Emmanuel Ezeagwu’s essay on “Critical Thinking in a deeply religious society’ on m.news24.com.ng can be considered an important contribution to discourse on Nigeria’s National Project. The essay, published on August 1, 2016, attempts to stir deep thinking on topical issues such as development, behavioural and attitudinal cultures, and religion as well as their interfaces in the Nigerian context.
In this article, I share my reflection on the essay. On the one hand, I was fascinated by the show of literary adeptness and the audacity of Ezeagwu’s central claim in the essay namely, that Nigeria’s socio-economic woes can be blamed on the prevalent culture of deep religiosity among Nigerian populace and the lack of ‘Critical Thinking’ that accompanies it. On the other hand, I was puzzled by the shallowness at which Ezeagwu demonstrated the assumptions underpinning his claim. This is more vexing when I observed from the writing that Ezeagwu was very bold to not only profess a support for “Critical Thinking” but was equally boastful of his “highly evolved mind” that has no room for unscrupulous thinking.
Thus, I found it duty bound to respond to this issues. My intention is to show that while Ezeagwu’s interest in promoting critical thinking is commendable, the content of his essay is misleading on the ground of conceptual conflation that mare his arguments. And on this term, I suggest that Ezeagwu is not different from the category of people he passionately attempted to indict namely, the ‘uncritical thinking’ ‘Nigerians’ that also double as deeply religious people. In doing this, I do not think highly of my mind as Ezeagwu did; hence, my intention to tag my response to Ezeagwu’s article as ‘uncritical’. I shall begin by firstly introducing the key elements of Ezeagwu’s essay. In adumbrating them, I shall raise points of order where his line of argument deserve question(s). The questions would then be addressed in the latter stage of the essay.
Brief review of ‘Critical Thinking in a deeply religious society’
Ezeagwu began his piece by introducing us to his personal profile, one that is contoured by a movement from being born into a religious family to becoming a devoted Christian and then, to his present state of being ‘irreligious’. This move is meant to assert Ezeagwu’s authority on the matters of faith for which his article addressed. In other words, writing about people of faith as one who has the legacy of the same tradition provides plenty ground for leverages in developing an argument that is critical of religion. This is what Ezeagwu meant when he writes:
“And so, I can say that I am sufficiently acquainted with the Christian faith, with almost all that it entails”.
Beyond mere acquaintance with Christianity, Ezeagwu claimed that he even rose to the rank of an ordained minister while in the Christendom. The intention behind this narrative on Ezeagwu’s part is to make us believe that his assessment of religions in Nigeria particularly, the Christian religion, reflects nothing but the reality. Unfortunately, the generic nature of religion that Ezeagwu paints becloud the clarity of his claim that he knows Christian faith too well, not the least, other faith groups. To be fair, Ezeagwu is right to have noted that there is not one version of Christian faith today as myriads of denominations and churches in the world over indicate. In Nigeria alone, the list cannot be exhausted: Anglican Communion, the Catholic, Methodist, Living Faith, Redeemed, Winners, etc. He is equally right to have observed that differences in doctrinal profession within the Christendom not only explain the existence of the variant Christian groups but also serve as points of debate and sometimes, schism within the Christendom.
From stating the art of variation that exists in faith expression among faith-based groups like Christianity, Ezeagwu draws a valued conclusion. For him, this variation is enough demonstration of irrationality or non-Critical Thinking among believers. On this ground, we raise point of order #1 questioning the connection between variety of faith groups and the labelling of believers as irrationals.
Having indicted people of faith as lacking rationality, Ezeagwu goes forth to offer an alternative platform where Nigerians can nurture critical thinking. His suggestion essentially points to a jettisoning of religion in favour of what one might say equals atheism or irreligiosity as the condition for critical thinking. One immediately wonders whether Ezeagwu is claiming that Critical Thinking is inimical with practising any form of religion. We shall call this point of order #2.
Also, Ezeagwu smacked individuals in the society who judge others’ religion based on the belief that only their own religion is the true and sublime, and others’ fake. On his part, he claimed that he is not one of these individuals in the society. On the contrary, by applying scientific methodology to scrutinize religions, their ideologies and essence, he is offering objective analysis that are truthful and worth taking serious. Here is our point of order #3: is Ezeagwu any different from say, a Jehovah Witness who may condemn the Catholics on the doctrine of Mary while offering their own teachings as the true and valid form of Christian worship?
