The Contributions of Freethinkers: Wole Soyinka

I wasn’t familiar with Wole Soyinka, the first African author ever to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, until I got a Google alert for his name the other day. You can probably guess why – it turns out he’s an atheist, as I learned from this article in the Nigerian Tribune grousing about it:

Although I might not be able to quote him verbatim, Professor Soyinka had replied thus. “The reason why I don’t believe in God is simple. I simply cannot imagine that somebody (emphasis mine) will be responsible for the action of billions of people. I think everybody should be held responsible for his actions and inaction.”

That I was taken aback by his response was to say the least. How on earth could Professor Soyinka give such an absymally poor answer? However, since Professor Soyinka has stirred the hornets’ nest, I will like him to answer the following questions: Who is responsible for the phenomenon of sleeping and wakefulness? What about the mystery of day and night; who is in control?

As simple as this may sound, can the Professor explain the process of hair growth on his head? Who created him or even if he is a believer in the evolution school of thought, who created that creature that he evolved from? Who created all the wonderful things we see around us – the mountains, valleys, oceans seas etc. What about the phenomenon of birth and death?

The ignorant writer of this column, so blinkered by his own worldview, can’t even conceive that an atheist’s answer to these questions doesn’t involve a “who”. Nor is it a surprise that he has no counterargument to offer, other than an exceptionally shoddy presentation of the god-of-the-gaps argument.

But religious griping aside, Wole Soyinka is a man we should be proud to claim as one of our own. In addition to his prodigious poetic and literary output, he’s consistently been a champion of peace and democracy. During the Nigerian civil war that began in 1967, he was imprisoned for 22 months for writing an article that called for a cease-fire. Later, in the 1990s, he spoke out against the military dictatorship of Sani Abacha (who was tied to “The Family”, the right-wing American political group). The Abacha regime responded by convicting Soyinka of treason in absentia and sentencing him to death, forcing him to flee the country. (He returned to Nigeria in 1999 when civilian rule was reinstated, and continues to write muckraking articles about rampant political corruption.) His Nobel acceptance speech was devoted to Nelson Mandela and was a strong critique of the apartheid South African regime.

I also came across an interview Soyinka did with Free Inquiry, titled “Why I Am a Secular Humanist“. Some excerpts:

Humanism for me represents taking the human entity as the center of world perception, of social organization and indeed of ethics, deciding in other words what is primarily of the greatest value for humans as opposed to some remote extraterrestrial or ideological authority. And so from that point of view, I consider myself a humanist.

I have nothing but contempt for religions that kill in the name of piety…. If they believe passionately in their deity, they should reserve to that deity the authority to exact vengeance. They shouldn’t make themselves the instrument of imagined wrongs. That applies to any religion, it applies to the insanity between the Hindus and the Muslims in India, to the Jewish extremists in Israel. It applies to any kind of religion in the world.

Are there other African freethinkers I should know about? Post your suggestions in the comments!

Other posts in this series:

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Penguin_Factory

    Who is responsible for the phenomenon of sleeping and wakefulness? What about the mystery of day and night; who is in control?
    As simple as this may sound, can the Professor explain the process of hair growth on his head?

    …. Seriously? Theological arguments for Nigerian atheists must be like shooting fish in a barrel.

    I believe PZ Myers has made posts about atheist groups in parts of Africa. A lot of them are operating in areas where being an atheist is likely to cost you your life, so they’re deserving of a lot more support than they get.

  • Raka

    …can the Professor explain the process of hair growth on his head?

    Where were you before conception? Where does your spirit go when you sleep? What is the color of up? How does fire bounce? That’s not in your bible, Christian. Hellfire awaits those who don’t know!!!

  • lpetrich

    Prof. Soyinka’s argument seems like a rather bad one to me, it must be said.

    But that columnist made such laughable god-of-the-gaps arguments that I almost don’t know where to start. It’s like saying “God did it!” about *everything* that happens. It’s a throwback to when certain people claimed that the opening of a morning-glory flower requires God to come around and say “Hey, flower, open” or do something similar (Carl Sagan; I haven’t found a primary source).

    Day and night? That’s absurdly easy. Relative positions of the Earth and the Sun.

