The sacred is political

Religious text“You can’t not be religious!” is a reaction I often receive when someone asks me first whether I am Muslim, as my name implies, and then (when I say no) whether I am a Christian, which I am not either. Having found out that I’m neither Christian nor Muslim, the inquirer then often proceeds to say, shaking their head in grave concern, “You have to choose O! [They are usually Nigerian] You can’t not be religious!”

I damn well can. And I find it odd that people feel such freedom to judge my religious status. If I were to express an equivalent disdain and say, for example, “You can’t be a Muslim!” I’m quite sure I would be accused of a violation of code of conduct.

Don’t get me wrong; people have every right to be astounded by my not being religious. To be frank, I am equally astounded that anyone finds spiritual guidance from texts such as the Old Testament, which is a violent and misogynist book in my opinion. What is not OK is a culture where such interlocutors are open to express their views and I can’t state mine. Let me also say by the way, that, of course, religious beliefs are complex and deserve a nuanced approach. So while the Old Testament is a macho, patriarchal text, Pope Francis’s apostolic exhortation on the globalisation of indifference, for instance, is in contrast highly relevant and humane.

Lest I be mistaken for one, I am not an atheist. My spiritual background is as hybrid as my ethnic one. I am a daughter of both Oduduwa and Kalevala and any other gods or goddesses who will have me. In my view, spiritual development is introspective and does not need naming. By that same token – everyone should have the right to practice her or his faith (or lack of it) freely and I don’t raise this to judge but rather to encourage a discussion about how religion is shaping African society in modern times.

We live in times of increasing religious fanaticism and a subsequent conservatism spreading across Africa and the diaspora. The consequences are dire: from conflicts in Central African Republic to Nigeria to Somalia to Sudan, religious factors are destabilising societies with rapid effect. Also, issues such as the passing of discriminatory anti-gay laws as well as the control of women’s bodies (e.g. through female genital mutilation, anti-abortion legislation, controlling what women wear and so on) are anchored in the politics of religion.

Yet despite growing fanaticism (of varying degrees) few public intellectuals are speaking out about the dangers of this trend. This is unfortunate because the less critical debate about religion there is, the more the fanatics are able to shape the discourse. Religion is a colossal part of public life and it should be subject to public debate like any other topics that we all-consumingly analyse such as pop culture, identity politics and so on. I am not suggesting that we establish a bashing marketplace of ideas between the religious and the non-religious. Also, for god’s sake, don’t conflate critical religion analysis with criticising people’s religious views willy nilly. However, it is unacceptable that religion is so sacrosanct that we don’t dare approach it.

Africans, generally speaking, are a deeply spiritual people, venerating the part of human minds, bodies and souls that has to do with the divine. I want to live in a world where this is perfectly OK. However, I also wish for a world where justice prevails, and the truth is that organised religion is a major cause of many of the world’s injustices. Questioning religion is not only discouraged in our societies, it is often interpreted as a blasphemous attack on sacredness. But there’s simply too much at risk to avoid critical analyses of religion in the name of political correctness. It’s time to stop pandering to this culture of silence and to put religious life under the microscope.

Or what do you think? Should or should not religion be up for debate? Share your thoughts below!

  • Orunmila

    Good read, thanks.
    When meeting new people in South and East African countries the second question is almost always “what are you?”. I soon learnt that “atheist” is not the right answer.
    What stigma comes with this label?
    Does it hurt your business prospects to not be affiliated with a church, ie you’re not a moral/trustworthy person?
    Are atheist westerners somehow exempt from this religious obligation?


    • MsAfropolitan

      Thanks for reading and commenting @Orunmila.
      Your observation on atheism *not* being the answer is rather funny. Sigh. What does one respond indeed? Particularly in contexts where harmony is desirable such as a business meeting.
      Speaking of morality, while writing this blog it came to mind that while a religious society is deemed a more moral one, it seems not to be the case in African societies where religion and corruption have grown in tandem. Slightly off topic, but struck me as an interesting tension.
      Do you mean by westerners Africans in the west or white westerners? (the latter I’d argue are exempt)

