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Feature Article of Saturday, 10 December 2011

Columnist: Agyeman, Dan

Superstitious Beliefs In The Age Of Science And Technology

By Dan Agyeman

America has now joined the United Kingdom in tying its foreign aid to the protection of the human rights of gays everywhere their money goes. Predictably, Obama is being attacked left and right as we attacked Cameron. In Ghana today, speaking in favor of the rights of a minority of our fellow citizens, who happen to be homosexuals, is like swimming against the tide. It seems that every one has jumped on the homophobic bandwagon and trying to outdo one another in who can shout the loudest about how our culture and traditions abhor the evils of homosexuality and its danger to our wonderful society. It is so politically correct to bash homosexuality that one political party has even sought political advantage by attempting to trick or bait the presidential candidate of an opposing party to dare to go against the popular sentiment. Obviously, given the mood of the country today, it would be political suicide for any candidate to publicly support gay rights.

It is extremely difficult to swim against the tide. But that does not mean one should not try when the need arises. Some of us can, and will swim against the tide, and speak truth to justice, because on this issue the majority of Ghanaians have got it all wrong. I do not mind being among the lonely voices in the wilderness as long as it is the voice of truth. We should not overlook the fact that in both the UK and the US, there are strong objections to gay rights based on religious beliefs, just like Ghana. Yet because they have secular constitutions like Ghana, the human rights of gays are respected and protected by law. It is about human rights, folks. While there are no specific rights for gays in our 1992 Constitution, there is no ambiguity that the human rights of ALL Ghanaians are protected under it.

Most Ghanaians today would consider themselves modern and more enlightened than our ancestors who were so superstitious that they made most decisions after consulting the gods for direction. That was the time when the local god and its priest, who I prefer to call spiritual advisor, were the fountain of wisdom and knowledge. Many Ghanaians look back at that era and call it the age of darkness, or “abagyimi mere”. But anyone who says that is not being fair to our ancestors. That was our way of life, based on our traditions, culture, religion, and what we knew. Traditionally, our culture dictated that when we were faced with an issue we did not understand, we turned to religion for an answer. That is what we knew. And acting on the basis of that knowledge, limited as it was, decisions were made that sustained our way of life for centuries.

Now let us take a look at some of the decisions our way of life dictated in that era: Twins were a bad omen so we threw them in the river or left them in the evil forest. When there was a drought, the spiritual advisor will counsel that the gods are angry with someone so that someone’s family will be banished from the village or worse. Before our battle against the next village, the gods will demand sacrifice in order to fortify us and assure us of victory. So we grab a few people, preferably virgins, and slaughter them at the shrine. When an albino is born, he is an abomination so we banish him and his mother from the village into the evil forest. When someone dies, regardless of their age or type of illness, the death is attributed to a known enemy or a witch by the same spiritual advisor, and the accused was either stoned to death, buried alive, or killed in one of our many specialized ways. A people whose way of life was dictated by the gods and spiritual advisors can be referred to as religious. So our ancestors were very religious. As a matter of fact, referring to our society then as theocratic would not be far off, even though historically it was monarchical. Like all societies and cultures, ours would have evolved on our own over time.
But this fell apart and something happened to our way of life when Europeans and Arabs brought their brand of religion and persuaded us, through fair or foul means, to abandon ours and accept theirs. For a people who claim to be protective of our culture, we were so impressed with these foreigners that we gladly abandoned our gods and our way of life and embraced theirs. Some of our people were converted about four hundred years ago, and others barely a century ago. That is not very long ago when we consider AYi Kwei Armah’s Two Thousand Seasons of our history. But it does not matter when the religious conversion happened. We have all become very comfortable with the foreigners’ religions and their attendant ways of life. In fact for much of Islam, there is no distinction between religion and their way of life. Thus our way of life is now the way of life of those foreigners. Well, not everything. Polygamy and Chieftaincy traditions have survived. But not much else. Even our traditional marriages, while recognized under the law, are treated with contempt in society. We call it “engagement”. So until you get married in a church, you are not properly married. Even President Mills has decreed against the pouring of libation at state functions because it offends his religious beliefs.

We have copied the laws and institutions of our masters without any qualm. I should add that much of the laws in the 1960 criminal code, including the one about “unnatural carnal knowledge” were copied word for word from antiquated English laws. But they themselves have got rid of such outmoded laws. But I hear our MPs want to strengthen ours, by making misdemeanors into felonies, if they had their way. How embarrassing.
Given this cursory view of our history, when we talk about our way of life and condemn a biological and hormonal reality such as homosexuality as being against our culture, what are we referring to? Is it our culture before the foreigners came or the one that has developed after the foreigners came? It probably does not matter because in either case what underpins the culture is religion. We are a religious people period; before and after the foreign invasions. In our period of darkness, our ancestors made decisions that we frown upon today. Similarly, until about two hundred years ago, Europeans and Americans threw witches into fires and hung people in the public squares for religious reasons. They are also ashamed of that aspect of their past. But it appears they have become more tolerant than us even though we now have the same religion and serve the same God. I think I have an idea why.
Religion met science and technology in the West and a compromise was reached. For things that science and technology cannot provide adequate answers, like what happens to our spirit after death, religion will continue to provide answers. But otherwise, where science provides an explanation, for example, that someone’s death was caused by a particular disease, they follow science and make decisions accordingly. So when science says that homosexuality is not a sexual preference but a natural attraction towards same sex, just as heterosexuals are naturally attracted to the opposite sex, then the rational decision to protect the rights of all is easy.

Now let us look at what is happening in Ghana. Our ancestors did not have the benefit of science and technology, so it was understandable that their way of life was dominated or even dictated by superstition and religion. We are still a religious people and we owe no apologies to anyone. However, we now live in the age of science and technology. So why do we refuse to marry our superstitious and religious beliefs with science and technology? The President boldly states that under his watch homosexuals will not be given equal rights as heterosexuals. He sees it as abnormal and as a danger to our way of life and culture. What he really means is that it goes against his religious beliefs. After all, this is the President who has ceded his constitutional position as President of Ghana to Jesus Christ. In line with the President on this issue, opposition stalwarts like Prof Ocquaye and Hon Hackman Owusu Agyeman have expressed the same sentiments.

Our ancestors lived in the era of “abagimi mere” so they have an excuse for their backward outlook on things they did not and could not understand. We live in the age of science and technology, so what is our excuse for being so out of tune with the rest of the world, including our colonial masters who introduced us to our new way of life that we espouse with so much passion from pulpits every Sunday? I still do not understand why the sexual orientation of our neighbors should be condemned to such an extent that we want to bury them alive or throw them into fires as was done in the age of darkness. They are all human beings and their inalienable human rights must be protected under the secular laws of our secular society. It is only ignorance that leads to the conclusion that sexual orientation is a choice and a preference. That is based on superstition. Science has given us the contrary answer on the issue.

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