May 25, 2016
NAIROBI, KENYA — An atheists’ group plans to continue pursuing its agenda even though its recognition from the federal government, a formal acknowledgment that was months in the making, was suspended.
Atheists in Kenya (AIK) pushed for nearly a year for recognition. That recognition was denied twice, once on the grounds that the group’s activities oppose Kenya’s constitution, and once on the grounds that the group doesn’t promote peace and good order.
In February, the government issued Atheists in Kenya a Certificate of Recognition. The group received the certificate on April 7, nearly a year after it first applied. It’s not clear why there was a gap between the formal recognition date and the group’s receipt of the certificate.
Nearly a month later, on April 30, the attorney general released a statement suspending the organization’s registration, citing complaints from religious organizations.
AIK has yet to receive official communication regarding the suspension of its registration, and therefore continues to carry out its activities as a society, says Harrison Mumia, the group’s president.
“As far as we are concerned, AIK is still a society,” Mumia says.
Through a formal request to the government, Global Press Journal obtained written proof that AIK’s registration was suspended.
Mumia and other AIK leaders were celebrating in the weeks after the group received recognition, and, despite the unexpected blow of losing the status that would give the group greater clout, they plan to continue pursuing their agenda.
Mumia says there’s need for a platform where people who do not believe in God can interact and thrive while under the protection of the law. This is what Atheists in Kenya provides, he says.
“There is an increasing section of Kenyans who have started discarding their religious beliefs,” Mumia says. “AIK wants to be the platform that will provide these Kenyans with a space where they can be skeptical and open about their skepticism or their nonreligious identity.”
The group also wants Christian holidays scrapped and school programs reviewed to change the way religious studies are taught. When the government preserves such holidays and supports such programs, it discriminates against people who do not believe in God, group members say.
About 88 percent of Kenyans are Christian, and 11 percent are Muslim, according to a 2010 survey by the Pew Research Center.
It’s not clear how many Kenyans are atheists.
Until recently, such people would not speak openly about their unbelief, says Kathleen Anangwe, a lecturer at the University of Nairobi. Globalization is encouraging people to open up about whether they believe in deities, she says.
Still, atheists stick out in Africa because religion is central to cultural activities, she says.
“Religion plays a big part in our lives from birth to death,” she says. “There is also a Marxian view of religion, that the more economic hardship a society experiences, the more religious it becomes.”
Mumia says this is probably why the organization’s attempts to be recognized have failed.
AIK, which members say was formed in 2013, first applied for registration in June 2015, but Deputy Registrar of Societies Joseph Onyango verbally rejected the application in a meeting with AIK members, Mumia says.
That same application was rejected in writing in January 2016, on grounds that registering the society would go against the interest of peace, welfare and good order. AIK appealed the decision to the attorney general before the group finally received its certificate.
AIK’s recognition drew criticism from religious leaders and some Christian lawyers.
A group of six religious leaders, led by Bishop Margaret Wanjiru of Jesus Is Alive Ministries in Nairobi, demanded the revocation of AIK’s registration.
“It is absolutely shocking for the atheist society to be registered, because the preamble of the constitution recognizes the sovereign God,” Wanjiru said during a press conference in Nairobi, days after AIK received its certificate. “Our national anthem acknowledges we honor and respect God as a nation. So we do not have room for people who think there is no God. We simply have no room for atheists, and we demand that that registration be revoked.”
Geoffrey Sore, a legal advocate and a member of the religion committee at the Kenya Christian Professionals Forum, says unless the atheists group changes its objectives, it should not be registered.
“As much as we hold divergent views, Kenyans have come together with similar principles,” Sore says. “For example, we have agreed on certain things in our constitution, such as the supremacy of God, issues of democracy and sovereignty of the nation. It is wrong for people with contrary opinions to the constitution to be registered.”
Human rights lawyers welcomed the move, saying the registration of AIK signified a positive trend in which minority groups, including transgender groups and others, can gain recognition.
“It is helping us to realize that, yes, we have certain national values, but our constitution is guided by international standards. We must move from this comfort zone that is heavily subjective to the required global standards,” says Diana Gichengo, program adviser for the Political Pluralism and Diversity program at the Kenya Human Rights Commission.
Despite the controversy surrounding its legality, AIK continues to draw members. The group has 110 members now, Mumia says, and its two WhatsApp groups each have more than 200 members.
AIK plans to campaign to scrap the government’s recognition of all religious holidays. The government should not declare a holiday on the basis of a particular religion, Mumia says.
Last year, when Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta declared Nov.26 a public holiday in honor of Pope Francis, who was visiting the country at the time, AIK went to court seeking to have the decision revoked, but the court declined to decide on the case, because AIK didn’t provide a copy of the formal declaration of the holiday, according to local media reports.
Mumia maintains that the president’s decision was wrong.
“If you think about it in terms of whether the president should declare a holiday based on one religious leader, it means that when there is an atheist leader and he does not declare a holiday, then he will be discriminating against atheists,” he says.
The same is true for school programs, he says.
“We have proposed a broader way of approaching religion in which we want all religions to be taught, including African traditional religions,” Mumia says. “Right now, just because your child is a Christian, he or she is taken to a [Christian religious education] class, and if your children are Muslim, they are taken to [an Islamic religious education] class. What happens to me as an atheist parent? Where does my child go?”
Sore, the high court advocate and Kenya Christian Professionals Forum member, says AIK has overstepped its boundaries with efforts to end the recognition of religious holidays.
“When the government declares a holiday like Christmas, it does not force you to participate in the holiday and to recognize Jesus,” he says. “If you want diversity, we must work together. Being a democracy, the minority needs to have their say, but the majority need to have their way.”
Gichengo, the Kenya Human Rights Commission program adviser, says AIK has a right to be registered but agrees with Sore that the proposal to scrap religious holidays is a wrong move.
“They should not attempt to do away with the existing order of things, but to see that what they hold in high esteem is incorporated into the system,” she says.
She supports AIK’s proposal for changes in education, saying the current curriculum discriminates against people who are not Christian, Muslim or Hindu.
Mumia says that, as a registered society, AIK would lobby government to make decisions based on science and rationality rather than faith.
The group also plans to organize debates in various public spaces to encourage Kenyans to think critically about religion and other issues, he says.