What I learnt from Young Kenyan Atheists


I learnt that faith and science, by and large, are enemies. But it doesn’t have to be so.

Earlier this year, I had the privilege of presenting a paper during an e-conference hosted by the International Research Network for the Study of Belief and Science in Society at the University of Birmingham. I later reworked the paper for publication and it was eventually accepted, peer-reviewed and published as Ndereba, Kevin Muriithi, 2022, “Faith, Science and Nonreligious Identity Formation among Male Kenyan Youth,” Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science, https://doi.org/10.1111/zygo.12848.  

Usually, my writing tends to analyse theological and biblical concepts, but this research was stretching because it was more sociological in its approach and more objective – and not preachy! 😊 In this blog I present some interesting things I found out (and preach a little at the end):

  1. (Some) Africans are not “religious”

Pretty obvious right? One of the influential Kenyan scholars of religion, the late John Mbiti, is well-known for his phrase “Africans are religious”. However, it turns out that, according to the 2019 census, 755,750 Kenyans identify as atheist. And if you consider the significant number that defines itself as neutral when it comes to religion or faith, then the number is a little higher. This group of non-religious Kenyans is disproportionately young and growing.

2. Kenyan atheists seem to be mostly male, maybe?

Initially, I had titled this research as “Faith, Science and Nonreligious Identity Formation among Male Kenyan Youth”. During data collection, I received only two female responses – this is after sharing the research questionnaire on several non-religious platforms and issuing the research questionnaire twice. After peer-review, one of the reviewers raised an issue on the gender representation – and since I had tried to incorporate a wider pool, I decided to narrow down the title to “male Kenyan youth.” Is it that it is the male non-religious Kenyan youth who are bolder in answering a sensitive issue like non-religious idenityt in a predominantly religious country? Or is it a representation of the actual statistics – that atheism, secular humanism and agnosticism, lean more towards maleness? Maybe.

3. Faith communities can and do, sometimes, inhibit critical thinking

Many of those who participated in the research said that their faith communities (19 were from Christian background, 1 from Muslim background) did not offer them space to wrestle with their questions. Interestingly, two of the respondents were part of pastoral staff (I can see the rising eyebrows!). Of course, with such occurrences, one can press further on were they really Christian? In Kenya, people can identify as Christian as a label based on family of origin or based on Christian rituals, rather than on faith in Jesus Christ. So yes, this could be a good question to explore. The point is that the participants in the research felt that the world, offered them a better chance of exploring their questions. Listen to the horse’s mouth:

I struggled with the question of suffering, and I didn’t find the Christian answer to it sufficient. I was thinking of going into missions and wanted to know why non-Christians i.e., Muslims, Hindus, etc. don’t believe in the Bible and Christianity. This made me want to understand Christianity better, I took a deep dive into learning about the history of the church and the origin of the Bible using academic lectures available on YouTube. Later wanting to understand non-Christians I watched a lot of atheist vs Christian debates. Trying to understand the issues why they didn’t believe. But then I started wrestling with some of the points atheists raised because they were actually valid. This took a period of several months until in 2020 when the COVID 19 pandemic happened, it occurred to me that a loving God wouldn’t send viruses to kill millions. And I knew we would only see a scientific solution and not a supernatural solution. Then I embraced scepticism.

NNN

4. Social media plays a key role in non-religious identity formation

One of the things I find out, which is supported by plenty of other research, is how the digital platforms of prominent atheists have influenced Kenyan youth. One of the questions asked whether the participants have been influenced by written material or digital material of atheists – and you are right, digital content ranked highly. People like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennet and other prominent atheists were cited. Additionally interesting is how the writings of Yuval Noah, Malcom Gladwell, Jordan Peterson, and Albert Einstein have influenced Kenyan non-religious youth. The power of the internet, as a place of ideas, is greatly at play here.

5. Most atheists think that faith and science are enemies

Finally, most Kenyan non-religious youth view faith and science as “strongly incompatible.” This research was more focused on exploring the way Kenyan non-religious youth view the faith-science dialogue. It was clear, that similar to the way the dialogue is presented by the famous atheist thinkers, the participants see faith and science as hostile to each other – and that faith is more mythical, while science is more factual. This seems to be a bit biased, given the fact that many of the prominent scientists had some type of theistic belief. Historians of science have shown how actually science flourished because the world shows a great amount of design, which is the foundation of science – for science is focused on documenting patterns and discovering laws at work, which would be absent in a purely chance-based, darwinistic account.

Which way to Go?

As one who has worked as a youth pastor in several churches and been involved in Church ministry, this research presents important insight for church leaders. Gone are the days where we simply told people “just believe!” Chances are that more likely than not, a Christian will have to give a reason for why they believe, what they believe. Because of the great influence of the digital space, many more people are influenced by different ways of looking at the world.

Secondly, Churches must be places that allow for people to explore the deep questions. Participants in my research were concerned about Africa’s troubled history, making sense of the difficult parts of the Bible like cultural practices or violence, the reality of miracles among other things. To this type of people, the Church (and Christians by extension) must allow for people to wrestle with their questions. The period of youth (beginning with early adolescence almost from 9 years to late adolescence, which used to be around 19 years but now stretching into the mid-twenties – what is called emerging adulthood) is a time when young people have significant questions around identity and intimacy. Churches can be places that help them to safely navigate these questions and concerns.

Third, we need a way of integrating faith and science. This is because the popular narrative is so far from the actual history and development of science, as well as some of the contemporary findings in an emerging area of research called Intelligent Design – which is supported by many prominent scientists.

Additionally, this integration will help us to better respond to the contemporary world we live in and also help those who are serving in marketplaces that rely heavily on the scientific enterprise (here I am thinking beyond just the “hard sciences”). I think this is also very central to the Christian faith – that both body and soul matter; that both the natural world and the supernatural world matter; that both the private life and the public life matter – A relationship with God is for all of life, including our science-driven lives.


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