Religious faith and the monster of ignorance and uncritical thinking

Bodies exhumed from Shakahola Forest are loaded into a  police van on May 16, 2023.

Photo credit: Kevin Odit I Nation Media Group

“The horror. The horror.” These are the words with which The Heart of Darkness ends. This short novel by the Polish-English author, Joseph Conrad, narrates the experiences of a bunch of colonial adventurers in a tropical African country around the time of the “scramble for Africa” in the late 19th Century. My Mwalimu, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, used to strongly recommend it to us.

In the novel, the European invaders terrorise the Africans, forcing them to work for them in the exploitation of the area’s natural resources.

Those who refuse or fail to deliver risk horrendous punishments, including mutilation or even mass executions.

The grim irony is that the barbaric treatment of the Africans ends up traumatising the colonisers almost as much as it does the Africans, hence the “horror” at which one of the European characters recoils.

Shakahola, however, is the horror that has been haunting me, and probably you, over the past fortnight. Indeed, in my increasingly recoiling mind, the death forest in Kilifi County is ringing more and more like “Shaka-horror”.

I must confess that I have for many days now been agonising over whether to say something about this horror or simply keep quiet about it. I could have chosen to leave Shakahola alone and stuck to my usual line of the bold and beautiful.

But I felt that, as a believer and as a teacher with this little social platform to reach you, I should not give grisly incidents like Shaka-horror an apparent consent with my silence. So, I speak out briefly as a believer, a social observer and, most importantly, as a teacher.

As a believer, I suggest that true faith or spirituality is about our relationship with our Creator and, by implication, our fellow human beings. This is summed up in that little word and infinite world, love.

Yet it is surprising how little and how rarely one hears of love in our churches, both conventional and emerging, these days. The din (and dini) is all about planning and development, prosperity, breakthroughs and, especially, “miracles”. Yet God is love, and his kingdom is one of love.

I believe that if we took the advice to seek first this kingdom of love, instead of our usual shopping lists of healing, financial breakthroughs, fiancé finding, visas, deliverance from (imagined) demons, destruction of our “enemies”, these other things would be added on to us.

After all, even at our plain human level, it is always easier asking for a favour from a close friend than from a total stranger. No person to whom God-love is a true friend could subject God’s people and friends to the mortal cruelties and indignities that we are witnessing in some of our “faith” institutions today.

From a social angle, horrors like those around us are symptoms of an increasingly desperate populace. We start with the undeniable collapse of our indigenous organisational and support systems. The new generations see no help there.

Menaced by poverty, strange diseases, poor social services and indifferent, inefficient and often corrupt public institutions, many people are easily drawn to beings or groups that “promise” help, however false.

Aggravating the situation is our increasing materialism, falsely relating happiness and joy to things like money, gadgets and mindless “enjoyment.

Add to that our idiotic expectations of quick fixes, instant salvation, instant deliverance, instant riches, and a truly toxic and explosive scene is set. What can a pastor, true or false, do when he or she cannot meet the expectations of the flock?

The teacher’s voice in all this pandemonium says simply but firmly, “Let us educate our people.” We are perishing because of ignorance and lack of education. There are many sides to this, but I will mention only three here.

First, let us educate and train our leaders, especially those who wish to be “pastors” and other church leaders.

Secondly, the genuine faith institutions ought to instruct and form their adherents thoroughly in the true understanding and internalisation of the faith. Thirdly, our entire educational system must strive to raise people with strong critical thinking skills at all levels of education.

The education and training of our faith leaders is a surprisingly thorny issue. But I feel it would be in everyone’s interest if we agreed that, in addition to the “spiritual and Pentecostal inspiration”, all our would-be spiritual leaders undertook certified courses of study, training and formation before they embark on their ministries.

Leaders designating themselves pastors, bishops, apostles, prophets, evangelists, Jesuses or gods, leaves the faith, and our people, vulnerable to demagogues, fraudsters, opportunists and downright destructive agents. We should not wait for the horrors to happen and then scramble into belated and ineffectual action.

Equally important is the need, especially for the conventional, traditional institutions, to thoroughly instruct and teach their adherents the basic tenets of the faith.

The tendency today is to assume that those “born” within those churches, by virtue of their parents being adherents, need no more than ritual initiation, like baptism, confirmation and communion, and maybe some perfunctory catechism or Sunday school chats to remain well-grounded believers.

I do not know if most Muslim faithful go much beyond the “madrassa”. But learning and studying the faith is a lifelong necessity. Failing to realise and practice this is a sure recipe for dropping out, and probably falling victim to the fraudsters and their horrors.

Finally, critical thinking is the foundation to all healthy spiritual, mental and social living. We teachers have the duty to teach and guide all our pupils and students in it at every stage. I think that of all the competence-based skills, critical thinking is the best skill with which we can equip our people.

The Bible, for example, can be a very dangerous tool in the hands of uncritical thinkers. Fraudsters can, and will, use it to brainwash you with cunningly selected verses until you end up in a forest horror.

Meanwhile, mind your step and gait to the gate of heaven.

- Prof Bukenya is a leading East African scholar of English and [email protected]