Sunday, June 12, 2011

It will do the country good to interrogate religious edicts

Sunday Nation 12 June 2011

In the wake of the significant role religious leaders have played in the process of selection of the Judiciary nominees as well as in other key sectors of Kenyan public life, it is right and proper to question the role of religion in our society.

It has been argued that religion is the beacon of morality, the compass that we use to periodically re-orient ourselves whenever we are confused about right and wrong.

Belief in a supreme deity is thought to keep human beings from killing each other, and to maintain social order using rules and commandments contained in religious holy books.

The converse of this is also held to be true, that absence of a religious ‘‘morality’’ portends chaos for society.

We shall later in this article address the veracity of these claims. At this point, we shall assume the assertions to be true.

It then becomes important to study the practitioners of religious values in order to discern this truth.

Unfortunately, as it turns out, the staunchest advocates of any religion are often not the best examples of the observances ordained in their religions.

Examples abound, and it is not useful to rehash the historical mistakes attributed to various bodies of religion, from pogroms to crusades and jihads.

Even if we only choose to dwell on modern, local examples, evidence of misdemeanours on the part of erstwhile religious beacons is legion.

From physical and sexual abuse of children to death sentences on those holding contrary views, religious leaders often appear no worse than the barbarians they seek to hold at bay.

More recently in Kenya, they have engaged in a campaign to demonise an individual because of his mode of dress, his difficulties remaining in a marital relationship, and his choice to speak for marginalised Kenyans.

A few years back they burnt literature meant to educate children on sexuality and the attendant risks, in the mistaken belief that this ‘‘sex education’’ would encourage promiscuous sexual activity among the youth.

Coming back to whether the assertions about the goodness of religion are right or wrong, the debate continues apace.

If religion were necessary for people to be ‘‘good’’ it would follow that almost all non-religious people would be ‘‘bad’’ and almost all religious people would be ‘‘good’’.

Scientists of all shades agree that this determination can only be made on the strength of research evidence.

Some of the parameters that can be used to test this ‘‘goodness’’ would necessarily include crime rates, violence and equality.

A preliminary survey of prisons and other penal institutions reveals a predominance of religious people, and very few, if any, non-religious people or atheists.

A study comparing religious societies with non-religious societies found that non-religious (or predominantly atheist) societies were more equal, less violent, and less crime-prone.

On the face of it this should not be entirely surprising. Many wars have been started on the strength of religious differences, and a lot of modern conflict, from the Middle East to Northern Ireland, is religious in nature.

In Kenya, without religious sensibilities, the arguments about Dr Willy Mutunga’s suitability for the position of Chief Justice would not even arise!

Adherents of the various religious groups should, therefore, be questioning and measuring religious edicts on their own merits and not on the authority of whoever issues them.

Dr Lukoye Atwoli is a consultant psychiatrist and lecturer, Moi University School of Medicine.

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