of the population, Muslims are 17.6 per cent.

For Atambire, who is outspoken on his views, death threats have come to be an accepted part of his life.

"I felt they are real threats, that it is a possibility that something like that will happen but you just have to live with it", he said.

Everyone who spoke to AFP said they had lost friends due to their beliefs.

Atambire knows of atheists who have been disowned by family members. Some have been told that their family will stop paying their school fees, or their parents simply refuse to take care of them.

For instance, the family of group member Michael Osei-Assibey still haven't come to terms with his lack of religion.

The humanist meetings that he attends will often focus on the power preachers have over Ghanaians, particularly "charismatic churches".

Services can be held in huge built-for-purpose buildings, with immaculate lawns, down to dilapidated sheds, or under a mango tree in a small villages.

"Anyone can get up any day and just start a church. You can start by being on the roadside with your megaphone", Mould said.

Religion's unchecked power

Group members say people are exploited into funding these preachers, as Ghana lacks a health system strong enough to provide equal care for all. There is also the matter of poverty limiting access to education.

The 2012 Gallup poll found religiosity is higher among the poor. Internationally those in the bottom income groups are 17 per cent more religious than those in top income groups.

The rate is lower among those with more schooling, globally those with a college education are 16 per cent less religious than those without secondary education, the poll found.

The humanists try to reach out to their social networks and wider society to encourage critical thinking on religion and the unchecked power of it.

"It's about individuals influencing our social circles to become aware of these kinds of people and immunising ourselves against them through logic and critical thinking", Osei-Assibey said.


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