Why I Am a Secular Humanist

By Allen, Norm R., Jr. | Free Inquiry, Fall 1997 | Go to article overview

Why I Am a Secular Humanist


Allen, Norm R., Jr., Free Inquiry


An Interview with Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka

As long as there have been dictatorial military regimes in Nigeria, writer Wole Soyinka has spoken out against them. Championing democracy over the last 30 years earned him a two-decade prison sentence. The current regime, under General Sani Abacha, has given Soyinka a death sentence that has forced him to flee his homeland. He now lives in the United States, and is Emory University's Robert W. Woodruff Professor of the Arts.

Soyinka is the first sub-Saharan African to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, which he received in 1986. He is also a Laureate of the International Academy of Humanism. The author of the book The Open Sore of a Continent continues to work for freedom in Nigeria. The following interview was conducted by Norm R. Allen, Jr., Executive Director of African-Americans for Humanism.

FREE INQUIRY: Do you consider yourself a humanist, and if so, how do you believe that humanism differs from a more religious perspective?

WOLE SOYINKA: Humanism for me represents taking the human entity as the center of world perception, of social organization and indeed of ethics, deciding in other words what is primarily of the greatest value for humans as opposed to some remote extraterrestrial or ideological authority. And so from that point of view, I consider myself a humanist.

FI: There are several humanist groups in Nigeria. What do you think is the prospect for the future of humanism in Nigeria?

SOYINKA: I take most of my metaphors from the Yoruba worldview. What separates that religion from the so-called universal world religion is that the human characteristics of the deities that belong in the Yoruba pantheon actually make that religion one of the most humanist types of religion you'll encounter anywhere in the world. The Yoruba philosophy drastically reduces the absolute authority of deities over the lives of human beings and therefore reduces the dependency of human beings on the interpreters of the extraterrestrial authority. And so when you ask the question What are the prospects of a humanist worldview in Nigeria?, I point to this as an example of some kind of qualified humanism that predates any kind of codification of humanistic principles in European terms.

FI: You and some other Nigerian dissidents had been accused of treason by the Abacha regime. Are you in contact with any others who have been accused of treason?

SOYINKA: I've been in indirect contact with the others, and I'm very much concerned about them because they are in the clutches of one of the most insensitive tyrants that the African continent has ever known. One can only ask Abacha what goes on in his diseased mind and what his police tell him.

FI: I wanted to ask you about your book, The Open Sore of a Continent. In it, you are critical of the Nigerian military dictatorship. Please discuss the government's 1995 execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa and other activists.

SOYINKA: It was easily the most barbarous action ever undertaken by any regime within the living memory of that continent. In Africa we are used to mindless massacres in the name of ethnicity and religion, but I think this stands out on its own because it's an action that is purported to have followed rational judicial process. It was a total travesty of everything that judicial processes should stand for. Anyone should be able to understand what kind of regime we're dealing with after that. Why wait for further proof? Who could expect anything positive to come out of this regime?

FI: In your opinion, how have Western powers responded?

SOYINKA: The response has been a mere slap on the wrist. Actions have been token. This is a regime that should be totally isolated economically, culturally, diplomatically, until its termination.

FI: You dedicated The Open Sore of a Continent to the late humanist Tai Solarin. Who was he, and how important was he to Nigeria's pro-democracy movement? …

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