Are Africans Religious?

John S. Mbiti, an African Christian scholar coined the phrase that “Africans are religious.” However, the recent news coverage of Atheists, in Kenya nonetheless, left a bad taste in the mouths of many a “religious African.” The fact that there was a group of Africans convening a meeting to educate parents on godless parenting reported by the Standard Newspaper in September 2016, discloses to us the trend that is too obvious, and that simultaneously offers a rebuttal to Mbiti’s claim. The trend that is bemoaned within the global church is that of millennials leaving the church.

Millennials ditching Church . . .

Typing the phrase on google shows how much interest this trend has attracted. My personal interest in this topic lies in the fact that I was once a personal statistic. My undergraduate years unlocked certain intellectual questions that I had about the Christian faith which I had no one to turn to, without being looked down upon as being irreligious. This led me to abandon the Church that had nurtured much of my conception of the world and humanity, even about the afterlife. Having come to the faith after reading the Bible, I knew that I had to settle my intellectual angst with topics that were problematic for me before. In fact, I researched, in a bit more depth, the core Christian teachings in light of other competing religious and philosophical teachings – This meant that I would sometimes struggle through understanding certain texts and so cut my teeth with painstaking effort. Having focused my research on those who had left the church (those who have been “de-churched”) several points stood out:

  1. Some felt that church leaders were hypocritical in that they did not practice what they preached;
  2. Some felt like church was more like a consumeristic show full of charlatans;
  3. Some found solace in other better philosophies, and
  4. Some went through the experience of pain and suffering which removed any consolation that a God existed in their lives.

Part of my book A Curious Faith: Love, Loss and Living, deals with this issue of pain and suffering and why God allows it in addition to my journey to faith. Much of these reasons however have been discovered by others who have also researched on the issue of the de-churched in different contexts. One instructive book for me on this has been David Kinnaman’s, You Lost Me: Why Young People are Leaving Church and Rethinking Faith.

Kinnaman is insightful in as far as my own personal experience and that of the others I have interacted with goes. Of course, the stories from those who have done so are unique and no one analysis can apply across the board. In sum, he observes that

“a generation of young Christians believe that the Churches in which they were raised are not safe and hospitable places to express doubts.”

At a deeper analysis, there may be two reasons for this: first, a misconception of certainty in knowledge or what it means to know; and second a generational gap that has not provided such a space to question. J. Paul Nyquist and Carson Nyquist, a father and son duo, respond to the latter reason in their book The Post-Church Christian: Dealing with the Generational Baggage of Our Faith. The younger Nyquist, writing from a millennial perspective, acknowledges that because the older generation within the church have walked with God for long, they have forgotten to instruct the younger generation on the process and have instead focused on perfection. It is such inauthenticity that young people can easily identify and be repelled from, he notes.

An Authentic, Rich and Relevant Theology

At least, this agrees with the first and second reasons I identified from those like myself who had been de-churched. The solution for this I think is to be more authentic and deeply biblical. Central to scripture is the idea of God redeeming a people who are failures and hypocrites, for even our most righteous deeds are “like filthy rags.” The biblical story is that of God redeeming that which has been destroyed by the fall of man, and this distortion is more than evident in our own lives. Yet belief in Jesus is confidence in who he says he is and what he is doing in us, as biblical data informs us.

Far many times the Christian messages in our churches have only been a list of moral lessons meant to pacify “good people” and to scare “bad ones.” This teaching, famously coined as Moral Therapeutic Deism by sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton, is correlated with the repugnance of youth with the church. In such churches, god is seen merely as a godfather who is aloof, a bit far off, people being able to pacify him by doing a few good things. Yet a concise scriptural understanding shows that God is distinct from creation, sustaining it through his power, yet close enough that he has come into human reality in the form of Jesus Christ to transform the entire cosmos. The biblical vision of God as Holy is foundational in teaching us how we unholy people can identify with him through Christ, the perfect God-man. Perhaps if we were to regain the Christian intellectual tradition through theological reflection and practice, we might have the dropouts, such I was, coming back since the truth of Jesus Christ is beautiful and attractive.

Atheists in Kenya

I think this is what would help us to respond to distorted worldviews about the world. The Atheists in Kenya (AIK) give a gimmick that a world that exists without God would be necessarily better than one that does. Their mission is simply to separate religion from the state. Yet even states that have been run with a secular or atheistic ethos have contributed just as much pain to the world. Globally, Russia’s Stalin, China’s Mao Zedong and Germany’s Hitler are examples – The statistics of mass murders in these states have caused some to claim that the 20th century has seen more mass murders than the last 19 centuries combined. The point is that religion or lack of it is not necessarily the issue and hence an argument that is based on this commits the fallacy of false cause.

