By Douglas Anele
In-between are the complex cultural practices associated with religious worship. Of course, human beings exist, but the question concerning the existence of a supernatural being called God is yet to be settled finally one way or the other since no definitive proof is available on each side of the debate. Therefore, acceptance of the reality of God is a matter of belief and faith, leaving open the tantalising possibility that the supreme object of religious worship might be imaginary, although I think that the reasons for rejecting the existence of the God of religion are far stronger than arguments for belief. Before the advent of Christianity and Islam into the various indigenous communities that eventually became Nigeria, the various peoples had evolved what is generally referred to as African Traditional Religion (ATR).
The autochthonous belief systems that constitute ATR, which emerged from intimate blending of existential realities in different culture areas, were relevant to the lifestyles and experiences of the inhabitants as an instrument for coping with the complexities of human existence in a largely agrarian setting. Essential to ATR is belief in the existence of a Supreme Being or Force, a pantheon of divinities, sacrifices, rituals and festivities for propitiating the supernatural beings. In virtually every community, each version of ATR has no recognised founder; but there is a priestly class with the responsibility of ensuring that members of the community lived according to stipulations of the religion in each area. The fundamental doctrines and injunctions of ATR were not embodied in a purported revealed holy book.
Rather, they exist as a living and lived reality in the minds and hearts of indigenous peoples, being an integral component of their culture, customs, and lifestyles. Compared to the Abrahamic religions, the degree of tolerance and pragmatism in ATR is remarkable. To illustrate, in a typical village setting, it was commonplace to find a husband and wife propitiating different divinities and yet living in peace and harmony. Moreover, if a particular God or Goddess responsible for a specific need of the community (fertility and bumper harvest for example) failed to perform up to expectation, the villagers would gather the physical symbols of that divinity outside the village and destroy them. However, like other religions ATR is conservative, and permitted some inhuman practices. It did not encourage the spirit of free critical inquiry, which is fundamental to social transformation and scientific progress.
As time went on, widespread acceptance of Islam and Christianity caused marginalisation of indigenous religions, to the extent that the threat of extinction in future is a real possibility. One of the most significant events in the history of Nigeria was the spread of Islam. When the rulers of ancient Kanem-Bornu accepted the religion in the 11th century, and centuries later Fulani immigrants spearheaded by Usman Dan Fodio launched a jihad that established the Sokoto Caliphate in 1812, Nigeria as a single geopolitical and economic unity did not exist.
Similarly, Christianity predated Nigeria. It is interesting to note that two the foreign Abrahamic religions mentioned above within a relatively short period dislodged traditional religions, which had existed for thousands of years and were rooted in the cultures and traditions of the people. In my opinion, the reason is not due to the inherent superiority or higher spiritual merit of Christianity and Islam. Indeed, in some essential respects, particularly its nonproselytising character and accommodation of other faiths, ATR is preferable to Islam and Christianity. Both religions are inherently proselytising and have a voracious appetite for new converts.
Numerous passages In The Holy Koran and The Holy Bible encourage believers to convert nonbelievers, with promises of fantastic reward in the hereafter. Islam explicitly recommends jihad or holy war as a legitimate, Allah-approved means of bringing infidels into Islam, whereas Christianity wholeheartedly endorses door-to-door preaching to woo non-Christians, although its adherents sometimes employ crude force to achieve religious ends.
Additionally, in any community where the ruling elite accept Islam or Christianity, the leaders use both persuasion and coercion to instil the religion in the population. Therefore, the two foreign religions are dominant in Nigeria not because they are better than the religions of our ancestors but principally because of their domineering, aggressive and missionary character. Without any scintilla of doubt, Christianity and Islam have had tremendous impact on individuals and on the country generally. For instance, introduction of modern education by Christian missionaries, which constituted an integral part of British colonisation of Nigeria, was critical to the evolution of Nigeria as we know it today. Thus, it is virtually impossible to overrate the centrality of Western-style formal education in all aspects of Nigerian history since the establishment of C.M.S. Grammar School, Lagos, in 1859.
Furthermore, Christian missionaries contributed immensely in bringing improved healthcare to the people. Acceptance of Islam and Christianity led to the gradual abandonment of some harmful cultural practices like human sacrifice, killing of twins, and burial of kings and other dignitaries with living human beings. Of course, the two religions provided a somewhat attractive eschatology, moral code and worldviews, which enable millions of Nigerians to organise their daily lives and prepare mentally for the future. Perhaps, the threat of everlasting hellfire and promise of eternal bliss in heaven might have helped some believers to lead decent lives.
On the economic front, brazen commercialisation and expansion of religion, especially Christianity, provides employment for thousands of unemployed Nigerians. Yet, inspite of all this, I am convinced that overall Islam and Christianity are detrimental to the emergence of a strong, virile and morally decent Nigerian society. To begin with, the widespread belief among Christians and Muslims that strict adherence to their various faiths can solve Nigeria’s hydra headed problems is a dangerous mistake arising from fear of divine punishment. It misleads people whose thinking might otherwise be fruitful and, as a result, stands in the way of reasonable solutions to our developmental problems.
Consider the fact that there are churches and mosques in all government houses throughout the country, including Aso Rock villa, and still our leaders have continued to perform far below expectation. Hence, the question arises: to what extent has the obvious religiosity of Nigerian leaders manifested positively in their activities while in office? The answer is simple – negligible.
Since the civil war ended in January 1970 until date, the quality of political leadership has dwindled to the extent that Nigeria has become the Jerusalem of corruption. All the military dictators and civilians that have ruled Nigeria are Muslims and Christians. Still, despite their public show of piety, with the possible exception of Muhammadu Buhari, they exploited the opportunity for self-enrichment with impunity. Clearly, President Goodfluck Jonathan is a devout Christian, and his recent pilgrimage to Jerusalem is a ringing testimony that he does not joke with his faith.
However, I wonder whether his personal conduct and the behaviour of members of his family and cabinet really exemplify the kind of healthy disdain for material possessions that Jesus of Nazareth extolled and practiced, according to the gospel narratives. To be continued.