On 17 August 2016, an article titled, “The Damning Effects Of Religion In Africa,” written by Kofi Asamoah Okyere was published on Modernghana.com in which the writer sought to establish a case that religion impeded the development of Africa.
He gave two definitions of religion as follows: “Religion can be loosely defined as a belief in a supernatural power or powers that control human destiny. It can also refer to the institutionalisation of such beliefs and their practices.” His points may be summarized as follows:
- Religion is a major cause of physical conflicts and doctrinal disputes in Africa and the world as a whole.
- There is a direct link between religion and laziness which contributes to poverty in Africa; religion makes people lackadaisical in their attitude towards finding practical ways to improve their undesirable living conditions.
- Religious doctrines create a sense of fear or timidity in its adherents.
- Religion creates an avenue for many charlatans to parade as so-called men of God to fleece the poor of their meagre resources.
- Most religious groups discriminate against women in so many ways.
- Many governments in Africa use religion as a vehicle to incite disaffection among people in a bid to advance their political interests.
- Religion in Africa does not encourage creativity, invention or critical thinking, because of its conservative or static.
He placed some emphasis on Christianity since it is a dominant religion in Ghana and also a religion he once practised. The writer’s implicit argument for the negative character of Christianity is that religion by nature creates damning effects and Christianity, being a religion, therefore also by nature creates damning effects. His recommendation, therefore, was that African societies should put less focus on religion and a major focus on science, technology and critical thinking as this will move our development goals forward.
I seek, in this article, to contest the claim that the Christian faith, as one of the major religions in Africa, predominantly fosters negative effects (like conflicts, laziness, fear, lack of curiosity/creativity and violence), and argue that Christianity has been a contributor to progress and development and also a force for more peaceful societies in Africa and the world. I will not argue that the Christian faith has not and does not continue to be used to promote undesirable effects like fear, violence, laziness and suchlike. Such an argument clearly will be dead on arrival. What I will argue is that at least when it comes to Christianity, the cure for religiously induced evils is exactly the opposite of what Mr Okyere tried to suggest.
My view, which is similar to the one expressed by Yale University Professor, Miroslav Volf, in his 2002 lecture on “Christianity and Violence,” delivered at the University of Pennsylvania, is this: the cure for religiously induced evils is never less religion, but rather more religion. Now ‘more religion’ here does not mean that the cure for religiously induced evils lies in increased blind religious zeal (which is at the very heart of the problems observed by Mr Okyere in his article).
Rather, the cure lies in a stronger and more intelligent commitment to the Christian faith as faith. The more the Christian faith is reduced to shallow religiosity that is essentially targeted at motivating, empowering and giving meaning to the everyday life issues that are shaped by economic or national interests, the worse off African societies will be.
However, the more the Christian faith becomes a defining element in the believers and the more they practice it as a lifestyle with strong ties to its biblical origins and with intelligent commitment, the better off African societies will be. In this article, I will support the above thesis by countering Mr Okyere’s arguments about the undesirable character of Christianity and then conclude with a little explanation of what the core Christian teaching is.
Most of the points the writer used as evidence for his case ended up proving the damaging effects of the abuse of the teachings of Christianity rather than proving a negative logical outworking of the Christian faith; the evidence only proved that professing Christians have not been Christian enough. The old adage stands true that a philosophy ought not to be judged based on its abuse. That a technology is being used by criminals to further their ends says more about the people using the technology than it does about the technology itself.
It is rather interesting to note that London’s The Times newspaper, on December 27, 2008, published an incisive article by Matthew Parris, a British Political Writer and an atheist, titled “As an atheist, I truly believe Africa needs God,” in which the writer came to the opposite conclusion from that of Mr Okyere. About his observations, Mr Parris, confessed, “It confounds my ideological beliefs, stubbornly refuses to fit my world view, and has embarrassed my growing belief that there is no God.” I will refer to some of his observations in my responses to the points raised in Mr Okyere’s article.
Does Christianity cause physical conflicts? Even Jesus himself cautioned his followers not to live by the sword (Matthew 26:52). So quite clearly any professing follower of Jesus who claims the Bible authorizes him to pick up arms against others who merely disagree with him is not going the way of Jesus and therefore cannot to be said to be representing Christ. When Mr Okyere complaints that governments in Africa use religion as a vehicle to stir up trouble among people to advance their political and parochial interests it only says more about the kind of people we have in our governments than it does about the contents of the Christian religion.
Regarding the claim of that various sects and religions believing that their way is the approved one, it rather goes to show what we all know by common experience of the nature of men and of the nature of truth. The fact that evidence points in a certain direction do not guarantee that everyone will accept it. We see this in our national politics all the time. People (even non-religious ones) have different ways of understanding and interpreting things; some are reasonable, others are not. But truth by its nature is exclusive and does not include in itself contradictory claims.
Further truth always corresponds to reality. Thus when a claim to truth is made by any person or religion, all we have to do is check to see if it corresponds to reality as it is and also whether it is logically sound. If a preacher gives an interpretation of a certain passage, we can always check with the Bible and the context of the passage. As one scholar has warned, any time a text is taken out of its context it can become an excuse for justifying anything at all. Many false preachers within Christianity, as well as non-Christian critics of the Bible, often fall into this trap.
The influence of Christianity on Societies
Historians concede that it was Christianity that civilized barbarian Europe. Even renowned atheists like Jurgen Habermas do recognize that Europe’s civilization (even though now considered post-Christian) is traceable to Christianity. In other words, the West has abandoned God but is still stealing from God. In his book, A Time of Transitions (2006), he emphatically observes that it is Christianity alone that accounts for the liberty, conscience, human rights, and democracy, which have become the benchmarks of western civilization.
