I'm fascinated by the concept of religious belief. And why shouldn't I be? We're talking here about something that is powerful enough to move a man to do deeds at either extreme of the moral spectrum. Religious belief can stir a man to go out of his way to help a fellow human being just as easily as it can stir him to torture and kill the same fellow human being. It can make him willing to endure extreme hardships and sacrifices. And like all powerful beliefs, it can inspire in him a whole range of emotions - love, happiness, fear, anger and hatred.
I think that there are several reasons for religion's power. First of all, it attempts to introduce patterns and order into an otherwise chaotic world. It offers an explanation as to why things happen so that instead of feeling helpless, the religious believer is comforted to know that he can (to some extent) control the events around him. So rather than resigning himself to the fact that a random bullet might zing out of nowhere and embed itself in his skull, he can take charge of events by praying to God to deflect the bullet. (He may also choose to pray for the bullet to be redirected to his bitterest enemy, but that's another matter.)
This desire for order isn't surprising - human beings are always looking for patterns and meanings in things. In fact, it's this constant search for patterns and meaning that has led us to develop many of the theories that are the foundation of science and technology today. However, ironically it's also why when something significant happens, people don't just say "Oh, that's just how life is" but they try to (unscientifically and sometimes inaccurately) connect it to some other significant event, or they say that some powerful person must have caused it to happen.
Another reason for the power of religious belief is that there is a reward/punishment system set up in most religious beliefs. If the believer follows the precepts of the religion, they attain a better state or advance to a better place, and if they don't, they descend to a worse state/place. The degree to which people adhere to their belief may be proportional to how much of an impression the reward or punishment makes on them. And this impression may be strengthened by nature of the punishment - its duration, imminence, severity and permanence.
A third reason I think that religious belief is powerful is that it emphasises the supernatural, the mysterious and the majestic, and these inspire people more than the mundane occurrences of everyday human life. The themes of a Personality to look up to or an Ideal to aspire to recur through must religious beliefs - and these make the life of the religious believer much more meaningful and interesting. Incidentally, this is why you'll never see a Church of the Agnostic, because it simply can't offer a similarly inviting idea to believe in.
But for me, the major reason for the power of religious belief is the sense of community that it creates. Human beings tend to associate with people who share the same beliefs and practices as they do, because it lowers the barriers to communication and reduces the possibility of interpersonal conflict. So when a religion sets out various codes of belief and conduct for its believers to follow, it is in effect creating a religious culture for them to belong to. The warm feeling of belonging to the community that practices this culture is just as powerful as the fear of being cast out of the same community for not practicing the culture. Indeed, most religions promote the idea of believers meeting together and associating with one another to practice their belief, rather than doing so individually in isolation and separation.
One issue that arises when considering religious culture is disentangling the aspect of the culture that derives from the religion itself, and that which derives from the culture of the place of immediate origin of the religion. It's very common to see the two being taken together, which is why in Nigeria, Arabic culture is bound tightly with Islam and Western culture is bound tightly with Christianity in people's consciousness.
So with all the power of religious belief has, it is not surprising that various people should wish to harness it for all sorts of reasons. There are those people who use it to get fellow believers to change their behaviour so that they become more considerate, more helpful, more joyful and more peaceful persons who are more positive about life. In most religions, there are usually doctrines that call upon believers to practice such behaviour - these people will usually emphasise these doctrines in order to achieve their aim.
Then there are those people who occupy a position of power or influence in their religious community, and use this belief to their personal advantage. This is an all too familiar scenario in Nigeria, where for example, a religious leader might wish to strengthen his position or profit financially from it. Again, he adopts the same approach - for example, if he is a pastor who wishes to benefit personally from his position, then he will emphasise the doctrines from Christianity that call upon believers to donate generously to support God's servant and to condemn and oppose those who attack him.
And then there are those people who use people's religious belief order to achieve political aims. They do this by presenting themselves as a devout follower, thus appealing to the affinity that fellow believers have towards one of their own (and more darkly, stirring up the ill-feeling that these believers have towards someone who opposes one of their own). For example, a Muslim politician might appeal to religious sentiment in galvanising people to vote for him, either because his opponent is a Christian or is not sufficiently Muslim enough. Indeed, I believe that this is precisely what Sani Yerima did when he was campaigning for the position of Governor of Zamfara State in 1999 - he raised the stakes so high by declaring himself in support of the establishment of the Sharia penal code in the state that his opposition could not impeach his Muslim credentials.
Of course, some people choose to go beyond merely using religious belief to achieve political power - sadly, they also use it as a means for pursuing a violent campaign against those who they hate for having a different belief from them. I don't need to repeat examples here - the history of the human race is littered with such instances of religious violence.
What also fascinates me about religious belief is the way it overlays people's other cultural backgrounds. When I was a lot younger I used to naively believe that as long as a man and a woman sincerely shared the same religious belief, there should be no problems with them getting married. Perhaps because of my starry-eyed idealism, I had a hard time eventually understanding that religion is not enough... culture and socio-economic background play just as important role. And they play just as important a role in determining what flavour of religious belief someone adopts - because within a major denomination, there will be different degrees and different ways in which the tenets of that denomination are practiced by different groups of people.
