Secularism in Africa

Edd Doerr

XXXX What Secularism Means to Africa: What It Has Been, What It Hasn’t Been and What It Could Mean for Human Rights, edited by Jon O’Brien (Washington, D.C., Catholics for Choice, 2017, ISBN 978-0-998416-1-6) 40 pp. Softcover, $15.00.


In America today, we struggle nervously against a rising tide of efforts by the “theocrat Right” and their political collaborators to return to the time before Jefferson and Madison led the way to our constitutional secular state that safeguards religious liberty through church-state separation. So it’s interesting to see something positive on another continent.

On August 23–25, 2016, more than two dozen prominent activists, academics, physicians, journalists, and other thought leaders from eleven African countries met in Nairobi, Kenya, to discuss secularism and its relevance to good governance across Africa. The conference produced this final document:

We believe in a secular society that: Actively supports the separation of religion and state; champions human and civil rights on behalf of all its citizens, without exception; recognizes and protects the inherent values of each of its citizens; defends and upholds freedom of speech; respects religious, atheist and humanist groups and in which all are able to express their views equally; does not oppress or give preferential treatment in any way to any group; and does not favor one religion over another or force anyone to adhere to any particular religious belief.

We are committed to advancing a secular society: That advances principles of human rights, human dignity, nondiscrimination and rule of law; where individuals experience freedom of religion and freedom from religion; and where no one is compelled to adopt a religious belief for any reason.

We believe that secularism can benefit African societies by: Contributing towards nation building and social cohesion; creating space for dissent and freedom of conscience; making a distinction between political and religious powers and roles; creating transparency around relationships between religion and government; creating spaces for open discussion between people of all faiths and no faith; fostering a community that lives at peace and rejects religious or nonreligious extremism; and supporting the rights and autonomy of individuals.

The conference was chaired by former Ghana Health Minister and Ambassador Dr. Eunice Brookman-Amissah and hosted by Jon O’Brien, president of the Washington-based Catholics for Choice, with which I have worked for years. One of the papers included in the book is by conference faculty member Leo Igwe, founder of the Nigerian Humanist Movement and founding director of the Center for Inquiry Nigeria. The book contains some of the papers presented at the conference.

As an activist on church-state and secularism matters for decades, I heartily recommend this short book. It is relevant not only for Africa but for every other country as well, especially the United States, where our national government and many of our state governments are in the hands of clericalists and reactionaries bent on undermining our constitutional church-state separation heritage regarding women’s reproductive health rights, the secular public schools that serve 90 percent of our kids, and other issues.

Madison, Jefferson, Washington, Paine, and others of our Founders would be pleased by this excellent book.

Edd Doerr

Edd Doerr is a senior editor of Free Inquiry. He headed Americans for Religious Liberty for thirty-six years and is a past president of the American Humanist Association.


What Secularism Means to Africa: What It Has Been, What It Hasn’t Been and What It Could Mean for Human Rights, edited by Jon O’Brien (Washington, D.C., Catholics for Choice, 2017, ISBN 978-0-998416-1-6) 40 pp. Softcover, $15.00. In America today, we struggle nervously against a rising tide of efforts by the “theocrat Right” and their …

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