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TEDGlobal 2017

Leo Igwe: Why I choose humanism over faith

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Views 369,708

As a humanist, Leo Igwe doesn't believe in divine intervention -- but he does believe in the power of human beings to alleviate suffering, cure disease, preserve the planet and turn situations of poverty into prosperity. In this bold talk, Igwe shares how humanism can free Africans from damaging superstitions and give them the power to rebuild the continent.

- Human rights activist
Leo Igwe works to end a variety of human rights violations that are rooted in superstition, including witchcraft accusations, anti-gay hate, caste discrimination and ritual killing. Full bio

Something happened
00:13
while I was studying in the seminary
00:16
and training to be a priest.
00:19
I came in contact
with a different idea of life.
00:23
An idea of life that contradicted
the main teachings of religion --
00:28
humanism.
00:33
Some of you may be wondering,
what on earth is humanism?
00:36
Humanism is a way of thinking and living
00:41
that emphasizes the agency
of human beings.
00:44
Humanism stresses the fact
that we, human beings,
00:48
are capable of changing the world.
00:52
That we have the power
to make a difference in our lives,
00:55
both individually and collectively,
00:58
without recourse to some outside force.
01:01
It may interest you to know
that the best humanist lessons I learned
01:05
were not from reading philosophy books
01:10
or from poring over humanist
manifestos and declarations.
01:13
No, not at all.
01:18
The best humanist lesson I learned
was from the life of my own parents.
01:20
My parents come
from a poor family background
01:26
in Mbaise, in southeastern Nigeria.
01:29
They had limited opportunities.
01:33
But my parents did not allow
the circumstances of their bad upbringing
01:35
to determine the ambition and dreams
for themselves and for their children.
01:40
My father worked part-time,
trained as a teacher,
01:46
and rose to become a headmaster
at a local primary school.
01:50
My mother dropped out
of school quite early,
01:54
because her mother, my grandmother,
could not afford her education.
01:57
As a parent, my mother worked very hard,
02:03
combining farming, petty trading
and taking care of my siblings and me.
02:06
By the time I was born --
02:13
that was shortly after
the Nigerian civil war --
02:15
life was very difficult,
a struggle day by day.
02:18
My family was living in a hut.
02:23
With the eye of a child,
I can still see water
02:25
dripping from the thatched roof
of our house when it rained.
02:28
My father reared goats
to supplement the family income.
02:32
And part of my duty
after school hours or during vacation
02:36
was to feed these goats.
02:40
There was no electricity,
no pipe with water.
02:43
We trekked to fetch water
from the nearby streams.
02:47
That was an easy work in the wet season,
02:50
but kilometers when it was hot and dry.
02:53
Through hard work and perseverance,
02:57
my parents were able
to erect a block apartment
02:59
and send my siblings and me to school.
03:02
They made it possible for us
to enjoy a standard of living
03:05
which they never did
03:08
and to attain educational levels
03:10
which they only imagined
when they were growing up.
03:12
My parents' life, their story,
is my best lesson in humanism.
03:16
So as a humanist,
I believe that human beings
03:22
are challengers, not prisoners of faith.
03:25
Our destinies are in our hands,
not predetermined.
03:28
And it's left for us to shape
our lives and destinies
03:32
to reflect our best hopes and aspirations.
03:35
I believe that human beings have the power
03:39
to turn situations of poverty
into those of wealth and prosperity.
03:42
We have the capacity
to alleviate suffering,
03:46
extend life, prevent diseases,
03:49
cure debilitating ailments,
reduce infant mortality
03:52
and preserve our planet.
03:56
But we cannot accomplish all these goals
by wishful thinking with our eyes closed
03:58
or by armchair speculation
or by expecting salvation from empty sky.
04:03
In contrast, millions of Africans
imagine that their religious faith
04:09
will help their dream come true,
04:14
and they spend so much time
praying for miracles
04:16
and for divine intervention
in their lives.
04:19
In 2009, a Gallup survey in 114 countries
04:23
revealed that religiosity was highest
in the world's poorest nations.
04:28
In fact, six of the 10 countries
where 95 percent of the population
04:34
said that religion was an important part
of their daily lives, were African.
04:39
In some cases, religion drives
many Africans to extraordinary length:
04:45
to attack other human beings,
to commit ritual killing,
04:50
targeting those living with albinism,
04:53
those with a humpback,
04:57
and as I recently learned,
those with a bald head.
04:59
In Africa, superstition is widespread,
05:02
with so many people
believing in witchcraft,
05:05
something that has no basis
in reason or in science.
05:07
Yet alleged witches, usually women,
children and elderly persons
05:10
are still routinely attacked,
banished and killed.
05:16
And I've made it part of my life's mission
05:19
to end witchcraft accusation
and witch persecution in Africa.
05:22
So as a humanist, I believe
in a proactive approach to life.
05:27
The changes that we want
cannot be achieved only by dreaming
05:31
but require doing as well.
05:35
The challenges that we face cannot go away
05:37
