Human beings need spiritual fulfilment. But when religion becomes a substitute for strategic action to solve our problems, then our society is in danger of regressing to a situation akin to that of the Middle Ages.
Then, the church exercised a powerful influence on politics, the economy, education and social life. The church preached that the order in which kings and aristocrats lived in filthy opulence, while the rest of the population lived like slaves, was God-ordained.
The church berated the serfs to forsake all earthly wealth and wait to be rewarded in heaven while it amassed great fortune, and saw nothing wrong with the opulent debauchery of the ruling class.
In education, the church kept a punitive vigilance against ideas that questioned the world as explained by its teachings. Thus, for instance, Galileo was forced to recant his heliocentric theory. The church feared that challenging its doctrine that the earth was the centre of the universe could lead to the questioning of other “truths” it preached, including that the hierarchy that put kings, aristocrats and clergy at the top and others at the bottom, was according to God’s desire.
The history of the age of reason and enlightenment is really the story of these serfs, helped by the intellectual class, beginning to oppose this exploitative and oppressive hierarchy, and arguing that reason should be the foundation of human society.
Rene Descartes’ declaration, I think, therefore I am, captured this monumental paradigm shift. The industrial revolution and the growth of democracy, both of which would forever transform Europe, are attributable to the idea that humans can apply reason to solve their development problems, and to reorder a more equitable and democratic society.
Age of Reason
During the Kanu rule in Kenya, most clergy taught that leadership and wealth were ordained by God, and castigated as evil those agitating for democracy and equity.
But the church — until the late 1980s — kept quiet about the oppressive, exploitative and corrupt regime. And just like the Europe of the Middle Ages, the Kanu state devised elaborate means — including torture chambers — to ensure that no one deviated from the official viewpoint.
I repeat this history and draw parallels with medieval Europe because it seems that after what can be termed as our version of the Age of Reason, beginning in the late 1980s and spilling into the first years of the Mwai Kibaki regime — when there was a rediscovery of the idea that, through reason we can solve our societal and developmental problems — we have regressed to our “medieval age” of the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s.
Over the past five years, the church, through both mainstream and new-age evangelical preachers, has exercised a retrogressive influence on our politics and society. Consider, as proof of this, the following developments.
First, there has been an epidemic of preachers laying hands on politicians from both the opposition and government, and declaring them God’s chosen, while castigating others as agents of the devil — the shetani ashindwe (death to the devil) phenomenon.
Second, we have seen churchmen lending their pulpits to politicians to further push the narrative of themselves as the anointed ones.
Third, we have seen national breakfast prayer meetings turned into a governance tool. At these meetings, the political class arrive in multimillion-shilling automobiles and, over a sumptuous feast that can feed the country’s street families for a week, prayers – presided over by new age get-rich evangelists and mainstream church priests — are said for every problem we have.
The irony is that the problems whose solutions are sought through prayer are caused by the attendees: Hate speech and tribal violence, poverty, corruption, unemployment, etc. There are also the phenomena of prayers being conducted at sites of road accidents, and others held to end famine or to bring peace.
We have also witnessed millions of citizens abandoning reason in favour of faith-based miracles to solve their problems. Every Sunday, they flock to churches, where they are fleeced by conmen while being promised an end to their problems.
In addition, there has been a resurgence of evil practices like female circumcision and early child marriages, because impoverished rural communities ascribe their problems to neglect of their traditional beliefs.
Without reason, we are unable to see that road carnage is caused by bad roads and corruption; that poverty and underdevelopment are caused by bad leadership; or that violence is instigated by the political class for selfish ends.
Re-situating reason as the foundation of our society and engine of its aspirations must now be an urgent task of our activism.
Tee Ngugi is a Nairobi-based political and social commentator.