Why Religion Is Not What Most Of Us Think And Why It Is Not A Private Affair
Since I wrote my critique on Ghana’s supposed ‘secular’ status, I have had many people responding to me, some out of malice, others sincerely searching for knowledge. I am passionate about this subject, because as a student of African Studies, which leads me into other disciplines (including politics, religion, anthropology etcetera), I am very concerned about how we essentialise concepts or throw them out there without any nuances. I admit that the issue on secularism in Ghana would require a book from me (which I am working on) as well as other scholars to point out the complexities and why the concept does not lend itself to simplistic analysis. I pray that we will all have the humility to learn, especially engaging subjects that we may not have expertise. In this 'short' piece, I am going to flesh out some issues about religion and why what most of us think of, as religion is actually not a true representation of the concept.
First, the term religion – to bind – was not an analytical category until the nineteenth century. In other words, until the nineteenth century, the concept was not part of the issues that exercised the minds of many thinkers - religion was given. Religion, as an analytical category, became a subject of study when for obvious reasons like religious intolerance, many scholars decided to study what informs the actions and behaviours of ‘religious’ people. It was also part of the agenda to separate ‘religion’ from ‘politics’. This came on the heels of years of politics masquerading as religion resulted in the persecution of people who did not profess the religion of the dominant society. We are well aware of how political ambitions cloaked in religion inspired the crusades, jihads, inquisition and, so on. This is to the extent that it has been estimated that in the last 4,000 years there have been less than 300 without a major war. And most of these wars were framed around supposedly religious ideology.
In view of the close connection that had been established between religion and social disorder, the concern of many of the philosophers of the nineteenth century, including Sigmund Freud, Emile Durkheim, Charles Darwin, E.B. Tylor, James Frazer, and Herbert Spencer was to explore, inter alia, the motivation behind religious actions and how an alternative could be provided. Sigmund Freud, a pioneer of psychoanalysis, studied religion from the psychological perspective (concluding that religion is a figment of imagination, while religious people suffer from mental neurosis), while Emile Durkheim and Herbert Spencer studied religion from the sociological point of view (arguing that religion is a deification of social values and norms) and later anthropological perspective (arguing that ‘primitive’ people were deluded in their belief in God). The birth of anthropology was among other things to study the religious practices of so-called primitive people around the world. In sum, anthropology was to study what was unique about the ‘Other’. But what is common among all these scholars was their unrelenting hatred for religion.
Armed with the idea that there could be a distillation of the theoretical aspect of religion, most of these scholars engaged themselves with the task of seeking to understand the religious basis of people’s behaviour. They grouped their study into two: what is observable through the senses and what was not observable, using the senses. The aspect of religion that could be observed in sensory perspective birthed phenomenology as an approach to doing research on religion. It is no wonder that most of the early anthropologists were so fixated on seeking to study the rituals of so-called primitive peoples. The aspects of religion that could not be observed with the five senses were either ignored as superstitious or consigned to the backwaters of ‘primitivism’. If one understands that most of these writers were either atheist or deist seeking to disprove God or make God a historical relic, one would appreciate how come most of us quickly use the term ‘superstition’ to refer to religion. In any case, the idea that religion was/is superstitious was birthed out of malice and hatred, not sincere quest for knowledge!
Second, most pre-colonial societies in Africa did not have a word for religion. In Akan language, there is no word for religion. The absence of the word ‘religion’ in the epistemology of the Akan stems from the fact that among the Akan of Ghana, there is an intertwining relationship between the mundane world and the esoteric world. The two worlds are fused as one and were/are mutually inclusive. The beings in the physical world are able to influence the spiritual world, while those in the spiritual world are able to influence the things in the material world. In sum, there was no rigid compartmentalisation of life among the Akan. This was to the extent that the Akan could not say, ‘this is my religious life, and that is my non-religious life.’ Life was a comprehensive whole. Consequently, when the early European missionaries decided to convert the Akan people from the fifteenth century, they admitted that the knowledge of God was not lacking among the Akan. Their concern, however, was whether the Akan worship the Christian God. In the same way, colonial anthropologists, such as R.S. Rattray and Meyer Fortes admitted that the knowledge of God was evidently obvious among the Akan. If we are to rope Christian in, we will say that he early followers of Jesus also did not call themselves Christians. They simply lived what they believed. It was onlookers who gave the name Christianity. It is this that influenced Karl Barth to rightly claim that Christianity is NOT a religion.
