‘Religion is the opium of the people’ is a quote by German Philosopher Karl Marx.
Clearly reproachful of religion, he wrote, in part:
‘Religion is, indeed, the self-consciousness and self-esteem of man who has either not yet won through to himself, or has already lost himself again…Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.’
But was he right? The answer is very, very debatable.
In a provocative article penned on May 4, 2017, titled What does our preoccupation with heaven say about us?, Daily Nation editor Henry Gekonde opined:
There is an implied great spiritual emergency in Kenya. We can see all around us the obsessive frenzy, this resignation to the pull of the imagined world beyond earth where death and grief are supposedly non-existent.
Great masses of Kenyans are seeking to escape the here and now, though logic says the here and now should matter more. It is remarkable that millions are drawn to an ideology that has largely been abandoned by the cultures that gave it to us.
The article received vitriolic reactions from deeply offended Kenyans, as expected, but the writer stood his ground.
The topic of religion can never really be exhausted neither can any debate ever settle it, but Nation Life&Style sought the perspective of someone who abandoned organised religion for agnosticism.
Agnosticism is a philosophical belief that the existence of God, of the divine or the supernatural, is unknown or unknowable.
But what would make a Christian get there?
Adipo Sidang, a 35-year-old poet, playwright and author who has penned Parliament of Owls, apoetry collection and play, and A Boy Named Koko, an award-winning novel, shares insights into what it’s like to be agnostic:
What was it like growing up? Did you have a happy childhood?
I grew up in the countryside; from an average background. My parents were teachers.
My maternal grandfather was an electrician who had worked in Nairobi, Juja and Entebbe well before I was born and he shared his experiences with so much enthusiasm that we dreamed of visiting the city one day.
As much as I had fun – and as would be expected of any child growing up in the village, I was convinced the best life was out there and so I had burning ambition to live in the city one day.
This was swayed by the normalcy of things, the “must-do” humdrum childhood chores that ironically have shaped most of us today.
I wouldn’t say I wasn’t happy because I was. Life was easy and free, at least from our innocent rural perspective.
What’s your earliest memory of church (or religion). Are they good or bad memories?
My earliest memory of church is personified in a soft-spoken Catholic missionary called Fr. Kraakman.
He was a polite and jovial man who effortlessly became part of the community in which he lived. As children, we loved going to church every Sunday.
We were thrilled at seeing a white man preside over mass in our native tongue and mingle with people speaking Dholuo fluently, albeit with a funny accent.
What did you enjoy the most about practicing religion?
I loved to read the Bible in church when I was young. This, among other things, moulded us in a way that nothing else could have – especially in our young age.
The effort was abnormal; we walked several kilometres to church; we staged plays (during Easter and Christmas) which made what might have been fiction look real. We lived it – we didn’t practice it.
What memory stands out?
Well, I remember my failed mischievous attempt to partake of “the body of Christ” at a tender age. Actually, I wrote about this later in a leading family magazine, about 12twelve years ago. It earned me my first pay as a writer. About Sh10,000.
What about college life? Any memory that stands out?
You see, I had joined a missionary society for spiritual and academic formation. This decision was partly influenced by what I presume was a latent drive to know myself and reality of “the other”.
It was both subjective and objective; driven by both faith and reason – faith shrouded in doubt, and reason in unreachable truths.
The routine morning meditations that lifted me onto a path of constant questioning of my own existence and the existence of a supernatural being formed some of my memories. These meditations gave me an opportunity to question many things including my own existence.
I pondered about the fate of the African god deposed by the Western God when, in the 19th Century, the Ludwig Krapf and Johannes Rebmann brought us bread, butter and Bible.
Tell me about your epiphany, that moment of truth when you made a choice not to practice religion as you had grown up knowing it. What happened? Where were you? Who were you with? What did you think?
Where? When? During my undergraduate studies. Philosophy exposed me to many things.
Philosophy is complex in its own way but primarily because it questions things whose answers are hard to get, and it questions your answers too.
My turn came from my readings of (Friedrich) Nietzsche, (Jean Paul) Sartre, Marx and Schopenhauer in my earlier years of Philosophy. But I later built my own trajectory of thought.
As an epistemologist, I am a logical positivist in thinking. I believe logical positivism demolishes atheistic arguments against God’s existence or theistic arguments for God’s existence. Logical positivism’s simple position is that a statement is cognitively meaningful if it can be said to be true or false, and for it to be said to be true or false, it must be empirically verifiable. Is God’s existence or non-existence empirically verifiable? No.
How do you define your religious beliefs, if at all? Which category would you place yourself in?
I am agnostic. Agnosticism is a philosophical position that denounces epistemic claims for existence or non-existence of God on grounds that it is impossible for humans to know whether or not God – or meta-empirical reality – exists. God’s existence or non-existence is thus unknowable.
You can now see the connection between agnosticism and the scientific rule of logical positivists.
Agnosticism doesn’t undermine one’s belief rather it challenges statements that affirm or deny knowledge of metaphysical reality.
Both atheists and theists claim to know more than they can or that which they can’t.
The theist is like a traveller who claims he knows there exists an invisible non-physical bridge at the bottom of the horizon and hopes to use that bridge to gain access to the back of the sky.
The atheist traveller on the hand contrary argues he knows there exists no such bridge and challenges the theist traveller to prove otherwise. Clearly, both are guilty of ‘ad ignorantiam’ fallacy. In short, believe but don’t claim knowledge of something you can’t verify its existence.
How have family members or friends reacted to your revelations and choices? What do you say to them?
I have clarified to people around me that mine is a purely philosophical opinion which shouldn’t influence their practice of religion…if anything, we are constantly seeking the truth.
Again, I question religion. I do not deride it or despise those who practice it. My contention is not about believing because belief is a mental attitude – it doesn’t necessarily need to attract evidential proof grounded on contingent facts of the world (even though it would make a lot of sense if it did).
Is there anything else you would like usto know?
If I were to choose which God to believe in, I would find a home in Einstein’s non-personal God whom, unlike the God of most organised religions, isn’t really involved in defining human fate or destiny.
But I find meaning in the idea of space and time as the infinite reality within which the universe came into existence.
Whichever side you take, whether it's Biblical creationism or scientific evolutionism, everything happened within space and time, and logically space and time couldn’t have been caused.
Space and time are both metaphysical and infinite – beyond anyone’s cause.