The ‘E’ in Religion

I recently have begun to think that we need to displace God in our understanding and analysis of religion. Ordinarily, this might seem blasphemous at first glance. But my words were chosen without arbitrariness. At the end of this, a different kind of light, I expect, should shine in the murky waters irrigated in the name of God. Once I would think that religion was the best thing that happened to the world; that when men began to think of super-naturalness instead of just naturalness it was the apex of human existence, and the glories and vaunts staged in the name of advanced technology was incomparable. But there is the evidence of banality, not just in the name of God, but with pride in the fact that, believe it or not, God would want it in only hackneyed ways.

Religion should not be defined in its variant sense, in the sense of names and descriptions. Defining religion in this way is false because it suits papers and data-collection, not reality. One is asked to fill in his religion in a sheet, and he puts a name or another. It is not reality because it is a passing-by thing. He might be defined by what he has written, but altogether we cannot define religion in the name a person fills in a sheet of paper.

But we can, verily, define religion in human efforts to reach God. In other words, this is no God-business, it is a human affair. The moment we see it this way, everything falls into place. That is why John Micklethwait points out that “…when historians look back at this century, they will probably see religion as ‘the prime animating and destructive force in human affairs, guiding attitudes to…conflicts and wars.’” That is why America’s next war might just be against the Islamic Republic of Iran. So, this is really true and must not be misconstrued: though the target of religion is God, those who helm the target are humans, their very core included.

Thus, it is easy to identify the E in Religion. Egocentricity.

I like the definition of egocentricity by John Sanford and George Lough which I found. “Egocentricity may be defined as a state in which a person is concerned with his own defense and the fulfillment of his own ambitions, which ambition, on close scrutiny, turn out to be closely tied to his defenses.” The import of this is simple. A man is inducted into a religion from birth or at any point in his lifetime. Through the practice of that religion, he is told he can reach to God. He is told that there are certain things he must do to maintain his acceptance as a follower. He might be indoctrinated, he might not be. But now he has a defense and an ambition. His defense consists of his religion, that this is authentic manner to get to God, because the authenticity of the claim is narrated through tales and books he believes in. his ambition is to become a true follower of that religion, to leave nothing left in becoming an acclaimed follower of his God. And so, he is concerned (this concern varies in people) with that defense and the fulfillment of that ambition.

Everything falls into place. The 2002 religious riots in India which began when a train carrying Hindu activists caught fire in a Muslim neighbourhood, which resulted in the death of 2,000 people. The hacking of a woman’s husband by her Hindu neighbours. The Northern Nigeria riots.

A man must defend himself against a re-telling of his religion, against anyone claiming his own religion is superior, against any religion apart from his. He has accepted his religion as the way of getting to God, and no other one should thrive. There is common sense in this. So when that man sees a way to defend himself, a little political controversy or some other happening even unconnected to religion, he thinks it is a threat to his defenses, and he hacks his neighbor. He could be justified—he wants to fulfill his ambitions of being a perfect follower of his God, he wants his defenses to remain. This is exactly why a Hindu nationalist, Prafull Goradia suggests that Indian Muslims should be forced to take an oath of loyalty, and he would support the idea that Muslims of all sorts move to Arabia. This is also why restaurants in Turkey are nervous about serving food during the Ramadan fast, lest some fanatic begins to fear that his defenses have been severed and the restaurants want to prevent him from fulfilling his ambitions.

One lesson we are yet to learn is that egocentricity is not creative at all. It resists change. The extremist Christian thought is to disallow any form of technology. Sometime in 2007, Christians in Kenya recently denounced the exhibition of the Turkana Boy, which happens to be the most complete prehistoric human skeleton. They refused its exhibition because it is said that the Tropicana Boy lived thousands of years before Adam is supposed to have met Eve. This assertion is not necessarily true, but those Kenyan Christians did not divert their minds to that. Their defenses took over. So here are examples of the inherent lack of creativity in egocentricity. The egocentric individual is rigid: he resists time, aging and anything that requires it to make a new adaptation to life. He does not think of applying texts written in earlier centuries to his present century. He wants it the way it is, the way it was when he got wind of it, any other way is unacceptable.

Now, it is easy to fit in several suicide bombings, several hackings and killings. We can even explain other atrocities committed in the name of certain other defenses: ethnicity, politics, and so forth. The man who has let himself to be taken over by ego, by the blindness of seeing only his defenses, only his ambitions, and none other.

Yann Martel aptly confronts this issue in his Man Booker winning book, Life of Pi, noting, “…people fail to realize that it is on the inside that God must be defended, not on the outside. They should direct their anger at themselves. For evil in the open is but evil from within that has been let out. The main battlefield for good is not the open ground of the public arena but the small clearing of each heart.” Let everyman confront his egocentricity and we may have no religious conflict anymore.

Again, Yann Martel was right when he said, “religion is about our dignity, not our depravity.” For even though the idea of religion is purely a human enterprise (his seeking to get to God), it seems more apt to dignify himself in his religious endeavor than to exemplify depravity.

I end where I began. If religion is truly to be practiced, we must displace God. We must consider ourselves as key to conceptualizing religion.

Written by
Emmanuel Iduma
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