In Africa, what does it mean to be religious when occupiers came wielding holy books?

If a holy book is the word of God -- whichever God -- what does it say about that God when the word is used for hate?

In 2012, the Win-Gallup International Religiosity and Atheism Index, which measures how people self-identify when it comes to religious beliefs globally, released a survey of some 52 000 individuals in 57 countries between November 2011 and January 2012.

The result showed that the number of religious South Africans dropped from 83% in 2005, when the survey was last conducted, to 64% in 2012. The survey found that 28% of South Africans did not consider themselves religious, while 4% identified themselves as atheist, and 5% did not respond to questions. As a whole, the survey found that, globally, the number of people claiming to be religious dropped by 19%, while atheism rose by 3%.

The two countries with the most people who identify as religious were found to be in Africa. In first place was Ghana, with 96% of respondents saying they are religious. Nigeria was in second place, with 93%. On the atheism scale, China led with 47% of Chinese respondents identifying as atheist, followed by Japan with 31% and the Czech Republic with 30%.

Religion did not come to Africa peacefully. The most insidious part of organised religion has been the holy books and all that continues to be done in their names.

In Africa, what does it mean to be religious when occupiers came wielding holy books? When, in many countries, those books are still used as morality barometers that dictate who gets to love and who gets humanity? If religion is to play a positive role in the future and in where the continent is headed morally, it is important to challenge hateful acts committed in the name of religion. It is important to affirm humanity above all things.

“The inability of religion to account for uncontroversial and almost ubiquitous suffering -- disease and poverty -- makes religion disconnected from human experience in ways that are meaningful,” says Luvo Gila (23), a politics student and musician who was raised without religion playing a significant life in his life. Of the absence of religion in his upbringing Gila says, “I didn't have to undo anything.” But the state of religion is not only being questioned by those who stand at its fringes.

Pontsho Pilane, a journalist and feminist, blogged about her seemingly contradictory belief systems. On the one hand she is a feminist – the ideology of feminism advocates for equality for all people, especially those underprivileged by sexism, racism, capitalism, homophobia and transphobia amongst other oppressive beliefs. On the other hand, she is Christian. Christianity, like most organised religions, are sexist and homophobic.

Chapter 2 of the South African Constitution protects freedom of religion, belief and opinion. Regardless of which side of the religious belief spectrum one stands, that belief is validated and protected by the Constitution as long as it is not harmful to others.

Christianity is not the only religion whose teachings have been used to justify despicable acts committed throughout time. Right now in the world for most, the “war on terror” is synonymous with the “war on Islam.” One of the many changes religion has to make is examining how both the religious and nonreligious can reconcile their beliefs with real life and work to protect those persecuted for their beliefs.

The International Religiosity and Atheism Index survey also found that, worldwide, people in the bottom income groups – poor people – were 17% more religious than people in the top income groups. In total the low income group accounted for 66% of religious people and the high income groups accounted for 49%. 

In the past two years, we have seen this play out in South Africa’s townships. There has been a rise of so-called “false prophets” and pastors who have gotten their poor, black congregations to do obscene things in the name of healinpoverty.holy books,g and faith. For instance, 2014 saw the notorious Rabboni Ministries and its pastor, Lesego Daniel, who had his flock eating grass and later had them drinking petrol. In 2015 it was reported that End Times Disciples Ministries, in Soshanguve, Pretoria, had the congregation eating snakes and cloth that “tasted like chocolate.”

There is also the blessed water, ointments, blessed candles and, more recently, blessed sanitary pads, which have, for years, formed part of the church economy. These blessings come at a price, which is not included in tithes. With the poor fuelling this economy built on faith, they are not the winners.

These instances show that people desperately believe, and that they have faith, which has often been misused by individuals who promise a higher grace and closeness with whichever deity. In their pursuit of higher faith, people don’t mind eating grass or flying to Nigeria because it has been said that is the path that will bring them closer to their God. It’s in this murky plane that chancers thrive and take advantage of the poor.

Pilane writes: “[..] I choose to stay because my personal relationship with God is a real one. I stay because it is my faith that fuels my views on gender equality and justice. It is in the midst of this tug of war that I have loved Jesus more – and because of that, I am a feminist.”

As the statistics show, religion is still relevant in the African context. But as Pilane’s inner turmoil, which is experienced by many millennials – be it about religion or tradition – also shows: the faith is no longer blind. As such, the religious have to interrogate and adapt their faith. If “God is love,” those who believe in that God have to interrogate what that love should look like in the world.