‘Our biggest challenge is simply to exist’: atheist society fights for legal recognition in God-fearing Kenya

 Kenya’s first atheist group is battling to keep legal recognition in a case filed by a Christian bishop seeking to suspend its registration.

The Atheists in Kenya Society (AKS) said basic civil liberties hung in the balance as it prepares to file a submission on Monday in response to a petition presented against the group and the Kenyan registrar of societies by Stephen Ndichu.

Ndichu claims the group’s activities violate the constitution, which “acknowledges the existence of God”. He argues that the AKS has “through public statements and via its social media platforms … expressed its distaste against religion … creating ‘cynical effects’ within the larger society”, and “undermined people’s beliefs in religions”.

Stephen Ndichu in Nairobi this month. The bishop and politician is petitioning for deregistration of the Atheist in Kenya Society. Photograph: Patrick Meinhardt/The Guardian

“In Kenya, you cannot divorce government and religion,” Ndichu told the Guardian. “You find that people in the government are also part of the church, and people in the church are also part of the government … so there’s no boundary.”

Kenya is a secular state where roughly 85% of people describe themselves as Christian. An estimated 755,000 out of Kenya’s population of about 55 million say they are atheists, according to the last census in 2019.

AKS leaders say their unofficial polling indicates that the figure is at least double that. . The society faces strong opposition in its efforts to promote secular beliefs.

“Our country has, historically, been very religiously inclined, and that impacts how the government views atheism,” said Harrison Mumia, AKS president. “[Atheism] is not palatable within the government because religious groups are powerful in Kenya. The current administration is ultra-religious and is running on that strength, so we may see secularism diminishing, and religion playing a bigger role in public life.”

Harrison Mumia, president of the Atheists in Kenya Society, in Nairobi. Photograph: Patrick Meinhardt/The Guardian

Kenya elected its first openly evangelical president, William Ruto, last year. Before the election, he signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) “to protect the church”, which included government funding for pastors, building grants, the appointment of clergy to government roles, and the lifting of a moratorium on the registration of new churches. This moratorium had been imposed by a former attorney general to curb growing radicalisation and commercialisation.

The president and first lady, Rachel Ruto, have a chapel in one of their suburban homes.

The Kenyan first lady and president, Rachel and William Ruto. The AKS accuses them of undermining the supposedly secular state. Photograph: Tony Karumba/AFP/Getty Images

Rachel Ruto publicly championed “faith diplomacy” as a tool for social and economic change during a summit for African first ladies earlier this year. She has said she would work with religious organisations to spread a culture of prayer and to protect family values amid perceived threats from calls for LGBTQ+ rights, which have been strongly opposed by religious groups and Kenya’s political class.

Over the past year, the AKS has been increasingly vocal on what it says is a disproportionate inclusion of religious activity within government. It protested against the chief justice’s participation in the annual national prayer breakfast last year, and criticised the hosting of religious leaders in State House after Ruto was elected. The society called it a “flagrant abuse”, a misuse of the residence as a “religious playfield”, and a disregard for religious diversity.

“It’s problematic because Kenya is a secular democracy, and these actions can be seen as government promotion of one or two religions,” said Morris Wanjohi, a researcher and AKS member, who says it has become “a nightmare” to push for ideas such as separation of church and state, or sex education.

“The biggest danger we have is government accountability. There is an unholy alliance between the church and the political class. Churches provide politicians with a ready platform. When the church supports a politician, they are halfway there. They have become interdependent, so the church gets away with a lot and can whip up the political class on policy issues like LGBTQ+ rights,” he said.

The criticisms have drawn the ire of some church groups. “The church has worked with the government for ages in this country by providing extra resources like education, health facilities and nurturing spiritual life to people,” said Ndichu. Calls for the church not to be involved in governance dismisses this role, he said.

Christian symbols for sale outside the Cathedral Basilica of the Holy Family in Nairobi. Census data shows that 85% of Kenyans say they are Christians. Photograph: Patrick Meinhardt/The Guardian

The AKS is growing its public profile through philanthropic work, such as supporting needy schoolchildren, to reshape public perceptions that atheists lack compassion, but its reach is limited.

This is not the first time the AKS has faced legal challenges. In 2016, the society’s hard-won registration certificate was revoked after religious groups claimed it threatened public order. The move was overruled in 2018 by the high court, which upheld the group’s right to association.

Wanjohi is confident that this ruling will also go in the AKS’s favour. “There’s a court precedent, which says that the freedom of worship includes the right not to worship,” he said.

The ruling may have implications for Wanjohi’s attempts to register his own sceptics and atheists association. Nearly a year since he filed for registration, which usually takes a maximum of four months, he is still waiting for a decision.

Wanjohi, who joined the AKS in 2018, was raised in a staunch Christian family in Kijabe in Rift Valley province. The town, a former colonial missionary outpost, observes a strict moral code, including a ban on the sale of alcohol, cigarettes and condoms.

Wanjohi’s early ambition was to be a pastor like his grandfather. “When you’re brought up in that setting, the pastors and priests are your only role models,” he said. “They are put on a pedestal.”

Morris Wanjohi in Nairobi this month. He once aspired to be a pastor but is now trying to set up his own society of atheists. Photograph: Patrick Meinhardt/The Guardian

At university, he grew more detached from the church. He first saw the atheists association on a TV debate, which his mother decried as the “introduction of satanism”.

When he told his family later he had joined the group, they staged an “intervention”.

Stigma means some AKS members struggle to maintain relationships and fear reprisals at work.

“Our members are struggling to coexist with other members of society,” said Mumia. “You can’t come out as an atheist without being considered a devil worshipper, so for many people [AKS] meetings are the only place they can be open.”

AKS’s lawyer Richard Ngari categorises the group as a “marginalised class”, and said the action taken against them was an attempt to “bypass” laws.

“Secular societies are easy targets in a religious society. We are low-hanging fruit,” said Wanjohi. “Our biggest challenge is simply to exist, so it’s very important for the courts to affirm that.”


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