Of all the topics to write about, religion stands by far the most sensitive in Nigeria because we tend to become very sentimental over this subject. Unfortunately for us there is no other subject that requires our rational attention as much as this because the issue at hand here forms the basic layout of our belief system. That being said, I would like to invite you to a little thought experiment. Think about ten Christians you know personally. Then think about ten Muslims you know as well. If you know ten people belonging to any other faith or different school of thought including agnostics, deists, and atheists, think about them too. Now rank the general decency of these people as a group from one to ten with all bias aside.
Most people will find that there is actually no real difference what belief a person holds makes to their everyday life in relation to how they integrate in the society. Regardless of a person’s faith we all suffer from the same human condition. There are good and bad Christians, good and bad Muslims, and good and bad atheists. A theological stance is nothing more than our own subjective reality from our assessments of what we know and have been told. The only reason we have different ideas of theology is that we assess and interpret things differently. For example, the atheists can say if a God which is more complex than the universe can exist eternally, then why is it so absurd to claim the same thing for the universe? Maybe after the universe reaches its limit of expansion it will simply collapse and restart all over again. The theist on the other hand asserts that a non-moving mover must exist to have set things in motion from the beginning. And round and round we go to no avail fighting a war that cannot be won.
If we are to adopt the atheist worldview this would make a very short chapter because it would mean there is no manual and there is no watcher. Everything relating to human progress and development would now rest solely on the hands of man as the only conscious being on the planet. But when we take the worldview of the theist we are then met with a second question. What is the nature of this God theism speaks of?
Thanks to colonialism and a culture that loves to pass judgement on ideas, most Nigerians are still unaware that the idea of a monotheistic universe was already in Africa long before the Europeans ever sailed in to influence our thinking. A quick research into the history and teachings of what we now call the IFA divination system would reveal to you that as far back as 8000 years ago the Yorubas already accepted the concept of one creator. The creation story which involved some sand, a pigeon, a hen, and a chameleon might seem ridiculous, but no more ridiculous to a Buddhist that is told a story involving a talking snake and a tree with a forbidden fruit. The point to take home here is that from a logical stand-point we cannot assert any one belief over the other. Not even science in its vastness offers a complete theory of everything from the big bang to a world of satellite television and Internet connectivity, not one easily comprehensible anyways.
Regardless of what a person believes in, it is the interpretation of these ideas that affects the society at large and that is why on this chapter the focus would not be on arguing the superiority of any theological stance in relation to another. Rather we would be looking at how our ideas of God influence our actions and hence the society.
Let us start with the simplest ideas of God which is that there is no God. Before I dive into this let me define what atheism actually stands for. Atheism is a worldview that denies the existence of all present notions of God or gods. It is not an assertion that there is no God or gods. It is just a lack of belief in present notions due to the absence of empirical evidence to test and prove the hypothesis that there is a God or gods. Atheism though seen as a new school of thought is actually as old as theism. If no one never said that there was no God then verse ‘Only a fool says that there is no God’ would have been redundant from the onset. Fredrick Lugard noted in his letter about Nigeria that the Igbos had no religious system with everyone believing in their own ‘chi’ and the spirit of their ancestors. Going further into the past. Buddhism pre-dates Christianity and regards gods and other beings to be no different to man facing the same struggle towards liberation. They have no concept of a creator God and is defined as a non-theistic religion. The Dali Lama has been noted to say Buddhism has no need for God to exist.
The atheist worldview like I mentioned above is very easy to write about because in such a world morality will be founded solely on what the intellect can justify to be good or bad. That is to say there is no moral arbiter and we can make and break rules at any time. My guess is that this system would operate through a list of principles that would be used to determine what is moral.