The last point of order concerns Ezeagwu’s grand claim: ‘religion has never had any meaningful benefit whatsoever since history’ (my emphasis) and consequently, it has no use for our ‘enlightened’ age. But why? According to Ezeagwu, the essence of religion negates civilisation, and it is ‘incompatible with scientific reasoning, world peace, freedom, civil rights, equality, and good government’. Consequently for him, if Nigerians want progress/development, they must turn away from their religion and embrace Critical Thinking. To this, our point of order #4 asks: is it true that religion has no utility for the human society (in the past, present and future)? Let us now turn to consider these key questions one after the other.
Point of order #1: variations in religious practices and beliefs demonstrates sufficiently, irrationality and uncritical thinking
Earlier, we noted that Ezeagwu wants us to believe that faith groups lack legitimacy based on their irrationality and the lack of critical thinking that inhibits their contribution to development. The ground for this valued judgement is the long narrative that faith groups are divided in their creeds and practice. This is not just true of Christianity that Ezeagwu painted so well but also of the Islamic religion and other world religions. In Islam for instance, the Sunnis are known to differ on many grounds with the Shiites. While this is true, variations in religious practices do not demonstrate irrationality on the generality of religion. On the point of logic, it is very problematic that Ezeagwu choose to argue from descriptive narrative to making value judgement. But while we can ignore that, it is actually counter-factual to think of variation as problematic to legitimate existence of a phenomenon. Think of the sciences (and unlike Ezeagwu demonstrated in his essay, I choose the term sciences to indicate the variety in the natural sciences – Physics, Chemistry, Biology, etc., excluding other disciplines in the social sciences) that Ezeagwu exalted. It cannot be claimed that there is just one form of science. History of science is full of variations in schools, methodology, assumptions, claims and theories. More than this, as philosophers of science like Thomas Kuhn (1922-1996), Paul Feyerabend (1924-1994) and Karl Popper (1902-1992) would argue, science owes its progress to the competition that variations provide.
Similarly, religion is no different. Like other forms of human endeavour, its primary function is to provide humans an outlet to express self in relation to their external world. By this means, humans make meaning of their world in relation to themselves. The search for meaning is at the heart of all world religion. Often beginning with an individual as in the case of Abraham for the Jews, Prophet Muhammad for the Muslims, Jesus Christ for the Christians, or Buddha for the Buddhists, as they metamorphose into organised religion with many adherents, their form and matter are subjected to change if not for any reason, on the logic of social evolution. The changes are thus, not irrational but follows historical development.
To understand this logic of social evolution, let us think of religion in the light of culture. If culture is taken to mean the totality of a way of life of a group of people, then religion is an integral part of culture. Granted that this is true, it is uncritical to expect any religion to be homogenous across space and time as Ezeagwu would want us to believe. In contrast, Albert Bandura of the Department of Psychology, Stanford University, in California argues that “Cultures are not static monolithic entities, as the stereotypic portrayals would lead one to believe.” Thus, intracultural and intercultural diversity across space and time are explainable on the ground of environmental and historical delineations. This is because, the human beings are not passive recipient of history and the actions of their environment but as active agents capable of intentionality, they continually define how they make meaning of their world in light of new experience. Thus, that the early Christians could differ with the modern Christians or that Sunnis are unlike in some terms with the Shiites today are not explanations for irrationality. On the contrary, they demonstrate the exercise of critical thinking on the part of individuals who act on mediated faith. Thus, besides telling Ezeagwu to provide an alternative argument, we must add that he ignores that there is substantial generational and spatial homogeneity among the faith groups than he has granted.
Point of order #2: Critical Thinking is inimical with the practice of any religion.
