Religious Literacy


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Religion is important to people because it not only gives them an individual identity but it also gives them a group identity. It fosters a sense of personal belief as well as a sense of community and belonging. Religions are diverse around the world. The main religions include Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Hinduism. Buddhism is not so much a religion as a philosophy or way of life. But even among the main religious traditions, there are different sects and belief systems and ways of living. Pagan religions still exist in some parts of the world, and in other parts atheism is a growing trend. Because all of these belief systems can clash, and people can come into conflict with one another over these beliefs religion is sometimes blamed as being the cause of all wars. But the reality is that people who hold strong beliefs tend to act according to the degree to which they have virtue. Gandhi, for instance, did not hold to any one religion but viewed them all as partly true; but when he advocated for a Muslim ruler in India over a Hindu ruler, the Hindu political extremists sought his murder. This shows that when religion mixes with politics, it can lead to violence. Religious literacy is therefore critical for contemporary security architects in Africa, because the more that religion is understood the more secure society in Africa can become.

History of Religion in the World and in Africa

Religion usually stems from some sense of the divine reaching out and communicating with mankind. The Jews believe that God spoke to them through Abraham and Moses. Muslims believe that God spoke to them through Muhammad. Christians believe that God spoke to them through Christ and the Apostles and saints. Hindus believe that the gods spoke to them through the Brahmans of their caste system. Ancient religions were essentially the same.

The Jewish religion was one that led to the Christian religion, and as the West became Christian after converting from various pagan religions, it began to date its history from the birth of Christ. This same practice of dating history from the birth of an important person is done in Islam, with Muhammad being the beginning date of the Islamic calendar. However, Jews, Christians and Muslims have come into conflict with one another over the centuries. Jews persecuted the early Christians. Christians and Muslims fought during the Crusades. Christians even fought one another in Europe after the Protestant Reformation divided the continent between Catholics and Protestants. Protestants attacked one another and Catholics and Protestants fought. At the time of the Reformation, the Muslims were even invading, and Jews were ascending in societyso these conflicts are real and always have been. Yet these conflicts can be understood in helpful ways that will allow people to appreciate them better. In Africa, this is certainly the case, as Africa itself has Muslims and Christians as the main religious groups. Understanding them can help leaders to organize more effectively and promote working toward a common aim.

As Harvard (2022) points out, religious literacy entails the ability to discern and analyze the fundamental intersections of religion and social/political/cultural life through multiple lenses. Some countries in Africa are starting to take religious literacy seriously as they attempt to deal with security issues. For instance, South Africa has changed its policy on religion in recent years: as Driesen and Tayob (2016) note, The South African National Policy on Religion and Education (2003) is designed to expose learners to the diversity of religious traditions that constitute the nation. The new policy replaces the mono-religious system of education promoted during apartheid (p. 71). In South Africa, religious literacy is now being regarded as a civic duty and as an essential part of citizenship education. For security architects, it means providing guidance, training, and identity management in policies and procedures that will unite states wherein diverse populations and beliefs can be found.

Various Religions and Practices in Africa

Africa as a whole has many diverse religions and traditions, and the distinction between North and South Africa is especially pronounced. The North of Africa is primarily Islamic and the South of Africa is primarily Christian (MPPR, 2022). Scattered throughout some regions in the East and West of Africa are traditional African religions that still remain. The three main native African religions in Africa are the Yoruba religion, the Zulu religion, and the Igbo religion. The Yoruba is found mainly in southwestern Nigeria, while Zulu is found in southern Africa and Igbo in southeastern Nigeria. Security architects should be mindful of this diversity and promote inclusion criteria for security objectives. To do this, understanding the different religions is vital.

The Yoruba religion contends that all-natural beings have energy or Ashe and that all people follow destiny (which is called Ayanmo) and will eventually meet their divine creator, the source of all energy (MPPR, 2022). Yoruba is found mostly in Nigeria, Benin and Toga. Zulu on the other hand is found in South Africa and other states and its practitioners engage in ancestor worship, but also believe in witches, sorcerers and God. Because Christianity has spread through southern Africa, there has been some mixing of Zulu and Christianity to create a kind of hybrid religion. The Igbo have also adopted some Christian ideas but traditionally they believe in numerous gods, including an earth goddess named Ala (MPPR, 2022).

Christianity is the predominant religion of Africa, but mainly in the south, with about 600 million adherents. It spread to Africa from the north in about the 2nd century AD. It was probably brought from Jerusalem to Alexandria on the Egyptian coast by Mark, one of the four gospel writers, in 60 AD (MPPR, 2022). Christianity spread far and wide in Africa, but when Islam conquered North Africa, the north has tended to remain Islamic. Today about 440 million Africans are Muslim (MPPR, 2022).