    • Doreen

      I’d say that atheist Westerners are 100000000% exempt. I’m of Ghanaian origin but didn’t grow up there, and when I went back, I was subject to all sorts of judgement and mistreatment for being atheist, meanwhile I found a blog written by some white girl who had studied abroad who was like “Ghanaians are so not judgmental about me being atheist! They don’t care at all!” Meanwhile, cousins, aunts, uncles, strangers all gave me some variation of “Africans need to believe in God. You are African, you need to blah blah blah blah blah.” This would often be followed up or even preceded with something like “you grew up with Eastern religions” which is why you’re not a Christian. ???????? My parents are GHANAIAN, in what way would I have grown up with “Eastern religions”?? What does that even mean? That I practiced a different “Eastern religion” every day? I made the decision to leave the church when I realized that it was completely incompatible with everything else I believed and that the only reason I believed any of it was because I had been indoctrinated into it since birth.

      This even happened when I was outside Africa. Once, I was at a club, A CLUB, in Shanghai, and this Ugandan guy interrupted me in the middle of my vodka tonic to ask me if I was a Christian. He was *appalled* that I was not. At a club. We were hardly at Easter mass. I don’t even see what his concern was.

      It might hurt your business prospects depending on what it is that you’re doing- on the other hand, it might not. I’ve never been good at lying. There are some deeply religious people who don’t attend church (they prefer praying at home) so I suppose you could try to pretend to be one of those.

      I find that the moral judgement of someone’s character based on their church attendance to be extremely ironic, given how nearly every week in the newspaper, I’d read about some churchgoing man, or even a pastor who had raped his daughter/a parishioner/a school-aged child.

      I could rant about this forever. I will stop now.

      • MsAfropolitan

        This made me laugh! Especially “Once, I was at a club, A CLUB, in Shanghai, and this Ugandan guy interrupted me in the middle of my vodka tonic to ask me if I was a Christian.”

  • Helen

    What frustrates me even more is how so many of those who are religious often fail to take a critical look at what their beliefs are. They fall into line, simply absorbing whatever their parents, priests and pastors tell them. I have walked a long spiritual journey to get to where I am now which basically is agnostic. I rejected my parents Catholic faith in my teens and became Pentecostal for a while, then I went back to Catholicism and then decided it all just did not make sense. Every step of the way, I was called confused and weak minded by many. Basically, the fact that I refused to take without questioning, all the teachings handed down to me made me weak minded!

    • MsAfropolitan

      Thanks for sharing Helen! I so relate to your experience. Perhaps it’s something to do with the very arduousness of questioning the paths laid out for us and finding one’s own. Why many don’t embark on it, that is.

      • Helen

        I absolutely think it is the arduousness of it all coupled with the fear of the unknown and the seductive comfort of ignorance. I have ranted about our tendency towards intellectual/moral laziness on these issues on my blog. I also think it has to do with the fear of being the trouble maker, the one who brings shame to the family by choosing a different religion.

    • MsAfropolitan

      Thanks for sharing! Yes, that’s why it’s so important to encourage a discussion on religious life because while it may offer spirit guidance it also results in such extents of “trampling of other ideologies and people”

    • MsAfropolitan

      Dope to see you here, sis. Well said.

    • MsAfropolitan

      Thanks Mona. I think your brother is right, I certainly believe that religion can have a positive effect on people. In fact, many profoundly inspiring people are/were religious, e.g. Maya Angelou, Feisal Abdul Rauf, Rumi, bell hooks etc. Unfortunately, not all (not even near) are like these people.

  • Litaaa

    I agree with with your thought, we really need to take religion out of sensible arguments, i personally don’t understand why future and life of people are judged by texts the said was writing thousands of years ago.

    When people ask me if i am a Muslim or christian, i tell them i am on the path to discover spirituality.

  • Vusi Sindan.

    I think having a debate about religion is like hacking away at a tree with a blunt axe. Religion is a personal means to faith and faith is a means to find peace in a world pendulating between this and that.

    I mean to say, deep deep down we want to excape from the cycle of life and death, Anger and joy, emptiness and fulfillment etc. it turns out religions are the best crutch for most people to achieve this. If you really think about it, that is how most regigions conclude. I.e. Heaven, Nirvana. Purporting a world where one is free from the comings and goings of this world.

