Is Religion Doing More Harm Than Good in Africa?

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After decades of civil war, conflict and bloodshed in Africa and the recent abduction of 200 girls from a boarding school by Boko Haram a militant Islamist group in Nigeria, there is often plenty of blame and finger pointing following these unfortunate events. What is often downplayed is the primary culprit- Religion.

In the grand scheme of things, religion is not the only institution responsible for loss of life and misery on the continent. One could list a litany of culprits that include tribalism, political ideology, power hungry leaders, female anopheles mosquito, and the HIV virus among others. However, unlike most of the above entities, religion subscribes to a supernatural being that can’t be questioned, tamed or voted out of office.

Before the push back gets into full mode, it’s important to highlight that religion can also uplift and inspire people to do great things for the benefit of mankind. In fact if any society needs a miracle or something to believe in beyond the earthly suffering, corruption, dictatorship, poverty, hopelessness—then Africa would indeed be the subject in that parable of the disenfranchised.

However, it’s also no secret that religion can be used as a force of evil. In the history of mankind, religion ranks as one of the top catalysts for conflict and bloodshed. In Africa, this reality is evident from the suffering civilians endured in Sudan, numerous bombings, kidnappings in Nigeria, sacrificial burning to death in Uganda of over 1000 people belonging to a religious cult- ‘Movement for Restoration of the Ten Commandments’, the notorious Kony’s ‘Lord’s Resistance Army’- among other massacres.

It would be simplistic to argue that the image of religion is tarnished by a few extremists. In fact tyranny of the believers continues to creep into the philosophy and actions of Africa’s policy makers. Extreme religious views don’t originate from a vacuum but often at the pulpit where the seeds of hate and divisiveness are usually sowed. Masses congregating to graze on the holly pastures are often assisted by the shepherds to identify the ungodly and evil wolves unworthy of a place in our society. These seeds of hate often germinate into extremism to the point of justifying the necessity to cleanse, purify or even kill in the name of religion.

What is fascinating about the tragedies in Africa is the notion that the major religions currently tearing our societies apart were introduced by missionaries and explorers. This is not an endorsement of a return to African traditional religions some of which also had elements of human sacrifice but rather a reality check that harm can be done when we impose our views and beliefs on others. A lawmaker in Africa passing legislation and policies rooted in the scriptures is as harmful to the populace as the Boko Haram militants kidnapping   200 school children. Such policies likewise hold hostage millions of civilians who don’t subscribe to those beliefs.

It is imperative that as a society we cultivate a spirit that accepts people who have different views, beliefs and practice a different set of faith. If you knock on someone’s door and they don’t open, there is no mandate to break in. Likewise evangelism or jihad which is an important aspect of many religious groups should not extend towards policy that infringes on the rights and freedoms of a diverse group of people. It is high time we agreed to live in a secular society if we intend to realistically have a shot at sustainable peace. Leave thy neighbor who doesn’t want to be bothered by thyself.

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