Dr. Kwame Nantambu

The value of religion in life
Posted: February 18, 2002
An analysis by
Dr. Kwame Nantambu

Religion is a universal part of human life. It must, therefore, have a great and important value, otherwise by now most people in the world would have abandoned it completely. People find religion as a necessary part or element of life. In the case of Afrikan peoples, it is as if we do not know how to live without religion or spirituality.

People spend a lot of their time and wealth on religion. Some of the most beautiful buildings in the world are or have been religious buildings such as tombs, temples, cathedrals, churches, mosques and other sacred places.

People are often ready to die for their religion, and many thousands have done so. Many others sacrifice their fame, power, wealth, property and time for the sake of religion. Religion must have a great value for people, otherwise nobody would die for it or give so much for its sake. People make sacrifices and offerings of the best they have for the sake of religion. In some instances, even human beings are sometimes killed or sacrificed because of people's beliefs and practices. Therefore, religion must be even more valuable to them than the life of individuals or people's property.

Followers of a given religion are often ready to fight and defend it or something related to it. They are sometimes unreasonable, fierce and fanatical if their religion is threatened by force or disrespect. They treasure their religion, and anything that threatens it would seem to threaten their whole existence.

From time to time, people go freely to perform their religious duties, ceremonies and rituals. They even fast, inflict pain on their bodies, deny themselves the pleasures and comforts of this life, go on pilgrimage at great expense, cross national boundaries and oceans in order to take the religious message to other people, and do other things, all for the sake of religion.

These are done voluntarily, freely, willingly and happily in most cases, even though occasionally force or pressure may be put on people. People often decide freely to join a particular religion. It must be, therefore, that there is something valuable in religion to make people do all these things of their own will.

Most governments and countries of the world provide for religious freedom. This provision is often a part of their constitutions. People in these countries have the right to freedom of conscience, freedom of creed, freedom of association for religious purposes, and freedom of worship.Therefore those who make the laws and constitutions of the nations of the world must appreciate the value of religion.

In many countries of Afrika, and the world for that matter, there are national religious holidays such as Christmas, Good Friday and Easter, The Muslim feast which ends the month of fasting (Ramadan) and so on. About half, and in some cases more than half, of the public holidays in Afrikan countries are associated with religious festivals. People apply their religion to their social, emotional, economic, intellectual and spiritual life. They believe that religion is relevant in all these areas of their life.

Religion has given Afrikan peoples a way of understanding the world in which they live. This is important, because that understanding of the world affects their experience of life. It supplies them with answers to the questions which arise for all human beings. To say this does not mean that they are the correct or the only answers. They are simply answers which people have found practicable and meaningful to themselves. People cannot live without asking questions about their existence and the existence of the world, and about their own experiences of being alive.

Afrikan peoples have found answers to these questions within their religion, even if some of the question may not be satisfactorily answered. By giving people a way of interpreting the world, a way of understanding their own existence, religion has equipped them emotionally, intellectually and culturally to go through life and face its many experiences. If what gives them answers and solutions was suddenly abolished, people would feel lost in this vast universe. Religion acts as a light and guide to people as they go through life and reflect upon it.

Part of any religious system is its moral values which regulate and harmonise human life. It is religion which tells us what is right and what is wrong, what is good and what is evil, what is just and what is unjust, what is a virtue and what is a vice. Religion has many moral values within the family and within the community. No society can exist without morals. Religion enriches people's morals, for the welfare of the individual and society at large. Morals build relationships between people and between them and the world around.

Religion helps people to communicate in two directions. First, there is social communication. People meet together for a common purpose, for example to pray together, to perform a ritual together, to sacrifice together, and so on. They also meet indirectly through having common myths, legends, values, traditions, morals and views of the world. Because of religion they are able to understand on another, to communicate ideas and feelings and to act more or less as a social unit, even if there may be other differences. At least in theory, religion gathers people together both in action and in religious commitment. This can be thought of as the horizontal direction of religious communication.

Secondly, there is vertical communication between man and God, as well as between man and the spirit beings. Afrikan peoples are very much aware of the invisible world, which is an essential dimension of their views of the universe. These two worlds are close to each other. Therefore, Afrikan peoples feels that they have to communicate with that invisible world as well.

It is religion which turns their life in that direction so that they can communicate with God, with the spirits and particularly with the living dead who form part of their family. They are also able to penetrate the forces and powers of nature, which often they imagine to be personal forces. Probably the greatest value of religion is to teach people to be humble because of their great limitations. It tells men that they are created, and that however much they may celebrate this life, it is short, temporary and flowing like a river. Religion teaches people to be dependent on their Creator. Even though Afrikan Religion puts men at the center of the universe, it also shows them very clearly that they have their limitations.

This is what drives them to their rituals, prayers, ceremonies and trust in God. Even the greatest achievement of man is limited, and does not last for ever. It is at this crucial juncture of man's limitations and humility that the poem titled 'If God should go on strike' becomes very relevant to our existence on this planet.

The poem reads as follows:

'How good it is that God above
has never gone on strike
Because he was not treated
fair in things he didn't like
If only once he'd given up
and said that's it I'm through
I've had enough of those on earth
So this is what I'll do
I'll give my order to the sun;
to cut all the heat supply
And to the moon, give no more light
And run the oceans dry

Then just to make things really tough
and put the pressure on
I'll turn off the vital
oxygen till every breath is gone
You know he would be justified
If fairness was the game
For no one has been more
abused or met with more disdain than God

And yet he carries on supplying
you and me with all the favour of his grace
And everything for free
Men say they want a better deal
And so on strike they go

But what a deal we have given God
To whom all things we owe
We don't care whom we hurt or kill
To gain the things we like
But what ah mess we would
all be in if God should go on strike'

Whether religion is right or wrong, it tells people to be humble in the sight of their Creator who is God, and to trust in him. Their life comes from him and depends on him. In directing people to put their trust in God,breligion is doing the best it can for men, by showing them both their origin and their destination. This is what, in its own limited ways, Afrikan Religion has done for Afrikan peoples throughout their history.

Shem Hotep ("I go in peace").

Dr. Nantambu is an Associate Professor, Dept. of Pan-African Studies, Kent State University, U.S.A.

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