    Sleep-wake cycles? Not well understood, it must be said.

    Hair growth? Human hair is made from cells that make lots of keratin and the like, and then die.

    Evolution? Not just human evolution, but all of the Earth’s biota. Abiogenesis is still a puzzle, however.

    Mountain and valleys? Geological processes. Oceans and seas? Lots and lots of water that’s flowed downward as far as it can go.

    Birth? Much of the process of reproduction is now reasonably well-understood, like duplication of genomes. Embryonic development is still difficult.

    Death? No marvel, because organisms are not indestructible. If anything, it’s delayed or essentially absent death that’s the real marvel.

  • Rick

    Wow–that article’s author, Muda Oyeniran, seems to be channeling Bill O’Reilly’s “You can’t explain that” vomitous reasoning.

    @lpetrich: note that Soyinka’s argument is being paraphrased by Oyeniran. Despite the quotes, it isn’t really a quote, but a paraphrase. With no context and no source, you can’t really know if that is an accurate representation of his argument or just Oyeniran’s mangling of it. Is see refutation of the idea of a micro-managing god as the beginning a conversation with a theological child. The reality is there isn’t just one reason to refute the existence of god but many.

  • paradoctor

    As for night and day, that’s not so bad a question on closer examination. Night and day are due to the rotation of the Earth; this rotation continues over aeons due to the conservation of angular momentum; which in turn is due to the symmetry of the laws of physics under rotation. So day and night alternate because, to physics, all directions are alike. Universal law is impartial, not personal; it describes, it does not control.

  • Lynet

    Wow, what a great person! You can find three of his poems here. Of the three, the first is an earthy, spiritually humanist piece, the second is one of those amazingly fluid metaphorical ones that awe you with their sustained creativity of word use, and the third has a message that punches you in the gut. Go read!

  • Hibernia86

    I did prayeth to the Google Gods and they hath delivered unto me this site:

    http://grahamghana.wordpress.com/2011/05/01/three-african-atheists-and-freethinkers/

  • bassmanpete

    Prof. Soyinka’s argument seems like a rather bad one to me, it must be said.

    Do you need a good one?

  • lpetrich

    I don’t like believing things for bad reasons.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    Prof. Soyinka’s argument seems like a rather bad one to me, it must be said.

    Well, yes, but keep in mind we’re only hearing a second-hand summary of it from a Christian who thinks that the god-of-the-gaps is a devastating argument. I wouldn’t be surprised if Soyinka’s real argument was more sophisticated and the Christian reporter rewrote it in his head into something more like what he expected to hear from an atheist.

    Lynet: Great find! All three of those poems were excellent; now I want to go out and find some more.

  • Purple

    I disagree with the thought that Prof. Soyinka’s argument is a bad one. It is not, perhaps, comprehensive, but it states the very valid humanistic viewpoint that each human is responsible for his or her own actions and that gods do not come into the equation.

  • bassmanpete

    I don’t like believing things for bad reasons.

    But he’s not believing something, which was supposed to be my point. Maybe it wasn’t very well expressed; sorry.

  • http://kagerato.net kagerato

    Indeed, bassmanpete. Why do we need reasons not to believe? That’s inverting the burden of proof.

  • Jane Smith

    There is a smallish group of people called “African atheists” on the Atheist Nexus page – I joined this group in March this year (I live in South Africa). The person who started this group, if you’re interested, is a statitician who lives in Cape Town.

    Atheism is a very unusual stance to take on the African continent, which is why I was particularly interested in your blogpost. I am a regular reader of your blog, but this is my first comment.

  • http://www.endyede.blogspot.com Endy Edeson

    I am a writer and wole soyinka is my mentor. I believe there is a creator but i don’t believe in the God that people worship.

  • Victor

    Did Wole Soyinka, a man I respect a lot, really give such a silly answer? Where did he get the idea that it is in the doctrine of any theistic religion that God is “responsible” for the actions of people? Doesn’t the bible explicitly say that each person shall be held accountable for their actions? What is he talking about?

  • http://www.whyihatejesus.blogspot.com/ OMGF

    So, Victor, do you make a habit out of misquoting and misinterpreting the paraphrasings of other people? And, do you not know that the Bible claims that Jesus died for our sins?