Science-centrists, who are convinced of the success of science in modelling the world, view all faith-centric responses to COVID-19 as antithetical to ‘common-sense approaches’ to public health.
Pandemics often subject religion to intense scrutiny. Since the outbreak of COVID-19, questions that challenge the entire idea of religion and its transcendental claims have begun to circulate specifically among the ‘religion-critical communities’ in Nigeria. Such communities include atheists, agnostics, secular humanists, cultural Muslims and Christians, artists, political figures, and fair-minded members of the general public searching for new ways of being religious without an attachment to the perceived dogmatism of organized religion. Does God really exist? Is religion even necessary? Is religion a hoax? How can a merciful God create this large-scale disaster for those who believe in Him? These are some of the questions that people of faith face; increasingly these people are millennials (born between 1980 and 1994) and belong to Gen Z (born between 1995 and 2019); people who, as they progress through conventional secular schools, are confronted by scientific realities that challenge their religious thought.
A Gradual Diminution
Over the last decade, respect for religion has gradually diminished in Nigeria, not only among atheists but also among the wider public. Discontent towards religion is fuelled by many factors including the campaign of Boko Haram, continued revelations of perfidy by religious leaders, and the saturation of the public sphere with ideas directly challenging the previously appropriated monopoly and gate-keeping of the clerical class. Rapidly rising internet penetration in Nigeria has fostered the emergence of new discursive spaces and a very different set of ideas that depart from deeply inscribed traditional norms, religious beliefs, and cultural identities. Reportedly, access to the internet in Nigeria grew rapidly from 0.06 per cent in 2000 to 42 per cent in 2017. The boom in internet access created safe spaces for religion-critical communities to discuss subjects that would, more likely, have been censored by religious clerics in the pre-internet public sphere. In a recent study ‘Social Media and the Rise of Atheism in Northern Nigeria: Causes, Consequences and Recommendations’, Aisar Salihu Musa argues that the birth of social media and modern technologies gave atheists the freedom to actively organize into associations such as the Atheist Society of Nigeria, Northern Nigeria Humanist Association and the Nigerian Secular Society. There is no contention over the fact that the proliferation of social media gave rise to the accessibility of information that sometimes breeds religious skepticism in young Muslims’ minds. Religious scholars are aware of how social media threatens their claims to authority, especially in an age where young Muslims are beginning to embrace an autodidactic mode of learning. Perhaps, the realization of this gradual erosion of power to guard the minds of young Muslims against the accommodation of atheist and non-religious thoughts explains why religious clerics are now more engaged with the internet and the new media.
The New Sceptics
Drawing on this, it is possible to see how the outbreak of COVID-19 became an opportunity for religion-critical communities to amplify their critical discourses against religion. In his 2020 article, ‘Coronavirus and Reality Check for all Religions’, Leo Igwe, a former representative of the International Humanist and Ethical Union and coordinator of the Nigerian Humanist Movement wrote:
‘Coronavirus has forced a reality check for religions and their assumed powers. The pandemic has occasioned sobriety, reality-based sobriety among believing folks. A virus has put the gods to a test and subjected all supernatural powers to an unprecedented trial. Coronavirus has compelled religious establishments to reassess their positions and tenets and review their rituals. By all measures, this microorganism has caused the evaporation of faith in the almighty God/Allah’s healing powers.’
Leo Igwe took his critical appraisal of religion further by referring to a widely circulated cartoon showing clerics from different religions urging scientists to speed up their research for a cure and vaccine against coronavirus. According to Igwe, if not for the outbreak of the pandemic, people of faith would have considered the cartoon as blasphemous and the cartoonist would most likely have faced punitive measures. Throughout his piece, Igwe reiterates how the pandemic has forced religion and the clerical institutions to conform with science as the Vatican’s Basilica Square has been deserted and pilgrimage to Islam’s holiest sites banned.
Coincidentally, on 25 April 2020, Apostle Johnson Suleman requested that the government give access to pastors to heal coronavirus patients in Nigeria’s isolation centres. Three days later on April 28, 2020, Igwe offered Apostle Johnson Suleman thousands of dollars to heal a person with a confirmed case of COVID-19. Igwe argued that COVID-19 provides ample opportunity for African faith healers to publicly demonstrate the efficacy of their healing propositions under scientific testing conditions. Igwe’s thousand-dollar offer, however, was met with an evasive response.
Other members of the ‘religion-critical communities’ including artists like the veteran Nollywood actress, Hilda Dokubo and Paul Okoye of P-Square has been equally vocal in their scepticism towards organized religion. For instance, veteran radio personality and convener of the ‘Free the Sheeple’ movement, Ifedayo Olarinde (Daddy Freeze), used the COVID-19 pandemic to reinstate a ‘tithing war’ against the Pentecostal pastors. According to Daddy Freeze, religious tithes should not be appropriated by the clergymen, and instead should be used to build hospitals and research centres. This viewpoint was emphasized by Betty Akeredolu, the First Lady of Ondo State, when she stated that Nigerians need to set their priorities right by investing more in science and less in religion:
It is glaring that the foreign religions over which we are killing ourselves in Nigeria have failed the world in this season of anomie, and only science can save mankind. Indeed, coronavirus has humbled the world’s religions and Nigerians whose lives depend on praying and fasting for miracles to happen in this digital world of science and technology. When I said that I was more than convinced that religion is man-made and a bastion of sexism, which has subjugated women, festered gender inequality, stifled progressive thinking, retarded development and invariably added little or no value to our lives, I was called unprintable names. I remain unshakeable with my conviction. This virus has proved me right, to a large extent. Nigerians, in particular, have invested so much in religion that amounted to nothing. Period! Now that a deadly virus is ravaging the world, where do we look up to? Science or religion?
