Freedom of Belief
4 min read

We’re ignoring Nigeria's hellish underbelly

Why the West averts its gaze from anti-Christian violence there.

Chris Wadibia is a Junior Research Fellow at Pembroke College, Oxford. His research interests include political Pentecostalism, global Christianity, and faith-based investment in global development. 

A burnt out motor cycle and car stand amid charred debris in a dusty compound.
Burned vehicles after Good Friday raid on April 7, 2023, in Ngban, Benue state, Nigeria.
Justice, Development, and Peace Commission.

Moments ago a Christian was killed in Nigeria—again. For the 100 million Christians living in Nigeria, news of brutal murders of their fellow worshippers has become commonplace. Every day 14 Christians in Nigeria die because of their faith. Nigeria is a land of extreme paradoxes known for many things. It’s one of the world’s leading oil producers. It’s home to the globally popular Afrobeats music scene. Its distinguished citizens include director-general of the World Trade Organisation Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, president of the African Development Bank Akinwumi Adesina, Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations Amina Mohammed, and former president of the International Criminal Court Chile Eboe-Osuji, just to name a few. Its global diaspora of 17 million consists of Nigerians working in positions of power in virtually every industry imaginable. From banking, finance, and tech to professional sports, higher education, healthcare, culinary arts, and consulting, there is not a single major industry in the world whose list of leaders does not include a Nigerian name.  

But just as every coin has two sides, so does Nigeria. Nigeria's story is incomplete without explaining its hellish underbelly. Well over 60 per cent of Nigeria's population, or at least 133 million of its citizens, live in a state of multidimensional poverty. The vast oil wealth generated by its oil industry only benefits a minuscule sliver of its elephantine population.  

Nigeria is the global leader in anti-Christian violence. Since 2009, over 52,000 Christians have been killed in Nigeria by Islamist extremists. In the last 15 years, over 18,000 churches and 2,200 schools in Nigeria have been set on fire. Open Doors, a charity whose mission focuses on providing support to persecuted Christians globally, estimates that 90 per cent of murders targeting Christians across the world in 2022 took place in Nigeria. Islamist extremists killed at least 145 Nigerian Catholic priests in 2022 alone.    

Anti-Christian violence is evil just like antisemitic and Islamophobic violence are both evil.  

For people enjoying religious freedom in Europe and the United States, violence against Christians feels like a thing of the past. The concept of anti-Christian violence in the West triggers thoughts of Europe's religious wars in the 16th, 17th, and early 18th centuries, or The Troubles between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland in the 20th century.  

However, the scale of anti-Christian violence in Nigeria puts it in a league of its own. In the West we take for granted the freedom of religion because we have had it for so long. It is human nature to take for granted the aspects of life we have grown most accustomed to. Ongoing war between Israel and Hamas has reignited in Western public debate the pervasive, threatening existence of antisemitism and Islamophobia in Western societies.  

But why has the consistent, monstrously murderous Christophobia in Nigeria that has unfolded in the last two decades not cemented its place within Western public discourse? Do Christians in the West only demand action when White Christians get murdered? Are 52,000 brutal, gory killings of Black Christian bodies in Sub-Saharan Africa not sufficient reason for the powers that be in global Christian society to mobilise their vast political, military, and economic resources to intervene, protect, and bring peace?  

Christians running for their lives in Nigeria are as much part of the bride of Christ as Southern Baptists sipping sweet tea in Alabama on a Sunday afternoon. 

Violence against Christians is not a thing of the past. It is as real a phenomenon today as it has ever been. Few states in the Majority World have developed for themselves a reputation for institutional ineptitude and malfeasance more so than Nigeria. Solutions for ending Nigeria's anti-Christian violence will not come from the Nigerian state. Instead, they must come from the religious sector, civil society, foreign governments, and private actors. Anti-Christian violence in Nigeria is not motivated solely by extremist Islamist zealotry, albeit the influence of this element certainly plays a part. Poverty, competition for scarce resources, and relative deprivation along with educational underdevelopment and political profiteering on the heel of Christophobia are collectively responsible for these violent acts.  

In Christian theology, Jesus Christ has a bride; this bride is the church, or all who believe in Christ and follow his teachings. Christians running for their lives in Nigeria are as much part of the bride of Christ as Southern Baptists sipping sweet tea in Alabama on a Sunday afternoon, Anglicans enjoying a Sunday roast, or Pentecostals in São Paolo playing football on the beach after a midweek worship service. The killing of one Christian in Nigeria is an assault on the 2.4 billion Christians living across the world. Christ has only one bride, and He lovingly cares for each member of His bride equally, overwhelmingly, and powerfully.  

Anti-Christian violence is evil just like anti-semitic and Islamophobic violence are both evil. Western media’s reluctance to report about these murders and offer platforms to activists, clerics, and stakeholders whose voices can help galvanise support for ending this violence cannot be separated from irreducibly influential Western religious gazes that dehumanise and deprioritise the lives, experiences, and sufferings of non-White Christians globally. Until anti-Christian violence in Nigeria comes to an end, the collective dignity of Christians worldwide will remain tainted by a scourge those with power are too apathetic to eradicate. 

5 min read

Defining cultural Christianity 

There’s already a backlash against Dawkins and the New Theists.

George is a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics and an Anglican priest.

