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Why are we ‘notoriously religious’?

Rescue workers search for survivors at TB Joshua's church guest house. REUTERS/Akintunde Akinleye

Rescue workers search for survivors at TB Joshua's church guest house. REUTERS/Akintunde Akinleye

Published Sep 28, 2014

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It may be opportune for those who hold religious beliefs to also conduct critical reflection, writes Console Tleane.

‘African people are notoriously religious (and) religion permeates into all the departments of life so that it is not easy or possible to isolate it.”

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These words, written in 1969 by Kenyan philosopher and Anglican priest John Mbiti in his seminal book African Religions and Philosophy, were to inspire a crop of young people in South Africa who embarked on a journey to understand the religiosity of black people. Barney Pityana was to adapt the words and wrote in 1971 that “black people are notoriously religious”.

Unlike Mbiti, Pityana and his black consciousness movement comrades at the time did not so much seek to provide a defence for African traditional beliefs, even though that was also important for them.

Instead, they sought to turn the tide against how Christianity in particular was used as an instrument of oppression.

For them, some elements of the Christian belief system could be turned into liberatory tools.

Inspired by the African-American theologian James Cone’s black theology, and later the Latin American liberation theology pioneers like Leonardo Boff, Gustavo Gutierrez, Jon Sobrino and Juan Segundo, there emerged a unique South African blend of a theology of liberation.

Two strands were to crystallise – contextual theology, adopting the Freedom Charter-inspired political strand, and the black consciousness-inspired black theology.

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Progressive interpretations of Christianity were provided.

Unfortunately, for a long time the voices lacking were those of feminist theologians.

It is against this background that we have to pause and ask some questions about what attracts many people to some manifestations of religious beliefs.

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In the case of South Africa such beliefs would, by sheer statistics, mainly be Christian. In other parts of the world it could be Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism or any other organised religions.

So, how should we understand the huge following that men like TB Joshua command?

An examination of the events that surround the tragic and heart-wrenching Lagos incident, and other related phenomena where the faith of those attached to particular churches defies the understanding of some commentators, may require a reflection on some aspects of the evolution of the Christian church.

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With the European reformation taking root from the 1500s, the church had to shed its imperial and aristocratic trappings, and return to what is regarded by many as the main base for the belief system – the scriptures.

As if to reverse the gains of the reformation, the alliance between the church and colonialism cast the system to some form of backwardness. Power and privilege, facilitated through conquest, were remoulded into the church.

Fast forward to the 1960s and early ’70s when the mainly mainstream/mainline churches refashioned themselves again, with some theologians adopting liberatory interpretations of the scriptures.

Thus the church became the defender of the poor.

At the same time as the mainline churches were reflecting on their practice and largely adopting a socially sensitive interpretation of the scriptures, there emerged a new phenomenon, crystallising during the 1960s and carrying on to date.

Two strands would emerge out of that. The first would be the charismatic phenomenon, in certain instances having the trappings of fundamentalism.

This would be strengthened and popularised through what would become known as televangelism, that is, the use of television to reach wider audiences.

While it would be wrong to generalise on this emergent phenomenon, which has powerful and good elements of spiritual revival and genuine faith, it is also true that some variants of this new movement would give rise to disturbing tendencies of what is known as prosperity Christianity.

Simply put, this is the belief that dedicated submission to God will lead to financial prosperity.

No need to highlight the point that the related danger with this approach is that the poor may blame themselves for not being faithful and prayerful enough if they do not achieve the promised prosperity.

The other disturbing phenomenon that emerged was the rise of cults. These would be characterised by illogical, obedient and at times blind following of a leader.

In some cases the result of such phenomena would be tragic.

Examples include the well-documented case of Jim Jones in Guyana, where 909 of his followers committed mass suicide by drinking cyanide in 1978, following his instructions.

Another was David Koresh, who died with 75 of his followers after a violent stand-off with US federal law enforcement agencies.

Over the years the Marxist description of religion being the “opium of the masses” remained the dominant way in which many commentators attempted to understand what may be regarded as undying faith in a particular leader, such as TB Joshua.

This characterisation is however limited in its ability to explain why it is not just poor people who profess belief in the ability of a fellow human being to possess powers to perform miracles.

Otherwise we would not have rich, educated and powerful people also seeking intercessions by the likes of Joshua.

It does seem there are two main factors that have created fertile ground for the growth of the latest phenomenon in the Christian faith in particular. The first remains socioeconomic. The second can be said to be psychosocial.

With regards to socioeconomic factors it remains an observable fact that many poor people would still turn to religion in the hope that they may receive amelioration from their hardships.

Instead of educating the poor that their condition is human-made – the result of the capitalist system of exploitation and greed – some religious leaders still play on the emotions of the poor; promising them that their faith only will take them out of poverty.

The second factor, which can be observed across all social classes, is the resort to religion with the hope that the hardships caused by today’s stresses can only be solved through deferment to God.

It is true that change of lifestyle, reflection and taking time off from our hectic schedules is beneficial.

What is however not problematised is the failure to also address the root causes of our stresses, and simply defer everything to a higher authority.

What is even more worrying is that cultic practices, which deliberately misinterpret the scriptures and are built around personalities, and prosperity beliefs, have become pervasive.

As we continue to mourn for the dead countrymen and -women, and hold our hearts out for those injured, and their families, it may be opportune for those who hold any form of religious belief to also conduct critical reflection.

As Mbiti puts it, religion will continue to permeate into all the departments of life. Yet, there is a need to start developing critical faculties against blind belief, and balance that with rational and critical rigour. In that way, fellow human beings like Joshua will have to be held to account, especially against the backdrop of the tragic loss of lives, and not be allowed to conduct business as usual.

This will mean the faithful will have to refuse to divorce reason and the ability to question, from believing. It may be that the critical tools developed during the reformation, which are rationality and criticism, and those learnt in the Latin American context, and our own context, which are concientisation and learning to question (apologies to Paulo Freire), need to be re-infused into “all departments of life”, including belief systems.

As some would put it, it means “taking the beliefs and values of Christianity and weaving them into the fabric of our lives”, while refusing to separate “the sacred from the secular; the head from the heart”.

* Console Tleane is a PhD (Sociology) candidate at the University of Cape Town.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.

Sunday Independent

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