    But ofcourse, the other critical role of religion is to induce some kind of civility between people (especially given the violent contexts in which our major religions were formed). Some religions do this by promoting compassion, others do this by instituting fear (hell). Either way, it sort of works for the most part. Or should I say, has been working…

    You may or may not agree with what I am suggesting; it doesn’t really matter because like I say, spirituality are absolutely personal. Just like there is no room to debate the fact that as we speak, my hair is growing and my heart is beating, there is no room to debate religion.

    Be that as it may, there is room to discuss behaviors and how we treat one another, but not, in my view, within a religious domain,

    • MsAfropolitan

      Hi Vusi! Not suggesting to have a debate about religion, as in whether to be or not to be religious. That should be entirely up to each individual as I said. Rather I am saying that we *have* to start talking more about *how* religion influences our society, which is often very negatively.

      For this reason, “there is room to discuss behaviors and how we treat one another, but not, in my view, within a religious domain,” is to me like asking a fish to swim without water. How can we discuss how we treat one another by circling around religion, when it is religion that in many instances dictates how people interact with others.

      But yes, in terms of spirituality, agree with you about religion as something personal. In many ways, people use relgion as a tool for self-knowledge only we don’t understand that the self cannot be found under authority…

      • Vusi Sindane

        We need to discuss people not religions because people from almost every religion kill in the pursuit of peace i.e. Apartheid was justified religiously. Zen Master Dogen was almost killed in Japan for heresy and undermining Buddhism, not to mention the story Christ (for those who believe).

        You see everywhere people act out of self interest and then hide behind a religious or ideological broom-stick. Not only that, those that seek justice look for it in the broom-stick not in the PERSON (or PEOPLE) that acted.

        The only reason I can see for trying to discuss religion is to hopefully bulk-manufacture behavioural change and social justice. You cannot mass manufacture behaviour by revealing the flaws (if any) or challenging the necessities of religions. Instead, this causes wars because people feel undermined.

        What we should be doing, especially on a one-on-one basis is being compassionate and being exemplars of the type of behaviour we expect from others [talk is cheap, especially when someone cuts in front of you in a long queue…). Whether you are Buddhist, Christian, Muslim, Hindu or whatever, it won’t matter; so long as your pursue love and compassion in everything YOU do, many others around you will begin to change as well. Some people will never change, but that’s not because of their religion even though they may claim so, it is because of their self-interest.

        [listen to me talking about religion to not talk about religion… hehehehe]

        • MsAfropolitan

          Ha ha :) It’s one of those isn’t it…
          Your comment is great, Vusi, but you still did not quite address my argument. I’m not saying let’s debate if religion is a necessity or if it is flawed. As I wrote people are astounded by my choices and I am astounded by theirs. That’s absolutely fine. Rather, the crux of what I’m suggesting is that religion has a colossal impact on culture, politics, gender relations, citizenship, modernity and so on, and, that we should not be ignoring analyses of these impacts because of political correctness. For example, say I wanted to look at how John 1:1, “In the beginning there was the word…”, has shaped contemporary African philosophy, I would quite plausibly find that there is a historical dispute about the translation of ‘logos’ to ‘word’ in this gospel, and, that the controversy reveals an ugly history of how spiritual teachings that are supposed to be holy are indeed actually shaped by people with agendas. My analysis would not say that people should not cite John 1:1, that’s up to them. However, it would investigate the verses with complete commitment to intellectual truth, unafraid of offending any sacrosanctity.

          • Vusi Sindane

            There is a lot of evidence (although I cannot bear testimony about it) that the scriptures got a nice massage from the Romans and this continued to such an extent that it sparked a (Protestant) revolution. That’s good and well.

            The reason I say we cannot debate/analyse religion is because all that is an intellectual exercise. Religions don’t operate on intellect, they operate on faith. For the most part faith sorts out (wheather temporarily or permanently, literally or metaphorically) the issues that our intellect cannot fathom.

            My disposition is that there will always be something we cannot quite fathom intellectually. Intellect is merely a tool you see? I mean how is it that a child can suckle from mommy right after birth, is there any intellect there? If you really want to push it maybe we can talk about evolution and stuff like that but the truth is WE DONT KNOW. In that process of deep contemplation maybe I can arrive at “in the beginning there was the word.” or “we suffer because we desire” as Buddha figured.

