Chapter 9: Any Possibility of Complete Religious Toleration?
Looking critically at the facts around us and the already havoc caused by religion down through human history, one would be tempted to go into skepticism. Some of these facts makes us to wonder how possible it is to have a world of almost complete religious toleration. The Catholic Chancellor, St. Thomas Moore (1478 – 1535) describes existence of such a world as utopia – meaning that such world would never exist. I personally agree with Thomas Moore and I believe that not many of us would disagree with him. He rules out the possibility of having such a world as people by default are already programed to believe that anyone who does not share same belief with them or propagate the same ideologies are their archenemies.
Of course, being enemies because of beliefs they refused to adhere to then means being one of their greatest enemies – and that is being enemies of their gods and religions. Religious toleration has been viewed as the weakest approach in the spreading of any belief as people might be too obstinate to believe whatever new religious ideology preached to them. Therefore, we don’t wonder much on why people today resort to arms and ammunitions to enable them reach their goals of spreading their religions. For them, the only working option is fear and intimidation. Fear of death is one of the reasons that so many people still keep to their religions, not really because of their love for God. This fear of death is either temporal death here on earth (which can be caused by members of that religion when the person opt out of the faith) or fear of eternal death in hell fire.
Now, let’s be little bit sincere to ourselves – Total religious toleration is unachievable. This fact cannot be denied. Religion only spread more through intimidations and insensitive discriminations. Most of religious conversions do not just happen out of personal convictions of those being converted. They were most often being coerced into adhering to the religions. What we call conversion therefore is not what the people opted out of their own volition to do, but rather what circumstances surrounding them coerced them to do.
The soul and body are the major integral part of man, and any threat to discriminate or intimidate any of these could result in the individual’s succumb to religious adherence. Everyone needs peace of body, mind and soul. In fact, our very nature as human is designed to seek for peace and avoid war especially when it is avoidable. We desire for those things or those situations that do not result to pain and agony. When therefore, a particular situation we found ourselves is presenting to us some pains and frustrations, then we most often instinctively seek for escape route. Thus, between two evils as many people would say, common sense would always pick the lesser one.
Let me use this little analogy to buttress the point that mostly religious conversions are done under some kind of duress.
Sometimes, few decades ago in many parts of South Eastern Nigeria, the spreading of Christian faith and conversion of African Traditional Religionists (ATR) whom the Christian Churches and missionaries branded ‘pagans’ or ‘heathens’ was the order of the day. Switching faith from ATR to Christianity those days were so fashionable that it was being celebrated. It was a celebration in Churches to see a ‘pagan’ coming to Church for the first time. Though, I must recall that there was no direct force or coercion, but indirectly, one could notice some kind of mild intimidations and discriminations that would later make some pagans eager to be converted to Christianity. Personally, I still think this was the reason some conversions weren’t complete as you can still see Christian converts who love their former religions and from time to time seen going back to it.
These intimidations and discriminations came in various ways, including invasion of the worship places of the pagan gods and setting them ablaze (alleging that they bring hardship and calamity to their towns through some occult manipulations) or gradually excluding the traditionalists from various activities in the town, with option of conversion as only means to get reintegrated once more. They are often erroneously being accused of witchcrafts and make them live like potential scapegoats that would bear the blames whenever anything bad happens in the community. In fact, they were psychologically being ostracized from the community.
Anything that those traditionalists did in the society was viewed as evil no matter the intention. They only had an option to join Christian fold or risk being discriminated against. Thus, with time, being pagan became out of fashion and was nearly compared to being the devil’s advocate. Most of the traditionalists would later succumb and join Christianity amidst ovations and rejoicing by the Christians in their Churches as they rejoiced that they have gained someone from the other religion. Literally, these pagans would start gaining back what they lost in the society, from their battered images to any other social status they deserved.
