Religion of Sunday, 19 August 2012
Source: Owusu-Ansah, Emmanuel Sarpong
The pros and cons of religion, or the question as to whether or not religion is relevant in the contemporary society, has been the subject of extensive debate within the fields of sociology and anthropology. The intention here is thus not to repeat what has generally been posited by academics, but to present a brief personal commentary on the issue. The decision to come up with this write-up is partially influenced by the philosophy contained in the documentary film, ‘Religulous’, which blatantly mocks religion and religious belief.
Please note, that the term religion, which of course has a very extensive connotation, is used quite narrowly in this piece to refer specifically to Christianity and Islam.
The Christian and Islamic religions are supposed to safeguard human dignity, and promote friendship, love, unity, harmony and righteousness. Ironically however, these two religions are fast becoming a much greater force for evil than they are for good in today’s society. The former has unfortunately come to be associated with promiscuity, money and deception; and the later, intolerance, violence and killings.
A considerable number of Christians and Muslims, as many are aware, are hiding behind a façade of religion to commit some of the mightiest atrocities in human history – crimes ranging from theft and sexual misconduct, through deceit and riot, to terrorism and genocide. Many of these are crimes that even the “non-religious” may not contemplate, let alone executing them.
The appalling comportment of members of these two major religions is inducing some people (chiefly agnostics) to pronounce that the world is safer and humankind is better off without religion. Even though I disagree with this school of thought, the evidence in support of its proposition is so overwhelming that convincingly contesting it becomes a colossal task.
Obviously religion helps humans to find answers or explanations to those phenomena that cannot be subjected to empirical investigation. Both Christianity and Islam serve as a means of explaining the unexplainable; they provide answers for how we got here, why we are here, who brought our world into existence, and where we go from here. Even though their explanations might not be the objective truth, such responses give humankind a huge sense of relief, direction and purpose in life.
The contribution religion makes towards the socio-economic development of communities is supreme. It has played and continues to play a massive role in the areas of education, health, sports, science and technology, and even governance; not to mention the moral and emotional support it offers, as well as its unifying role.
But in the name of this same seemingly wonderful institution – religion, humankind has committed some of the most outrageous deeds in the history of humanity – sex crimes, manipulation and exploitation, persecution or torture, mass suicides/murders, terrorism (i.e. suicide bombing, hijacking and kidnapping), and wars which ultimately lead to underdevelopment and poverty. Religion seems to be losing sight of its own principle of serving, helping, and living peacefully with others regardless of their personal beliefs and ideologies.
In Africa, religion has ironically become an anchor, holding people back from their marital and societal responsibilities, and from developing socio-economically. It seems to show no respect for basic laws and human life. Many people have been jailed or executed, particularly in Islamic countries for attempting to propagate a “rival” faith, Christianity. Others have been tortured or lynched, mainly by some so-called Christian religious figures, on suspicion of being witches and wizards.
It is probably this obnoxious behaviour of “religious people” that compelled the philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, to declare that ‘God is dead’, and Mahatma Gandhi to make that paradoxical statement: ‘I love your Christ but I hate your Christians because your Christians are unlike your Christ’.
Nonetheless, calling for the ‘elimination’ of religion on the basis of its identified demerits is certainly an unintelligence cause to champion. Thus, it will not just be hasty and simplistic, but foolhardy of any group or individual to conclude that religion is a force for evil and should be rejected in human society. Humans, according to an Oxford University study, are predisposed to embrace religious concepts. One may not need religion but sound conscience to know the difference between right and wrong, but they will certainly need religion to constantly guide their thoughts and actions and to provide the needed moral impetus.
In the documentary film, ‘Religulous’, Bill Maher, like Rene Descartes, suggests, that ‘doubt’ is one of the most important human attributes; and that our ability to doubt and question things such as authority, existence or nature and society, is vital for human progression. But religion, according to him, suppresses doubt by replacing it with a false or unsubstantiated surety (i.e. God and heaven). He thus concludes that our authentic progression, which he believes is achieved through doubt, is often lost within religion.
I find his argument interestingly shallow, as he fails to convince his audience as to how he arrives at the conclusion that the ‘surety’ he claims religion has replaced with doubt, is false. He refuses to realize that, even though the veracity of that surety (God or Heaven) may not be compellingly proven; no one has also ever succeeded in convincingly demonstrating that it is not authentic.
Because neither the existence nor nonexistence of the Divine can be persuasively proven, each and every individual is given the freedom to decide whether to embrace religion or reject it. This is what the French religious philosopher, Blaise Pascal, calls a ‘wager’ or gamble, in which the chances of winning and losing are equal (50 – 50). So if Maher thinks ‘doubt’ is or leads to the truth, let him immerse himself in the pool of doubt; and if others believe that religion is or leads to the truth, let them stick to it. Pushing one’s ideologies down other people’s throats is certainly not on. After all, gambling that God exists, is clearly the wiser option as one has all to gain and nothing to lose.
It is apparent that humankind is inherently evil, but sadly, some despondent folks are consciously or unconsciously using religion as an excuse to unleash the mischievousness (greed, lust, theft, fraud, hate, violence, etc.) in them. It is quite tempting to perceive therefore, that if religion didn’t exist, many people would find nothing as an excuse to commit crimes. But we should also have every reason to believe that even if religion did not exist, people would still hide behind the façade of other seemingly harmless ideologies such as environmentalism, individualism, hedonism, ethnocentrism, nationalism, etc. to commit heinous crimes as it is happening now.
No one can deny the huge number of entities and situations that religion has transformed from bad to good. It could in fact be argued, that the wickedness and misery being witnessed on earth today would be twofold or bigger if religion didn’t exist.
The core principle, in fact the substance of Christianity and Islam is love, human wellbeing, peace, unity and hope. But some miserable elements, out of selfishness, greed and/or the lack of understanding of the doctrines of their own religion, are committing serious crimes using religion as a defence. The problem therefore is not with that entity called religion; the problem is with the disposition of that group called followers of religion.
It follows therefore, that religion, like almost all human institutions, has both merits and demerits, and individuals are affected differently by it. So the debate should not focus solely on the relevance or credibility of Christianity and Islam in today’s world, but also, and more importantly, on what could be done to make these religions reflect their true values and principles – love, hope, harmony and progress.
Emmanuel Sarpong Owusu-Ansah (Black Power) is an Investigative Journalist, a researcher and the author of Fourth Phase of Enslavement (2011) and In My End is My Beginning (2012). He may be contacted via email ([email protected]).