Religion’s space in national thought process (1)
THE opinion expressed by Akin Ajose-Adeogun in The Guardian of Wednesday, March 18, 2015 on the topic, “Religion’s Space in National Thought Process”, made for a very interesting reading as much as it was also thought-provoking.
However, no matter how eloquent, convincing and action-provoking the arguments for giving less or more space to religion in both individual and national thought process are, they may not mean anything to our leaders for several reasons. (But this is an issue to be discussed on another day).
The piece was a response to the submissions, particularly by one of the debaters at the Igbobi College Old Boys Association celebration. The first question that came to my mind on reading the piece was “what informed the choice of the topic by the organisers for the debate?” I was also tempted to hazard some possible reasons for the choice.
First, the choice of the topic could have been be informed by the misapplication of religious sentiments by politicians in Nigeria and the resultant consequences when the adherents of one faith take to the destructive path at the slightest “provocation”.
Another plausible reason could be that since 9/11 and in view of the growing inﬂuence of radical Islamists in the Maghreb countries, Mali and Nigeria, they feel deeply disturbed by the forceful, even violent, use of religion in the public sphere.
In contributing to the debate, one could venture to begin with the premise that ‘It is not possible to separate man’s way of thinking from his way of living and his dealing in life’.
Man is a wise and understanding being who thinks for himself, wants to comprehend his surroundings and tries to know the beginning and the end of everything, to be able to understand the mysteries of the world and the beings around him.
He tries to discover: How did this world begin? Where is it going? What is the goal of human existence? Where will humans go at death? What does life itself mean? How should man conduct his life? Man has always been looking for convincing answers to these questions.
The answers to these questions though could be short in their form and brief in their expression, yet they could be great in their meanings, important in their reality and deep in their effects. It is these answers, which could define how man should live, behave, understand life and estimate the importance of his own existence.
The answers to them either lead him to happiness and well-being, or wretchedness and misfortune. By providing correct answers, one may resolve an important crisis of thought – the crisis from which man has long been suffering. Unable to find correct answers, man could face torments by anxiety and uncertainty and forced to wander through an abyss of blundering.
Therefore, the right answers form the basic principles of the philosophy of life, and soundly, evaluate life and man’s existence. In many primal cultures, religion was and still is the organizing principle of life. It was not called “religion” as such since it did not belong to a separate realm one could distance oneself from or reﬂect on objectively.
Religion was the belief and knowledge system around which all reality was organized. Such a system revolved around the ubiquitous presence of the gods who tended to manifest both malevolent and benevolent powers. Such a worldview comprised speciﬁc practices carried out within known institutions associated with such beliefs.
As such, individual and community’s well-being was not conceivable outside this religious system. Life was assumed to be enabled by divine agency, assisted by special human agents acting on behalf of the gods.
The gods gave victory in war, success in hunting, guaranteed rainfall and fertility as well as productivity of the land and human beings. The mutual obligations of this covenantal relationship remained intact only as long as human beings acted within known boundaries of harmony and treated other created things as sacred as well as appeased the gods through certain rituals.
History tells us of many ignorant nations, peoples and civilizations such as the Babylonians, the Sumerians, the Chaldeans, the Pharaohs, the Greeks, the Assyrians, the Persians, the Romans and the Arabs (of Jahiliya).
History also stresses that all those exterminated nations had some sort of worship, religion and rites which they used to practise. Considering these facts and other historical evidences, we realize that the existence of religion and worship in the course of man’s history is clear proof that religion is not a passing phenomenon, nor is it an imaginary compensation for his sufferings from the hardships of his painful life.
Neither is religion an expression of man’s failure in understanding the universe and life and in logically and scientifically explaining them.
Religion is also not an opiate for the downtrodden that subjects them to the injustice of oppressors and exploiters as Karl Marx, the founder of collapsed Communism, asserted by saying that “Religion is the opium of the people”. If we could comprehend that being religious is a natural force deeply rooted in man, we could also comprehend that man’s devotional tendency is a fact, not legend or superstition. This is because man’s natural genesis knows nothing of superstition, or of legends.
It is in this respect, as it is in respect of his other instincts and tendencies born in him, such as the instincts driving him to knowledge, sex and food.
So now, many more questions arise from the foregoing: Are human beings naturally religious? Should we take religion to be in some way an innate, instinctive, or otherwise inevitable aspect of human life? Or is religion a historically contingent, non-essential aspect of basic human being? Should religion assume substantial space in societal or national thought process? These are not questions of merely academic curiosity.
The answers have big implications for how human personal and social life should be properly ordered. They often imply positions about the true value of religious and secular claims about reality. Answers and arguments about them are also bound up with massive historical projects that seek to shape social orders. These include the neo-enlightenment project to create a rational, secular modernity and various religious projects to create a modernity that socially accommodates religious worldviews if not place them at the centre.
The futures of world civilizations around the globe are today being contested by movements that are affected by different answers to the questions posed above. The stakes of the answers are therefore high for implications in national life, institutional practices and deep cultural formation over time.
Empirical evidence gives us four facts that do not consistently answer the questions posed. First, very many people in the world are not religious, and some entire cultures appear to be quite secular, without apparent damage to their happiness and functionality (for example China).
This suggests that religion is not natural to human beings, but an accidental or inessential practice only some human beings experience. Second, religion generally is not fading away in the modern world as a whole. Even the most determined attempts by powerful states to repress and extinguish religion (in Russia, China, Revolutionary France, Albania and North Korea, for example) have failed.
Religion thus also seems to be incredibly resilient, perhaps, incapable of being destroyed and terminated. This suggests that religion is somehow irrepressibly natural to human being.
Third, even when traditionally religious forms of human life seem to fade in some contexts, new and alternative forms of life often appear in their place that engage the sacred, spiritual, transcendent and liturgical needs of human beings.
New Age ideas and claims to be “spiritual but not religious” are obvious instances. Organizations, movements, and practices as different as “secular” environmentalism, academic, economics and sports spectacles have religious dimensions. Many of today’s most popular films, fiction and television shows deal with superhuman powers, supernatural realities and spiritual themes. To be continued. •Mosugu wrote from Lagos.