On Religion

26 05 2009

Storm cloudsA striking difference between the UK and Ghana is the pervasiveness of faith and religion. Almost everyone here believes in an active way; churches and mosques are full and traditional worshippers follow the traditional rites. And people take it seriously, I’ve met individuals who’ve converted from Christianity to Islam and vice-versa. Most taxis and lorries will have a religious slogan on the rear window and often will have a crucifix or Koranic texts glued to the dashboard. I see colleagues writing up church notes in their spare time and my Islamic colleagues break for prayers three times during the working day. Gospel songs are routinely played on the radio and television and on Sunday evenings local spots may have their radios tuned to sermons. Churches even advertise on the radio. Throughout the day the call to prayer sounds across the town and on Sundays church bells can be heard, often followed by the sound of enthusiastic worship. “God willing” or “Thank God” are habitually added (with conviction) to explanations or plans. It is assumed that you’ll have some belief, and as long as you do that’s OK. A great thing here is the acceptance of other faiths, when we have a meeting if the opening prayer is made by a Muslim the closing will be made by a Christian, and there are almost always opening and closing prayers. The only system of thought that isn’t really acceptable is probably atheism. The contrast with apathetic, agnostic Britain could hardly be more stark.

My personal response to this is complex. I grew up in a strongly evangelical Christian family and my mother and other close members of my family are still actively involved in their faith. While I respect their choices I no longer feel able to answer with an honest yes to the question “Do you believe?”, and I have too much respect for the principles of my upbringing to lie. I’m extremely grateful for the values I learnt, but after much thought and consideration I’ve come to a place where I feel that the balance of probabilities is that there is no God, and what is more I realise that I don’t actually believe. For a long time I wanted there to be a loving God and I wished I could believe, but I felt a fraud and a liar attending church and mouthing things I wasn’t convinced of, so being in a deeply religious country is a bit of a challenge. Not a challenge to my lack of faith – I don’t feel the need to defend it and in fact am open to evidence that would change my mind – but a challenge to know how to treat my colleagues with respect without lying, upsetting them or being drawn into pointless debates. Some volunteers treat attending a church here as a cultural outing, equivalent to the enstooling of a chief or even a perhaps a traditional dance, something to be watched and enjoyed. I’m deeply uncomfortable with this response, people’s faith isn’t entertainment but something core to them and to be respected.

My impression (and it is only an impression and after a relatively short while) is that the effect of all this faith is mixed. There are some very positive results, some negative and some which are neutral. Faith and the ecumenicism here provide something of a social glue and identity to a country that has incredible linguistic and cultural diversity. Denominational structures can be more effective ways of disseminating social messages than the state bureaucracy. Churches and mosques provide social venues for their members and organised activities for youth in a country largely without things like television, cinema or theatre. Religious groups (foreign and domestic) are active in work to alleviate poverty. Religion provides a strong moral framework and sense of identity and for people with little control over many aspects of their lives. The panglossian idea that since God is in charge whatever happens must be for the best in the long run is comforting. Faith brings comfort, hope and social interaction.

The most obviously negative aspect of all this spirituality is the belief in witchcraft. People (including children) are murdered here and women are expelled from their communities as a result of accusations of witchcraft. Often women accused of witchcraft are left destitute and a charity has established a community near Bolga where about 200 “witches” are able to live. Many unexplained misfortunes are blamed on witchcraft and I’ve talked to graduates who firmly believe that it can be used to kill. The mentally ill can be unfortunate victims of this type of belief (this is not a nice place to suffer from mental illness).

Other negative aspects include an inappropriate level of faith; students who think attending prayer meetings will be more effective than revising or motorcyclists who think religious texts or charms will provide better protection than crash helmets. There can be a frustrating fatalism where people say “it’s in God’s hands” or “God’s will” when they’re capable of using the skills and talents that they’ve been given to take control of their own future. The willingness to attribute misfortune to spiritual causes rather than look for more mundane reasons may prevent people finding practical solutions.

There is also the issue of the poor being asked to donate part of their wealth to the church or mosque. I realise this is a complex issue, that the act of giving is in itself an act of worship and important to the individual. I also realise that if the religious institutions are going to continue performing their function they need funding. What concerns me are the stories of people being bullied to give, with promises of wealth in return for giving. Even worse is the radio advert I heard today urging people to buy a pastor’s “blessed” oil on the grounds it could save your marriage or business. While the majority of religious leaders aredecent, caring people I fear it’s too easy here for charlatans to exploit the desperation of the poorest for their own ends.

[This post has been a difficult one to write for many reasons, but I felt it was an important issue. I hope that I haven’t said anything to offend anyone, it isn’t my intention to attack legitimate faith, and I apologise if I have]

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7 responses

26 05 2009
ourman

Tim,

I think it is a wonderful post – I think I pretty much agree with all of it. Although I have some further issues with those people coming from other countries to preach.

Like you I’m saving it till the end – though much of the issues I have with religion here I have with the religious at home too.

There is certainly a part of me that believes that leaving behind religion is a step that countries take as part of their development.

As a non believer, the ultimate aims of black magic and christianity may be very different but both seem just as fantastical to me.

There’s another point too – I can’t speak for Ghana but I don’t go a day without bumping into another missionary’s blog on line. Well, Cameroon religion seems much like that in Ghana – everyone has it – and everyone has it passionately. If missionaries are really interested in saving souls and converting then perhaps they should concentrate their efforts in their own less religious countries. The fact that they don’t makes you ask some uncomfortable questions on why they are here and not there.