            On these grounds, it is then necessary to let religion and faith take its place. And I’m not advocating intellectual complacency, I’m just saying there is a tremendous synergy in both analysis and (it’s 2am here so I’ll call it) wisdom. It’s okay sometimes to say we don’t know (maybe for now). When we do this, I think it allows our more fundamental processes to kick in e.g. I have a feeling that maybe human beings are more than skin and bones, maybe we exist outside the bounds of space and time that’s how we know how to suckle. These are now metaphysical landscapes which we must venture into without intellectual armor but precisely to push the frontiers of our intellect and what we deem possible.

            So, when a guy suddenly asks you if you are Christian, in the middle of your vodka, just say no and move on with your life. Or if you have time, explore his world; not because you are undermining yours, but precisely because intellect relies on metaphysics and the other way round.

          • MsAfropolitan

            It is truly interesting this question of belief and knowledge!
            Sticking to the example provided by @Doreen of the guy at the club, by the same token, we would say that if a group belonging to x-religion violently attack another group belonging to y-religion, the former should just move on with their lives. Or, that if x and y impose discriminatory laws on z, z should just carry on with their lives. The examples might seem inappropriate but they are in fact deeply connected by the common factor pattern of dominance and resistance (of varying degrees).
            Organised religion is hardly simply a question of faith. Nor is faith a matter of unintellectual objectivity. Rather it is unequivocally political. It is a choice to believe that one thing is true while another is false. As I wrote I am not an atheist, but I don’t think that makes me better than an atheist, etc. Thus, what I’m asking is why do we accept certain things as belief? Why in an uncertain world, do we accept belief as a certainty? I do not know that Islam, for instance, is “wrong” any more than a Muslim knows that it is “right”.

            In contrast to the “keep calm and continue sipping your vodka” approach when someone asks you a question that is loaded with moral judgement, it would be interesting to ask the questioner *why* he asked Doreen if she is a Christian. I suspect the answer would not reveal a humane curiosity about, in this instance Doreen’s inner spirit, but rather a desire to 1) put her in a box and 2) determine if that box is of virtue. This is not a sign of faith but of intolerance and intolerance is a result of fear.

            In Africa, as elsewhere, most theological discussion is framed within a social system based on the binary of authority/subordinate: a hierarchical system of differentiation basically. To state that religion is political is not only an acknowledgement of the ways in which faith-based groups behave but also to open a space to discuss, for example, the damning discourses about African spritiualities (positing them as primitive, evil etc.). Or, sticking to the ‘logos’/word example of John 1:1, we probably would find that ‘logos’ is not only “massaged by the Romans” but that it is distinctly male, women are not included in this essence of “the word” in the church tradition. We might then ask: is a woman citing John 1:1 truly participating in an apolitical sermon?

            To be ‘religious’, in its truest sense, means to be conscientiously devoted, thorough, aware… Everything besides that is not being religious but playing political power games while hiding from the truth.
            And since it’s still not clear, I’m not attacking belief, I’m not advocating for non-religion (or any other form of spirituality for that matter). Rather, let me repeat it, I’m asking why we accept certain things as belief? Why in an uncertain world, we accept belief as a certainty?

      • Vusi Sindane

        I would say the reason we accept things as belief is to try and get on with it.

        For instance, how do you really know you were born? Do you remember being born? NO. So how do you know? Truth is, you don’t KNOW for sure.

        So instead of wrestling with this illusive question, you resolve it by faith. You believe you were born because everyone else seems to be getting born and your parents told you (implicitly by calling you their child) and you TRUST them.

        So faith (and believing) has a very practical role in liberating the intellect (and the other way around).


        If someone says something to you that you think is loaded with moral judgement, then YOU are the one who is fully loaded with assumptions. You are more of believer than they are by virtue of assumption. The other person is simply asking a question that, in spite of their intentions or ulterior motives if any, can be resolved easily with a simple Yes or No.

