By - Isaac Joseph
In a complex nation like Nigeria, religion is seen as divisive and characterized by inherent contradictions that are projected as threat to peaceful co-existence of humanity at large. It has even been used by individuals, groups and ‘societies’ as a ploy to promote interests that are self-serving, with adverse effects on others who do not share the same mindset or beliefs. However, a divided nation like Nigeria can still benefit from the unifying force of religion that several people are not accustomed to; probably as a result of the single story being ignorantly peddled about it. Meanwhile, this does not erode the fact that religion remains a great social force that can reconcile us if genuinely used in the interest of Africa’s most populous nation, Nigeria.
The Concept of Religion
Religion, a modern western concept, has no definite accepted definition as scholars from different disciplines such as Sociology, Anthropology, Ethnology, Theology and Philosophy perceive the basic elements of religion in their own context; even though, the heterogeneity nature of this concept is not an issue we want to delve into. Religion, in its modest sense, just as defined by Roger A. Johnson, is “an extremely complex phenomenon, as it encompasses beliefs and doctrines, myths and rituals, sacred scriptures and cultic objects and the manifestation of transcendence in these many aspects.”
Religion in Nigeria
In Nigeria, there are three main religions – Christianity, Islam and the Traditional. However, there are other religions such as Judaism, Hinduism, which were brought into the country mainly by immigrants. In a recent statistic released from The World Factbook by CIA in 2019, it was reported that about 51% of Nigeria’s population are Muslims, about 47% are Christians, about 0.9% adhere to local religions and 0.5% remain unspecified. Furthermore, a Religious Literacy Project carried out by Havard divinity school, estimated that 80-85 million Nigerians identify as Muslim (roughly 50% of the total population), of which the majority are probably Sunni (60 million), though this is not a unified identity and includes a wide variety of different viewpoints. Also, it has been reported that over 80 million Nigerians are Christians, of which about a quarter are Catholics, three quarters are Protestants and about 750,000 belong to other Christian denominations and a few of them are Orthodox Christians, according to a 2011 Pew report.
Present State of Religion in Nigeria
Religion has not been spared from the myriad of challenges facing the country. Over the years, several critiques of religion plurality in Nigeria have been on the increase because of its perceived negativity on the growth and development of the nation. Our mind has been conditioned to believe that religion contributes more of an excess than a success in our scheme of affairs. It has been used as a building block to rule and divide in several cases. Many times, religion has been dragged to the mud as many persons believe the actions of its believers negate the basic tenets of their religions.
While it is important to note that religion forms a major socialization base for most Nigerians, it is bothersome that the society still frown at the manifestation of values that are deemed alien to its tenets. This raises the question of what could have gone wrong about the several religions in the country. Several justifications, though understandably, have been given in support of several values and practices by ‘believers’ that many free-thinkers deem inappropriate in a modern world. Some persons even believe that rational thinking and ‘common sense’ should be given utmost priority, instead of some ‘uncertain’ belief in a supernatural being. Why do we have brains if we cannot use it? – remains a regular question on the lips of several free-thinkers.
Again, the relationship that exists between religion and the public space remains a union that has caused uproar among her (Nigeria) citizens. Our societal institutions – political, economic, social, educational readily engage religion in its pursuit of goals and this has sometimes led to rift and chaos in different occasions. Many ‘believers’ have been forced to show preferential bias towards their religions at the detriment of others. Little wonder religion becomes a deciding factor in selection and appointment of political office holders in the country.
Religion as a Unifying Force
The world is too complex to conclude that religion divides; sometimes, it gets overblown and one begins to wonder if religion is the sole source of our troubles. And as human beings, just as Randa Abdel-Fattah puts it, ‘we are prone to fiercely embracing many ideological convictions – religion merely being one – and using such convictions in either positive or negative ways.’ It saddens the heart that much emphasis has only been centered on the negativity surrounding religion; portraying it as evil and many times, neglecting its merits in entirety. One of the basic tenet of every religion includes being at peace with all men; and as long as we all contribute our quota to the propagation of peace in all our affairs, the better it would be for our nation.
Of course, religion has been used in the past to fuel conflicts but we would all agree that this act negates every tenet of the major religions in the country. While there is no gainsay that we can be sometimes assertive about our differences with others, it is also fundamental that we remain tolerant and stay clear from insensitive display of our convictions. The unifying truths of all religions have all it takes to unite our society. Religion holds an influence that surpasses that of any ideology; this can be harnessed to reconcile opposing forces in our nation. If all religions emphasize basic truths that are pivotal to our co-existence, it would reduce terrorism and other immoral acts that we consider menace to our nation.
Over the years, identity crisis has contributed more harm than good to the unity of our nation. The sensitivity has been on an alarming increase as people tend to discriminate in certain situations based on religion. How about if we see the next individual as just human? What if we decide to be unconcerned about the religion of the next person sitting close? What if we hold other people’s values in high esteem? What if we see everybody as one of us? Having a broad look at life remains important to our peaceful co-existence and religion can be used to propagate this mindset. Just as Marion Maddox rightly puts it – “the minute we create an ”us” we risk creating a ”them”.
Zafarul-Islam Khan believes that “religion remains a strong force in the contemporary world. It is our duty to make it a unifying force for the sake of common good, peace and progress instead of turning it into a dividing force causing hate and destruction.” The ‘right’ virtues, beliefs and practices that the society wants to propagate are all inherent in our religions. However, this cannot be achieved if we are not intentional about what we really want. Respect for other religions should become a conscious effort, if we want to benefit from the unifying force of religion.
Karl Marx posited that ‘religion is the opium of the people;’ but whether it will intoxicate us (the people) to perpetrate evil or do good is a choice that we have to make for ourselves. As long as we continue to peddle around the single story of negativity about religion, freedom is far from us; but if we rise up to our responsibilities of propagating the universal truths of all religion, it is definitely not going to be a long walk to freedom.
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