But, in the interests of balance, it should be pointed out that there are many many deeply religious people here doing great work in the name of their God.

I’d personally like to draw a line between those coming to “plant” churches and provide bibles and those who want to care for the sick or improve education.

In my experience it’s the latter who give their time more humbly and for a great deal longer.

26 05 2009
minxlj

A thoroughly excellent post, thank you for sharing it. As a fellow atheist I’m disheartened to read how much it is distrusted in some countries, especially in places that respect other faiths.

In my view, my atheist ‘lack of belief’ is not that, but instead it is an actual belief – a belief in MYSELF, in PEOPLE and in nature/our planet. I don’t require a ‘god’ to find my moral compass and I don’t need one to see how amazing and precious life is. I agree with Steve in that religion is something countries leave behind, and just as distrust of minorities has disappeared in many places, so will distrust of anyone choosing not to need religion in their lives.

Religious groups and charities can do some great work, and I hope they will continue to do so…perhaps one day they can do so with a view to allowing people to construct and develop their own lives, their own strengths, and their own moral values without requiring some abstract deity to underpin it all :)

26 05 2009
Mark

Thanks Tim for taking the time to write down your thoughts in a sensitive but thought provoking way.

As a British Christian who has lived in East Africa I can identify with pretty much all of the observations that you make about the church in Ghana. I personally think that there is a lot that the “western” church can learn from believers in Africa, but also many weaknesses of the church in Africa that don’t portray Christianity in a good light. I guess, as with anything, it’s a lot easier to spot these strengths and weaknesses when you’re observing a totally different culture than it is when you’re in your own.

@ourman I think cross-cultural missionaries make a lot of mistakes, the biggest of which is often assuming that they are going to “do” and “teach” rather than being open to learning from the communities they’re working with too.

I would see the model for missionary work in already quite Christian countries (like Ghana and Cameroon) as expats coming alongside the local church, learning from them, and giving expertise in areas where they do have strengths (maybe education, health, some aspects of Christian teaching).

I personally believe that the worldwide church (and in fact any international organistion) benefits hugely from the combined wisdom and insight of people of vastly different cultures and worldviews working together, all bringing their own strengths and unique perspectives. (Of course, as we all know cross-cultural work can be extremely difficult, as you’re constantly aware of and frustrated by the weaknesses of others who are very different to yourself!)

26 05 2009
Liz

Thanks for this post Tim. It really resonates with my experiences in Uganda.

To the damaging effects of religion I would add repressive attitudes towards homosexuality (and sexuality more generally). I wonder if you saw ActionAid’s recent report on the practice of so-called “corrective” rape in South Africa http://bit.ly/DdXt or the video produced by the Guardian http://bit.ly/16Iqsb. Not that I am suggesting for a moment that religious faith causes this kind of behaviour, but that this is the most extreme expression of commonly held attitudes towards homosexuality that too often seek justification on religious grounds.

Also @ourman (on your comments about Northern missionaries in many African countires) – as one collegue put it – “it’s like taking a shot at an open goal”…
As you say, however, there are different types of “missionary”, and many people are making huge sacrifices and doing wonderful work in the name of faith.

26 05 2009
K. Appiah

Tim you seem to argue as follows – at one point anyway – spirituality breeds belief in witchcraft (“the most obviously negative aspect of all this spirituality is the belief in witchcraft”). I think most religionists would argue the belief in witchcraft precedes true spirituality. Of course to someone who do not think much of religion, religious beliefs and believing in witchcraft are all aspects of the same thing, ignorance and superstition.
Some say the practice of religion in African today is an offshoot of traditional practices. The total commitment of soul and body to God is no different than that which was expected of the individual by the gods of old. There could be some truth to that. No culture completely adopts wholesale the practices of another. Same way European Christianity is am amalgam of Jewish practices and old European paganism. And thanks to Emperor Constantin, Christianity even became an instrument of state power, just like the Roman gods were during the Republican and Emperor days. As far as I can tell what is going on the field of religion in Africa is no different from what happened in Europe prior to the reformation. Pick up the books written before that time and you would sense what I am talking about.
To have an audience without a scrape of knowledge about the history of the church in the last 2000 years and a disposition towards believing in a preordained world! Ah, what missionary wouldn’t salivate over that! You might sneer all you want to as a non-believer. But look at the alternative. Without an educational system that teaches people to be self-reliant and find sustenance in life-affirming actions and beliefs; without an economy that could sustain such an educational system;……. I shudder to think of what people would do when they have TVs and the internet to inform them how their lives could be better, and yet lack the means to actively do anything to better themselves. Ready recruit for anything, I would say.
So it appears – in my view anyway – for the immediate future the system in place ought to stay. It is the actions of people like you – non-believing and yet ‘godly’ actors – that would help chip away at the rough edges of the ‘system’.

27 05 2009
Tim Little

Thanks everyone for the comments.

@ourman – I haven’t really had much interaction with missionaries.

K. Appiah – I’m sorry if you felt I was sneering, that was far from my intention. I’m also sorry that I wasn’t clear, I’m not suggesting that spirituality breeds witchcraft but that witchcraft is an aspect of spirituality.

While I do think there are problems and drawbacks with religion it is an integral part of life here and I think Ghana would lose something if it became less religious.

27 05 2009
K. Appiah

Tim, the ‘you’ actually was not a reference to you. I meant the universal ‘you’. I should have been more expansive, I know. If I did you would have realized we both are of the same mind on the issue.

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