Religion and development: A mixed bag and double edged sword

By Voice of Micah

There is a line of thought that argues that religion is not developmental. This is development understood as improvement in the material conditions of people. Often Western societies are cited as examples where the Christian religion was dominant at one time in history, but today, with advancement in science and technology, it is relegated to the private space.

Religion is about beliefs and rituals concerned with supernatural beings, powers and forces. It is a cultural universal, existing in all human societies in one form or another. Some religions are less organized, while others are highly organized with defined institutional arrangements, structures, leadership, laws and regulations. Judaism, Christianity and Islam fall into this category of highly organized religions.

There are characteristics unique to organized religion. These include founding personalities, history, use of holy books, sets of well-defined doctrines embodying beliefs and values; practices and traditions, rights and privileges of members, clear power relations, authority and responsibilities with corresponding institutions of governance and administration.

The ambivalence of religion

There are writers and development specialists who vehemently argue against any meaningful role of religion in the development of society. In their opinion, the more religious a society is; the greater the risks that it will remain less developed. These critics are found almost in every generation in human history. Titus Lucretius Carus, a Roman poet and philosopher, is reputed to have described religion as a source of impiety. And in his own day, Napoleon Bonaparte considered it a handy tool for the rich in controlling the poor.

Also critical is the description of religion by Epicurus. For him, religion is a product of fear and ignorance. By striking fear with all sorts of threats, religion manages to manipulate and whip its adherents into line. Karl Marx, a renowned philosopher went on to describe religion as the opium of the poor. He sees in it a hypnotizing effect just like any hard drug such as marijuana or cocaine. It sets its users on high, for a moment experiencing relief from mental or physical anguish. Close to this view is Niccollo Machiavelli. For him, religion is an effective tool for the manipulation of public opinion by leaders.

A different tone, though still a suspicious, is set by Francois-Marie Arouet Voltaire, Bertrand Russell and Sam Harris. In their respective analysis, all share the conclusion that religion fuels intolerance, a bitter fruit born out of its tendency to monopolize truth.

For this reason, organized religion is inherently divisive and exclusive. For David Hume, religion lacks philosophical basis since its claims fall below any possible validation at the bar of reason. The views of David Dennett and Richard Dawkins on this matter seem to agree with Hume’s opinion. Both observe that religion promotes belief in strange things and delusions.

Perhaps more hostile is Harris’ critique. Sam Harris treats religion as a form of mental illness. The reason is that religion allows otherwise normal human beings to reap the fruits of madness considering them holy. Underlying this critique is a suggestion that religious beliefs and traditions held over generations are nothing but products of mental illness.

Auguste Comte popularly considered the father of sociology, also associate religion with less developed and primitive societies. Comte contends that myths and religion are typical tools employed by primitive societies to explain causes and effects. In his opinion future generations will entirely rely on science and technology as the most certain tools in establishing certitude and resolving human predicaments other than religion.

Uses and abuses of religion

To some extent, critics who take religion to be one of the tools for underdevelopment have a point. There are aspects that are susceptible to manipulation in an attempt to frustrate development. That is why methodical suspicion is important in dealing with religion. Even in Malawi there are religious traditions that only focus on erecting infrastructure for prayer and worship, with nothing to do with education or healthcare. These religious traditions find illiteracy more convenient in advancing their agenda which has nothing to do with people’s welfare, thus gravely undermining their capacity to develop.

Religion can be used to disorient society from any engagement with practical questions of the here and now, especially for the majority oppressed.  It has also the potential to be used in stifling the drive for scientific research and innovation. This is particularly the case where religious explanations are brought to bear on matters that require scientific investigation. Also potentially retrogressive is the role of fate that lurks beneath some religious beliefs and traditions. This militates against the spirit of planning and management, including the value of hard work which is critical for development. Some ethical beliefs, practices and even prohibitions, are equally counterproductive.  

King Leopold II of Belgium deprived Africans of any chance of developing

Religion can also be used to create and sustain a state of “transit mentality,” characterized by less interest in the present in favour of the world to come. There is ample evidence of this trend in the history of Christian evangelization in Africa. Once upon a time, there were practices among some missionaries whose primary agenda was to disorient the indigenous populations.

Perhaps more than anyone else, King Leopold II of Belgium is on record having given instructions to colonial missionaries with specific intent to deprive the “savages”, as he called them, of any chance of developing. In his archival letter (1883), issued to the colonial missionaries shortly before the partition of Africa (1884/85), Leopold II calls upon them not to bother teaching the “savages” about God and his laws, but rather to inspire and protect the interests of Belgium. The missionaries were to act as soft power in the colonization business.