As far as Ezeagwu’s piece is concern, what is at stake is whether an individual Nigerian can be both a person of faith and a person capable of critical thinking. For Ezeagwu, this is not possible. Building on his argument for variations in belief systems, he argue that religion only promotes beliefs in superstitions as its content are merely fables, primitive folks, legends and myths that are devoid of sound human reason like those in ‘science’. In contrast, critical thinking builds on explanations about reality based on demonstrable evidence. Ezeagwu takes this claim further to assert that only in science is critical thinking possible. While he was never clear on what he understood science to mean or on the meaning of critical thinking, reading him indicates a reduction to the sciences of engineering, Physics, Chemistry and Biology and their method of inquiry. This reduction which excludes other disciplines that are considered in scholarship to engage in rigorous critical thinking is misleading and replete with unscrupulous assumptions that are both ontological and epistemological.
The thinking that only sciences (to represent the traditional sciences today) can provide ‘true’ knowledge about the world is an old assumption that has been in debate. Its modern articulation can be traced to the likes of Francis Bacon, Rene Descartes, G. W. Leibniz. In various ways, the trio went as far as attempting the unification of knowledge where only the application of scientific methodology would pass for anything that could be considered of worth. These guys were thrilled by mathematical exactness and proclaimed it to be the surest method for arriving at rationality. Their thinking was further entrenched by the logical empiricists (also loosely known as the logical positivist) of the 20th century like Rudolf Carnap that elevated neutrality, objectivity and reductive logic as defining principles of science. Karl Popper, in his study of the philosophy of science, insisted that the criterion of falsification was the test of rationality. For Carl Hempel, it is empirical testability on universal laws. In each case, social and historical sciences like history, psychology and economics where discarded as genuine field of rational inquiry alongside philosophy and others. The consequent of this historical attempt at unification of knowledge was a reductive model of unity where the core sciences occupy the top of knowledge pyramid.
There are reasons to doubt a possibility of a unified science and to think that only the scientific methodology guarantees rationality. Of the latter, one can think of the condition within which humans conduct inquiry. Positivist would want us to believe that objective criteria that seal subjectivity is possible. The stack reality however, is that experience suggest the contrary. Modern research for instance, indicate the social element of inquiry in general. The variety of researches conducted today indicate that sciences respond to questions that are considered to be significant or useful by persons in the society. For instance, think of the current trend in Nigeria’s socio-economic development. Because of the emphasis given to the development of the agricultural sector by the current government, there has been an expected boom in agricultural research across the academia as a result of incentives in the field. From this instance, one could ask whether it is by some abstract universal objective criteria that the choice to invest in agricultural research is being made in Nigeria. One might argue that some rational consideration took place that places the sector as a premium in relation to other sectors of Nigerian economy due to staggering oil prices and other blab blab la… That argument is well said. However, it demonstrates nothing more than that the focus on the sector and the surge in research in the field are functions of the intricate socio-political cum economical interface which is highly charged with value judgement informed by the Nigerian society’s perception about the nation’s economy. In this case, one can see how objectivity is dealt is smeared by the very means through which research agenda are set.
Then, there is the complexity of reality (an ontological fact) and of the cognitive faculty of the human person (the epistemic aspect). This makes ontological and methodological reduction problematic. The gigantic universe stubbornly remains too big for any single perspective. Added to the finitude of human condition as well painted in the philosophical thought of existentialism – human as conditioned by its existential modes – the suggestion that science answers all life problems is a mirage. Consider this supposition for instance. We may grant that the human society where complex social interaction take place (the domain of social sciences) is made up of individual humans (the domain of biologists) composed of complex biological and psychological system that are grounded on molecular reactions within and between cells (Chemistry). These chemical reactions involve the breaking and forming of bonds that are at the basic, matters of microphysics (Physics). Thus, human society is material.
But the constitutive hierarchy painted above does not equal reductive hierarchy. As Earnest Nagel (1901-1985) suggests, for that to be possible, there is a need for bridge principles to provide connecting conceptualisation between two successive phases of the hierarchy. Unfortunately, each of these domains as it is best known today, possesses conceptual frameworks that are quite different from one another in a manner that is akin of Kuhnian incommensurability. It is in this light that Feyerabend aptly described science as being not one thing but many. In practice then, a one science to serve as a Procrustean bed or a one size fits all is yet to surface.
