Story and production by Saratu Abiola
Religion has been a major story this past year. In Nigeria, we have seen sexual violence in churches; entire schools for young boys run by Imams involved in organized abuse of children; and questions on the role of women in politics, much of which tend to brush up against religious notions of women’s place. Power and religion is a heady mix in any context, but in a place where the most institutionalized thing is lack of protection against abuse of any kind, it is headier still. What has been glaring about these stories of abuse of power is the extent to which these people used power vested in them — by church or state, or in the case of that one professor in the University of Lagos sexual harassment, both — to oppress vulnerable populations. If God created human beings in his own image, human beings have in turn molded God in their own.
Because of the ways that religion shapes such macro-level dynamics as politics and culture, it is easy to miss the quieter ways it shapes the most intimate of our relationships – with our communities, with our friends, with partners, and with ourselves. In 2017, I started collecting stories of people’s relationships with religion through a series of interviews in my DMs. In these conversations, I asked each person questions about what drives their un/belief, how it shapes their relationships with others, and how they have evolved and grown in their [lack of] faith. Each image I share from these conversations show these people’s experiences and personal truths that they have graciously accepted for me to share.
I have not always been able to write this. Some of these conversations are two years old, because I had wanted to write a much more personal piece on religious belief back then. I stopped being religious as a teenage girl and was angry — I can’t even articulate at whom this anger was directed - - for a long while after. This anger would pretty much shape my attitude towards religion for a long time, until it no longer did. I cannot say that I am aware of how this change happened. Time does it work, rounding out our hard edges and smoothing over our rough surfaces like sandpaper. For me, writing this and telling these stories is a sort of milestone in my own evolution, much the same way that these stories mark these people’s trajectories.
Religion is a dye that colors everything in modern Nigerian life. That I am not religious does not mean that I have not had to negotiate the contours of belief or relationship with God as an adult. I would venture that no Nigerian is able to live in the country completely adrift of the idea of faith. The shape of my moral universe is not consciously determined by religious instruction today, but it likely is by how I was raised and what I have experienced. All of these things are very closely aligned with a sense of belief, and ideas around sin and penance, faith and grace.
Here’s what I have learned.
1. The Importance of Community
A lot of the people I talked to shared that their major driver for their religious practice is the sense of community they get out of it.
This is doubly important for immigrant communities and is a very easy way of building relationships in new cities. The importance of this community will likely take on a different dimension for Nigerians abroad as it does Nigerians in the country. It makes me wonder about what else takes on a renewed importance when one is far away from home. In the calculation of better electricity and access to education and other opportunities, nobody really talks about how lonely emigrating to another country can be. Here, B. tells me how her aunt joined the Jehovah’s Witness church when she moved to another country. It became a link to the community, something she likely missed sitting alone in her apartment when the JW missionaries came knocking.
If a sense of community is a key driver, it does make it harder when you withdraw. This is especially when religion is a glue that binds you to your family . Most of the people who engaged with me that have lost faith told me that they could not tell their parents and still carried on going their places of worship.
Community brings to it a weight that either feels comforting or constricting, depending on the extent to which you neatly fit. Yet, my interviews showed me the extent to which it is still a need that drives our behavior.
2. A relationship with God Is Very Much A, Well, Relationship
This was something I never quite understood. How, after all, can you have a relationship with a being you’ve never seen? What shape does this relationship take?
As with every relationship, there will be some things that happen that you’re not altogether happy about, but the idea of having an intimate, ultimately beneficial relationship with an almighty creator is a powerful one. Whatever I think of religious practice, I came away from these conversations thinking of the ability to believe as a kind of superpower, much like the ability to love. Of course, not every relationship with God is rosy. Someone shared with me how his mental health struggles made him feel guilty and question the strength of his own faith.
In much the same way that the personal is also political, the community around one’s faith and the way one is taught about religion often shapes one’s relationship with God. That’s where it tends to get complicated.