A speaker turns from the podium against a backdrop reading 'Centre for Sckeptical Inquiry
Richard Dawkins speaking at a sceptics event, 2022.

“Richard Dawkins says he’s a cultural Christian,” I said over breakfast.  

“What’s that?” she asked.  

I had a stab at it. “Someone who doesn’t buy the Christian faith, but likes hymns and churches and to live in a nominally Christian country, because it’s decent. Apparently.”  

“So what’s new?” she said.  

She has a point. I’ve just completed a decade as a rural parish priest and plenty of people came to church because it’s a respectable, middle-class thing to do. It’s as comforting as it is comfortable.   

But cultural Christianity is a thing of the moment not just because of the pop-atheist Dawkins. To be honest, he’s struggled to retain his increasingly embarrassed atheist flock over the past decade, so in the public sense he’s not much of a trophy. But there are those of higher and more surprising profiles, who have come out for Christianity as the very essence of our culture and the bulwark against something much worse (for which read Islam).  

The backlash against New Theism has been swift. And, strangely, most of it hasn’t come from humanists and atheists.

A key text for cultural Christians is Tom Holland’s Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind. It posits, inter alia, that Christianity is the foundation of our civilisation, even the bits that try to destroy the faith. Holland has more recently experienced a miraculous cure from cancer through intercession (which sounds suspiciously like deal-making prayer, but never mind).  

Then there’s Ayaan Hirsi Ali, whose journey from Islam to atheism to Christianity traces her developing conviction that secular humanism is a reed in the wind against the threat to the West from militant Islam. Holland and Ali, among many others, including women’s rights activist Louise Perry in her apologia for traditional Christian morality, The Case Against the Sexual Revolution, fuel the enthusiasm of Justin Brierley for a new renaissance in his joyful book, The Surprising Rebirth of Belief in God.  

Collectively, these are called the New Theists, who ride against the four horsemen of the atheist apocalypse (more accurately, perhaps, the four hacks of the new millennium), Dawkins, the late Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris.  

The backlash against New Theism has been swift. And, strangely, most of it hasn’t come from humanists and atheists, but from what one might call established Christians. I have heard the likes of Ali and Holland called cosplay Christians and their faith derided as Christianity-lite.  

Dawkins still says the Christian faith is nonsense, but who’s to say the spirit isn’t moving in him?  

Robert Thompson, a north London priest, has posted that “we will be in the midst of Christian revival… when we actually reorder our lives around the abused Christ and raise the abused Christ’s body”. He argues against Brierley’s championing of London’s oldest church, St Bartholomew the Great, because it’s “the gayest church in town” (no, I didn’t follow this line of argument either) and critiques Brierley’s account of Holland’s witness (if not conversion) by comparing it with “the worst Easter Day sermon I’ve ever heard”.  

I accept that this is a savage paraphrase in its brevity. But it’s all there and it comes not from any of the (now old) New Atheists, but from someone ordained to the priesthood. Meanwhile, Chine Macdonald, director of the Christian think tank Theos, writes in relation to his claims of cultural Christianity that “Dawkins isn’t actually a fully paid-up follower of Jesus” and that she’ll save her excitement over New Theists until they start “talking about the ways in which their lives have been turned upside down by the radical love of Jesus Christ.”  

Frankly, all this sounds a bit snobbish and patronising, as if there’s a minimum bar for Christian entry, as if it’s cosplay Christians indulging in Christianity-lite. Sure, Dawkins still says the Christian faith is nonsense, but who’s to say the spirit isn’t moving in him? Frankly, I have people at my communion rail who say the same thing. And, to be brutally honest, I can count on one hand those of my very many Christian friends who claim that their world has been turned upside down by the radical love of Jesus Christ.   

To be clear, Thompson and Macdonald have important things to say. Thompson writes movingly about his pastoral experience of cystic fibrosis patients in hospital, to take theological issue with Brierley for writing about “an unbiblical God who simply does not exist” as he waited with his patients “until they died… generally well before their 40th birthday.” No Holland miracle cures, please.  

Macdonald writes usefully about the difference between the word “Christian” as an adjective and a noun, the New Theists being Christian adjectives in action. She also speaks of Dawkins’ talk of Christianity as a “decent” religion (as opposed to Islam) and his feeling “at home” in a Christian country as code for “whiteness”. To my shame, I hadn’t thought about that.  

This would all be an ecclesiastical spat, like arguing about angels on a pinhead, if it weren’t for a darker danger beneath it. I think of former nun Karen Armstrong’s work on the dangers of religious fundamentalism when outsiders are excluded. In that context, I worry even more about those who claim that the New Theists are the work of “the enemy”, or Satan, because they “hollow out” our faith more insidiously than atheists.  

In contrast to that, Bishop Graham Tomlin gave a sermon at Lambeth Palace the other day in which he referenced Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s claim to a faith that proclaims Christ at its centre, rather than worrying too much about the boundaries of the Christian community, which are always a bit fuzzy. I like that, because with fuzzy boundaries it becomes harder to exclude New Theists.   

It’s tough being a Christian, whether new or old. When a rich young man comes to the Nazarene and asks how he can acquire the kingdom of heaven, he’s told to sell all he has, give the money to the poor and follow him.  

None of us can reach that bar. But the implication I hold on to is that he’ll walk alongside us anyway. And that applies to everyone in this column, without exception. Now that’s what I call radical love.