Modern Europe still feeds itself from this religious source. Even the USA’s declaration of independence document which has shaped that nation was drafted by men largely influenced by a Judeo/Christian worldview. The language of the document betrays this fact: “… We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. …”
The abolition of slavery by the British parliament in 1807 was largely due to the work of William Wilberforce, a deeply religious member of parliament. For 18 years he regularly introduced anti-slavery motions in Parliament.
Historically speaking, it cannot be gainsaid that Christians have been very proactive when it comes to the establishment of hospitals, schools and NGOs that are helping to alleviate poverty in Africa. A lot of western charity funds are administered through Christian NGOs in Africa. It is only the severest critic that can see a mission hospital or school or a village borehole and still claim that Africa would be better off without Christianity.
Thus I think the argument about Christianity being one of the religions making adherents lethargic should be shelved. It has no merit. In fact, according to Matthew Parris, while working in Africa, he observed some of his African Christian work colleagues and confessed that it would have been convenient to believe (because of his worldview) that their honesty, diligence and optimism in their work was unconnected with personal faith but this did not fit the facts. It was too obvious that what these people were in their character was actually influenced by a conception of man's place in the Universe that Christianity had taught.
Does Christianity lack Critical thinking? Any argument that a religion like Christianity which counts among its great teachers and apologists Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Luther, G. K. Chesterton and C. S. Lewis (to name just a few great theological and apologetic minds) would need to learn critical thinking, betrays a narrow understanding of rationality and the nature of critical thinking. Their works are available in libraries and bookstores for anyone willing to examine them.
Does Christianity discourage Science and curiosity? Any student of the history of modern science cannot deny that scientific inquiry grew out of a religious tradition. As the writer and one-time Professor of Medieval and Renaissance English Literature at Cambridge, C. S. Lewis, once noted, men became scientific because they believed there was law in nature and they believed there was law in nature because they believed in a law Giver. Indeed, even Prof. Richard Dawkins, perhaps the most vociferous atheist of our time, admitted in a debate with Prof. John Lennox that science did grow out of a religious tradition.
Whether you are looking at Copernicus or Kepler or Galileo or Pascal or Newton you find men who believed in God and were curious to learn about this world. So rather than being static and un-progressive, biblical Christian teaching enables men to be curious and creative. Matthew Parris, describing his observation of the Christians he found in Malawi and across the continent, wrote: “The Christians were always different. Far from having cowed or confined its converts, their faith appeared to have liberated and relaxed them. There was a liveliness, a curiosity, an engagement with the world - a directness in their dealings with others - that seemed to be missing in traditional African life. They stood tall.”
Does Christianity discriminate against women? I think anyone who makes this charge should first take a look at how Jesus treated women and then juxtapose it with any other practice he observes amongst professing Christians and then come to a conclusion as to whether what he has observed is consistent with Jesus’ or is a departure from Jesus’. Jesus defied the tradition of his time and treated women in a much more equal and dignifying way than was normal in the society of that time.
Women were normally left to attend to domestic affairs at home but Jesus allowed women to travel with him and his twelve disciples (Luke 8:1-3). Ordinary Jews, not to talk of Rabbis, did not speak to Samaritans, and surely not to Samaritan women. Yet Jesus had a long and personal conversation with a Samaritan woman at Jacob's well which even led to her conversion (John 4:4-30, 39-42). Further, women were generally not educated nor were they allowed any active role in the affairs of religion yet Jesus allowed Martha's sister, Mary, to sit at his feet in the role of a disciple while Jesus taught her. Jesus even encouraged Martha to do likewise (Luke 10:38-42).
The heart of the Christian Gospel
The problems enumerated in Mr Okyere’s article go to show that it is the heart of man that is depraved. Interestingly, this is precisely the message of Christianity - there is something desperately wrong (the Bible calls it sin) in the heart of man and Jesus holds the remedy. He is able to transform the human heart. In a day when the prevailing mindset says that man is good at heart but society is to blame for his flaws, the words of Jesus Christ come echoing through the centuries in sharp contrast: “… from your heart”, says Jesus, “come the evil ideas which lead you to kill, commit adultery, and do other immoral things; to rob, lie, and slander others…” Matthew 15:19.
style="margin-left:0px; margin-right:0px">But Jesus comes to us, not just with wise teachings and profound observations about human nature; he also gives us new hearts (like in the case of William Wilberforce) - hearts that beat after God's own heart - a new view of God, a new appreciation of the world and ourselves and also through his Holy Spirit he gives us the enabling power live as we ought to.
This is where Jesus Christ stands unrivalled among the founders of all the world religions. Rather than only pointing you to some enlightening great teachings and deep truths, he, by his power, transforms hearts that are dead to God into hearts that are alive to God. This is what Christians call the new birth – our natural desires and inclinations are remoulded and redirected: our desire for power turns into a love for humility and service. We begin to exalt commitment over feelings, forgiveness over anger, patience over shortcuts, honesty over deception and sacrifice over comfort.
This is the kind of real transformation Mr Parris observed in the African Christians which led him to conclude his article saying: “Those who want Africa to walk tall amid 21st-century global competition must not kid themselves that providing the material means or even the knowhow that accompanies what we call development will make the change. A whole belief system must first be supplanted.”
R. G. Coleman
E-mail: [email protected]