Being Deeply Religious is No Panacea

I want to pose a question on what is seemingly an untouchable subject in our society. I decided to do so after I read a survey on Global Attitudes 2015, conducted by the Pew Research Center. It looked into how people around the world feel about religion. Interestingly, Ethiopia is ranked first with an astounding 98pc of us considering religion a very important part of our life.

I kept asking myself if this is something we should cherish or be worried about.

What does this mean to us as society? What are its ramifications?

Indeed, we are an ancient society with a glorious history. We are the birthplace of humankind, and a source of the Blue Nile, which was the basis for the great civilization of mankind the Egyptian civilization. We are the original home of coffee. We are the only African country with our own alphabet, as we are among few countries in the world mentioned both in the Bible and Quran in more than 50 instances. We are a country that practised Christianity before Europeans, and accepted Islam before most countries in the Middle East. We are the first African country to have won an Olympics gold medal, and were never colonized because we defeated the Europeans.

There is nothing more glamorous than this to celebrate and be proud of as Ethiopians. Behind this magnificent history existed great individuals, leaders, religious institutions and patriotic people. We should say, Thank you!

We are a deeply religious people who embraced the most significant monolithic religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – from time immemorial. Religion has crafted our collective psyche and has greatly influenced our way of life for millennia. As a society or at a personal level, our beliefs and value systems, our attitudes and general behaviour as well as demeanour are deeply anchored in our religious beliefs. No wonder we got top ranking in the Pew survey.

Yes, it is human to search for a greater force when the world fails to give us answers for our questions; or solutions to our problems. Religion is a means for our spiritual connection with our Deity. In our sorrow as in our joy, this connection gives us hope, optimism and comfort. It also fosters togetherness in groups. Even science has proved religious and spiritual beliefs have significant impact on the health outcomes of cancer patients, for instance.

It even goes beyond that. There is historical evidence that religion, lifting up peoples’ determination, contributed to their salvation and independence. The best example for this is the Civil Rights Movement in which African-Americans used their faith and religion to fight discrimination and racism in the United States. Their church was not only a place for spiritual healing, but also a foundation for social and political activism.

On the flip side of this, however, those who abhor religion see it as a manacle on humanity impeding mankind from achieving its maximum potential by muffling human aspirations, nurturing apathy and inhibiting rational thinking and the practise of scientific methods. They also allege that when problems arise in personal life or society, religion tends to encourage people to seek divine intervention rather than using human intellect and capabilities to tackle it.

Call them creationists, adaptationists, atheists, Darwinians or evolutionary psychologists, they all reject the importance of religion for humanity. The renowned creationist and dyed-in-the-wool atheist, Richard Dawkins (PhD) wrote this in his Twitter page: Faith is a great cop-out, the great excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence. Faith is belief in spite of, even perhaps because of, the lack of evidence. Religion is about turning untested belief into unshakable truth through the power of institutions and the passage of time.

I do not intend to reinvigorate or bring back the age-old debate. I would rather leave it here and focus on the Pew Research Center’s survey and its implications for us.

Why are most of the countries at the top of the list among the least developed countries in the world? And why are those at the bottom the most advanced? How are we better off by being a deeply religious society? Although being religious necessarily may not mean disciplined and morally upright, does this negatively affect us in building a productive, disciplined and morally upright society? Does it affect our work culture and the zeal for change and improvement as individual or society? And more boldly, is religion the major culprit for the state we are in; that is absolute poverty?

Sociologists and social psychologists need to get to the bottom of this and help us understand.

I hope and pray that my students will be passionate about life-embracing vibrancy, discipline and pragmatism to live a fulfilled life. I am also hopeful they see our state of destitution and misery with deep resentment and anger to find the panacea through hard work, self-discipline and perseverance. For this, God help us all.

By Antensay Tafesse
Antensay Tafesse owns and runs a private school in Addis Abeba.

Published on Apr 05,2016 [ Vol 16 ,No 831]



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