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Religion in social and moral crises

By The Rainbow
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ONE of the most notable developments in religion in Nigeria since Islam and Christianity supplanted the indigenous systems of belief and worship is the transformation of the adopted exogenous faiths themselves. A particularly momentous phase of this transformation began in the last five or so decades, in the course of the socio-economic turbulence that has characterised much of the postcolonial era. Like most changes in the country since independence, the developments in religion have not been particularly positive, or done much to sustain the values and ideals of religion. For one thing, the country has lacked the political/intellectual/clerical leadership capable of applying the essence of the adopted faiths to the practicalisation of a functional ideology or ethic. And even though the universities have done little to explore the ancestral religions for their philosophy and potential in spiritual and moral values, devotees of the dominant proselytising faiths have proved largely incapable of assimilating their adopted creeds' basic ideals.

These ideals themselves have subsequently all but disappeared into the maws of postcolonial adversities. Thus, what passes for religion today is little more than a compulsive recourse to vacuous, superstitious rituals, for evoking supernatural 'breakthroughs' to prosperity. Practically devoid, if not contemptuous, of values or genuine spirituality, the most 'successful' of the new churches are veritable commercial ventures. Besides, while posing as a salvationist institution, like politics with which it has become closely allied, religion has become a major component of the country's fundamental problems.

Ironically, the impetus for what grew to become an unconscionable 'materialisation' (or despiritualisation) of religion began as a crusade for 'holiness'. This mission was organised by university students in western Nigeria, who were members, in the early 1970s, of the then Students Christian Associations. The prayer and bible-reading groups eventually started a revival emphasising the fundamentals of Christian belief and the need to be 'born-again'. From the universities at Ibadan and Ile-Ife, the new movement gathered strength and spread to other parts of western Nigeria and the rest of the country, especially the large urban centres. Most significantly, it was individual members of this students' movement that subsequently founded or reinforced what became the 'Deeper Christian Life' and the 'Living Faith' (a.k.a. Winners Chapel), the Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG) and other big charismatic Christian churches.

Within the constraints of the experience and resources of its organisers, the Nigerian university students' Christian awakening of the 1970s would compare favourably with the 18th Century evangelical revival in Europe, especially its Wesleyan manifestation in England. One might find the revival's fundamentalist worldview and the fetishisation of the Bible medieval, but the spiritual aspirations appeared to have been genuine, while the idea of turning away from old ways, and of making restitution for moral infractions were taken seriously. However, the striving after 'holiness' soon yielded to a harnessing of faith with crass materialism, with far-reaching adverse consequences for societal mores and values.

Although the prosperity gospel was developed in the United States, the aggravation of socio-economic instability in Nigeria from the early 1980s made the new doctrine attractive as a magic-formula remedy to all problems, material or spiritual. Yet, what was generally being interpreted as spiritual issues and therefore amenable to prescribed rituals and faith, were basically existential and psychological problems arising from the failure of governance. This is why Pentecostalism has been truly described as a Third World phenomenon.

The prosperity doctrine itself is simple enough: Believe in Jesus as Lord and Saviour. Thereafter, since God can do all things (and there are scriptures aplenty to 'prove' this), all that is needed is faith. Thus the prosperity gospel became the fountain of unlimited hope (some would say illusion) regardless of the reality of ever-declining prospects of minimal survival for most people.

This was the beginning of an explosion in the building of churches and mosques, many of them ramshackle structures. There was also a new class of clerics, the so-called pastors many of whom were produced outside the established mission churches.  As long as these barely literate preachers could read the Bible and pay for half-an-hour air time on public television, they were in the business of making a living off the dissemination of pseudo-spiritual, often socially toxic, doctrines.

The ensuing commercialisation of religion was a product of multiple factors, for example unemployment and growing destitution, which created clients of disoriented folk that needed the services of freelance 'pastors' posing as diviners and undertaking 'deliverance' from 'demons', 'witches', and other occult malevolent forces allegedly responsible for every imaginable distress. It was graduate charismatic pastors, like Oyedepo and Oyakhilome, who transformed evangelisation into big business, while the likes of Adeboye brought their neo-Christian Pentecostal churches into increasing liaison with incumbent rulers. Meanwhile, the Pentecostal explosion had compelled the established churches to modify their mode of worship and to adopt some of the Pentecostal doctrines in order to survive. The influence of Pentecostalism on Islam has been no less profound. It is not far-fetched to see the rise of militancy within Muslim sects and the violent uprisings that began in northern Nigeria about the mid-1980s as reactions, at least in part, to the spread of neo-Christian influence.