Faced with this challenge, the growing practice world over, is to now place premium on multi-disciplinary investigation of phenomena. Unlike the quest for ground theory, the interest is to give room for broader perspective so as to arrive at rich understanding of the universe. By so doing, the implication is that no single perspective tells it all and none is elevated over and above the other. Consequently, it follows that other fields of human endeavours are genuine contributor to the body of knowledge. Feyerabend allude to this in his thesis on “theoretical pluralism” arguing that where even incompatible theories and what many might call myth are allowed to compete, they contribute to progress in the acquisition of knowledge by maintaining and enhancing the testability of the other. Thus, against Ezeagwu’s suggestion, culture of science need not rise above other forms of human experience before Nigeria can experience development. All forms of human inquiry should be aptly encouraged.
This leads me to submit that a Nigerian who professes one faith or another need not jettison the faith before the individual can become involved in the Nigerian project. Earlier, we asked whether critical thinking is inimical with faith profession. The answer to the question has largely been fleshed out. Suffice to say that one can only deny people of faith critical thinking if one reduces what it means to be critical in thinking to a singular standard. But from the foregoing discussion, we have concluded that such line of thinking is implausible and practically undesirable. Meanwhile, it must be pointed out that Ezeagwu got into this erroneous conclusion because he conflated ‘Critical Thinking’ with Scientism, and religion with religiosity. It is quite puzzling that of these terms so key to his writing, attempt were not made to delineate their meaning (except in the case of Religion).
What is critical thinking? We know that thinking is a defining attribute of the human being. But at what point is human said to have critical thinking. According to criticalthinking.org, the word ‘critical’ has two Greek root-terms ‘kriticos’ and ‘kriterion’, meaning ‘discerning judgement’ and ‘standards’ respectively. From this etymological understanding, we can deduce that critical thinking involves reasoning process that allows the development of discerning judgement based on appropriate standards. Immediately, it is clear to us that there is no one standard of critical thinking. The key element is the openness of self to evaluate all sides so as to avoid biased and distorted judgement. This is not scientism, the belief that only science answers all questions. In fact, that position is very uncritical, for assuming, a priori, the utility of science, its methodology and tenets.
Also, distinction has to be made between the concept of religion and religiosity. Admitting that these terms have no singular or agreed definition, consider this workable definition for the purpose of our discussion. According to Dr William E. Paden of the University of Vermont, the author of Religious Worlds: The Comparative Study of Religion and Interpreting the Sacred: Ways of Viewing Religion, religion is “a sacred engagement with that which is believed to be a spiritual reality”. He added that the spiritual reality or power could be in the form of gods, spirits, ancestors or the totality of reality (pantheism) or the natural world or the cosmic phenomena. In any case, Paden argues that the possibility of a relationship with the sacred characterised by reverence or worship and care is key to every religion. This description stays true to the etymological meaning of the Latin noun religio from which the word religion is derived. The former denotes earnest observation of ritual obligations and an inward spirit of reverence. Irrespective of who/what is reverenced, the essence of religion is earnest observation of mode of worship that cuts through the heart and exposes the individual as an individual to the relational being.
Second term, religiosity, refers to the quality of practicing a religion, especially one that is excessively and obtrusively sentimental (close to Webster Dictionary delineation). Taken in this sense, people of faith now distinguishes being religious from maintaining a spirituality, another term whose sense comes closer to the earnest observation of worship that flows from inward spirit. Characteristically, spirituality involves discernment which takes place at the individual level such that one forms beliefs based on individual abstraction from personal experience. I cannot think of this as less than critical thinking. To argue that it is not, one must ask, by what standard is it not? If the answer is that of science, we are compelled to refer back to the earlier position that science is not a standard for standards. According to Soren Kierkegaard, a Danish philosophy of the 19th Century, the standard applicable in religion is squarely in the subjectivity whence the individual as individual discern and walk his existential road alone and in relation with the one he/she deigns to be the saviour. Being in the subjectivity does not mean it has no internal coherency. Religion, like other fields of human endeavour possesses its own standards and can be judged only within that framework. Thus, it is no fair business for science to be the arbiter in a case that involve religion and science.