In view of the fact that religion permeated every aspect of the Akan and by extension many Africans, African scholars, including John Mbiti, Idowu Bolaji, J.B. Danquah, K.A. Busia and Kofi Asare Opoku writing as nationalist scholars in the 1950s and 60s argued that Africans are notoriously religious. Others like Geoffrey Parrinder, who was the pioneer of studying indigenous religions of Africa as an academic discipline, also said Africans are incurably religious. But it must be stated that it is not just Africans who are deeply religious, but every human. In fact, Blaise Pascal, the French mathematician and philosopher, said, "There is a God shaped vacuum in the heart of every man which cannot be filled by any created thing, but only by God, the Creator, made known through Jesus." Perhaps, St. Augustine of Hippo, one of the early philosophers of the Christian faith captured it succinctly, ‘Thou hast created us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds rest in thee.’
Many scholars have contested the idea of Africans being notoriously or incurably religious. Foremost among them was the Ugandan academic and poet, Okot p’Bitek. In his book, ‘African Religion in Western Scholarship,’ published in 1970, Okot p’Bitek critiqued Mbiti, Idowu, and Danquah for dressing African deities in European garb. He argued that Africans are not religious as was portrayed, but rather pragmatic in their engagement with the deities. Indeed, Busia had already in the 1950s stated the same argument in his magisterial book, ‘The Position of the Chief in Modern Political System of the Ashanti’. More recently, Kwasi Wiredu, a foremost Ghanaian philosopher, has restated the argument of p’Bitek in his insightful article, ‘Towards Decolonizing African Philosophy and Religion.’ We could glean from these scholars that they were seeking to contest the decoupling of religion from the daily lives of Africans. For example, Wiredu argued that rituals are not religiously bent, but medium of communicating with the divine. In other words, rituals which form the fount of religion in Africa is simply a language used to communicate with the spiritual entities.
It is instructive to note that Wiredu reversed the European rationalistic bent of separating the ‘secular’ and the ‘sacred,’ ‘religion’ and ‘politics’ and the ‘natural’ and the ‘supernatural’. Wiredu restored to religion what it had been before the nineteenth century. Having read broadly on this subject, I agree with Wiredu and Okot p’Bitek, because what we call religion is basically what we do on daily basis. How we eat, sleep, bury the dead, work, sing, mourn, spend money, build, cultivate our land, harvest our produce, do politics, and so on are influenced largely by what we believe. The only difference is that these practices have deeply become so mundane (culturalisation) that we do not see their religious foundation. But a cursory reading of history will show that all the facets of life have their foundation in religion!
Third, most African societies were either largely religiously homogenous or had toleration for other religions. For example, among the Akan before the advent of Muslims and Christians, there was no known tension over religious differences, because there were no radically differences in religion beliefs and practices. Also, among the Akan, there were no religious proselytisers, who sought to convert one person from one religion to the other. In any case, one was born into the religion. It is in view of this that Ali Mazrui said that conflicts in pre-colonial Africa were hardly as a result of religion. Slavery, colonisation, and mission work brought both Arabs and European missionaries to Africa. The incursion of Arabs and Europeans changed the religious landscape of Africa forever. Thus, instead of one indigenous religion that provided a broad spectrum for people to engage the ultimate reality, there were competitive and contradictory teachings from Muslims and Christians, which later affected indigenous African religions. Africa became religiously plural. African indigenous religions were revitalised: Afrikannia and Godianism in Ghana and Nigeria respectively.
The religious plurality of Africa had many sides to it. On the one hand, Africans could freely borrow from different religious traditions. Indeed, prior to the advent of Europeans and Arabs, Africans had freely borrowed religious ideas from each other. The Ga borrowed some religious rituals from the Asante; the Asante borrowed from the Ewe and so on. That explains why the Tigare cult in the 1930s had shrines in almost every corner of what is today Ghana. But as I was saying, following the advent of Islam and Christianity, and recently Eastern Religion, many Africans have severed relationship with their indigenous religions. Others have also combined elements in both Christianity and Islam to form new religions entirely. Example of this phenomenon is Chrislam in Nigeria and Zetaheal in Ghana. These new religious movements combine elements of Islam and Christianity simultaneously in their cultic practices. But since Christianity and Islam are missionary oriented religions, there was the need to regulate the activities of their devotees. There was also the need to provide an equal playing field for these religions. The essence was to avoid any clash or conflict as a result of contradictory religious teachings.