Among the factors which ultimately changed the face of religion in Nigeria was the predatory materialism of a bubble prosperity from an oil rentier economy. The crisis in this economy in the late 1970s, and from the early 1980s to the end of the millennium and beyond, was another factor. These crises fueled instability and engendered considerable hardships. Above all, one of the measures for safeguarding economic collapse, namely currency devaluation, under a 'structural adjustment programme', evoked massive erosion of societal values unprecedented since colonial times.

The socio-economic upheavals ultimately translated into social, psychological and medical problems which failure of governance practically put beyond anything but fitful amelioration. This was the background to the pretensions of religion as the panacea to every problem facing the country. Accordingly, a metaphysical explanation ascribing these problems to evil and other occult powers was put forward. Then, a comprehensive therapy consisting of 'deliverance', 'exorcism', and wish-making (a.k.a prayers) was introduced. These 'ministrations' at 'revivals' and 'vigils' have gone on now for over four dacades. Yet, the problems, rather than ameliorate, have worsened. But the crowds at the vigils and religious houses have not abated, nor has the faithful' hope diminished that, someday, the prophetic panaceas will, with prayers, materialise. In the meantime, the combination of faith in magical prosperity, which preachers have encouraged believers to crave and expect, in addition to increasing aggravation of socio-economic woes, has begotten what may, for want of a better term, be called a 'popular religion' which has become a symbol of Nigeria's identity, as well as an accessory to decadence and widespread corruption.

Popular religion is a complex of conditioned attitudes, rituals, and beliefs, acknowledging the supernatural as a 'power' resource to be invoked for magical success in all ventures, and for the solution of all imaginable problems. Essentially composed of beliefs, mythologies and rituals of Semitic provenance, it also displays basic traditional African elements, as well as imprints of contemporary socio-economic turmoil. However, the amalgam is neo-Christian in the garb it wears, in its doctrines, and in rhetoric.

Popular religion is, nevertheless, not to be equated with Pentecostalism from which it has, admittedly, borrowed several elements. Indeed, popular religion owes a lot to popular culture and worldview, and it is as much a cultural phenomenon as a development in religion. Besides, many who may be seen as being within the psychological ambit of popular religion usually belong to various other religious denominations. Muslim politicians consult reputedly powerful sooth-saying pastors, and Muslim women often attend Christian vigils. In general, the elastic fold of popular religion embraces members of the intellectual, bureaucratic and political elite, as well as workers, market women, shopkeepers and artisans - that is, people from all strata of society, especially those weighed down by deprivation, and by inability to meet basic everyday needs.

Apart from deprivation and worldly cares, ambition could also push one into the mystical embrace of popular religion. It could predispose the well-to-do hustler to explore metaphysical avenues to advancement and power. The aspiring politician, the business executive, the avaricious bureaucrat and banker, and the advancement/power-craving academic - all are susceptible to the pretensions of mountebank 'men-of-God' claiming to have the power to conjure 'breakthroughs' via the agency of a God supposedly ever preoccupied with the interminable vanities of miserable mortals.

The crux of the matter is that popular religion has developed a quasi Darwinian ethic in which the only recognised moral imperative is success and survival. Thus, just as every organism strives to survive by adapting so as to live by all means possible, the contemporary popular religious faithful equates morality with what it takes to 'master his environment', if need be by cannibalism, so as to achieve success/prosperity. This is why pious Nigerian rulers, in order to perpetuate themselves in office, appropriate and loot public resources, rig elections, and rid themselves of human obstacles, after which they proceed to the mosque or to the church in ecstasy, saying, 'To God be the glory', or 'God is great'!

'Civilization' and development, as well as other utility objectives that were part of the proselytising faiths' mission in Nigeria, were supposed to be a prelude and foundation for the introduction of the putative higher social, moral and spiritual values of Islam and Christianity. Unlike today, 'prosperity', per se, was thus not the preoccupation of the new faiths. Similarly, the determination by the agents of Islam and Christianity to root out the indigenous religions was due to the assumption that the latter were lacking in the new faiths' spiritual essence. What an irony, then, that these same adopted faiths have proved largely incapable of meeting postcolonial challenges without practically losing their values. The question thus arises: is the current devalued form of the adopted religions (that is, contemporary popular religion) the answer to the country's problems, as is usually glibly claimed by Nigerian rulers and clerics?

Obviously, the country's problems are essentially socio-economic. They are, thus, ultimately, matters of governance and of competent, dedicated leadership. Religious institutions and leaders have neither the authority, nor the means to address socio-economic problems, or to enforce compliance with social/legal regulations, norms, and values. Pretensions to such powers through any metaphysical agency on the part of 'magicians', charlatans, and influential pastors who are past masters of spiritual scams, have transformed much of contemporary religion into criminal enterprise. This would explain why corruption and crime are escalating with the explosion of religious houses advertising spurious powers to wipe out the ills of society.