Towards Religious Reformation in Africa
The world urgently needs a religious reformation to tackle religious extremism and harmful faith beliefs and practices. Africa is in a unique position to make this happen. But will the continent rise to the occasion?
African religious landscape is undergoing changes-very rapid changes. These changes include adjustments in the modes of worship, in the forms, places, and personalities that are revered. But the transformations in the African religious situation took a dramatic turn - a more global dimension following the advent of Christian and Islamic missionaries. These religious agents tried to replace and substitute indigenous religions with western and eastern faiths. Centuries of proselytization, which included persistent and unrelenting demonization and ‘idolization’ of indigenous religions, have turned the region into a stronghold of Christianity and Islam. These foreign religions have become the dominant faiths, and account for the highest number of adherents, whilst the indigenous faiths and practices have been consigned to the margins.
Religion as a tool to “Civilize” Africans
Unfortunately, the spread of Christianity and Islam has not delivered the promised development and civilization. The continent remains the poorest in the world, and life expectancy in the region is the lowest. Unemployment, diseases, hunger, and illiteracy are endemic challenges that seem as if they may never go away at least for now. So the self-styled civilizing mission of these foreign religions has remained a hocus-pocus, a mirage. In fact, the civilizing mission has so far been a failed mission, or rather a pretext for further subjugation, domination, exploitation, and dehumanization of Africa.
The real tragedy is not that foreign religions are growing in Africa or that these faiths have added to the region’s currents of superstition, dogma, and irrationalism. No, not at all. The real tragedy is that Africans have become the champions and peddlers of these religious orthodoxies.
Get rich schemes
In fact, recent developments in the African religious sectors clearly attest to the dark and destructive effects of these religions on the continent. For instance, in parts of Africa where Christianity is dominant, priests and pastors have used Christian teachings to exploit and manipulate the people. Clerics have sprayed insecticide on members or compelled them to eat grass or to take harmful substances in the course of faith healing or ministrations. Pastors have extorted money from members in the name of tithe and used donations to promote the “work of God” to fund their extravagant lifestyles. A few African pastors have become so rich to the point that they have purchased private jets and established their private business empires.
In addition, many pastors are at the forefront of the contemporary witch hunts in the region. Charismatic Christian preachers have caused division, hatred, and conflict in families and communities including organizing prayer sessions where they attribute diseases, accidents and other forms of misfortune to the occult machinations of family members. Pastors have continued to endanger the environment. They arbitrarily cut down trees and destroy forest areas including the groves that indigenous religious worshippers use, claiming that these places are the abodes of the evil spirits. That occult forces use them as their operational base.
Enemies of Progress?
In addition to opposing the recognition of gay rights and same-sex marriage, Christian establishments have frustrated efforts to uphold the reproductive rights of women and any initiatives to make abortion safe and legal. Churches have discouraged the teaching of evolution in schools. And those who question or criticize the positions of the church are often subjected overt as well as covert persecution and victimization.
But the situation is worse in areas where Islam is the dominant religion. Jihadists, traders and scholars introduced Islam to Africa. They used commerce, Quran education, and violence to promote the religion and to convert Africans at various times and places. As in the case of the 1804 Jihad of Sheikh Uthman Dan Fodio, Muslim jihadists killed Africans who professed other religions or those who refused to embrace Islam. In most places where Muslims are in the majority, de facto or de jure sharia law is in force and adherents of other faiths or none are forced to live in accordance with the sharia law. This religious climate has provided a breeding ground for religious extremism and the emergence of jihadist groups such as Boko Haram in Nigeria, al Shabab in the east and the Horn of Africa, and their counterparts in Mali, Algeria, and Tunisia. While these militant organizations have targeted and killed Europeans or Americans, most of their victims are Africans. In fact, Boko Haram militants have killed mainly Nigerians including kidnapping schoolgirls. In Northern Nigeria, Christians as well as Muslims have lost their lives in recurrent religious bloodletting in the region. Non-Muslims have been beheaded or lynched for blasphemy or for desecrating the Quran, for insulting Allah or out of anger over the cartoon of Prophet Muhammad in Denmark. Muslim minorities have suffered systemic abuse and persecution.
So, the African continent finds itself at a crucial point in history where the indigenous, Christian and Islam religious Africa tyrannize over the lives of Africans. Religion is literally holding African emergence, emancipation and enlightenment hostage. And the continent is in urgent need of a religious reformation.
Historically, religious reformation alludes to the movement that Martin Luther led which questioned, criticized and protested the teachings and practices of the Catholic Church and the entire western Christianity. As in the case of the reformation in the 17th century Europe, religious reformation in contemporary Africa will target the excesses and extremes of religious establishments. Religious reformers will get various religious organizations to abolish and abandon inhuman, anti-human rights positions and practices. Unlike the Reformation in Europe, religious reformation in Africa will not focus only on Christianity but also on Islam, Indigenous religions, Hinduism and other faith orthodoxies.
Why does Africa need a religious reformation?
At a time when allegations of Islamophobia and racism are used to shut down important debates and critical examination of Islamic religious claims and other traditional and cultural beliefs and practices, the world needs a religious reformation in Africa to highlight the extremisms of Islam and of other religious and cultural establishments in the region. Africans needs a movement that openly questions religious teachings, highlights their oppressive tendencies, their humanly degrading treatments and positions. A reformation will help expose religious absurdities that fuel extremisms and the misconceptions that clerics use to often misinform, mislead and exploit Africans.
Bio: Leo Igwe is both a scholar and an activist. He holds a doctoral degree in religious studies from the University of Bayreuth in Germany. Before embarking on the study of religion, Igwe founded the Nigerian Humanist Movement and worked for some years for the International Humanist and Ethical Union in the UK and the Center for Inquiry in the US. His is currently a guest lecturer at the University of Applied Sciences in Munich, Germany. Find his TED TALK here