Pandemics and Science-Centrism
The science-centric approach to responding to pandemics has a precedent in the Medieval period. The plague treatise Muqniʿat as-sāʾil ʿan al-maraḍ al-hāʾil, written during the Black Death in the 14th century by Andalusian scholar and historian, Lisān al-Dīn Ibn al-Khaṭī, argues in support of the idea that plague can be transmitted through contagion. This is contrary to the prophetic ḥadīth that claims that contagion is not possible between humans so also epidemic diseases and plague in and of themselves cannot be transmitted through human-to-human transmission without God’s permission. Prior to Ibn al-Khaṭīb’s plague treatise, the contagious nature of epidemic diseases had been a subject of debate among medieval medical doctors and Islamic theologians. Muslim scholars like Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya and Imam al-Dhahabī in their 14th century books, Zād al-maʿād fī hady Khayr al-ʿibād, and aṭ–ṭibb al-Nabawī, have attempted to reconcile the contradictions between the prophetic ḥadīth that claims there is no contagion, and the ḥadīth that affirms that there is contagion.
Ibn al-Khaṭīb stepped away from largely accepted Islamic orthodoxy and prophetic tradition by providing a clinical observation grounded in science that proved the theory of inter-human transmission of epidemic diseases. Ibn al-Khaṭīb’s departure from the traditional Islamic doctrine that denied plague contagion on religious grounds is similar to the approach that modern-day proponents of science-centrism take toward pandemics. The only difference is that Ibn al-Khaṭīb was not known to be critical of religion even though he was accused of heresy by the religious establishment of his time. Scholars like Michael Dols have argued that the execution of Ibn al-Khaṭīb in 1374 may have been linked to his clash with the religious establishment over the theory of contagion. However, other historians, like Justin Stearns, have argued that Ibn al-Khaṭīb was probably executed for his writings on Sufism not the theory of contagion.
The Implications of Science-centrism
The proponents of science-centrism in Nigeria may not be familiar with the works of Nicolaus Copernicus, Johannes Kepler, René Descartes, Benedictus de Spinoza, Charles Darwin, or contemporary scholars like Richard Dawkins. Yet like these scientists they echo the claim of evolutionary biologist Edward Osborne Wilson that ‘for the sake of human progress, the best thing we could possibly do would be to diminish, to the point of eliminating, religious faiths’. This school of thought does not believe in the possibility of harmonizing religion and science. Religion and science are enemies and strangers, not partners. As the late American palaeontologist, Stephen Jay Gould, argues in his 1999 book, Rocks of Ages, religion and science are ‘non-overlapping magisteria’.
Science-centrism argues that scientific evidence should always trump religion and centres the belief that the universe is ruled by nothing but physical laws and Darwin’s theory of biological evolution. For science-centrists, there can only be one true explanation for reality and sacred texts do not have anything to say about scientific phenomena. The proponents of this school of thought want everything to be grounded in science; and, as such, science, for these proponents, takes on an evangelical role vying with religion.
Science-centrists, who are convinced of the success of science in modelling the world, view all faith-centric responses to COVID-19 as an antithesis to ‘common-sense approaches’ to public health. According to this school of thought, it is preposterous to use prayer as an antidote against COVID-19 when the same prayer could not halt the evolution of the virus. It is hard for people who privilege science over religion to understand the utility of film director Tyler Perry’s global Twitter challenge #HesGotTheWholeWorldInHisHands or the spiritual formula (37²7) of Bishop Sam Zuga in the midst of a pandemic. Science-centrists would argue that Bill Gates and the director of Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC), Dr. Chikwe Ihekweazu, do not need to lay claim to divine prophecies before they start working to prevent the next deadly pandemic.
Since, according to science-centrism, God is not responsible for the spread of COVID-19, religion and prayer will not heal those infected by the virus. The cure for coronavirus will not come through belief and mere yearning but by rational research entrenched in science. In this school of thought, anything contrary to science will take the human race back to pre-Enlightenment darkness. We can be fairly certain that the fallout of COVID-19 will bolster the diffusion of scientific knowledge and investment in scientific research. Like all other pandemics in human history, COVID-19 will not eclipse religion and it will not entirely shed scientific inquiry from its theological chrysalis. Faith in the unprovable, faith in the mystery, faith in the unknown and unknowable will continue to flourish. Nonetheless, there is a likelihood that the pandemic will create a larger audience for ‘rational’ religion in the competitive religious marketplace in Nigeria⎈
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