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Opinions Sun, 23 Aug 2015

African Female Atheist Reveals Why She is in the Closet

By Leo Igwe

She is from one of the countries in Southern Africa and is in her 20s. She asked me not to reveal her true identity so I will call her Sara. Sara comes from a strong catholic background and knows a lot about catholic faith and rituals. Recently she told me why she is a closeted atheist and may remain so for some time.

"I was very religious and almost became a nun... I come from a staunch catholic home. I used to help out at the church and when people asked for some assistance. I was that good that the bishop heard about me and invited me for a lunch". She told me during an online chat.

Unfortunately the lunch did not bring Sara closer to God or to the church. In fact it had the opposite effect because she is now an atheist but wants to remain in the closet because she has so many concerns. Yes she thinks it is not yet safe and conducive for her go open and public with her atheism.

Sara is of the view that declaring her atheism would cost her a lot in terms of family support and social capital. In fact it may jeopardize her chances of getting married or at least of maintaining a stable relationship. "As a woman it's better kept closeted because potential boyfriends flee". She explained. Sara is really weighing the options in terms of balancing her psycho -social needs with the (mis)perceptions of the people.

"Generally people look at you differently, they misjudge you for what you are not, sometimes the relationships you have are worth keeping rather than lost due to what people can't fathom"

Meanwhile some of her friends are aware of her doubts and disbelief but they think it is "a passing phase "in her life and that she would eventually bounce back faithfully to God.

From my interaction with her that is not likely. But Sara has very serious concerns. She thinks if she leaves the closet today her "Mum will have heart attack". Yes I have heard many 'aspiring (closeted) atheists' in the region say that. They fear that if they openly declare their atheism, their mother would die and so they prefer remaining in the closet.

But I have not heard any incident where the mother of a 'potential' atheist had cardiac arrest when the son or daughter came out as an atheist. My mother is very religious too and I was worried how my mum would react to my decision to identify openly as an atheist. She was not happy with my decision but she quickly adjusted and she is fine now. Sometimes our concerns may be misplaced. Our fears may be unfounded.

However, one thing all of us, Africa's first generation atheists, must bear in mind is that some family members and friends would feel disappointed to know that we have lost 'faith in faith'. Sara says if she comes out as an atheist today "I will break the hearts of lots of people who have looked at me as a role model for youngsters". She could still be a role model but this time to youngsters or to other women who are struggling with their doubts and disbelief.

Sara says that some people who would be livid 'waiting for one to fall from grace or they think one is 'a Satanist'' – a worshipper of the devil. But she says "In my mind I am laughing and thinking, there are no gods or earth trolls". But people in her country are of the notion that "since you cut yourself off from the vine that you are vulnerable to being initiated or attacked".

Sara is not worried by all that She only concerned about the judgement of others, she says: "People misjudge and look at you differently. They don't bother to get to know you even though you may have a higher morality compared to church girls".

She is worried that not many men in her country would condone atheism from their wives. "Very few men can stomach it and when they realize that you are not kidding someone will take it upon himself or herself to bring you back to Jesus". So Sara is treading carefully. She values community relationship and solidarity though it is soaked with religious piety because "You don't wanna be offensive" ... I have only met one other atheist really and community is important. I am human".

Of course nobody disputes that.

Sara continues to assist at religious funerals. "You have to relate with the environment. Imagine me at maybe a funeral, because of my spiritual background. I am actually being looked at as a good spiritual counsel, I mean, I know the Bible very well.... and my primary role is giving comfort in that situation so it's ok"

And she assists at wedding ceremonies too: "Last time my best friend was getting married and they hadn't picked out the readings, everyone looked for me, it took me a minute to find the 1st and 2nd readings... during homily the priest commended the scriptures chosen saying he never ministered at a wedding with those readings saying they were profound"

But after all that Sara tries to catch up with freethought fellowship. "Anyway when I need to "fellowship" or I don't wanna feel weird I follow atheist pages online. So it feels like I have friends that I can relate with even though they are virtual friends". Yes indeed, the internet is changing how atheists relate even from their closets
Columnist: Igwe, Leo