It is the necessity of providing equal field for these religions, including other Eastern religion and indigenous Ghanaian religions that made what is wrongly referred to us secularism in Ghana a reasonable response to containing different religions in the country. Since independence, the various political elites, through constitutional instruments, have recognised the religious plurality of Ghana. And since the political elites are also religious, the religious plurality in Ghana was designed to ensure that no particular religion was marginalised. Religious plurality was NOT to declare the neutrality of the state in religious matters. It was rather to afford the state the opportunity to engage all religions on equal levels.
Also, as far has my reading affords me, I DO NOT know of any state that is neutral on religious issues. Here, I define and restore the broad definition of religion to include everything we do. In others words, I categorise religion into both theism and atheism (deism). Theism expresses BELIEF in the existence of God, while Atheism expresses DISBELIEF in the existence of God. To give a practical example of how this works, theism beliefs in the creation of the universe by an intelligent being, while atheism beliefs in the evolution of the world. In sum, theism believes in creationism, while atheism believes in evolutionism. But the underlying fact is that both creationism and evolutionism are anchored on faith. Since God cannot be experimented in the laboratory, it takes faith to believe in His existence. In the same way since classical evolution (including transmogrification of being) CANNOT be experimented, it takes faith to believe that things started bubbling in following billions of years evolution. To paraphrase the words of Mahamadu Bawumia (vice president of Ghana), 'You and I were not there, so we cannot be certain.' In the end, no one is left hanging and no vacuum in terms of belief is created. We all become religious in one way or the other, consciously or unconsciously.
The idea of ‘secular’, which some atheists in Western Europe had championed to obfuscate their disbelief in God in order to escape persecution should they openly declare their atheism has recently become a buzzword in Ghana. As I have already indicated in one of my journalistic articles, the idea of ‘secular’ is not the same as the non-existence of religion. It broadly means the toleration of different religious traditions that inhabit the same space. Given that ‘religion’ or politics clothed in religion had contributed to many years of wars in Europe, the idea of ‘secularism’ was developed to also ensure that religious liberty and tolerance was exercised. Secular qua secular does not exist anywhere in the world, at least not as I know of in my reading and observation of global politics. The state also cannot be neutral in religious matters. The state always takes interest in religion except that the state does not undermine of religious liberty. Anywhere that the state had attempted to stifle theism, deism, or atheism, the world has seen wars and conflict.
The first Islamic Ummah constituted in Madina (formerly Yathrib) was secular in the sense that, at least in the early stages, religious liberty was granted non-Muslims, including Jews). But it was also deeply religious, because Mohammed, the Prophet of Islam, combined economic, political, and religious power in himself. Upon his demise, it was only the prophetic aspect of his leadership that the four rightly guided caliphs could not assume. But that was also because the Qur’anic revelation (that guide the life of Muslims) was completed, and was in the stages of being canonised.
Also, religion is not just about belief in spiritual beings. Of course that is the layman’s understanding of religion. But we cannot work with a layman’s understanding. Religion is all encompassing. To limit religion to belief in God will exclude some groups that we call religious. For example, while Buddhism is considered a world religion, God is not necessary and sufficient for salvation among Buddhists. In fact, Siddhartha Gautama became Buddha (the enlightened one) without the help of the gods. It is recorded in the history of Buddhism that even the gods had to learn from Buddha.
Finally, it could be gleaned from my discussion that religion is not a private affair, since it was not meant to be private. Religion – theism and atheism (deism) constitutes our very being. Our conscience – the moral compass in us – testifies to the existential fact of religion. It is, thus, on the basis of the ubiquity of religion that gives credence to the statement in the Bible that it is only a fool who says in his heart that there is no God (Psalm 14:1; 53:1). In fact, atheism is made possible because of the existence of God. Without the existence of God, atheism is made impossible. But atheists have the RIGHT to exist and to disclaim the existence of God. It is part of their rights, and it must be respected.
Concluding, we need to appreciate the fact that Ghana is a religious country that recognises religious plurality. The religious plurality of Ghana makes the state incapable of remaining neutral (since neutrality in the real sense of the word is impossible). Because neutrality is impossible, the state has to deal fairly with all religious groups. Also, Ghana is a religious country, not in the sense of upholding one particular religion as state religion (as it is the case in some Arab countries), but rather the recognition of religion as part and parcel of the Ghanaian heritage and social composition. In my next article, I will respond to the accusation of irrationality that some have levelled against ‘religion’. I will answer the questions: is ‘religion’ superstitious? Are ‘religion’ and science (in)compatible? Can an academic be ‘religious’ or a person of faith?
Charles Prempeh (firstname.lastname@example.org), African University College of Communications, Accra