I find it interesting that the AIK consider themselves as unbiased towards both those who hold to religious belief and those who do not, yet they are expending their efforts on the submersion of religious belief in the public square. In their self-refuting argumentation, they illustrate that indeed, reason alone cannot be an arbiter of harmonious coexistence let alone providing a robust ethical fiber. In this regard then, they already oppose their first objective which they list as “to promote and practice the open, rational, and scientific examination of the universe and our place in it.” If they were open, why can’t they make room for those who hold to religious belief? It has always been an interesting observation to me that those who tout logical reasoning think that they can do so objectively, without any underlying presuppositions. Would the fact that there are logical people who disagree based on rational discourse prove that we may not necessarily come to the same conclusions? Further, would our logical reasoning allow us to live with each other with civility? Logical reasoning is not only an entitlement that atheists can lay claim to, because thinking is synonymous with being human across different spectrums. Needless to say, there are both atheists and religious people alike who do not think about what they believe and may only appeal to emotional outbursts but that does not refute the human ability to think. All humans can run but it is not necessarily a norm that all humans are athletes. To say therefore that humans who do not compete athletically cannot run is an over simplification.

Take for instance the story of the preeminent Atheist C. S. Lewis who became a self-professed believer, and went on to publish widely as a formidable Christian author and apologist. The likes of Allister McGrath a formidable Christian intellectual who teaches at Oxford also swapped teams. While the counterclaim can be made, that is, that there are also some who moved their religious affiliation in the other direction, the point is made: Logical reasoning presumes certain underlying assumptions and is thus not unbiased. To make my point further, would the AIK be willing to apply critical thinking to their atheism? The proverbial person who throws stones in a glass house risks finding himself homeless. If the AIK were open minded enough to look to the past, they would realize that their atheism is nothing new. They are only riding the tide of the New Atheists, themselves only retrieving an old atheism in the likes of people such as Sigmund Freud. The New Atheists have been popularized by the Four Horsemen (Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett and Christopher Hitchens) and many popular figures in media, movies and music agree with them. This movement has received criticism that their arguments are not philosophically rigorous. While all of them have different nuances, these atheists sometimes make assertions without giving evidential claims for them. So for instance,

In The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins states that faith is blind trust without evidence and even against the evidence. He follows up in The God Delusion with the claim that faith is an evil because it does not require justification and does not tolerate argument . . . Harris’ articulation of the nature of faith is closer to Dawkin’s earlier view. He says that religious faith is unjustified belief in matters of ultimate concern. According to Harris, faith is the permission religious people give one another to believe things strongly without evidence. Hitchens says that religious faith is ultimately grounded in wishful thinking.[1]

Their assertions, subsumed in a scientific naturalistic perspective, are made on the basis that metaphysically, reality does not include the existence of a God and epistemologically, only science is the only valid way of knowing truth or reality. Already, the arrogance is clear in these assumptions given the historical and long-standing classical view that theology and even philosophy can be valid in ascertaining truth claims. On this view of scientism, my assessment is that the new atheists assume science and faith are at loggerheads.[2] Yet the presence of scientists who are theists and even more specific, followers of Jesus Christ offer a rebuttal (See this critique of scientism). A quick brush of history reveals that the initial natural scientists such as Nicholas Copernicus, Johannes Kepler and Blaise Pascal for instance were deeply religious. This supports the critic of the New Atheist movement that faith and science cannot co-exist, and hence the claim that science is on the side of atheism is not necessarily true. Informative articles on this last point are by Dr. Denis Alexander (chairman of the Molecular Immunology Programme at The Babraham Institute, Fellow of St. Edmund’s College, Cambridge, and Editor of the journal Science and Christian Belief) and William Lane Craig, a Christian Philosopher and Apologist who surveys the relationship between faith and science in this article.  For instance, Craig posits that science encounters several metaphysical problems that faith can help to answer in addition to faith providing a framework through which science can flourish. Moreover, several arguments for God’s existence have been posited in the past centuries, and there are some twenty or so arguments that Peter Kreeft proposes in line with the classical tradition in these matters.

The Rich Christian Intellectual Heritage

Were the New Atheists willing to be objective and look at the Christian intellectual tradition, they would perhaps see the intellectual depth and reasoning of such people as Tertullian, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Anselm of Canterbury, Jonathan Edwards and in contemporary 20th century, the work of Christian philosophers J. P. Moreland, Nicholas Wolterstoff and Alvin Plantinga; theologians such as Timothy Keller, John M. Frame and R. C. Sproul and the luminary apologists John Lennox  and Ravi Zacharias. A great host of Christian intellectuals are present amongst different Christian traditions, east, west and south. Perhaps closer home, the womanist, Methodist theologian Mercy Amba Oduyoye, the great Ghanian Christian missiologist and scholar Kwame Bediako (also founder of the Akrofi-Christaller Institute in Ghana) and the Yale Historian Lamin Sanneh are examples of “Africans who have sought understanding.” The claim that faith is unreasonable is countered by the valid arguments that have been proposed as a response to atheism. The atheist’s reduction of “all religious believers to scriptural literalists, dogmatic extremists, sentimental escapists, or fanatics who perpetuate human suffering,” prove the overly simplistic and gross generalizations of atheists that necessitate a burden of proof on their end.[3] Merging the beneficial analytic tradition of the west with African cosmology, I have critically written elsewhere that Atheists in Africa have no basis for lack of belief. Additionally, I have written a defense of the claims made by an atheist on the Bible and Jesus here, building on the work of others.