Ironically, the problematic question of ‘who decides what is right’ applies to even theistic worldviews. Taking the Abrahamic faiths, which represents the most popular God in the world, we can see how one God through different messenger has changed notions of what is morally right. In the Old Testament, which mirrors Judaism’s Torah in so many ways, the verdict on revenge was that it was permissible with the doctrine of an eye for an eye. Jesus turns this upside down with his message to forgive 77 X 7 times. And then there is Prophet Mohammed who comes after Jesus and sanctions the killing of an adulterer and adulteress leaving no room for forgiveness or even a chance for repentance and redemption. If the religious laws are subject to change then what is so bizarre about non-religious laws on morality being subject to change?
Moving past atheism let us now look at theism and how our notions of God influence our society. I have to say with all the madness going on in the world today and the media to report it, religion has never had such a bad reputation. I even have a Muslim friend that tells me he is sometimes hesitant to declare his faith for fear of ill judgement of both his character and intellect. This is because so many of us live under the illusion that a person’s theological view is directly related to their character and intelligence. Both of these notions are false. We have already conducted a thought experiment to establish how little religion plays in determining character. As for intelligence, it is no secret that Isaac Newton who is referred to as the father of classical physic believed it was possible to turn lead to gold with alchemy. Even the dumbest of physics students today knows this is not possible. Albert Einstein for all his genius spent the best part of his later years trying to discredit everything quantum physics stood for with is famous line ‘God does not play with dice’ to which he was replied ‘don’t tell God what to do with his dice’.
From a brief look at history it is easy to see that fundamentalist interpretations in favour of literal meanings stuck in time is the main cause stagnation in development. While the Muslims seem like the most bloody of religions today, once upon a time it was Christians leaving death in their tracks in the name of a holy crusade. The Dark Ages which lasted almost a thousand years was as a result of fundamental religious practice stifling intellectual inquiry and bottlenecking freedom of thought expression. The opposite of this was the case in Iran in around 800CE when Al-Ma’mun ruled the Islamic empire with a leaning towards the Mu’tazila school of thought, which was close to Sufism and encouraged rational thinking as opposed to fundamentalism. This allowed for the accommodation of other faiths and cultures, and also opened the floor for new ideas to be presented without fear. In the life span of Islam there is no time recorded to rival this era in progress from all fields (science, philosophy, mathematics, medicine, chemistry, etc).
What this shows us is that the idea of faith by itself is not necessarily dangerous or limiting. But how we choose to interpret and apply it to our lives can present with a lot of problems when done badly. Looking towards the Christian faith, relatively rationalist sects from the Gnostics, to Lutherans to the Grail Message have popped up to offset fundamental interpretation over the years. One could argue that religion in its natural state encourages fundamentalism but on close inspection it appears it is not the religious text itself that is responsible but how these text are taught to the young. This is a field we need to seriously look into as Nigerians if we hope to restructure our understanding of religion to adapt to the modern world we live in today.
It is not often that we pause to think about what calibre of people are responsible for the religious education of children. When it comes to academic education most parents would even go as far as paying for extra lessons to compensate for any shortfalls in the classroom, but this attitude seems to disappear all too often when it comes to religious studies. In Nigeria today any man can wear a suit, grab a bible, read a few books on motivational speeches and take to the pulpit after declaring that they have been called or anointed. Some of these so called preachers of the gospel have no idea about how the very bible they preach from was written. They don’t understand the historical events that gives context to so many passages, and let us not even go into philosophical consequences of certain notions they ask followers to buy into.
This is not a problem limited to any denomination although it is more prevalent with Pentecostal churches. Even Muslims in our society are guilty of poor scholarship of the Quran with most of the population not even able to read Arabic and few English copies in circulation. How do we so easily put our faith in books we have not studied or cannot even study due to language barriers? This is the kind of intellectual laziness that continues to condemn us into the hands of scheming pastors and misinformed imams. A new culture that encourages personal research and independent study of faith needs to be established to break the control of those ordained to head our religious institution. This will start by dispelling the myth that you have to be called or special to understand or interpret any scripture. This myth has created demi gods out of men that claim to hold keys to teachings accessible to anyone literate enough to read and reason.