When their pagan colleagues see them now ‘doing well’ as Christians, they would also opt to be like them. Not because most of these new converts wanted to accept Jesus Christ and Christianity, but for them to stop others from intimidating and discriminating against them. Christianity for most of them then means mere association like social club rather than an enriching spiritual group that impact positive living to the new converts.
In a family during those years, a father might send his son to school (which invariably then means sending him also to Church because these two – the Churches and the Schools were all being run by the same Christian missionaries) just for the son to gain the exclusive privileges that were then reserved for those that were educated under the Christian missionaries who also were school teachers. These privileges especially that of learning how to read and write would later expose them to be working with the then colonial government after their education. Such privileges then were too rare, looked promising and bring honour to the families of those who had someone in the colonial government.
I won’t forget also to state that these kinds of treatments were also earlier being meted out to the Christian Missionaries by the then majority African Traditional Religionists. The early Missionaries were being perceived as being religious invaders who had come to destroy whatever the people had in common and destroy whatever gods they revered. They weren’t welcome and therefore there were constant conflicts between them, including physical and verbal attacks against the then rising number of Christians. In his Post-Synodal Pastoral Exhortation, the Catholic Bishop of Nnewi Diocese (Nigeria) captured the situation like this:
“Our fathers travelled to far places to invite the Catholic missionaries to their communities and helped them to establish the Church. Many of these men were really heroes of faith. Some of them endured persecutions from predominantly pagan Chiefs and neighbours. Some were ostracized and dispossessed. But they remained steadfast to hand over to us the faith purified in the crucible of suffering”
Most Rev. H.O. Okeke therefore reminded us that what majority (Christians) enjoy today as privileges over the remaining few African Religion Traditionalists weren’t there from the inception of Christian faith in this part of the world. There were incessant persecutions and high-level powered intolerance from the traditionalists. Chinua Achebe also captured such scenario in his novel, “Thing Fall Apart” when he told us of Okonkwo who could not tolerate the missionaries coming to his village nor can stand his son Nwoye being converted to Christianity.
I have to say it again for emphasis that total religious toleration is nothing but an illusion. People get radicalized daily in order to impose their religions on others. As long as religions have this illusion of becoming the dominant or the only religion in the world, there will never be total religious toleration. Religious intolerance in Nigeria is very well pronounced and sometimes elevated to something in form and manner of an institution. People get accolades by the members of their religious groups because they were intolerant of other people who don’t subscribe to their faiths.
Most recently was the breeding of Islamic religious armed group known as Boko Haram which has been terrorizing the whole North-East Nigeria and beyond, then we are currently seeing the invasion of so-called Fulani Herdsmen into various communities especially those of non-Muslims to kill and maim the people with little or no stoppage from the security agents in the country.
In his book titled, “Turn to the other cheek”, Rev. Monsignor Professor John Bosco Uche Akam wrote, “In our country Nigeria, some religious group or groups, some ethnic strata of the country and some language communities may think that they are greater in number, they are militarily better equipped, they are industrially more advanced, they are politically more represented, economically blossoming and religiously more fanatical! Hence from human considerations, if war were to ensure – be it numerical in times of census, be it military, political, economic or religious – victory would be theirs.”
Living together with people with this kind of mindsets is socially fatal and dangerous. When people have reasons to think that they are different and then act out those differences imbued with their ardent beliefs in the differences in their behaviours and attitudes towards others around them, then intolerance and prejudice is inevitably present.
The point to note is that we have to be sincere to ourselves whenever we discuss issues bothering on intolerance. One way or the other we get involved always in propagating intolerance through our attitudes toward others who are not of the same ideology with us. Though intolerance can be controlled, but I have never believed for once that it could be totally eradicated, because of inherent selfishness in human minds which spurs these intolerances.
 Bishop Hillary Odili Okeke (2006), The Message of Eternal Life – Post-Synodal Pastoral Exhortation, Kathcom Publishers Nnewi, Pg. 17
 Uche J.B. Akam, Turn to the other cheek…Jesus and Mohammed (Enugu: SNAPP Press Limited, 1988), p. 49