Monday, 11 May 2015

What Do You Think of God?

This week’s blog compares religion in Ghana and the UK, and includes interviews with Ghanaians and British citizens.

In the UK, religion is a topic at the tip of no-one's tongue. Many find it dull and irrelevant, others are shy to open up about their faith – yet everyone has a strong opinion about it. Ghana is the complete opposite, being the world’s most religious country. All over the country are posters, company names and bumper stickers reminding people of God.

As a British citizen, I am proud of the lack of religious conflict in the UK. We have achieved this in spite of our history being contaminated with religious injustice. However, although the UK endorses religious freedom and we claim to support plurality, somewhere in our liberal path to progession we remain intolerant of religious beliefs different to our own. We tolerate them with a biting tongue, refusing to respect something so irrational. However, in Ghana, people of different religious beliefs respect one another. There's a lot the UK could learn from religious relations in Ghana.

Religion in Ghana and the UK
There is no state religion in Ghana, whereas in the UK the state religion is the Church of England. Ironically so, since, in practice, the UK is secular. However, both countries endorse religious freedom, and Christianity and Islam are respectively the two major religions (although in the UK the second largest religious affiliation is "no religion"). However, the two countries have reacted differently to legal religious freedom: legality has little influence over the minds and persuasions of a nation's citizens. It is the country's history and culture which has more of an influence.

From the way religion is portrayed in the media and history classes in the UK, it seems that it causes more harm than good. This is a sentiment that the religious British participants felt, with one Christian stating, “Many people are close minded about religion but not openly aggressive.” We are subliminally taught that religion is the root of all evil, a belief that stems from European history being marred with the church controlling and taking advantage of the masses, burning women accused of witchcraft at the stake, punishing people for their sexuality, and royalty and government beheading those not in the right church. The UK has an awful history of religion, which has set our belief that religion is generally a force for bad, generalising European history to the world's other continents. It is forgotten that, as one of the British Muslim participants pointed out, “Religion often plays the role of differentiator rather than instigator in conflict,” whereas one of the British agnostics argued, “Religion has only served to divide people and cause conflict.”

Now I understand why British people don’t like religion! It’s because of your history.
-- Patience

Disdain towards religion is supported by cases of contemporary religious conflict across the world, from violent Buddhists in Burma to Protestant fundamentalists in the US. Things that trouble us about religion also occur on British soil, such as the Church of England’s reluctance to endorse same-sex marriage, and attacks such as the beheading of a soldier on the streets of London. Attacks have been lunged at Muslims in return, with Islamophobia rife across the UK, with less publicised cases such as the recent murders of Nahid Almanea and Mohammed Saleem, attacks on mosques, and anti-Muslim sentiment prevalent in British media.

With so much bombarded at us about the evils of religion, we pride ourselves in our progression entailing our move towards secularism, since religion is seen as something that holds us back. We struggle to see how religious influence can be positive. Although the British agnostics interviewed believe that the UK is tolerant of religion, which is undoubtedly true, one of the British Muslim participants pointed out that it is not uncommon for religion to be ridiculed in popular culture, and that the media and political establishment is intolerant of Islam. However, we can't hope and wait for the 'problem of religion' to fade. Religion is a reality we must accept.

A common myth is that monotheistic religions are more prone to conflict. This appears to be true when you look at countries such as nearby Nigeria. But why in Ghana, a country where 60% are Christian and 30% are Muslim, is there no religious conflict? These are the two monotheistic religions often accused of being the source of all the world's evils. So why is there no religious conflict in Ghana, the world's most religious country? What is it that Ghana has got right?

“In Ghana here, we respect each other’s religions. Even if you’re traditionalist or atheist, we still respect you. We all believe the same thing. We all worship the same God, just in different ways.”
-- Patience

Religious tolerance is necessary not only for a peaceful state free of conflict between people of different religious stances, but also for community cohesion. In the UK, community spirit is something we've lost somewhere along our line to progression. As one of the British Muslim participants we interviewed said, "A people that do not understand the very intimate beliefs of their neighbours and countrymen are a people divided. I mean how can we get along if we don't know why some people perform certain acts?"

Disability and Religion
The history and publicity of religiosity in the UK has led many to become secular, with more and more young people defining themselves as non-religious.

At the beginning of the year Stephen Fry was asked about religion, and was furious with a god he doesn't believe in. One of his dissatisfactions with religion was that a benevolent god would never allow humanity to suffer, using visual impairment as an example. "[The world] has in it insects whose life cycle is to burrow into the eyes of children and make them blind. Why? Why did you do that to us? It is simply not acceptable." Many in the UK, being secular, would share this sentiment, as did most the British participants we interviewed.

 “I think it’s a good claim and it’s something that, from the moment I heard it, I latched onto. It’s too easy to accept what he said as correct without understanding more about religion, but personally I think he’s spot on.”
-- Benjamin

However, of the one billion disabled people in the world, 80% are in the developing world – a world which has been found to be far more religious and dependent on God than the UK. The same would be said for Ghana, a country in which 10% of the citizens are disabled. However, 96% of Ghanaian citizens label themselves as religious. All the Ghanaians we interviewed viewed religion as embodying a supreme morality connected to a metaphysical realm and a higher entity. Religion is the foundation of their lives, a foundation that nothing can shake. Even the disabled interviewees harboured no possibility of religion being bad or dissatisfaction with God. Despite the prevalence of disability in Ghana, people haven't lost faith in God.

One Catholic Ghanaian who was interviewed responded to Stephen Fry’s statement with a story. She told us of her only child’s death. Her daughter was killed in a motorcycle accident on the way to help someone. She ended her story by saying, “Is this not a test? I cannot question God. May her soul rest in perfect peace. It is God’s purpose. She worked a lot to serve God and mankind. May God bless her for what she has done because she was helping people.”

Working in Ghana's Northern Regional Resource Centre for Persons with Disabilities, I see religious persons with disabilities everyday. Every lunchtime when sat in my office, I look out the window to the open mosque and see the disabled workers and visitors of the Resource Centre bowing in thanks to God.

“None of us are perfect neither do we live perfectly happy lives, regardless of how some appear. There are people who are beautiful and rich, yet they commit suicide.”

The reality of disability has not wavered the faith of the Ghanaians I interviewed. While most the British participants were unanimous in agreeing with Stephen Fry that a benevolent god would not create disability, the Ghanaian participants, whether Christian or Muslim, were either amused, confused or offended by his comments. All were shocked. For them, there was no possibility that God would create disability out of malovolence. All individually stated that God has a purpose for disability beyond human understanding – an utterly different mindset to the western desire to understand everything about the universe. For them, the world does not need to be perfect, a utopia, a heaven, to encourage their faith in God.

Thank you for reading! Next week's blog will be written by Chris and Zainab.

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