By LUKOYE ATWOLI
Sunday Nation 21 March 2010
For a long time, Kenyans have taken for granted the ‘‘religious freedom’’ prevalent in the country, and most have a healthy respect for anything with a religious tag to it.
However, recent events linked to religious organisations are slowly chipping away at the unquestioning reverence reserved for anyone or any organisation purporting to carry out ‘‘God’s mission on earth’’.
After the boom in televangelism where many clerics parade people allegedly suffering from debilitating chronic illnesses before purporting to cure them, there emerged the so-called ‘‘prosperity gospel’’ whose propagators hold that God did not intend his followers to be poor on earth.
They, therefore, encourage their flock to focus their prayers on earthly goodies and, above all, to channel their wealth to the religious organisation in the form of tithes.
This ‘‘prosperity gospel’’ often results in the prosperity of its propagators and not the congregants who give away much of their wealth in expectation of more.
The recent dramatic entry of the Finger of God church into the public limelight has reopened debate on the respect due to any organisation purporting to provide a highway to heaven through varied means.
In another incident, church faithful spent days praying and waiting for the ‘‘resurrection’’ of dead pastors in a Nakuru church, raising real questions about the state of mind of their leaders and even the followers.
This incident was so bizarre that it attracted the attention and derision of many Kenyans, including those that would otherwise endorse other equally egregious activities from religious bodies.
It is common knowledge that extreme religiosity and mental ill health are closely related. Many patients with psychotic disorders often have delusions and other beliefs with very intense religious themes.
Indeed, these delusions have borne the brunt of jokes about mental illness, suggesting that patients often compete about who is more ‘‘God’’ than the other.
On the other hand, it is also known that patients with some form of spirituality have better survival chances than those that do not. Indeed, this applies to almost any chronic health condition, with most studies in this field following up patients with heart disease.
The upshot of this is that religious activity can have both positive and negative effects and implications, mostly linked to the individual’s mental status.
It is, indeed, instructive that in the Finger of God saga, one of the participants was supposedly taken to a mental health professional for assessment and possible intervention.
It is not clear what yardstick was used to pick on this individual alone, but it may have been useful to subject all those involved to a similar evaluation and provide the necessary assistance if deemed appropriate.
Subsequent events including threats of court action and ventures into political territory have only served to confirm the widespread suspicions about the mental state of many of those involved.
Religious organisations have for a long time enjoyed a special status in Kenyan society, getting privileged treatment from the taxman as well as from common citizens.
This has resulted in the creation of some sort of safe harbour where everyone who needs time to cool off after life on the fast lane hastens to form a religious organisation.
Examples are legion, and a number of current and former politicians are engaged in overt religious activity with the full support of both their congregants and political followers. All this is happening in a country that purports to keep Church and State separate.
The farcical image of the Finger of God leader announcing to all and sundry his intentions to vie for the top post in this country brought home the reality of the incestuous relationship existing between Church and State.
As a presidential aspirant and a church leader, he embodies a fusion of the Kenyan clergy and the body politic in a way no other political cleric or pastor-MP can manage.
Kenyans are invited to consider the fate of any ordinary mwananchi who makes claims to the effect that he communicates with God or His representative on a regular basis, and that he has been ‘‘informed’’ that he will become Kenya’s president come 2012 with the help of his business associate and the associate’s wife.
Such a man would find himself in a mental hospital before he can say another word.
It is, therefore, difficult to understand why we continue to allow people who display obviously bizarre behaviour to suffer in public while we joke about their statements and antics.
It may be useful for the government to take a closer interest in the activities of all religious organisations and expose those with beliefs that are potentially harmful to both their leaders and potential members. Maybe they should also start paying tax like everyone else.
Dr Lukoye Atwoli is a consultant psychiatrist and lecturer at Moi University School of Medicine