Sunday, January 5, 2014

Let My People Think

No intellectually honest person of faith can escape Nigeria’s most pungent social contradiction – the surfeit of religiousity represented by the proliferation of churches, mosques and shrines in the context of intensifying moral degeneracy and social anomie. The last three decades have witnessed the inescapable paradox of religious revivalism and ethical collapse. Public religiousity is at a crescendo while public morality is at a nadir.

To make sense of this paradox, we must begin with the less-than-obvious distinction between rituals and values. That people share the same religious rituals does not mean that they share corresponding religious values. Rituals are the routines built into ceremonial observances while values are convictions with behavioural consequences. Rituals are performed in the controlled environments of our particular shrines while values cannot be choreographed – only lived out in the unscripted course of everyday life in the society. Rituals are generically performed while values are subjectively practised. Thus, nominally affirming the Ten Commandments does not mean that we will not commit theft and murder.

So far, these are fairly run-of-the-mill observations. Religious communities have historically engaged in slavery, racism and apartheid. The age of Victorian prudery in England was also marked by horrendous social injustices. Our Muslim and Christian politicians, while advertizing their spiritual credentials, continue to demonstrate atheistic impunity and prodigiously secular proficiencies in public theft.  

Religionists have long had to manage the tension between their beliefs and their behaviour, their profession and their praxis. The challenge for us in Nigeria is that such tension is no longer discernible. The keen sense of moral contradiction that inspires repentance has disappeared from our theology. A conceptual rupture has separated the world of ritual and doctrine from that of values leading to a religion without moral implication and ethical significance.

Religious rituals are symbolic dramas that should point us towards higher truths and behavioral ideals. However compelling rituals are, if they cannot inspire ethical development, then they are no more than hollow routines and farcical charades. And if this is the case, what is the point of observing these rituals? Put another way, what is the use of organized religion when it fails to deliver on its most fundamental proposition – that of transforming personal and social conduct?
Popular religious discourse, such as it is, focuses on doctrinal hairsplitting about pious irrelevancies which are more likely to raise sectarian and denominational hackles than to pave a path towards a just and humane society. The faithful are more likely to endure bitter disputation over whose moon sightings are more authoritative, the propriety of Muslims offering Christmas greetings to Christians or the proper age of baptism, than to reach a consensus against social evils such as corruption.    

Nigeria’s ardent religiousity is belied by its flagrant deficit in the ethics of civilizational progress. Basic principles such as the sanctity of human life and a regard for the common good remain contestable. What compounds our ethical crisis is the fact that oil wealth has given us the means to purchase the latest tools, toys and trinkets of modernity. We can afford state-of-the-art phones and automobiles but in terms of the civilized values that define societal progress, it is far from clear that we have migrated into the 20th century much less the 21st.

The religious establishment has failed to inspire the sort of hunger for righteousness and justice that has historically decommissioned sociopolitical evils, preferring instead to preach a theology of narcissistic consumerism and to forge an accord with errant power elites. Thus, a society rife with Forbes-listed billionaire clergymen is also plagued by astronomical levels of child mortality, destitution, and diseases that humanity acquired the means to conquer in the 19th century. Faith as ethical consciousness, empathic awareness and social conscience is a minority, even, contrarian tendency on our shores.   

Politics and religion have unsurprisingly become mutually reinforcing growth industries in recent decades. Were it not for spiraling youth unemployment, it is certain that our camps and crusade grounds would be less crowded by desperate Nigerians seeking by means of supplication the things that should accrue to them as citizens. Extremist clerics would definitely have less cannon fodder for their unholy missions. If our hospitals functioned optimally, fewer Nigerians would throng churches in search of miracle healings. If life was not so uncertain, pastors would not be acting as modern-day oracles divining the future for anxious followers. If Nigerians had access to social security institutions, they would assuredly be less amenable to the notion of God as a celestial ATM and allied deceptions.

Politicians create the material conditions for religious profiteers to thrive. The political elite simulate “hell” through their derelict management of dysfunctional institutions enabling uncertainty and systemic chaos to consume lives and livelihoods. The religious elite provide politicians with an exculpatory narrative that posits official failures as acts of God or as plagues of the devil from which the people must seek spiritual deliverance. Religionists are enjoined to pray for those that prey on them. The religious elite also serve to defuse the civic outrage necessary to force institutional changes by converting it into a sterile rage directed at the devil rather than at his earthly proxies. If the devil’s work is to steal, kill and destroy, then his earthly legions, readily identifiable by their larcenies, require prosecution and punishment, not prayer.

Religion can be a force for good; its transformative potential is undeniable. But it has to be rescued from the charlatans whose shenanigans could provoke the next generation unto nihilism. Our progress as a society now requires a measure of iconoclasm and irreverence. We have to reclaim our senses and spirits from the enchantments of compromised pulpits and reject propaganda dressed as prophecy. We need an intelligent spirituality that posits faith and reason as complementary rather than contradictory. A new spirit of inquiry must reinvigorate our faith, enabling us to discern phony epiphanies and question contrived “revelations”. This will necessarily involve the figurative dismantling of the shrines, temples and “anointed” personas that garrison the establishment from democratic scrutiny. Judgment must begin from the house of God. 

(All images sourced online)