        Secondly, If people from religion X kill the ones from religion Y then again, you will find a lot evidence in both their religions that condemns violence and yet they do it anyway. This has nothing to do with religion, it has to do with self-interest (perhaps it is to preserve political power or whatever) but it really has nothing to do with religion. Religions (and perhaps all ideologies for that matter) are used as a scape-goat to justify a lot of pathetic actions.

        We aught to discuss people and human nature not the things we hide behind.

        • MsAfropolitan

          “We aught to discuss people and human nature not the things we hide behind.”

          I disagree. I think we ought to discuss the things we hide behind: how, why and what effects it has on society.

          • Vusi Sindane

            In that case I can agree to disagree because the things we hind behind come and go. When we abolish the Berlin Wall we invent the Chinese Internet firewall; and this cycle will continue forever.

            The issue for me is why do we need to hide behind these things. Why can’t we, like clouds floating in the sky, float; or like water, flow for the sake of flowing (not because of an underlying reason or ideology). Why can’t we be simple people and laugh and cry and love and hate not because of anything other than the fact that it is within our nature to do all this. Or maybe it is also within our nature to get involved in hiding behind ideologies, religions and things. Maybe it is also within our nature to believe and become skeptical of other things. Maybe all this is perfectly fine don’t you think?

            Good post. Lovely discussion.

          • MsAfropolitan

            Vusi, we certainly agree on one most important thing; that we would like a world which smoothly flows… Thank you for such a wonderful discussion.

  • Uduak Oduok

    I cosign what Vusi said. I couldn’t have said it any better.

  • Mariatou

    Nice piece!
    I have learn long since to accept whatever a person chooses to be due to the fact that i have associated with a lot of people. I believe that no human being should judge a fellow human being.
    But you are right, due to our socialization and mentality it is commonly believed amongst Africans that one must have a religion. i sometimes see the effect of this socialization because i fall a victim of it at times. i ask an individual whether they are “muslim or christian “and they answer “neither” effect of the socialization impulsively ask “why? or what do you mean?” i do try to justify it by blaming it on curiosity but the reality is, its not curiosity alone but the effect of socialization.
    Religion is considered to be so sacred within the African context that before one talks about it, they are urged to be careful about what to say before they offend “GOD”.
    I personally believe that religion should be debatable for various reason, but especially to bring to the light what is and what is not religion. The reason being, many use religion as a cover up for a lot of injustices especially within the Muslim society. Muslim men use religion as excuse for many injustice they do to women and you dear not question because it is “religion”. Religion should be an issue that can be discussed freely because to some extend, it can be said to be created by us.
    In the Gambian context (where i am from) marital rape is not recognized due to the excuse that “in Islam, a man cannot rape his wife because the wife should submit to him at all times.” Many women are sexually violated within their matrimonial homes but because of this concept stated to be “religious” they cannot voice it out and there is no law to protect them because marital rape has been ripped off in many legislations passed in parliament due to the concept stated above.
    So, i honestly believe religion must be debatable for these reasons.
    M. N.

    • MsAfropolitan

      Hi Mariatou! Thanks firstly for reading and commenting but also for directly addressing the issue raised using your own experiences. This is precisely the type of debate we need. Too many violations taking place in the name of religion such as the disturbing lack of marital rape law in Gambia, and too few people probing into it for fear of offending others.
      By placing religious life under the microscope like this, I reckon it can also be eventually liberated from abusers of it so that those who want to practice their faith peacefully can do so. Thanks.

  • Asanempoka

    I also agree with Vusi and am glad someone else said it – Faith. I believe Faith is what sets people apart from organised religion and is the basis of all healing. Faith in one’s God, Faith in oneself, Faith in something greater than oneself, Faith in the example another sets for us. it is that lifts us up and gets us through suffering and heals us. Faith in Science, Faith in our own abilities to heal ourselves, Faith in mass prayer. If our intentions are the same then whatever we call is irrelevant. There is a problem that in some places this is deemed unacceptable but I think there is a futility in questioning things constantly as that leads to confusing arguments and a lack of Faith … Or a Faith based on stubbornness.
    Having learnt about many religions, dating men from various religions, taking Buddhist vows, marrying a Rastafarian Christian whose family is both Christian and animist and now learning about Christian Science, which is all about the science of healing, etc. I am finally okay with building upon my beliefs and developing a beautiful Faith that keeps me serene and looking forward and thinking of others.
    I was reminded the other day of the book and movie, The Life of Pi. Having told the story of e tiger and then the story of the cannibalistic chef to the Japanese men from the shipping company he tells the journalist that on the insurance papers they put the story of the tiger. The journalist then says, ‘so which one is correct?’ and Pi answers, ‘which one do you prefer?’ The journalist says he prefers the story of the tiger and Pi answers…..
    ‘And so it goes with God.’

