Since I have arrived in Lesotho I have wanted to write about religion. I have mostly avoided it because of how divisive and complicated it can be and how ignorant I am regarding it. In general, I am a fairly indecisive person. This indecisiveness includes religion. If I were really pressured – if God was sitting on a cloud throwing lightening bolts at me and Buddha, Jesus, and Vishnu were chasing after me all screaming ‘what do you believe in?’ – I would probably have to admit that I am an atheist (I apologize for the possibly offensive description). I wouldn’t consider myself an atheist in the mould of a Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens. I am not necessarily against religion. I think that religion, and religious organizations, have the potential to help people and in many situations do help people a great deal.

After reading a recent post at the aidwatchers blog I have decided to try and write down my thoughts. The post I refer to was not specifically about religion. William Easterly, the author, was travelling in Ghana and was able to attend a religious service. After attending the service he made the observation that “the people in the congregation this morning, in one of the poorest regions of Ghana, do NOT see themselves primarily as “poor” or “developing”, they see themselves as Christians”. He was using this point to challenge commonly held perceptions about people living in poverty – what he calls humanizing the poor. He was trying to use a personal experience to illustrate his point, but the reason it got me thinking was because it comes across as such a huge simplification.

Over 80% of the population of Lesotho identifies as Christian, but I feel that it would be a fairly superficial observation if I just said that most Basotho see themselves as Christian. I would think that the perceptions of Christianity differ a great deal between cultures, especially in many African countries where the religion has been introduced by missionaries and has evolved over time in concert with traditional religions and practices.

What has surprised me a great deal is how much interaction there is with religion in seemingly all facets of life. When we hold workshops and meetings in Mafeteng we have a prayer to open the gathering and we usually have a prayer to close – I should note that the meetings I have attended in Maseru have not followed this pattern. During one meeting I forgot to include a prayer to open the meeting and a number of the participant feedback forms I collected at the end of the day mentioned the lack of a morning prayer. Another example that has stayed with me occurred during my first month in Lesotho. I attended a community meeting involving all of the organizations working with HIV/AIDS in Mafeteng. There were about 50 people in attendance. At one point in the meeting there was a small discussion/debate about the role of abstinence education in HIV prevention. The debate mostly involved two of the participants, a man and a woman. This conversation regarding abstinence would have probably offered me some insight into the role of religion in community based work in Mafeteng, but unfortunately I couldn’t understand any of it because they were debating in sesotho. What I remember most is that almost every time the woman stood up to present her argument or to disagree with the man she would break into a gospel song/prayer. All the participants would get up and sing and dance – including the gentleman that was arguing with her. After the song she would continue with her argument. This happened three or four times. If anything, I thought it was an interesting debating tactic.

Religion is also ever-present in my personal life. When I meet people an invariable question in the introductory small-talk script is ‘What church do you belong to?’ I still haven’t found a way to answer this without just desperately trying to change the subject.

As a result of this continued exposure to religion, I have been able to reflect on my beliefs, or lack of beliefs I should say. I have started to wonder how someone who is born into a life of almost limitless opportunity could question the existence of God; whereas someone who is born into a life with limited opportunities would seem to have unquestioning faith. Maybe it would be simplistic of me to assume people have unquestioning faith. There could be a number of reasons why religion is entrenched in a society and it may have nothing to do with faith, belief, or spirituality. I would think that belief and belonging become a social necessity when religion is so pervasive. It is also possible that belonging to a church provides more benefit then not belonging, regardless of personal belief. However, there still seems to be a significant amount of people who outwardly express their faith in God. It seems backwards to me. I have met people who have lost so much – parents, siblings, friends, and yet they still have the belief that God is giving them the power to persevere. It has made me wonder if atheism is a position borne of privilege. Maybe I can afford to be an atheist because my life has been relatively free of adversity.

August 23, 2010