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Religion’s space in national thought process (2)


religion 1EVEN those in traditional religious groups, who seem religiously disengaged, exhibit arguably religious practices, including what sociologists call “vicarious religion,” “believing without belonging,” and “everyday religion.” Some have argued that many apparent anti-religious activities, “including drunkenness, revelry, promiscuous sex, harsh athletic training, committed political activism, incessant material consumption and drug addiction”, actually represent deeply driven human religious longings and searching, which happen to be misdirected quests for the true religious good. The presence of these religious alternatives adds credence to the view that religion is irrepressibly natural to human being.

The fourth fact points back to the view that religion isn’t an essential part of who we are. The role of religion in the lives of individuals and societies depends greatly upon personal and historical experiences and developments. They are, as sociologists say, “path dependent.” Different people and groups can and do head in quite different directions when it comes to religion. No one narrative or trajectory tells the whole story, and in fact there simply may not be a dominant story. At best, scholars can note and interpret broad patterns and associations. This suggests that religion is not natural, if by natural, we mean consistently expressed.

What should we make of these four facts, which seem to speak both for and against the idea that humanity is naturally religious? I believe there is a way to make sense of all of the evidence. What is necessary is to understand what it means to say that something is “natural” for human beings. People often cannot understand the question of human nature because their way of understanding, it is framed (whether they know it or not) by the ideas of positivist empiricism.

Positivism tries to read human nature off the surface of human behaviour. It tells us to look for regular associations between observable empirical events and defines “explanation” as identifying the strongest, most significant associations between them. Once positivists find these explanations, they apply them as “supreme laws” to all relevant cases and situations. Applied to the question at hand, the debate thus proceeds on the unquestioned assumption that either human beings definitely are naturally religious and so religion will always persist in human societies, or they are not naturally religious and so modernity will inevitably secularize people and society as we shed the accidents of our cultural past.

But this is not an adequate view of what nature means. We also need to take a realist approach, which observes that everything that exists in reality possesses distinctive characteristics and capacities by virtue of its particular basic categories of being (ontology) and their relations. Thus by nature, human beings have specific features, capacities, powers, limits and tendencies, and human nature is defined by these as expressed by human beings taken as a whole. The tendencies normally direct the use of our capacities in particular directions and not others. People have the capacity to exercise their muscles, but tend to do so in certain ways. For example, humans have the capacity to walk upright because that is easier and more efficient than crab-walking.

Human beings are in their nature-guided actions neither determined nor fully autonomous. Nevertheless, because the tendencies normally direct the capacities in certain directions, when we speak about human nature, we are pointing to a certain grain in the expressed features, abilities, tendencies, and operations of persons. When we say that a social activity, arrangement, or pattern is in accord with or contrary to human nature, we are saying that it works either with or against that grain of nature.

To understand these matters well, we also have to distinguish potentiality from actuality, mere possibility from full realization. Different environments activate, or don’t activate, different combinations of capacities and powers. A child’s aptitude for mathematics or music or football, for example, is realized or fulfilled (or not) depending upon environmental conditions that do or don’t activate and nurture it in various ways. Natural potentials may go unrealized. But that does not make them unreal or not part of the nature of things. It simply means that they are currently dormant and unrealized.

Thus, when we consider whether or not human beings are naturally religious, we need to reject the empiricist notion that we can read human nature off the surface of human behaviour. Instead, as realists, we have to use all available empirical evidence to understand what we can’t always see, including the innate capacities and aptitudes we observe in their highly complex expressions when they are realized but cannot see when they are not. How does this help us understand the question about whether human beings are naturally religious and as such religion should occupy a large space in the national/societal thought process?

I begin by stating my position negatively. First, human beings are not by nature religious if by that we mean “by nature” in the positivist-empiricist sense of being compelled by some natural and irrepressible need, drive, instinct, or desire to be religious. Plain observation shows that some people are religious and some are not, often quite happily and functionally so. Second, and closely related, human beings are not by nature religious if by that we mean that every human culture has a functional need or intractable impulse to make religion one of its centrally defining features.

Like particular people, societies vary in the importance attached to religion and the roles it plays in their lives. Some are highly religious. Others are quite secular, with religion operating on the margins. At the level of observation, the most we can say is that complete secularity appears to be impossible for societies. But that is a long way from saying that human beings are naturally religious.

Religion has been the primary way that human cultures have answered life’s questions. Still, religion is not the only way for human beings to answer them and live functional and happy lives. The human existential condition does not require that people to be religious or feel the need to address and answer such questions. Many people appear happy to focus on the present, live as well as they can, and not be bothered by the big questions. At the same time, however, the capacity to respond to the human existential condition in terms that are not religious does not mean that this existential condition does not exist or that its tendency to lead to religion is not powerful. It does and is.

Still, we can justifiably say that human beings are naturally religious as a matter of real, natural potentiality, capacity and tendency, while at the same time, acknowledging that very many human beings and even some cultures are not particularly religious at all. This view accounts for the seemingly contradictory evidence with which we began. Religiosity is widespread, yet not universal, and though not inevitable, impossible to extinguish.

What then does this tell us about matters in our own discourse and likely into the future? That we have religion’s space in national thought process in Nigeria does not mean that tomorrow will necessarily see a great revival, or that if we give it less space, the country will not know development or fall apart because citizens are living in some sense against the grain of their natures. But it strongly suggests that we should not expect human societies and indeed nations, to become thoroughly secularized.

Because human beings are indeed religious by nature, religion will continue to occupy some space in the national thought process, of course, contingent in direction on various factors and possibly, susceptible to long-term reversals.

•Mosugu wrote from Lagos.

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