From the above discussion, we can then appreciate Ezeagwu’s point that the problem with Nigeria is not religion but a seeming inadequacies in spirituality were the mob faith rules. This fair judgement is an indictment on the people of faith in Nigeria. Religion need not stifle individual sense of spirituality where critical thinking and the sense of self reside. Consider this common case: an individual learns from a fellow believer that killing infidels on behalf of their deity would fetch him or her rewards in the afterlife. If the individual merely accepts this teaching and go on to act on it without subjecting it to discernment which can be aided by appropriate standards within his religion – inter-text and intra-text study of scriptures and of traditions – he or she would act in bad faith and can be said to be simply religious. Such a person is incapable of critical thinking. In this regard, Ezeagwu’s piece is a wakeup call for individuals to re-evaluate their sense of religion and practice.
Point of order #3: is Ezeagwu any different from those he indicts?
Let us recall that Ezeagwu was very quick to admit of the superiority of his reasoning capacity that makes him highly critical of ‘Nigerians’ who are incapable of ‘Critical Thinking’. Essentially, he argues that these guys who are dogmatically screwed to a particular religion go about condemning those outside their fold with the pretext that only their mode of religion is the true and valid one. Unlike them, Ezeagwu believes that he was condemning these ‘uncritical’ guys under the ruse of reason. The question for Ezeagwu becomes what standard of reason has he subscribed to? Is it scientism? Or atheism? Or Irreligiosity? Of the first, there is little to desire given the points laboured in the previous section. If it is atheism or irreligiosity (and there are ample text from his piece to suggest either or both of them), we must admit that Ezeagwu, like the other Nigerians involved in the act of intolerance for plurality of views and expression, is guilty of the same sin. In fact, this is uncritical thinking at its climax; that Ezeagwu would consider other mode of existence as meaningless and assume only his to be meaningful. Still more perplexing, Ezeagwu went further to prescribe his mode of being for the generality of Nigerians. This is a slap on the beauty of Nigeria’s heritage built on diversity and on the principle of freedom of expression. Without mincing word then, it must be said that Ezeagwu, through that article preaches on behalf of his ‘religion’, and worst still, his sermon amounts to sentimental hate speech about forms of religion.
Point of order #4: religion has no utility for the human society (in the past, present and future)?
Towards the end of his essay, Ezeagwu rained down fire and brimstone on religion as the greatest evil in human history. Hence, he writes that ‘religion has never had any meaningful benefit whatsoever since history’. Instead, religion is the causes of modern barbarianism and terrorism. It negates civilisation and is ‘incompatible with scientific reasoning, world peace, freedom, civil rights, equality, and good government’. Concluding therefore, Ezeagwu asserts that religion has no use for our ‘enlightened’ age, and that Nigerians must throw it off if their socio-economic progress matters.
The first thing to be said about this point of order is that much of Ezeagwu’s claim here are mere assertion that lack demonstrable reasoning. For instance, his writing showed no evidence of how religion negates civil rights or good government. Equally, there is nothing to take from the piece that showed religion as the cause of modern terrorism. No doubt, in recent times, the world has witnessed a resurgence in religious fanaticism or fundamentalism that provide fertile ground for terrorist acts. However, establishing the link between religion in its generic sense and terrorism remains a huge debate among experts today. Just as it can be easily pointed out that people harm others in the name of religion, same can be deduced from historical evidence that people equally harm others in the name of ‘reason’. For instance, human slavery in the past was justified based on the thinking that those taken as slaves (Africans and other unprivileged non-whites) lacked the quality of personhood which is rationality. It is of interest that rationalists like Immanuel Kant and empiricists like David Hume defended this position with much adore. If such instances of misappropriation of reason does not cause humans to discard rationality, it is bemusing to suggest that religion should be thrown away because some elements that practice it harm others. Needless to point out that an abuse of a thing does not negate its usefulness.
Thus, other than casting stones on religion recent surge in terrorism, let us explore the spirit behind fundamentalism of the millennia. Slamet Purwadi suggests that fundamentalism is ‘a counter-discourse’ that ‘discloses asymmetrical assumptions on contemporary culture and civilisation’. In a Journal article titled “Fundamentalism Revisited: Fundamentalism as a Counter-Culture to Modernity and its Values” (published by Melintas in 2008), Purwadi stresses that fundamentalism is a reaction to ideological imperialism. The understanding is that where dominant culture(s) in our global community dictate(s) to others what the right mode of existing should be is bound to generate stern resistance. If this means anything, terrorism cannot be solved by an imposition of a worldview (such as secularism or atheism as Ezeagwu suggested) on a people who are disposed towards another existential mode. Instead, it is cultural diversity that must be encouraged. Thus, unlike Ezeagwu, in the case of Nigeria, I suggest a disposition that allows openness to learning and interaction amongst the diverse groups in Nigeria with deep respect for differences.
