Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Is it time to regulate religious teachings?

By Lukoye Atwoli
Sunday Nation 06 April 2014

Kenya seems to be in the throes of a major social convulsion and time has come for us to confront certain demons that represent a major threat to our continued survival. Lately, a new monster that had remained largely under the surface has emerged, in the manner of “religious extremism”. This has been blamed for incidents of “radicalisation” of youth, and even some of the terrorist attacks that are becoming common.

However, this term is, in my view, misleading. As part of some research I have done in the past, I have asked dozens of religious practitioners what constitutes an extremist or fundamentalist. Even within the same religion, different responses are given. For instance, some argue that an extremist is one who takes a literal interpretation of their religious book or teachings, and behaves accordingly.

Others contend that extremists “misinterpret” religious teachings and use them to harm others. The problem with this argument is that it assumes that everyone, including non-adherents, understand what teachings are actually being misinterpreted. When pressed, those with this opinion argue that no religion teaches intolerance or hate, and none condones murder of “innocent” people.

Unfortunately, a plain reading of the holy texts of the religions that are dominant in Kenya reveals a different picture. Many passages condone the killing of those that are regarded as non-believers, and condemn to death and eternal suffering those that deny the existence of the deity to whom the book refers. Although there are many other passages describing “upright” behaviour and being available to help other human beings in need, it is difficult for an ordinary adherent to determine what is to be done and what is to be avoided on the authority of the holy book.

From a secular perspective, one is left in the difficult position of determining what conforms to religious teaching and what does not. When someone argues that the holy book teaches one thing or the other, it is difficult to contradict them, even if other sections of the same holy book teach quite the opposite.

What is known is that no religion teaches their adherents to be “lukewarm” or to pick and choose what to believe and what to leave out. Both Christianity and Islam hold their holy books to be comprehensive and infallible. They are considered to be either direct utterances of the deity, or material written under the direct guidance of the deity.

If we are to accept that religious extremists or fundamentalists either misinterpret or distort religious texts, then it follows that one cannot gain complete religious insight from a plain reading of the religious texts. It follows also that for one to fully understand the teachings of a particular religion, there is more learning to be had outside of a plain reading of the religious text. 


This begs the question why then religious preachers are so poorly regulated. Almost anyone in this country can start a sect and be allowed the freedom to propagate their teachings without let or hindrance. Perhaps religious institutions should be regulated in much the same way the various professions are regulated, in order to ensure that their teachings do not run afoul of the aspirations of our nation as enshrined on the Constitution.

The alternative is to contend with continued religious “radicalisation”. 

Dr Atwoli is a consultant psychiatrist and senior lecturer at Moi University’s School of Medicine.

1 comment:

  1. Very good article. I think the Catholic Church's Structure and functioning fits your bill of a "regulated" religion. Guidance comes from the papal office, structure is clear and people cannot just say what they want and decide it is the Church's position


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