How are we supposed to produce adults that understand the concepts of religion and faith when even the teachers aren’t experts on the subject? I remember reading a blog post about a certain Nigerian celebrity that had converted to Islam from Christianity. In her statement she said she was always half Christian and half Muslim because her parents were of different faiths. Such is the perception of faith the adult Nigerian walks around with. It has not helped matters that the lack of a reading culture and the literacy level of Nigeria as a country has prevented most people from studying the bible and Koran for themselves, as well as other text relating to religion and philosophy for context. When printing was invented it rocked the church because for the first time scriptures would be available to anyone that could read to interpret for themselves instead on relying on what the preacher had to say on Sunday or Friday. Today in Nigeria the average Christian might have read countless devotional books and bible study guides, but most have not read half of the content in the bible. Research into the origin of the faith is available online but mention the name ‘Constantine’ to a Nigerian and notice the blank expression on their face. This habit of overly trusting in men and women on pulpits as opposed to seeking our own investigation and interpretations needs to be changed. We are all aware that Jesus was not white. He was born in the Middle East at a time when migration wasn’t exactly a plane ride away. Try putting a Middle Eastern looking man on a cross and see how many Nigerians step into your church, much more kneel before the cross to kiss it. But put a blue eyed and even blonde haired Jesus and we flock in like sheep.
In a society where very high monetary rewards awaits a successful pastor it is not surprising that profit has become an incentive for preachers. Sometimes I wonder if Nigeria would be littered with shrines as it is littered with churches if the English never imposed Christianity on us or if we had developed a better way to retain our spiritual culture than oral tradition which is very easily erased and replaced.
I do wonder how many people would venture into preaching if all preachers had to take the vows of a Buddhist monk. Buddhist monks cannot own property or even a bank account, they cannot wear any other clothes besides their traditional robes, they must be celibate, and let’s not forget they have to shave their head too. The irony that Buddhists with no faith in a creator God or hellfire have developed a religious institution with such a high discipline for its leaders speaks volumes of the human capacity for dedication to truth.
A friend of mine always says Nigerians are religious but we are not Godly. On the surface it seems like they are one and the same thing but on closer examination it becomes clear that they are two very distinct traits. A person may be religious and ungodly, or godly and areligious. This is assuming Godliness to represent all the positive attributes given to God. Using Jesus and the Pharisees for an example we can see the difference between being Godly and religious. While the Pharisees were fixated on following dogma and religious tradition, Jesus was pragmatic basing his decisions on a rational conscience dedicated to propagating love in a non-judgemental way. Some of his famous quotes to express using rational thought in place of dogma include ‘he who has no sin cast the first stone’ and ‘the Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath’.
In our society today we all too often find ourselves playing the dogmatic role of the Pharisees ready to pass judgement and execution whenever we can. A classic example can be spotted in the Nigerian treatment of our homosexual population. Not only have we singled it out to be some sort of a ‘higher’ sin, we have also assigned a constitutional punishment for what is a victimless crime. To think that we live in a country that doesn’t constitutionally protect young girls from marriage but legally persecutes adults for their sexuality certainly calls for a revaluation of our moral compass. Given that both situations are supported widely under the umbrella of religion, it is enough to signify the need for more an objective assessment of how our beliefs affects our supposedly secular state.
In summary, to enable Nigeria progress towards religious tolerance we must be able to not only allow people the freedom to believe in whatever they want to, but also give them the space to express these beliefs without fear of persecution or social seclusion. For our already existing religious institutions we must re-examine the quality of our teachers and method of teaching to make sure they create room for deep understanding of religious concepts and allow intellectual inquiry. A total separation of church from state is also needed to create a neutral and unified constitution. An education in other worldviews and religions at the secondary school level will go a long way in easing the ignorance that often lead to misunderstanding and violence. To think that Christians and Muslims share a country, but are given absolutely no formal orientation on each religion is baffling.