Before I open this discourse, I will give anyone reading this fair warning that emotions and blatant myopia should be left at the door if they cannot be permanently discarded in any exploration about spiritual matters.
This should be an opening statement of sorts for a discussion on whether religion is still positively significant in our lives and not just a boxing match between any religions. If you can’t keep intellectual objectivity, please close the tab and move on. It would also help if we all first understand the difference between theism, atheism and anti-theism.
The flare up in North Africa and the Middle East has reignited debate about the usefulness of the concept of religion in a modern world. So what has religion really done for the modern man? It has allowed for the construction of social structures and the spread of what we have christened ‘civilization.’ Our African realities are slightly different because we have adopted religions without giving them the same intellectual basis that it deserves. Our Kenyan ancestors for example, became sponges of Christianity and Islam without weighing their actual effect and necessity within their lives. The conservative forms of religion introduced at the onset of colonialist, the African Inland Church, the Anglican and Catholic churches and other mainstream religion simply based their importance on the idea that the African was a heathen. Were we? In religious discourse with the few believers I have found willing to engage in an intellectual examination of theism (they are few and far between), the most potent question has been whether our forefathers would be punished for ‘lack of knowledge.’ Would they burn in the eternal see of fire for not knowing that the peak of Mount Kenya has nothing but ice and clouds and no deity lives there? The answer is almost always hidden behind a façade of super nature.
Ancient peoples for whom religion represented a core basis of all social and political structures believed in a series of gods and focused on spreading their religion to conquered peoples. Hence the Latin saying ‘cuius regio, eius religio’ which simply means ‘whose realm, his religion.’ It allowed each conquering prince to establish his religion and impose it upon conquered peoples. It assumed they had no free thoughts and that the new religion was much better than anything they had in place. In essence, however, it was simply easier to govern them if they worshipped the same gods as their rulers. Kenyatta explored the same concept when he told of how our ancestors ‘exchanged’ their ancestral land for the Bible. The premise here is that one religion is better and ‘more correct’ than the other. It is more common than you might want to believe, and if you are a member of any religion this is most likely the premise upon which you gauge it to others.
This is not a discourse about which religion is better than the other, if such a comparison ever was possible, but one that man would benefit greatly from a world void of all religions. In an increasingly globalized world, the cuius regio, eius religio no longer works. The Muslim in a Christian country thinks consumerism is the real deity and that the lack of social order based on religion is wrong; the Christian in a Muslim country is perturbed by the apparent lack of basic freedoms and the ‘intrusion’ of religious doctrine into social and political structures. The Hindus and Jews have traditionally been able to stay obscure outside their main focus centers but their influence is still significant.
Fast forward to modern day Kenya and the situation is ever grimmer. You have the modern pastor who is simply a self-help guru rolled over in a basic knowledge about the bible and human psychology, wearing an expensive and colorful suit and driving a sleek car. The modern day Imam only maintains his flock if he is anti-American in all aspects, including the opposition to consumerism and interest. Whether he wears a long-flowing cloak and carries a staff, or an expensive suit and drives a fuel guzzler, or a man in a cap and a flowing kanzu who supports murder of a fellow human being, the modern day preacher is an epitome of everything that is wrong with religion. We expect our leaders to be perfect, we force them towards it and fixate on what spews from their mouths without examining their actions. They become like the rich business guru who gains his wealth by teaching others how to build their companies but never actually building one themselves.
Even more worrying is the apathetic state that most believers live in. Consider the current protests in Libya, Yemen and Egypt. Are the murders of an ambassador and his staff, and the blatant destruction of property worth it as an indication that people will not condone any review of their religion that does not agree with them? The fatwa against Salman Rushdie is a reminder of what religion has done for us as a people, being dragged into protests for which we know little about. It affects all of us, the discourse on religion, because it is now integrated in much of society. Traditional religions would have reacted in the same way modern ones do, simply exploring the possible lack of existence of no god would have led to being ostracized and shunned by all and sundry, and in extreme cases, execution. Religion was everything, it was food, it was family and it was government.
Would we be a better people if we had no religion? Not entirely. Different studies have shown that there is a significant psychological benefit to believing in something, or someone, with greater power than ourselves. In these times of high inflation and bad governance, a man should indeed believe in something. Is religion the answer? I think it goes to the same premise upon which I oppose atheist groups, it beats the purpose. If a man shall be judged by his individual actions then congregating to commit atrocities is merely making the offences mainstream. Sitting through a sermon where you know the pastors misgivings should be a sin, and explains why many pastors’ children become rebels. Psychologists think it has something to do with teenage rebellion but it is more than that, the child sees the parent in both cloaks, the holier-than-thou one he or she exhibits on the pulpit, spewing advice and interpreting messages from a deity, and the one at home, with no inhibitions of the congregation or the pulpit.
Gloria Steinem equates religion to something even more effective than consumerism. “It’s an incredible con job when you think about it, to believe something now in exchange for something after death. Even corporations with their reward systems don’t try to make it posthumous.” But is anyone really thinking about it? If you were in church today or in the mosque on Friday, or wherever it is that you worship the deity you believe in, did you stop to weigh the reasons why the you are there? The real ones, not the ones that were fed to you by your parents or the preacher or the media? Did it make sense to you? Is sex abhorred in your religion and procreation encouraged at the same time?
Those who claim that there is no logical explanation for the supernatural ignore the fact that Galilei was executed for claiming, rightly so, that the earth was round. Is your counter argument that those were medieval times and the Catholic Church was more than just a church? If yes, remember this are the same guys, give or take a few centuries, who were busy interpreting the Bible from its original languages. Galileo’s imprisonment and eventual demise is no different from the shooting and murder of the filmmaker Van Gogh a few years ago by Mohammed Bouyeri for his role in the production of the film Submission. Its very simple: Do you believe the ‘infidels’ should die or can never be forgiven by your deity? If yes, you are missing the whole point of religion.
Spirituality should be the journey of each man on his own because once huddled together in small or large groups where some exert influence over others, as will almost always happen, then it ceases to be a journey and becomes a mob. When we fight open discourse with the threat of death, excommunication and the condemnation of eternal fire, we fail as human beings and in our minds, sanitize our actions. When the Catholic Church excommunicates a nun for engaging in political activities, and yet makes political statements every other week, does it not raise concerns about other contradictions in its doctrinal basis?
The human moral compass is not based on any single deity, unlike what your religion would have you believe. Instead, a child is nurtured within society to know and respect rules. Our self-appointed role as the most intelligent species means that morality is, or should be, embedded within human nature itself. You learn, however, that it is not right to kill your fellow man in any case, unless he opposes your religion or ‘insults’ it. Religion drives a herd mentality that can turn into a ‘mob mentality’ in an instant. Respect for life is defined by whether the victim is a member of religion or not as opposed to the sad loss of life. “Might makes right”?
Let me open this discourse here by ending with the last words of Theo van Gogh to his attacker, Bouyeri, who shot him eight times and stabbed him with two knives, “Mercy! Mercy! Can’t we talk about this?”