African Social Problems and the Religion Business

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When Karl Marx, the German philosopher, and respected economist described religion as “the opium of the masses” in his book  A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, published  in 1843, he meant that religion had certain practical functions in society similar to the function of opium administered to a sick or injured person. The opium helps to minimize the immediate pain and suffering of the patient and provides them with pleasant illusions. At the same time, the opium reduces the energy and the willingness of the patient to confront the oppressive realities in their lives. Religion, according to Karl Marx, is the universal basis of consolation and justification.

Before, I am accused of apostasy or suffering from the religious leprosy, I have nothing against believing in God or practicing any form of religion – Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism,  Hinduism, Taoism, Bahá’í Faith, Sikhism, Heathenism, Slavic Neopaganism, Celtic polytheism, Semitic Neopaganism – as far as it is based on peace, love, tolerance, goodness to others, equity, and justice. Personally, a religion must be an epitome of sense and sensibility. Of course, it has become very difficult to describe what being “religious” is, because (the source of) the religious message, as a text, is subject to different interpretations. No text has a single meaning or interpretation because meaning is multiple and the interpretation of a text is influenced by a lot of factors such as the social context, ideology, education, world-view of the interpreter. That creates the multiplicity of meaning. So, the word “love” can be interpreted differently by different individuals. The question is: whose interpretation is right?

Historically speaking, Christianity was brought to Africa by Europeans. Clearly, in terms of social development, Africa is obviously lagging behind Europe. However, Africa has more religious leaders than Europe. Africans are, furthermore, much more “religious” (the same controversial word) than their European counterparts, if the number of churches, congregation or those who consider themselves as “believers” are the basis for the above conclusion. Sadly, Africa is still struggling inside the tyrannical web of poverty, lack of development, injustice and social inequality. Ironic, indeed, every street in Africa has been turned into a zealous church and mosque yet, Africans are swimming daily in the ocean of poverty, sickness, violence, injustice and many other social problems. That is not all. The African priests, imams, and other religious leaders, who preach daily to their subjects and promise them positive changes in their miserable lives are fastidiously getting richer than their subjects and followers. Interestingly, those religious leaders get rich through the active support and encouragement of their wretched subjects and followers.

If Africans are getting entangled daily in the precarious tide of social problems, while their religious leaders, who promise them riches and social benefits – not to talk of miracles and good health – are themselves getting richer daily and living flamboyantly, obviously, there must be something wrong somehow somewhere. Could it be that African religious leaders are misinterpreting, and for that matter, capitalizing on religion for their own personal aggrandizement? Are Africans too gullible to follow their religious leaders sheepishly? Has religion been turned into a business enterprise? Are Africans simply empowering and enriching their religious leaders at their own very expense? You simply don’t need to have that religious antenna or proboscis to dictate the obvious social realities around you. You do not have to be a Christian or Muslim to feel the economic bites and other social challenges facing you in Africa. Nor do you need a religious telescope to see the glamorous lives of African religious leaders. The swashbuckling displays of these religious leaders are there for all to see. So are your despairing, dolorous and woebegone social conditions, as an African.

Using Africa’s social conditions and African religious leaders as a judgmental standard, is there any sense in Karl Marx’s view that religion can, in fact, be “the opium of the masses?”


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Magazine 18