Freethought, Religiosity and Academic Decay in Nigerian Universities -By Leo Igwe

Filed under: Article of Faith,Educational Issues |

The overwhelming emphasis has been on how the different religions have contributed to the growth of education and learning in Nigeria. It is widely known that religious organizations have been at the forefront of building and managing schools, colleges and universities. Christian missionaries introduced the formal education system to Nigeria while their Islamic counterparts have established several schools and other institutions of learning. In fact, today over eighty percent of the private schools in the country are owned or managed by mainly Christian and Islamic religious individuals or groups.

However, little attention has been paid to the negative effects of religion on the educational system especially the fact that religion undermines academic programs. Religious involvement in education has not always translated into academic excellence. In fact, in many cases, religious teachings and practices are conducted in ways that obstruct learning and acquisition of knowledge. Recently, students from some universities across Nigeria responded to interview questions on the state of religion and free thought on the campuses. According to one student, campus religiosity had become a nuisance to the environment. She said: “Hmmm! religion in my school is at another level. Almost everyone is religious or at least believes in the existence of some imaginary beings controlling the universe. From 5 pm to 8 pm every day, my faculty, in fact, is the noisiest place on earth as all the classes are taken over by the different Christian fellowships. The mosque behind the faculty building won’t give one a chance either, with their loudspeakers. You will find no place to study and can hardly concentrate on anything. There is at least one mosque beside every single building in the school, including the administrative block”.

Actually, universities have sections in their premises where places of worship could be constructed. So one wonders why the university authorities have refused to act and take steps to sanitize the place and restore some order. University authorities should be able to demarcate and ensure a separation between prayer and study/reading/lecture halls. But a student pointed out that such a measure could not be taken because many university lecturers were usually behind these prayer meetings.

A student at a university in Enugu said: “…all official social events begin and end with prayer including the inaugural lecture of the Faculty of Applied Natural Sciences. The lecturers encourage students to pray to God to help them pass their courses and they give religion-flavored lectures. In an elective course on genetics that I did in my first year, the lecturer, after teaching outdated 1980s research work that regarded homosexuality as a genetic aberration went ahead to tell us that the mind was like a garden. If you keep it clean, clean stuff will grow in it, if not, rubbish will grow in it and went ahead to state how this could be overcome by sheer will and the help of the spirit“.

So many university lecturers mixed their teaching with religious preaching. They evangelize the students during the lectures and seminars. According to one student: “It’s sad to note that majority of our scholars and academicians are under the massive spell of religious conformity. Professors who are paid to transmit scientific knowledge are rather busy preaching to students in order to advance their religious agenda”.

In the same vein, another student linked the high religiosity among students to the university management: “The school management itself is deeply religious and virtually all policies, including employment and admission, are carried out with religious bias.

Almost all the professors in my department are pastors, bishops, deacons etc. At least one of them owned a church. They leave no chance for critical thinking, and proselytize at any given time…”. So what has been going on in the universities is a gradual religionization of the campuses and a campusization of religion. Religion is slowing taking over the academic space, and eroding the culture of learning and intellectual inquiry in these places.

Not surprisingly, campus religiosity has been linked to noise pollution. In fact, some students observed that the noise that emanated from students’ religious observance could not allow others to adequately prepare for their examinations: One student said: “It’s now time for examinations and on stepping inside the school in the evening, you’d think it’s a crusade ground. The noise from the prayer grounds won’t even let students who have come to study understand anything”. So many students end up not performing well in their examinations and in other academic engagements.

