Atheism Under Fire: The Fight for Existence in Religious Kenya

The first atheist organization in Kenya is fighting for its survival after a Christian bishop and politician filed a case to have its registration suspended.

The Atheists in Kenya Society (AKS) said that fundamental civil liberties and rights for non-religious organizations and individuals in primarily religious Kenya are uncertain as it prepared to file a submission last July 24th in response to a petition filed against the group and the Kenyan registrar of societies by Stephen Ndichu, a bishop and speaker of the Kiambu County Assembly.

Ndichu claimed that the activities of the AKS violate the Kenyan Constitution, which “acknowledges the existence of God.” He also argued that “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.

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 officially a secular democracy, where 85% of its population identifies as Christian. An estimated 755,000 out of its population of 55 million identify as atheists, according to a previous 2019 census.

But the leaders of AKS argue that their unofficial polling indicates that the number is double what the census showed. The society faces strong opposition from church groups and religious individuals in its efforts to promote secular beliefs and policies.

Our country has, historically, been very religiously inclined, and that impacts how the government views atheism,” Harrison Mumia, President of the Atheists in Kenya Society, said. “[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.

Last year, Kenya elected its first evangelical Christian president, William Ruto. He and his first lady, Rachel Ruto, have a chapel in one of their suburban homes. He signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) “to protect the church” before the elections, which includes government funding for pastors and the appointment of clergy to government roles.

The AKS has become increasingly vocal about what it perceives as disproportionate inclusion of religious activity in the Kenyan government over the past year, such as the chief justice participating in the yearly national prayer breakfast last year and Ruto hosting religious leaders in the Kenyan State House after being elected President.

The group is also working to grow its public profile by engaging in philanthropic work, such as supporting needy children to dispel misconceptions that atheists lack compassion, even if their reach is limited.

It’s problematic because Kenya is a secular democracy, and these actions can be seen as government promotion of one or two religions,” Morris Wanjohi, a researcher and member of the AKS, said, adding that pushing for ideas such as secularism or sex education has become “a nightmare” in Kenya.

The case filed by Ndichu wouldn’t be the first time the AKS faced challenges to its existence. After religious groups complained that the society threatened public order, their hard-won registration certificate was revoked in 2016. Kenya’s high court overruled the decision in 2018 and upheld the group’s right to association.

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