Now, back to the question: is religion any good for the human society? One can easily find lots of examples of how religion has impacted positively on the human society. Many world’s civilization owe their origin to religion: American and to a large extent, the Western Civilisation in general can be traced to Christianity; the Chinese to Confucianism; other Asians to Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism and Islam. In Africa, it is the mix of traditional religion, Islam and Christianity that has driven civilisation. In any case, it can be said that religion has significant influence on the shape and form that human society has evolved in time. Moral principles and much of legal canons in many societies are founded and derived from some basic principles in religion. Much of modern language, institutions such as judiciary, executive and parliaments and their modes of operation have religious legacies. It is also well known that many religious groups are at the fore front of providing needed basic services to better humanity through the provision of amenities like education, hospitals, hostels, clean waters, etc. in many societies. This is not only true of nations at the peripheries of development but also of First World countries such as United State of America and Canada where some best service institutions are provided by religious bodies.
At the individual level, the good religion does are also enormous. Confronted by existential constraints of the past, the present and the future alongside characteristic existential uncertainty that hovers’ over human temporality, religion offers individuals frameworks to organise reality and make meaning of existence that is seemingly meaningless. While science offers humans predictability capacity and tools to appropriate the world, religion offers stability to human world that is apparently chaotic within its own logic. And this would continue to be so long as it is open that neither science nor any form of human expressive relation to the external world can guarantee with absolute certainty the stability, order and meaningfulness of existence.
The last point of interest from Ezeagwu’s piece concern the following except.
“In the light of current concrete evidence revealed by modern science for the billions of stars in our gargantuan galaxy beyond our observable heavens, and billions of other similar galaxies in a universe much bigger, grander, older and complex than the ancient prophets of our religions said or supposed, every lingering simplistic notion of a Creator God falls facedown” (Ezeagwu, 2016).
Not so fast Ezeagwu! Observation about the instances made above does not prove the absence of a Creator God. Discovering that these phenomena exist is one thing and demonstrating how they came about is another. Science, for the larger part has been able to do the former. But it remains a question as to how anything came into being. If fingers are pointed at the Big Bang, one must ask how and what set the bang in motion. At the end then, theories about how we all got here require some form of believe in what is provided either by religion or by science. And to me, the claims of scientism about these things are too cheap to buy. Because, unlike religion that readily admits of human ignorance and thus, calls the faithful to a leap of faith into the unknown, scientism arrogantly abrogate human limitation. This is why it must not be taken serious by anyone who is interested in critical thinking.
In conclusion, this essay attempted to show the ruse behind Ezeagwu’s rally call for inculcation of Critical Thinking within Nigerian culture. While maintaining that the call is important for the Nigerian project of advancing developmental strides, the essay revealed uncritical assumptions underpinning Ezeagwu’s central claim that the absence of Critical Thinking is responsible for Nigeria’s woes. Aside articulating the logical flaws in such general proposition, it argued that Ezeagwu’s conclusion stems from the endorsement of scientism, the belief that science answers all questions. This belief is also committed to replacing all forms of human endeavour with scientific modes of operations (as if science has one such singular modus operandi) which Ezeagwu did not hide in his writing. Arguing that the belief is undesirable for its lack of logical merits, the essay showed that pushing it forward as it is often done under the pretext of globalisation or rationality, amounts to ideological imperialism. Such move have consequences of reactionary outburst capable of generating real clash of cultures and civilisation. In its stead, cultural plurality (respecting the existence of differences in group identity) and diversity in perspective (theories, methodological commitment and schools) should be encouraged as it guarantee competition, a necessary condition for the growth of knowledge and the society.
Dominic Ayegba Okoliko is an alumnus of University of KwaZulu-Natal, Pietermaritzburg, South Africa. He has a multi-disciplinary training in Philosophy, International Relations and Political Science and has keen interest in politics of diversity. He writes from Lagos State of Nigeria.
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