Despite the high level of religiosity on campuses, some students said there was a future for freethought or atheism in the universities. Freethought, they noted, could help improve the quality of teaching and learning on campuses. For instance, some noted that atheism could help change the attitude of students and lecturers to learning. As one student noted: “Atheism would go a long way in at least raising the consciousness of the lecturers. They need to be reminded that they are academics, not clerics and that they are in the universities to study and research not to pray, to teach and impart knowledge, not to preach religion. Also, I think students should start taking hold of their destinies”. A student pointed out that in one university in Enugu students used to say: “My present course is not important. God already knows my future and what I will be.” Whilst others say: “After all, everyone is going to school. It’s only God that determines who will get what: It is not how many hours you spend in the night class that matters”. Religion is used to sanctify lack of academic diligence and intellectual laziness. Students noted that this kind of reasoning was rampant and that the spread of atheistic viewpoints would “at least mean fewer people subscribing to this mediocre way of thinking otherwise the university would keep producing half-baked graduates”. Nigeria has indeed been producing low-quality graduates and Nigerian universities are ranked low globally. But spreading the value of freethought on campuses is fraught with risks because the intense religious climate makes it very challenging for students who are atheists or freethinkers to come out.

One student explained his own predicament: “Anytime I made myself known to anyone that I am no longer a sheep to any imaginary shepherd, and that I no longer have time for church activities, they look at me with massive disbelief. They imagined that I had been initiated into some sort of cult. For a university full of intellectuals in diverse fields of knowledge, in this second decade of the 21st century to be this religious is unbelievable! In fact, I stand the risk of not graduating if my supervisor finds out about my views concerning religion. I hope nobody from my department gets to read this. This statement testifies to how campus religiosity has made freethinking dangerous. Another university student observed:

“Freethought, specifically atheism, perhaps will require a lot of efforts to take roots here. Everywhere I mention or hint at it, there is a reaction and it is usually unpleasant, like when some disinfectant is applied to a wound. And like in that analogy, freethought is a much-needed panacea in these parts”. According to this student, with the spread freethought, the religious bias in recruitment and promotion of persons will drastically reduce. Only academicians and administrators with the know-how will be put in their employed instead of this ‘my church member’ racketeering going on in the system. And then we will “have better lecturers, a better management setup, and an all-around better academic institution”. Furthermore, a student in Katsina also struck a note of cautious hope and optimism”.

In fact, one student stated that there was an anti-religion revolution simmering on his campus in northern Nigeria: “I did my tertiary education in Katsina and, throughout the time I stayed there, I noticed a careful and silent revolt against most Islamic practices from my mates. Even though many students openly identified with Islam for fear of being victimized, they secretly condemned it. When they are with me, most of them skipped prayers and wondered what freethinking would be like. There are basically two reasons why most students feared coming out as atheists or freethinkers. One is the fear of being killed and the other is the desire to keep enjoying the benefits that come with identifying as a Muslim. Of course, one has to be careful. One lecturer and I were the only known atheists in the school community yet we threaded carefully because we were perceived as threats. At some point, I feared for the lecturer’s life because he was so daring, and always criticized the nonsensical teachings of Muhammad in the class. I once attended his class where students nearly confronted him simply because he said the contents of Islam promoted violence and its adherents reflected it. Even the ladies stood up. Yet, despite all this, some students would secretly come to him and reveal that he or, rather, we spoke the truth. I was highly shocked and extremely happy when a young guy (about 18 years) told me he was an atheist. He was a Law student. He told me how he turned to disbelief at an earlier age while in the secondary school. I was particularly surprised given that he hails from Katsina and lived all his life in Muslim dominated northern Kaduna”.

In conclusion, students observed that religion had damaging effects on teaching and learning behaviours on the campuses. They noted that students and lecturers indulged in religious practices in places and at times when they should be studying, reading or researching. They also suggested that lecturers invoke and use religion to hamper critical thinking, analytic dispositions, and scientific inquiry. Campus religiosity is filling the gap that the decay in the academic infrastructure created. There has been a mismanagement of the university system since the 80s, and Christian and Islamic establishments have taken advantage of this situation spread their faiths. Students, as well as lecturers who cannot cope with the academic challenges on campuses, use religion as a cover and as a front. They use religion to legitimize their studentship and lecturership. Nigerian authorities must take urgent measures to tackle the academic rot and the infestation of religious zealotry on national campuses.