if we recoil and retreat into our shells,
wishing and imagining
05:40
that those problems will somehow
magically disappear.
05:44
The good life that we desire
will not fall like manna from heaven.
05:48
My parents did not erect a block apartment
by wishing and dreaming.
05:53
They worked hard, they failed,
they tried again.
05:58
They toiled with rolled-up sleeves,
06:02
with their hands deep in debt,
they plowed ahead,
06:04
growing their dreams into reality.
06:07
So as a humanist, I believe
we must be adventurous and even daring.
06:10
The path of success is paved
with risk and uncertainties.
06:15
We have to muster the will and courage
to do what people have never done.
06:19
To think what people have never thought.
06:24
Envisage what people have never imagined.
06:26
Go to places human beings
have not been to.
06:28
And succeed where people
have tried but failed.
06:31
We must be ready to explore new frontiers
of knowledge and understanding
06:34
and attempt doing
not just what is possible
06:38
but also what is seemingly impossible.
06:41
But I realize that at the end of the day,
06:44
our efforts do not always
yield our desires.
06:48
We fail, we suffer
disappointments and setbacks.
06:52
Some problems, such as wars and conflict,
poverty and diseases
06:56
and other natural and human-made disasters
07:01
seem as if they may never go away.
07:03
Solutions to old problems
have led to new dangers,
07:06
new cures to diseases
have resulted in new health risks.
07:10
But the fact that these problems persist
07:13
and that solutions sometimes
create their own problems
07:15
is not a reason for us
to give up or to resign.
07:18
It's not a reason for us to think
that our efforts are of no consequence.
07:22
In fact, there is fulfillment in striving,
07:26
and trying to provide
answers and solutions
07:29
to the problem humanity faces
07:32
even when the likely outcome is failure.
07:34
So as a humanist, I believe
we must not despair for humanity.
07:37
Even in the face
of overwhelming difficulties
07:42
and in the bleakest of circumstances.
07:45
Human beings are creative beings.
07:48
We have the power to generate new ideas,
new solutions and new cures.
07:51
So why despair when the unexpected
knocks on the horizon?
07:57
It is in our nature to create anew,
to be inventive and innovative,
08:01
so why languish in idle expectation
of a savior from above?
08:05
So it is time for us Africans
to take our destiny in our hands
08:10
and realize we have agency
in the scheme of life.
08:14
We need to put an end
to this game of blame
08:17
that has prevented us from taking
full responsibility for our own lives.
08:19
For too long, we have been
prisoners of our past.
08:23
We have allowed despair
and pessimism to drain us,
08:27
drain our energies,
limit our imaginations
08:30
and dim our vision
for a better and brighter future.
08:33
We have let this continent flounder.
08:37
Why passing the buck like a Frisbee?
08:39
We've blamed slavery, colonialism
and the new colonialism
08:41
for the woes we experience,
including our own self-inflicted wounds.
08:44
We have conducted ourselves
08:48
in ways that seem as if Africa
is damned and doomed.
08:50
And that all these experiences in history
08:53
have irreversibly, irreparably foreclosed
the chances and possibility
08:56
for Africa to emerge, thrive
and flourish.
09:00
We must realize that there is
no part of the world
09:04
that has not been colonized
or enslaved in the past.
09:08
And if other parts of the world
have moved on,
09:12
why can't we, now?
09:15
So as a humanist, I believe
that the past is gone;
09:17
we cannot change it, we cannot alter it.
09:22
But the future beckons us on
with limitless possibilities
09:24
to recreate, reshape
and remake our destinies.
09:28
So let's all of us seize this opportunity.
09:31
And as my parents did,
begin the urgent task
09:35
of rebuilding Africa, brick by brick.
09:39
Let's give free reign
to our ideas and imaginations,
09:42
as demonstrated at this TEDGlobal 2017.
09:45
Let's open our hearts and minds.
09:49
And exert our energy,
intelligence and ingenuity
09:52
and begin the urgent task
of rebuilding Africa
09:55
and of transforming this continent
09:59
into a citadel of unrivaled
prosperity and civilization.
10:01
This is what I believe as a humanist,
as an African humanist.
10:06
Thank you.
10:10
(Applause)
10:11

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About the speaker:

Leo Igwe - Human rights activist
Leo Igwe works to end a variety of human rights violations that are rooted in superstition, including witchcraft accusations, anti-gay hate, caste discrimination and ritual killing.

Why you should listen

Many of humanity's most pernicious divisions -- factors that keep one person from seeing another as truly human -- are based on superstitions entrenched in societies, such as a belief in witchcraft. As a leader in the Nigerian Humanist Movement, Leo Igwe works to combat those superstitions and the human rights violations they often lead to, including anti-gay hate, sorcery and witchcraft accusations against women and children, ritual killing, human sacrifice, “untouchability,” caste discrimination and anti-blasphemy laws.

Igwe is the former Western and Southern African representative of the International Humanist and Ethical Union, and he holds a doctoral degree in religious studies from the Bayreuth International Graduate School of African Studies, University of Bayreuth Germany. 

More profile about the speaker
Leo Igwe | Speaker | TED.com