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  1. How did we get here?

Religion and suffering

‘Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.’

In a NewYork Times interview, Pastor Adeboye on the world's relationship with religion notes that the world's problem is an over-reliance on reason:

“It begins to give man the impression that man is the almighty, that man can do anything. He can go to the moon, Mars, perform operations with a laser beam without spilling blood. The problem, the way I see it, is that because of the advance in technology, science and investing, the Western world began to feel that they didn’t need God as much as before. Whereas in Africa, we need him. We know we need him to survive.”

Adeboye alludes to a theme that frequently occurs in the Bible; it is difficult for a rich man to make it to heaven. However, he also highlights a significant source of over-dependence on religion, allowing charlatans to thrive in this sector; some studies show that there is a direct correlation between poverty and religion. Emerging countries are the most religious. Religion offers comfort and relief when you are in an undesirable situation, with little opportunity or control to help yourself. Redeemed pastors often attribute afflictions like poverty and addiction to demonic possession and preach against “generational curses,” which can explain everything from inherited illnesses to family issues: ‘We know we need him to survive’.

What stands out here is that the Church, in this instance, is ready to blame every affliction faced by their congregation on the supernatural but fail to call out the most immediate forces in their lives; oppressive social structures and poor governance. Soyinka was right when he referred to this as a business, a business that is dependent on Africans needing God to survive.

This is very much linked to the beliefs of progressive pentecostalism. According to Freeman, progressive Pentecostalists focus on:

"What God wants for Africa and most recently in terms of the gospel of prosperity. A continent blessed with health, wealth and abundance, where people work hard, pray hard and live upright moral lives ... What the devil wants for Africa, however, is under development, poverty and suffering."

Thus, the most popular form of one of the most prominent religions, Christianity, preaches that the reasons for Africa’s problems are linked to the spiritual realm, not to the more immediate forces of poor governance and the continued exploitation of Africa by external forces.

The idea that everything is a spiritual battle means that people are encouraged to ignore the real and tangible reason for their realities, which inevitably means a lack of accountability; religious leaders go unpunished for their appalling behaviour. The consequences of this go beyond the Church but also affect everyday life. How are things intended to change or improve if all solutions lie solely in prayer? Religious leaders and politicians will keep rent-seeking as long as they know that civilians will blame the impact of their despicable behaviour on the supernatural.

Religion, Culture and Colonisation

There is the issue of separating religion and culture. Before European intervention, most Africans did not differentiate between religion and tradition (For more, see: The Dangerous African Marriage of Religion to Culture). As a result, there was a misunderstanding of African spirituality and what it entailed. Africans have always been very spiritual people; this is not to say that all beliefs or understandings of the world were the same. Instead, a common perception was that spirituality formed part of everyday life. This relationship between the supernatural and everyday life meant understanding the divine coincided with understanding society.

For example, Batswana traditionally believed in a single Supreme Being whom they called Modimo, literally meaning the one who is supreme and above. Modimo was the Creator, Maker, Originator and Source of all things, including life (Chamberlin 1969:80; Schapera 1961:63). The word Modimo has always meant a single Supreme Being. Belief in Modimo materialised in many Tswana traditional religious practices such as rainmaking and agricultural rites of seed cleansing, first fruits (go Loma ngwaga) and harvest. They also had the term ‘botho’, also known as ubuntu, which described a well-rounded person who realised their full potential both as an individual and part of their community. This concept is cyclic, unlike the rules enforced under European Christianity. Also, there were no signifiers like Churches that showed that they had any form of spiritual beliefs or religion. Thus, the lack of such structures further allowed missionaries to propagate the idea that they were heathens that needed to be converted.

So Africans find it difficult to separate religion from culture/tradition. As noted by Foluke Adebisi, ‘We try to attribute the immutability of religious customs to the fluidity of cultural expectations’.

This explains why some African countries' views and attitudes remain stagnant: values and culture are tied to static and rigid rules. For example, African traditional faiths were not inalterable and responded to the needs of society. However, how Abrahamic religion is regarded, society is forced to live within its set boundaries. As these values are seen as part of one’s culture, those who stray are not seen to be deciding for themselves. Instead, they are viewed as walking away from how things should be and from all things natural, good and godly. The inclination towards collectivism in Africa means the intention for everyone to be a part of what one believes is good for all, but in this case, it turns into something ugly, where people are forced to live under rules which may be unfair to them.

The People, Culture and Colonisation

Walter Rodney, in How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, noted that missionaries were agents of imperialism:

'The Christian missionaries were as much part of the colonising forces as were the explorers, traders and soldiers... missionaries were agents of colonialism in the practical sense, whether or not they saw themselves in that light.'

He notes that whatever the church taught could be viewed as contributing to education in colonial Africa. Moreover, Rodney highlights the importance of placing the idea of missionary work and their teachings within the context in which it happened. The Church’s role was less so to preach Christianity in isolation of what was happening (colonisation) but more so ‘to preserve the social relations of colonialism, as an extension of the role it played in preserving the social relations of capitalism in Europe. Therefore, the Christian church stressed humility, docility and acceptance.’ Thus, Christianity was taught in a way that allowed for colonised people to accept the denigration of their own beliefs. It promoted complacency and demonised asking questions.

This legacy has continued through the rise of Christian universities in Africa. Nigeria has chartered 61 private institutions since 1999; of these, 31 are Christian. There are 18 chartered private universities in Kenya and 13 more with interim authority; of all these, 17 are Christian. However, similar to missionary schools, Christian universities have Christian purposes and values for learning non-religious subjects; they also enforce strict campus rules to reflect Christian norms.

Christian Universities like Covenant University in Nigeria are notorious for having strict religious rules and punishing their students for failing to attend church. This means that students are put under tremendous pressure to conform to regulations that may not even align with their beliefs. The arbitrary rules enforced and the seeming indifference to students’ concerns means that what is supposed to be a haven for students has become a place of oppression and fear. In speaking of his experience at Covenant, Anthony Azekwoh noted that:

‘When a pastor in school slaps a student in front of a crowd of his peers when a school shaves lines on the heads of the male students when young women are preyed on by pious lecturers who swear by the bibles when hundreds of students are suspended at once, we, as a people, did what we do best. We shrugged. And we said to ourselves, “These things happen.” We continued about our days, and the oppressors, the rapists, the corrupt, continued about theirs.’

Such conditions work against creating free-minded individuals, who see their world as transformative, and are not afraid to speak against unjust rules.

Final Thoughts

‘Religious factions will go on imposing their will on others unless the decent people connected to them recognise that religion has no place in public policy. They must learn to make their views known without trying to make their views the only alternatives.’

As seen with Anthony, when people dare to question religion's role in their lives and what it does to people, they are punished and gaslighted. So effectively, wanting to live in a society where you are free to express yourself and live your life on your terms is frowned upon.

There is a toxic and dangerous relationship between religion, culture and politics that needs to be addressed. It is not only on a macro level with laws and policies but also on a micro level with how we interact and treat each other. Discriminating in the name of religion has become an acceptable norm that must end. People should not be forced to live by the rules of an institution to which they do not subscribe. The purpose of the law should not be to push an agenda and create a culturally stagnant state but to make decisions for the betterment of all citizens regardless of belief.

It’s about time things changed, and we stopped silencing people calling out these problems.


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