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Opinion | Sep 1, 2018

How Secular Is Ghana? A Preliminary Response

How Secular Is Ghana? A Preliminary Response

The debate over the construction of a national cathedral has generated issues that must be clarified. And for me the issue that appears to inform the discourse is the notion of ‘secularism’, ‘secular’ or ‘secularisation’. I may not be able to do a detailed historical analysis of this concept (I may do it in another piece), for the purposes of space. But I will highlight a few areas that show how we conflate and obfuscate clarity on the concept of ‘secularism’. James Kwabena Bomfeh who has 'legitimately' filed a suit to restrain government from interfering in the affairs of religion in Ghana is doing so on the basis of a so-called secular status of Ghana. In the following, I will provide preliminary responses to the question of ‘secularism’ in Ghana.

First, I want to say that Ghana is not a secular qua secular state. In fact, there is virtually no nation that ‘secular’. Secular implies that religion is pushed from the public sphere to the private sphere. This assumption is flawed because there is nothing like private and public spheres. The two are intertwined. For example, what people do at work, how they engage people, and how they relate with the state are all informed by their beliefs. In other words, our beliefs (private) inform what we do (in public). The idea of a ‘naked Public Square’ is nebulous and confusing. There is no value free public sphere. People do not separate themselves between what they belief and what they do, even if they are unconscious about it.

Second, we do not have secular values and religious values. All values are keenly similar and related that it is difficult to have a secular value operating in the public sphere. The values of goodness, kindness, hospitality, love, industriousness, respectfulness, and so on, which we want to see in the public sphere are also taught by religion. Some scholars have even claimed that these values are all religious in origin. If that conclusion is true, then it means that ‘secular values’ are religious values shorn of its religious antecedent!

Third, secularism is very confusing, because it is appropriated differently in different contexts. For example, in France, the ban placed on the veil in public sphere was informed by secularism, which believed that the so-called public sphere should be free from religion. In Ghana, the veil politics, which came to a head in 2016, was based on secularism. But in the Ghanaian context, Muslims were appealing to secularism to enforce the right of female Muslims to wear the veil in the public sphere. In effect, different societies invoke the notion of secularism differently. These scenarios make ‘secularism’ confusing and arbitrary when applied uncritically.

Also, the idea of Ghana being a secular state does not mean that the state cannot be part of religious activities. In other words, the secular status of Ghana means that the state should be fair in relating with the various religious groups in Ghana. Ghana’s secular status does not necessarily impose neutrality on the state, because neutrality does not exist in the real sense of the word. From this perspective, the state can support religious activities of all religious groups equally if it decides to do so. Ghana is deeply a ‘religious’ country. The constitution even begins with the name of God. Major activities in Ghana are preceded and ended with prayers and religious rituals. The ‘religiosity’ of Ghanaians has always been recognised in all the three epochs of Ghana’s political history. In 1896, Britain was a ‘secular’ state, but the colonisers recognised the vitality of religion in the life of Ghanaians and allowed religions to be freely practised. They only restricted religious practices that were injurious to other persons.

Furthermore, the idea of ‘secularism’ historically was advanced on the assumption that science and technology would bury religion. But religion has exhibited tenacity in the world. While religion did not retreat, there has been a resurgence of it since the 1970s. Since the 1970s, religion has featured prominently in all the idioms of the human race globally. Many of the scholars, including Harvey Cox and Peter Berger, who in the 1960s predicted the demise of religion, had to retract their predictions, since religion did not die. They ended up writing books to show the resilience of religion.

Religion and modernity are also not in antagonistic relation. Religion and modernity are intertwined in such a way that you cannot have religion without modernity and modernity without religion. So, Ghana’s ‘modern’ 1992 constitutional, which enforces ‘secularism’, did not object to religion making forays into the public sphere. The constitution recognises the fact that many Ghanaians subscribe to religion, and the state has the duty to provide facilitation for religious activities. This explains why the political elites provide Muslims with food items and animals during the month of Ramadan. It also shows why the president attends important ceremonies of the various religious groups in Ghana. The same scenario also explains the featuring of religion in all major state functions. In the end, we can rightly state that Ghana is a religiously plural state.

In conclusion, we should be careful about how we bundle concepts about. We need to nuance our discussion on Ghana’s ‘secular’ status. As I have stated, the idea of secularism is a myth, and it is not applicable anywhere in the world. If you take the belief in God out of the public sphere, you replace it with disbelief in God. In both cases, religion still remains in the public sphere!

Charles Prempeh ([email protected]), African University College of Communications, Accra

Charles Prempeh
Charles Prempeh, © 2018

This author has authored 131 publications on Modern Ghana.
Author column: CharlesPrempeh

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