For him, the real task of the missionaries was to facilitate the work of colonial administrators and the captains of the industries. They were to keep watch on disinteresting “our savages from the richness plentiful in their underground”, says Leopold II. In carrying out this official mandate, the missionaries were to interpret the gospel in the way it would best protect colonial interests.

Missionaries were expected to meticulously use their knowledge of scriptures to find texts ordering and encouraging the followers to love poverty. In this regard, Leopold gave practical examples citing texts like; “Happier are the poor because they will inherit heaven,” (Mat. 5:3) and “it is very difficult for the rich to enter the kingdom of God” (Mat.19:24). 

All this was meant to detach and ensure that the indigenous people disrespect everything that gives courage to affront the colonial agents. They were also instructed to destroy cultural symbols that gave identity to the people. Time and energy were to focus more on the youth. The belief was that the teachings of the priests could not be contradicted by parents. With this drive, the missionaries were expected to create mistrust at the very root of society, the family. The youth were to be trained to trust priests more than their parents. The effect of this was to create a clean break between the older generation and the emergent society. 

Leopold II implored the colonial missionaries to ensure complete obedience and submission of the youth to the teachings of the missionary, the father of their soul. For the first time, the term “father” takes a new meaning. No longer is it restricted to its original biological meaning. There is now a new father, a priest who is responsible for their souls.

The new development was a usurpation of its kind in power and meaning of the term. The missionary school system was the prime vehicle for this drive. Students were expected to read and not to reason; hence it was more of brainwashing than real learning. Evangelism was to ensure perpetual submission to the white colonialists, everyday reciting, “Happy are those who are weeping because the kingdom of God is for them” (Luke 6:20).

Further strategies were designed to reinforce submission. As a sign of recognition, the “savages” were to be compelled to pay such goods and items like goats, chickens and eggs every time the missionaries visited villages. At every cost, the missionaries were to ensure that the “savages” were never to become rich. Tax was to be paid each week at Sunday mass, and the money meant for the poor was to be used to build flourishing business centres.

Quite interesting also is the instruction to institute a confessional system to allow the missionaries to be good detectives of any individual with a different consciousness contrary to that of the colonial decision maker. Interestingly, John Hughes in his master piece, On Intelligence: The History of Espionage and the Secret World; attests to the existence of this facility, the confessional system, as a tool used for information gathering.

In conclusion, Leopold II instructed the colonial missionaries to teach the indigenous people to forget their heroes and only to adore “ours”. Such heroes, most certainly, included explorers, leaders and inventors, as well as saints and holy men and women from back home. The reform of the Church in African, if it were to take place, would surely do well to take this into serious account. Very little has changed since the days of the colonial missionaries. In one form or another, these teachings and practices are still in vogue in the church.

The developmental side of religion

While there are genuine concerns about the way religion has been used with regard to development, this is not in absolute terms. There is ample evidence throughout history that proves the developmental dimension of organized religion. Even in countries where religion has now been relegated to the background, still there are landmarks of this contribution in terms of infrastructure and services in form of education, social work and healthcare.

In some instances, there are business and economic investments accredited to religious institutions. Not only have these uplifted lives of people through job creation, but have also enhanced national development. Another major contribution of religion worthy considering is the value system. Generally, the family, the village and the church are the three communities that exert lasting impact on the ethical behavior of the individual.

Very often, the values of honesty, trustfulness, love, hard-work, care, integrity, fairness and justice, a child learn all these from the family, the village and the church, long before any meaningful contact with the school, at least in this part of the world. These values are eloquently pronounced in organized religions. These values are at the core of any truly human civilization, and are the basis of successful, stable, prosperous and sustainable communities.

Religion is also a great catalyst for human development. True development is not restricted to economic growth. Rather it embraces social and human dimensions. In many countries around, the church is at the centre of social and human development through programmes in areas like education, healthcare, information and communication, as well as food security. Thus the view that religion lacks a developmental side is for practical purposes hollow.  In Malawi, for example, education and healthcare are unimaginable independent of the faith community.

To wind up the discussion, careful analysis shows that the perception that religion is not developmental stems from its abuses usually for political and economic expediency.

In itself, religion is primarily concerned with human relationship with the supernatural. How the relationship is interpreted and lived is a different thing altogether, and this is where manipulation is susceptible to satisfy ulterior motives and ends.