By Marshall Defender Nyanhete
"Religion has largely become an act of interpretation. In these modern times, the creator no longer creates but is created."
The best parts of me I owe to religion. The worst, most obnoxious, parts of me originate also from that same source. As you have probably already gathered, my experience of religion has largely been an experience of conflict.
The decision to take up faith is a subconscious choice. The subconscious forms the majority of our cognitive make-up and in comparison to the active parts of our thinking, is so vast and multi-layered that we will never be able to comprehend the entirety of its workings. Attempting to would be a little like streaming a high-resolution video (e.g. 1080p) through a server capable of actualising only low thresholds of resolution (e.g. 360p). The extra information does not cease to exist but we cease to be able to comprehend it. In trying to understand ourselves and our belief systems, therefore, we must be prepared to accept the fact that there is much we do not know simply because there is much we cannot see. Rather than take offence at my attempt to do just that, I would counsel you to remember that the sky is best observed from the ground and the ground from the sky and it is often the gaze of others - removed from our situation - that offers us the truest glimpse of ourselves. In this article, I will offer up my understanding of religion as afforded me by my unique viewing of it.
The issue of perspective is a doubly interesting one because all religious structures are formed around a story. These stories often encompass the ideals of a group of believers and are readily believed because they almost always reflect the world back to the group, as that group perceives it or even as they wish to perceive it. Here’s the rub; because the believer, the person, the “I”, resides at the centre of everything they encounter, even identical stories, over time, become fallible to individuated understandings. That is how you can come to have a strain of Christianity in Southern Africa (catholicism: for example) that is all-together alien to its Italian counterpart. We cannot help this. We see the world through our own eyes, through the lens of our wants, our priorities, and our fears. In the past, this was largely addressed by conquest. A new ruler would come in, assimilate the interpretations that they didn’t like whilst reinforcing the ones that they did like (often because they validated their sovereignty). The religious world today is largely free of the exertions of Genghis’ and Julius’ and, perhaps as a result, it is overwhelmingly full of conflict.
Why is it mostly impossible to distinguish religion from national identity? From a deep-rooted, almost subconscious, desire to see oneself manifested into the world we cannot help but bring aspects of our own culture over into the practises that we engage in. Each nation interprets only what suits its sensibilities, the rest is stored away into the vaults of unwilling obliviousness. This is how so-called “chosen nations” come into being. This is how a man can come to have dominion over a woman. This is why some can quite contentedly do away with the old testament. This choice, as is indeed the case with all those mentioned, is directly resultant of the cultural and geographic origin of the interpretation. In harsher Christian countries, where the law is absolute, sacred even, the old testament is more often than not regarded as an important part of the whole; whilst in other more liberal nations, where the law is open to examination and reform, it meets with the fate alluded to some sentences above. This of course only serves to further add to the conflict.
There is a strong argument to say that most religion is no longer religion. It has fallen prey to ego and competition and has become an exercise, for the most part, in demonstration. I have been both entangled in and observant of the great game of politics that occurs whenever any more than two people join together in any practice. Religion is no different. Humanity, unable or unwilling to leave behind its primal instincts, translocates its great governing law: the law of dominance into the act of faith itself. In religious structures where there are no other perceivable rankings, there must always be a believer who is regarded as the believer who believes most, or a holy person who is the holiest. Practised thusly religion, as with most aspects of human interaction, becomes a chessboard upon which a player must either attain or relinquish power. What makes it even more complicated is that you have the added veneer of holiness thrown into the mix meaning that the individuals playing the game are unwilling to admit, even to themselves, that they are.
"Each nation interprets only what suits its sensibilities, the rest is stored away into the vaults of unwilling obliviousness."
I am not oblivious to the fact that all these factors form only a tiny and observable peak and that beneath such a surface the iceberg of religion has so much more to offer. Quite apart from the world of televised miraculous theatrics, I have seen faith heal people of illness and better the quality of people’s lives. Whether this is a placebo, a self-fulfilling fantasy, or something much more, it is undeniably a good thing and an aspect unique to religion. It is also an irrefutable fact that religious people are far less vulnerable to neuroticisms in the form of anxiety and depression. That is because faith offers up a focal point, in the form of God(s), that reduces greatly the probability of one ever feeling that they have become in some way untethered. Religion taught me kindness and at its core, it is exactly that. It attempts to provide an answer to life’s questions: who are we and where are we going? It is a thing that deserves to be treated with respect because for billions it is a spark within the darkness of living. Equally, religion must never be forced on people because those circumstances alone mean that it ceases to be the thing that it is. In other words: religion is useless if it is not willingly walked into.
“God is dead and we have killed him” is a statement that shook the world at its utterance but one that I think warrants further examination. I say this because religion has largely become an act of interpretation. In these modern times, the creator no longer creates but is created. Man hews out the image of God according to his perspective: his wants, priorities, fears, and as predicated above, define what God can and can’t be. Over time, these multiple variations would of course naturally cohere to create an altogether new entity; sometimes giving birth to new denominations and, in the most extreme cases, new religions; in the meantime, however, you are left with a great degree of uncertainty and as a result: conflict. This is because you now have groups of monotheists gathering together to worship a God that is not, in fact, the same God. Even If God isn’t dead, he has been chopped up into loads of tiny in-cohesive pieces and is no longer the thing he was.
"In other words: religion is useless if it is not willingly walked into."
In matters of faith, I understand enough to know that there is much I do not understand. That said, however, religions are institutions that have a very real impact upon society and as such, they must never be allowed to exist beyond the realm of examination. A way to measure the value of something is to weigh the joy it offers against the misery it yields. Questions allow us to do that. Curiosity results in us being afforded the chance to either consolidate or reject the belief systems that we choose to govern our lives. As such, questions are indispensable.
Marshall Defender Nyanhete is a self-taught student of psychology, hugely interested in diasporic politics and contending with the question of how we can all best function within an increasingly polarised society.
Disclaimer: All views expressed in this piece belong solely to the author and do not reflect the views of Demographica as a company.