It was a Sunday unlike any other in the history of Lagos. Friends gathered at the seminar room at the University of Lagos not to pray or worship, not to bind or cast away demons or utter meaningless tongues and syllables as is often done on a usual Sunday. Instead people convened to think, question and exercise their will to doubt and to critically examine issues and claims. People gathered to reason together, and for a skeptical fellowship.
It was an unusual event, and the first of its kind. One participant described it as a historic day. And indeed April 28, 2013 was a memorable day for freethinking people in Lagos state. Around 40 participants turned out for the inaugural forum of humanists and skeptics in the state. It was a coming out event for many who met and interacted for the first time with people of like minds.
There was palpable excitement in the air as participants greeted and exchange skeptical pleasantaries and freethought jokes with one another. Some of the participants repeatedly said that before the event they thought they were the only skeptics or humanists or atheists in Lagos. Few of them were uncomfortable with ‘labels’ while definitely making it clear that they had issues with the dogmas of religion or tradition. But generally the event offered them a special opportunity and space for critically minded persons to go open and to express their doubts, their independent views and opinions they could not express anywhere about god, mamiwater, witches and wizards, magic and mysticism, or the juju and charms which money changers and pick pocketters use.
In spite of the limited time and resources, information about the event actually went around. Some participants said they learned about the event from an article on Sahara Reporters. Others through Facebook and Twitter, a few from some posters placed three days to the event on boards across the campus. One participant said he heard the announcement on the University of Lagos FM radio. But one thing was clear; the organisers weren’t sure the number to expect. Definitely staging an event that is critical of religion in Lagos on a Sunday sounds like a crazy idea. Would anyone show up? Or would the organizers end up talking to themselves or to an empty room?
The event was billed to start at 12:00pm but before 11:00am some of the participants had started arriving from within Lagos and beyond. And by 2:00pm, the room was almost filled with people from all walks of life- doctors, lecturers, students, civil servants, etc who came to observe their Sunday in a skeptical way. One of the organizers, Bamidele gave a brief introduction welcoming participants to the forum. I made a presentation urging skeptics and humanists in Lagos to rise up and help combat the spread of superstitious and paranormal beliefs. I asked the participants to help counter the pervasive idea of a dogmatic Lagos –a Lagos of signs and wonder-with a skeptical Lagos, a Lagos of critically thinking people.
Skepticism, I noted, will not promote itself. The skeptical outlook cannot be visible and effective when skeptics remain in the closet, when critically minded persons do nothing.
The main speaker at the forum was Dr Douglas Anele of the Department of Philosophy University of Lagos. Anele writes a regular column in the Vanguard. He continues with the tradition of freethought writing left behind by late humanist and skeptic, Harry Nwana who died in 2011. Anele used philosophical wits, insights and arguments to make an eloquent case for embracing skepticism and fighting superstition. Drawing from his personal and professional life, he underscores the necessity of applying critical thinking in all areas of human endeavour. He noted how skepticism could save Nigerians from being exploited and abused by peddlers and marketers of religious dogmas and irrational beliefs. He cited several instances of how pastors stage miracles and carry out fake(faith) healing.
Anele debunked the arguments for the existence of god using the teaching of the world religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam and some practical expamples. He maintained that all the arguments proffered by theologians and philosophers to demonstrated the existence of god were deeply flawed and fallacious. He used his personal case of being an albino to show the unintelligent design of god. If god were to be the intelligent omniscient designer, Anele said, he would not have created me an albino and placed me in the hottest part of the world, he would not have created the world this way. Is it that he ran out of melanin or that he did not know the risks I would face living under the hot climate in Africa? He queried.
Anele’s presentation generated many questions and interventions. It was punctuated with laughter and applause as he demonstrated and dramatized the illogicallity and absurdity of dogmatic, paranormal and superstitious claims. At the end of the event, participants were visibly happy and impressed. The program was a huge success. Infact it succeeded beyond the expection of the organizers. It clearly shows that skepticism has a great and promising future in Nigeria. Seven persons volunteered to help organize the skeptics/humanist group in Lagos.
I hope their efforts pay off and the idea of a skeptical Sunday devoted to critical thinking and reasoned inquiry becomes a permanent feature in Lagos life and society.