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Religion without moral values

“My mother took me to a herbalist who told me if I want to be successful in the yahoo business, I will have to sacrifice…

My mother took me to a herbalist who told me if I want to be successful in the yahoo business, I will have to sacrifice one life and that person must be a sibling to me. So, we went back home and thought about it, then my mother suggested that we use my younger brother since he is just 21 years old”. Those are the reported words of a 32-year-old man, who, together with his own mother, connived to kill a sibling in a money ritual in Lagos.

The reader must have read, with alarming regularity about the sorts of distance Nigerians now travel for money, from money rituals and neigbourhood kidnappings for ransom, the wanton nonsense of social media influencers, to senior police officers facilitating criminal syndicates. Welcome to the New Nigeria, where all of these—and much more—have happened only in the past three months. How do we even begin to grasp our heads around this spate of get-rich-quick schemes?

Maybe we can begin with a few preliminary observations. First, ritual killings for money have long been a part of Nigerian society, but they have not always been by teenagers and 20-year-olds. It is also true that people all around the world do all sorts of weird things just to make money, but let us face it, this new wave of violent get-rich-quick schemes is a specifically Nigerian syndrome. And then, there is the disturbing fact that most victims of this new wave are women and girls. That cannot be mere coincidence, and I will return to this specific issue someday soon.

So, what is going on? One answer is that all of these are symptoms of a near complete breakdown moral values in our society. But where hath that itself sprung from? That is a question for scholars and thinkers; hardly for journalists. But we must try. A coterie of underlying causative factors have been deduced: social media, Nollywood, flamboyant lifestyles of the rich, corruption and bad governance, an unthinking culture of mimicry, the break-down of the school system and parental upbringing.

Each of these contributes in its own small measure. But for me, the search for the collapse of moral values in Nigerian society would do worse than look to the very institution which has the express object of fostering them: religion. In Nigeria, religion is simply something else: collectively, if not individually. For religion, there must be a unity of belief and practice most, if not all of the time. In Nigeria, however, religious belief and practice are so thoroughly detached from each other as to scarcely find one by looking at the other. 

Such an argument requires looking and seeing religion the way sociologists of religion do. Sociologists of religion, unlike philosophers of it, ask, not how religious faith provides a path to eternal redemption for its adherents, but how religion influences every other facet of life in a given society, from economy to politics and everything else in between. This is clear in the sociological works of Weber, Durkheim and more persuasively for me, the Russian, Dmitri Furman.

When Weber, for example, looked at Protestantism in the United States, he saw, not a doctrinaire return to the letter and spirit of the scriptures as in Luther, but how the protestant faith fuels American capitalist development as markedly opposed to the economic stagnation in Catholic Latin America next door. Weber would write history too early by extrapolating the same basic theory to the analysis of Confucianism and Hinduism in China and India, respectively, to explain their relative economic backwardness in comparison to the West. 

Still, a sociologist of religion in Nigeria would be struck by the striking similarities in the very peculiar manifestations of the two dominant religions in this country. Nigerian Muslims and Christians are always at pains to emphasize their differences in every way possible, but to the perceptive observer, the two groups are far more alike than they would readily admit. How so?

First, in Nigeria more particularly, monotheism is seamlessly syncretized with subtler versions of beliefs in some godly, but not Godly, forces with real enough powers over human lives as to decide destinies, accidents, successes, failures, protections, vulnerabilities, and the like. Second, a lot of religious worship in Nigeria has an instrumentalist, rather than intrinsic, objective. Many Nigerians, would appear to trade their religious worship with God in exchange for benefits in the here and now. Want a wife or husband? A job? A promotion? A contract? Pray. Fast. This is not wrong in itself, but the collective scale of it here is so huge as to be qualitatively different from similar practices in other societies. As an undergraduate student at Bayero University, Kano, I used to feel that the mosques tended to be filled more during examination weeks than not.  

Third, a lot of religious practice in Nigeria has more to do with being a functional member of a community, in sociological terms, than about personal conviction. Millions of Nigerians know almost absolutely nothing about the faith they adhere to, and do not care to read or learn by themselves. It is enough to be seen in religious congress with others of the same faith or sect. Never mind that a religious community must also be a learned community.

As a result, many are easily swayed by cheap arguments both spiritual and secular. Anyone who pays careful attention to what Pastors and Imams, especially Pastors (the capitalization is deliberate and of import here) say to their congregations about all sorts of subjects would genuinely wonder what is going on. Yet, pastors and imams of various kinds, including marabouts, are the most powerful people in this country in terms of intellectual influence on the general population, not scientists or scholars.

Last, but not least, the dominant manifestation of religion in Nigeria is not spirituality but political competition. Muslims and Christians are in constant competition for political space. This manifests not only in obvious forms such as the requirement that a presidential ticket must be religiously balanced, but even in subtler and subconscious ways. Muslim pilgrimage must be matched with holy trips to Jerusalem. Five daily prayers in the mosques now have their equivalents in multiple and daily prayer sessions in the church. Christians now hold prayer sessions in workplaces, in both private and public sectors, much like Muslims who must pray while at work.

These varied but strikingly similar ways in which religion manifests in Nigeria have contributed to the breakdown of moral values in Nigerian society, and hence, inform the growing banalization of evil we see all around. First, they have helped to detach faith from practice, since faith is now judged not by what one does in their personal lives as would be expected, but by the extent to which one conforms to the everyday rituals of the religious community one belongs to.

Second, the detachment of faith from practice, in turn, means the removal of any sanction from personal conduct. One of the most powerful functions of religion everywhere and at all times is to prevent people from doing bad things on their own volitions. In other words, my practices across all realms of social life, both the spiritual and the mundane, should at least reflect the dictates of my faith most of the time. But if faith is effectively decoupled from practice, then I can do almost anything I want without personal remorse or the fear of social sanction.

Finally, if all religious attention is focused on political competition rather than striving to be the better version of oneself in a spiritual sense, then the moral fibre of society breaks down and the line between good and bad burns out, as the ends justify the means. And almost everything else breaks down with this: the family, the school, government, or whatever. We are near this point in Nigeria today, if we are not there already.

As the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams argues in one of the essays in his Faith in the Public Sphere (2012), the West may have become more secularized than centuries ago, but the moral fabric of Western society, he says, remains fundamentally Christian, not scientific or humanist. With inflections of time and space, this is also true of Islamic societies, where secularism does not even exist. In other words, anyone who is serious about building a better Nigerian society must talk not only about reforming government but also about reforming our religious practice. We must bring religious content into the form. Our practices in all realms of life must reflect our faiths, in me, you, and all. 

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