Religion’s space in national thought process
ON the February 3, 2012, a debate was held at the Angus Memorial Hall, on the campus of Igbobi College, Yaba, Lagos, to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the founding of Igbobi College. The occasion afforded Old Igbobians not only a pleasant reunion, but was also evocative of a simpler and more innocent time. The topic – “Is Religion Occupying Too Much Space In Our National Thought Process” – was ably argued by two of the College’s legendary former debaters, Mr. Chris Borha [who thinks it is] and Professor Yemi Osinbajo, SAN [who argued for the contrary view]. The judges included two distinguished Old Igbobians, Professor Bolaji Akinyemi (a former foreign minister) and the Honourable Duro Adebiyi (a distinguished former judge of the High Court of Lagos State, 1968-76).
Unfortunately, Mr. Borha’s pyrotechnical oratory [which seemed to concentrate on the superstition he claimed religion fosters in Nigeria] failed to deploy the full weight of history, which was undoubtedly largely on his side, and was thus, rightly in my view, overcome in the estimation of the judges by the closely reasoned and impeccably delivered argument of Professor Osinbajo, a gifted and seasoned advocate, who contended that religion, among its other benefits, is the indispensable source of the moral strength of any civilised society.
My personal opinion is that religion is, indeed, occupying far too much space in our national life. This is graphically illustrated in my own neighbourhood of Surulere, in Lagos : While there are at least six churches within a 300 metres radius of my house, I am yet to locate one single library in the whole of Surulere! Yet, even the Lagos State and the Surulere Local Governments are in awe of these churches and are reluctant to intervene to abate the nuisance caused by the resultant appalling congestion and environmental degradation. This imbalance becomes more disturbing when an empirical analysis of history is taken into view.
The Islamic Golden Age (786 C.E.-1258 C.E.), which laid the foundation for the later European Renaissance and Enlightenment, brought great progress in mathematics, physics, biology, medicine, education, architecture, the arts, philosophy, literature, scientific methods, etc., at a time when Europe was still in the grip of the Dark Ages, precisely because free thinking, rationalism, and the spirit of scientific enquiry were allowed as much space as spiritualism at the time. The decline of this grand and illustrious civilization, to which a lot of what we now recognize in modern life owes its existence, largely began when the stifling of ijtihad (independent reasoning) in the 12th century began and was replaced by institutionalised taqleed (imitation) thinking.
Conversely, in Europe, the Church, through subtle means and not so subtle devices, such as the Inquisition, controlled all thought until free thinking, rationalism and scientific enquiry began to assert themselves and became the well-springs of that great flowering of knowledge known as the Renaissance of the 15th and 16th centuries and the Enlightenment of the 18th century, which ensured, to this day, the great ascendancy and domination of the Western Judeo-Christian tradition.
Even in the 21st century, religion continues to take questionable positions on subjects like birth-control, control of HIV-AIDS, the granting of the equal benefit and protection of the law to biologically-challenged homosexuals and lesbians, the ordination of female clergy and gender equality generally, stem cell research, etc, which many feel to be deleterious to progressive thinking.
Nations (such as the Western democracies, Turkey, Japan, China, Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore, etc.) that have freed themselves from the debilitating constraints of imperious religion – an inherently conservative phenomenon – and opted for secular societies, thereby subtly circumscribing the influence and control of religion over their peoples, have often been the most successful, while those who have not (such as conservative Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia, Iran, Yemen, etc.; the conservative Catholic countries of Latin America and the Philippines; conservative, predominantly Hindu India) have been unable to realise their full potential.
Jawaharlal Nehru (1889-1964), the great Indian nationalist leader and first prime minister of India put it rather well, in his 1933 letter from prison to his then 15-year-old daughter, Indira [Gandhi] : “…And yet, the study of science makes a tremendous difference to a person…in life. The help has been chiefly in the training it has given and the outlook on the mind… Almost all modern life is based on science…Science really means experiment, the finding out of truth by experiment, and not merely accepting facts just because someone has said so.”
Religion too seeks the truth, but in contradistinction, its quest is based, not on experiments, but on faith, hope, and fear. It is increasingly idle to deny, in the light of the mounting scientifically verifiable evidence that has been accumulating for centuries, that nature rests on a rational, and not a mystical, foundation which gives nature and life both their largely predictable and not infrequent pitiless and cruel character. A few examples may illustrate this contention: if human beings insist on building their cities in earthquake prone regions, they will probably be destroyed without the possibility of any divine intervention, even if hundreds of thousands of innocent people are killed in the process; similarly, a person who fails to heed medical advice, and smokes like a chimney and eats and drinks like a hog, risks grave injury to his health for which no divine intervention may be available; a group of evil, but well-organised and resourceful, men may successfully implement a genocide, without any divine intervention, if good men stand aside; a promising nation may be entirely run aground, without the slightest hint of any divine intervention, if otherwise responsible citizens hug their private lives and decide to look the other way.
What is certainly plausible today, therefore, is that the universe may just as well revolve around science and a set of logical/rational natural laws as it may around a Supreme Being. In this scheme of things, religion, if not taken too far, has much social utility; but taken to extremes, it can be a dangerous concept, ultimately subversive of the very same progress that science and the natural laws have the potential of bringing within our reach. It was the need for a balance between religion, on the one hand, and secular humanism in the form of free thinking, rationalism, and science, on the other hand, that informed Einstein’s famous quip that “science without religion is lame, and religion without science is blind” (Albert Einstein, “Science and Religion,” Out of My Later Years,1950).
• Ajose-Adeogun, a lawyer, teaches at the University of Guyana