For example, in Christianity in Nigeria, you have long established churches like the Catholic and Anglican churches and increasingly churches like the Redeemed Christian Church of God being attended by high-ranking government officials and well-to-do people. Then you have attendance at churches like the Cherubim and Seraphim Movement Church, the Celestial Church and the Apostolic Church being dominated by Yoruba people from poorer socio-economic backgrounds. And then you find churches like Fountain of Life Church, House on the Rock and Daystar Christian Centre being attended by young urban professionals.
This sub-division of religious groups also means that each group emphasises a different type of message. For example in Christianity in Nigeria, there are churches that emphasise that God has destined their followers to live successful and prosperous lives, as long as they continue to obey His will and attend His church. Then there are those that emphasise the battle against demonic forces that must be fought continuously and assiduously with prayers and fasting so that the believer can finally achieve spiritual breakthrough. Then there are those very few which emphasise the importance of living good lives in accordance with the precepts of Christianity, offering practical advice on how to deal with the issues that the believer may face in his daily life and making a real difference to the people around them. Islam may not have a similar number of differently named groups under the same umbrella as with Christianity, but it's possible that each mosque may have its own unique way of worshipping, depending on its locality.
Of course, I do have a bias for religious organisations which act as forces of social change by using their power to change the behaviour of their followers for good. I think it would be wonderful if people were discouraged from stealing, killing and lying and encouraged to help their fellow man. However, this is not necessarily an easy thing to do. I've spoken of how religious leaders can use the power of religious belief to get their followers to do what they want, but the leader knows that he is also dependent on his followers as well, and any attempt to alienate them by telling them what they may not want to hear (e.g. to stop bad behaviour) may result in defection from his organisation to one that is more accommodating of their 'sins'. So it's a difficult issue - but I believe that the organisation that chooses to stand out and make that difference will become the more credible, more influential one in the long term.
Your article concluded with a new hypothesis which might be worth further examination. That is that membership of a religious body is directly proportional to the number of sins that the church is willing to tolerate among its members. (m = nst ) For instance if the religion is to allow the crass display of wealth, infidelity among members and lax moral behaviour then more people will flock to that place f worship. Mmmmm...
Is Rev King also among the prophets? What of the pastor who bled Inec dry and was discovered after his death following a quarrel bw his known and unknown wife. Was Gov Sani Yerima true to Sharia even after EFCC indictments? Can you truly stone a woman for adultery without finding the other adult? or Can only one person commit adultery?
I think religious organisations especially in Nigeria should work hard to bring the best practices for which their religion is known globally rather than reducing that great social precept to what a philosopher called the opiate of the masses.
Well said... you just made my morning!
In this piece I saw well-written, well-reasoned, and well-organized, food for thought in every paragraph.
One aspect of these religions and practices on which I would like to read more (have always wanted to read more) is the mental state of the powerful religious leader who extravagantly enriches himself at the expense of the followers and is frequently accused by the media and law enforcement, when exposed, of fraud, of falsely using the religious pulpit to enrich himself. I am not interested in the type or size of the riches he appropriates but only in his mental state. The media is littered with such stories from the U.S.A to Nigeria.
One hundred percent of the time, such religious leaders mis-appropriations of church funds (loosely categorized as fraud, false pretense, stealing, embezzlement, larceny, conversion) are assumed, in popular thinking, to involve a criminal intent that is that the leader knew that what he was doing was stealing and intentionally planned and executed the plan.
I am fascinated by the frequency of the media reports of these mis-appropriations and the inevitable association of such mis-appropriation with criminal intent.
I have long been suspicious, from a legal and mental-health standpoint, that many of these accused religious leaders may very well not be guilty of any crimes at all if:
(a) they truly believed that they were following the dictates of their religion (whether they are right or wrong is irrelevant) to live lavishly in which case they lacked the malignant intent necessary for criminal conviction or
(b) they suffer from mental illness that usurps or divests their mind of the capacity for distinguishing right from wrong, which, once again, would prevent the law from proving the element of intent necessary for conviction or
© even if the accused leader is sane now, the tonic of frenzied religion, like hallucinogenic drugs, at the time of the mis-appropriation, induced such mental dislocation and warped thinking that the leader lacked the required criminal intent.
Just a thought to complement your thesis.
Madam Akuluouno (as I must address you from now on),
I think this relationship holds true to some extent... but I think that the religious leader still needs to maintain a certain balancing act. For example, if he is too inflexible and insists on a very narrow interpretation of his religion's doctrines, then very few will stay in his church (unless he has some other compelling reason for them to remain, like the use of psychological tactics). On the other hand, if he is too tolerant, then his organisation will lose credibility in society - it will be seen as an irreligious place and even people who are lax in following the religion's belief won't want to be seen there (because they won't want their reputation to be tarnished).
Thanks for the compliments.
The points you raise are part of a wider question (and one I may write an article on one day), namely the issue of how power corrupts. I'm sure that there are those religious leaders who sincerely believe they are fully justified in embezzling their organisation's funds, but I suspect they are in a minority (because the majority of religious leaders who are paraded for such offences seem shamefaced). I think the greater majority fall into your category © who are literally high on the effects of power. It would be interesting to carry out brain scans on such people while they are in the throes of wielding power, and compare the results with the scans of people who were high on a variety of drugs to see whether indeed power affects the mind in the same way.
Of course, even if there were similarities, I don't think such a leader could claim diminished responsibility as a defence.