Apart from direct dangers to the mental and physical well-being of individuals, the two dominant religions in Nigeria tend to engender hatred, division and enmity in families, villages, towns, states and the country as a whole.
One of the major reasons for religious violence and intolerance in Nigeria and other countries of the world where Muslims and Christians engage in a ferocious battle for supremacy are explicit approval of violence by some of the most significant personages in the scriptures. Consider, for example, the statements attributed to Jesus of Nazareth in Matthew 10:35-37: “Think not that I am come to send peace on earth; I came not to send peace, but a sword. For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law.
And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household.” Now, because editors, for obvious reasons, are pusillanimous in publishing any passage that might enrage Islamic fundamentalists, I refer anyone reading this essay to Sam Harris’ highly informative book, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason, for copious quotations in the Holy Koran which explicitly recommend violence by believers against so-called infidels. Another point of concern is the way in which religious doctrines are held by the devout.
For a typical Christian or Muslim, prescriptions and prohibitions contained in the ‘holy’ scriptures are accepted as sacred and inviolable truth, to doubt which is sin deserving of the severest punishment. Islamic fundamentalism, currently spearheaded by Boko Haram in Nigeria, has caused incalculable damage through wanton destruction of lives and property. One only needs to try to figure out in quantifiable economic terms the amount of money wasted from the very first time religious violence reared its ugly head in the country until the present time to appreciate the enormity of the loss.
Of course, it is very easy to ignore the huge opportunity cost with respect to the considerable expanse of land either occupied by churches and mosques or devoted to worship-related activities. Put more concretely, if the land space devoted to religious activities throughout the country are used for farming, industrial and manufacturing complexes, housing estates and other more rewarding nonreligious undertakings, the multiplier effects on national development in terms of employment, wealth creation and productivity would be enormous. In addition, the amount of person-hours Nigerians spend on religion-related programmes and activities is a drain on productive human capital. Whenever there is a religious activity during working hours from Monday to Friday, one must consider the wealth creation opportunities wasted in propitiating a God.
The opportunities referred to above, if translated into their financial equivalent, would be over a trillion naira or more annually.
Since genuine national development is dependent on intellectual, emotional and spiritual enlightenment, there are certain despicable qualities of mind that uncritical devotion to religious teachings promotes, which militate against enlightenment. We have already alluded to religion-induced cognitive dissonance and disconnection of the devout from reality with bogus promises of providential intervention at some indefinite point in time. Now, we wish to address the dangers inherent in the negation and neglect of scientific reasonableness concomitant with religious orthodoxy.
Science is a complex human activity whose two legs stand on the foundation of theoretical reasoning and rigorous experimentation. The preeminent philosophical underpinning of scientific reasoning is that accepted beliefs must be based on sound reasoning and evidence. Therefore, the ultimate authority in science is the tribunal of reason and experience, not some ancient literature purportedly revealed to a select few or prophet. The difference between the critical, open-ended nature of science, on one hand, and the emotional dogmatic character of religion, on the other, may seem relatively academic and unimportant, until one tries to apply the different approaches in real life situations.
In Nigeria, despite the marvellous achievements of modern medicine, mentally disorganised religious leaders still believe that mere prayers and drinking of “holy water” and “anointed oil” can cure all diseases. The result of that antediluvian practice is thousands of undocumented deaths across the country. In the quotidian details of our daily lives, it makes all the difference if we approach issues with the critical attitude of science or the dogmatic attitude of religion. The one we adopt determines the way we see and interact with the world and with fellow human beings.
I am convinced that unless a sizeable number of Nigerians step away from religious orthodoxy, or at least cultivate a healthy dose of scepticism towards religion, it would be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for the country to wiriness positive transformation in the foreseeable future. People might be deceived by studies which indicate that majority of the population in some developed countries, such as the United States, profess one faith or another, or that atheists and agnostics are in the minority. However, appearances can be deceptive. In the Western world, religious orthodoxy has continued to decline. In any case, although American leaders are Christians, they make decisions on issues of national importance based not on biblical injunctions but on strategic calculation of what is in America’s best interests.
That is why President Barack Obama consulted the best professionals in the field before making the crucial decision to go after Osama bin Laden in Pakistan rather than invite pastors to pray over the matter. In Nigeria, instead of the federal government telling Nigerians the truth about late President Umaru Yar’Adua’s health, it preferred to invite selected members of the clergy to do a stage-managed visitation exercise! To be candid, the extent Nigerians have surrendered completely to Christianity and Islam does not give me much hope in a brighter future. That the world, and Nigeria especially, is in bad shape right now cannot be denied, but I do not see any iota of reason to believe that religions offers a way out. In my view, our problems as a people have sprung, first, from the duplicitous policies of the colonial master, Britain, which sowed the seeds of ethnic rivalry and entrenchment of mediocrity in the political and economic management of the country. Second, our political leaders who inherited power at independence and beyond failed to rise above narrow selfish and sectional interests to build a virile, strong, prosperous and egalitarian society.
The problem has been exacerbated by the unrestricted expansion of hollow religious consciousness, which discourages the scientific attitude and approach to issues of critical national importance. Consequently, continuation of infantile reliance on religion will not lead us to the ‘Promised Land’. What the country needs is scientific reasonableness, tolerance, and a realisation of the interdependence of the various ethnic nationalities in a fair and just federation (or confederation). We can harness the incredible opportunities offered by contemporary technology, combined with a kindly and tolerant attitude to our neighbours, to forge a solid nation. To paraphrase Bertrand Russell, religion, it ought to be said, is one of the causes of our troubles; but it is not sinking deeper into religion that will cure them. Only more and wiser intelligence can heal Nigeria.