    • MsAfropolitan

      Hi Asanempoka, I appreciate your thoughts, and nowhere in the post did I say that people should not have faith in something bigger than ourselves humans. In fact since I shared that I’m not an atheist it means I also have ‘faith’ although let me be clear to say that I don’t think that having faith is necessary for anyone to be a ‘good’ person. Rather this post is about how worrying it is that critical discussions concerning the extremely negative political impact religion has had on Africa are silenced out of reverence for religious life. I would love to hear your thoughts on this. Thanks.

  • James Chikonamombe


    As someone who spent every Sunday as a kid trying to shirk from attending Sunday School; and as someone who never believed half the religious drivel fed to me by Catholic Priests at the Jesuit H.S I attended in Zim; and as someone who can never get the gist of a pastor intoning about “the day of judgement”; and as someone who gets bored out of his mind whilst sitting in Church and ends up replaying favourite movie scenes in my head (e.g the dancing scene in “Pulp Fiction”), I totally understand where you’re coming from.

    Having said that, as an African I refrain from telling my fellow Africans that I’m a Secular Humanist. It doesn’t just go down well…even with family members. We’re going through a “stage” right now but it too shall pass. In 100 years time Africans will laugh at the religious drivel that was once fed down their throats.

    I’ll leave you with a joke from my native Zimbabwe about the (supposedly) celibate Black-African Catholic priests. It’s joked that these “celibate” priests invented child-spacing; they always leave a child (or two) at every mission they’re posted to.

    • MsAfropolitan

      He he, well, James, you’ve highlighted a few contradictions of mainstream church life that gives me a headache just thinking about it. I didn’t quite get the last joke and my gut tells me that it was probably best so!
      True, this stage will pass but only if we start discussing more openly and expressing our stances regardless of people’s reactions. I come from a pretty religious family and feel slightly uncomfortable when I think about how family members, especially the older ones, would react to this blog. But they are getting used to me gradually, I hope!

  • KK

    I agree with most of the comments thus far. I think your connection to human rights abuses and gender equity was great too. I was raised so religious, I couldn’t breathe without praying. I later got a MA in Theology and traded in the blind faith for a questioning and critiquing mind. It bothers my family to an extent but I am ok with the outcome. I do miss the community that rallied together in times of need.

  • Kwizy Mariza

    Dear Minna,
    thank you for article on religion. I do share many of your thoughts especially when it’s about questionning our faith in any religion. Without defending them, i think priests or pastors, are also therapists, because our african societies are facing so much social pbs and there’s no place for the most vulnerable and invisibilized people to be helped. I especially think about women and the youth. Because they don’t “socially” exist , they use religion in order to support their harsh realities. Moreover, many people are not enought educated to have their one critic reading of the Holy Books (Coran and Bible). God only see the heart He doesn’t act like humans,who most of the time are quickly judgmental.

    To conclude….I heard a quote from a priest : Do what i say not what I do…

    • MsAfropolitan

      Thanks for the thoughtful comment. I understand what you mean and I share your concern, but I do believe that there is a critical debate to be had about religious life despite, or maybe even because of, the very “therapy” role you emphasise that the religious leaders play. That element of their work can be crucial but it often happens within a context that upholds paradigms that cause more social havoc than they prevent in the long term.

      ‘Do what i say not what I do…’ LOL. In a nutshell

    • MsAfropolitan

      Thanks for the thoughtful comment. I understand what you mean and I share your concern, but I do believe that there is a critical debate to be had about religious life despite, or maybe even because of, the very “therapy” role you emphasise that the religious leaders play. That element of their work can be crucial but it often happens within a context that upholds paradigms that cause more social havoc than they prevent in the long term.

      ‘Do what i say not what I do…’ LOL. In a nutshell