It is true that the AIK may not necessarily be devil-worshippers, as they claim in one of their objectives. Certainly my going to their meeting space on one occasion two years ago for research purposes wasn’t as hair-raising of an experience as I thought it would be. One thing was very certain for me as a follower of Jesus. I got the impression that it is necessary to respond simply and intelligently to some of the questions that they ask, at least, the ones that come from a genuine place. The very least we can do is to offer truth with grace. The beauty of the heritage that we are a part of over the ages is awe-inspiring. The worst thing for us to do is to remain ahistorical and fail to learn from what the past thinking of the Christian tradition can bequeath to us and also to warn us. At the very least, this is what the AIK are giving us an opportunity to do. They are challenging us to examine our faith and to understand it. In doing so, we become a people whose hearts and minds are redeemed. This is to follow scripture’s injunction to “Love the Lord with all your heart, soul and mind.”

In perplexing cultural times that we are in, with the increase in a pluralism of voices and alternatives, we need to be redeemed even in our thinking. The gospel will not allow us to be intellectually docile in an intellectually charged century. As those who stand guard over the deposit of truth, we are being called to fasten our seat belts and so to be able to stand even when Kenya finds herself in a secular state. Right now, we can make our discipleship all about acquiring big cars and flashy clothes, or even, in our disdain for the gift of human mind that God has gifted us, to throw the baby together with the bathwater. Yet to follow Jesus will mean a great cost to us. It will mean striving to understand the revelation of Jesus Christ and to understand the context that we sojourn in. Fitting the theme of this discourse, it will call to mind retrieving our Christian intellectual tradition so as to deposit truth in its beauty and goodness to humanity. This is what the AIK are calling us to do, in the words of a popular phrase, they are “God’s quality control.”

pew research future of world religionsPew research religious affiliation

The likes of the AIK want to tell us that “God is dead” but the statistics from the Pew Research Forum on religious affiliation show us otherwise. Globally, in 2050, there will be a 35% increase from 6.9 billion to 9.3 billion of people who are religiously affiliated. Africa alone will host 4-out-of-10 (40%) Christians in the world. These statistics reveal that religion will still play a pivotal role in the society. It is evident that human beings need God. The question then, which God?

Despite the fact that the wide variety of Christian intellectual tradition may offer the most coherent worldview, the fact that there are many who still hold on to their atheism shows that reason is not the only answer. Even while many have tried to show that logical reasoning can remove roadblocks against belief, it is only God who can truly redeem our inner sight. The fault lines in logical reasoning can be attributed to the Christian understanding of the fall that has affected the whole of man. Even while many down the ages have given credible arguments for the existence of God, and even while the orderliness, complexity and beauty of nature speak clearly that God exists (Psalm 19:1-4; Romans 1:19-21), it is evident that intellectualism is not the issue. The mind itself is laid captive by sin.

Not an Intellectual Problem but a Heart Issue

The mind unaided cannot come to the light of the knowledge of God because while atheists blame Christianity all along excusing their perverted ways as scripture informs us, they cannot see God. Atheism shows us that at the depths of our hearts we are ALL rebellious and would prefer to be autonomous. Our consciences, together with the atheists who are neither devil worshippers nor mere “primal hunter-gatherers,” prick us to our failures and our inability to align ourselves with a perfect and dependable ethical standard. If this standard is based only on subjective and relative alliances, then we can never hope to make any headway in recovering a wholesome and transformative ethic. Yet scripture also powerfully paints a picture of man as created in God’s image. Man is not likened to the primal hunter-gatherers that roam the earth, but man is dignified. Prior to and after the fall, we see Jesus, the second Adam – the perfect human, the restorer of the true image of God within man. In light of this, scripture teaches us that our only hope is in this Christ, the one who is fully man and fully God. His responses to different people sum up the fact that he is wisdom personified, the truest intellectual, the source of all knowledge; His divinity apprehends our efforts of self-justification and show us that our only response is to bow and worship, for he is both the creator and sustainer of the cosmos, mind and all. The mind bows down to Jesus. Demons acknowledge to. Stones would sing too. So should we. Only Faith can seek understanding, because understanding would never seek faith. At best it would run away. Jesus Christ however has the power to renew minds and in effect, to enable us see God with our entire being, mind and all, and be participants and partakers of the Kingdom. This is the free gift of grace available to all who believe in him.

End Notes

[1] “The New Atheists,” in Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy Accessed here http://www.iep.utm.edu/n-atheis/ on the October 13, 2016.

[2] Scientism is the view that “science is the only paradigm of truth.” It is further classified as strong scientism and weak scientism. For more on this see J. P. Moreland ed., The Creation Hypothesis (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994), 14. Moreland proposes an integration of science, theology and philosophy as better able to validate truth claims than purely scientism.

[3] A review of John F. Haught, God and the New Atheism: A Critical Response to Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens (Louisville, KT: Westminster John Knox Press 2008) in Philosophy in Review XXX (2010), no. 6

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