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:

SF/F Saturday: The Half-Made World
Atlas Shrugged: Screw You, Shakespeare
The Post-Work Society
Is Assisted Dying Narcissism?
About Adam Lee

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