3. There Is a Grieving Process When Faith Is Lost, Much Like Other Kind of Loss
There is a sense that people who walk away from religion skip away into the sunset at the thought of some newfound freedom to do as they please. From my conversations in these interviews as well as elsewhere, I find that this is not necessarily true. Precisely because a relationship with God is a relationship, it is possible to fall out or to walk away. And as we know in other kinds of relationships that we have, then your agency in the ending of that relationship does not mean you will not mourn its end. Indeed, I would argue that even the anger and viciousness of atheists who used to be religious is a manifestation of mourning. Anger is very much part of the grieving process.
I honestly did not understand this until I read R. O. Kwon’s “The Incendiaries”. The writer herself is a Korean-American who was raised Evangelical and has spoken publicly about mourning her loss of faith.
In a 2018 interview, she says this of her loss:
“With religion as I experienced it, the first and foremost feeling was one of love. I loved my idea of God. I really wanted to show how exciting and passionate religion can be and therefore how terrible it was to lose that, and to lose my faith. When I most deeply fell into religion, not entirely unlike when I’ve had one-off crushes, there was a feeling of ‘maybe this will give me all the answers I’ve been seeking.’ Losing my faith was devastating to me. For the next year I was as depressed as I’ve ever been. I was and am close to my parents, but I remember thinking that I’d rather lose one of my parents than lose God. When I believed, I lived in a world where there was no real loss and no real death. It’s such a different worldview than what I have now. Before I lost my faith, I would never have considered myself an especially anxious person. I didn’t have to be anxious because somebody omnipotent was always looking out for me. Now I could pretty reasonably call myself anxious. I wanted to try to bridge the chasm between these worldviews. On the one hand it was devastating that my friends and family couldn’t understand at the time how alone I felt and on the other hand it felt strange to then start making friends at college who were just like “okay, you used to be a Christian.” Very quickly I learned to turn it into a joke.”
If religion is a compass with which one moves through the world, then acting on one’s lack of faith requires a kind of courage not unlike the kind that wills one to be guided by a being followed a legion of equally flawed humans. Everything about the way we move through life requires courage, and to own up to what you do and do not believe in an environment as hostile to unbelief as Nigeria is its own kind of integrity.
4. How Religion Fits Into Your Life Is Just As Important As How You Fit Into It
Religious belief is not about what you want, but what is right given a set of principles that determine what being a Muslim/Christian/etc means. Still, the level of people’s adherence seems very much shaped by the extent to which their religion as they know it will accommodate who they are becoming, and to what extent they can bring to their God their fullest selves.
Some of the most poignant stories I heard were about this negotiation of how much of themselves they can be while also being an adherent of their religious practice. A former church leader spoke to me about the experience of coming to terms with his sexuality:
A woman told me about how the fears surrounding her body shaped her experience in the Yoruba religious tradition as a child:
Another person told me of her discomfort with the church’s teachings on religion and a woman’s place:
Sometimes, the people on the other end of the religious fervor in an intimate relationship can get hurt by their significant other’s practice. Religious people can be so preoccupied with their own internal struggles that they forget that their significant other or family member is not some disembodied test of righteousness, but a human being with feelings as valid as theirs. These stories abound anecdotally from people in my personal relationships and that I’ve heard through these conversations. Here’s one I can share because it has few identifying details.
I think it is no surprise sexuality shows up a fair bit in some of these stories. The shame and fear in sexuality that Abrahamic religions tend to impart can manifest itself in hypocrisy and judgement of other people, especially towards those who are not straight or who opt to express their sexuality differently. So much of the associated shame in their bodies and sexual proclivities does not merely turn off once a ring hits their finger, though. I worry about this especially for women, who I see often take years, decades even, to unlearn the learned shame and fear. For all its value, I worry about the benefits of worldviews that leave one with so much to unlearn, and the lack of grace this community allows for those who are unlike them.
5. There are always more questions than answers
For all its performative aspects and community, religion is a deeply personal thing. Young Nigerians are facing cultural influences from their ethnicity, religion and a barrage of messaging from a western perspective, all of which are competing for their attention in a social media-driven world. Social mores will continue to evolve elsewhere, feeding into a cultural conversation in Nigeria that will in turn shape how we live and, in turn, the lenses with which we will regard religious practice. Changes to the way we believe come with changes in the way we live. That likely won’t change.