As Barnard (2015) states, religion is a glue that can bind and unify a nation or a group of people, or it can lead to thedestruction ofnations as well aslead tointra-state conflicts (p. 2). However, it is not easy to characterize conflicts as religious conflicts, because of the fact that identity, group membership, traditions, culture, economics, social and political factors, and other elements can all figure into a conflict. Religion can be one aspect of a conflict but it does not necessarily describe the totality of the conflict. Nonetheless, understanding religion can be helpful in understanding conflict, which is why religious literacy is helpful in security for Africa.

Chitando and Tarusarira (2019) claim that there is a need for religious literacy that not only interprets the hidden grammar of religious beliefs and practices but also tries to understand how religion interfaces with other aspects of life in Africa. By raising religious literacy, people in Africa can be better positioned to establish linkages between religion and various pressing and contested issues of our modern timesviolence, poverty eradication, ecology, human development, and politics (Chitando & Tarusarira, 2019). Moreover, there is a strong need for this development in Africa because of the fact that in Africa religion has a seamless connection to every aspect of daily life (Chitando & Tarusarira, 2019).

How Religion Affects Security

Religion affects security because it determines the culture of the region and the customs and expectations of the people. Security architects are responsible for managing issues like border control, technology, and validation for instance. If people of different and conflicting religious beliefs are crossing borders, there is a risk of conflict. If the people are radicalized by extremist religious beliefs like they are in some parts of Africa where radical Isamic believes take root, there is the possibility that insurrection could occur, as happened with Boko Haram. Boko Haram is seen as a major security threat in Nigeria, and Forbes (2018) has pointed out that military efforts to prevent further Boko Haram attacks in the coming months are hugely challenged by the sheer size of the territory in which the group operates and its continued ability to launch attacks. The group is seen as having terror links and ties, and these are rooted in its radical Islamic beliefs. The religious aspect is not necessarily the main driver of the group, but it does fuel a culture that leads people to want to join the group in Africa. This means there has to be some security concern about the religious ideas that circulate around and within the group as well as other groups like it. Security architects have to be mindful of this risk, and should increase their religious literacy to grow their understanding. They must understand how religion impacts society, politics, and the military.

Likewise, Tinubu (2017) has noted that today, much of the worlds military challenges have little to do with the confrontation of standing army against standing army. You now must adapt your concepts and your very institution to Fourth Generation or Non-trinitarian Warfare. Here, you deal with the intersection of ideology, politics and highly weaponized non-state actors whose membership, tactics and aims are fluid and inconstant. In other words, security concerns are not necessarily about state-to-state conflicts but rather about belief systems and how they generate the possibility for domestic terrorism within the state. This is the case in countries in Africa, where terror groups have changed the shape of the state, as in Somalia and other states in Saharan Africa. Al-Shabab, for example, is a militant extremist group in Somalia that has association with ISIS and Al-Qaeda (Center for International Security and Cooperation, 2019). This group wants to control the government of Somalia and to remove any supporting powers of foreign origin from the state. It has teamed with Al-Qaeda to oppose the Islamic government in Somalia because the group believes the government is not representing Islam effectively. It wants Shariah law, and it wants it everywhere, which is why the group has also taken to conducting terror attacks in Kenya as well. The group has no interest in peace unless that peace is on its own terms. It will not tolerate other religious groups or ideas. So this is an example of a religion that is not wanting to co-exist.

Peace and Conflict Generated by Religious Activities

All religions can make the claim that they are religions of peace, but religious differences can also lead to conflict. For example, both Christianity and Islamwhich are the dominant religions in Africacan argue that they seek to promote peace among men of good will. Yet, they do not profess the same belief in the same God. If people are not tolerant, the differences between the two can become radical. Some terror groups believe that it is their mission to kill non-believers. This creates conflict. This conflict is really historical, too. Christians and Muslims used to fight regularly throughout the era of the Crusades over holy lands in the Middle East. Today, there is some fighting, but there is also some peace.

When a group becomes extreme, however, it tends to insist on its own wayand if others do not agree it tends to resort to violence to get its way, as Al-Shabab has done in some states. This is a problem for security because the tactics of groups like this can include bombings, raids on civilian targets like hotels and schools, and other guerilla tactics. They will kidnap, kill, and hold hostage. Moreover, these groups are not alone: Al-Shabab has been linked not only with Al-Qaeda but also with Boko Haram (Center for International Security and Cooperation, 2019).

Yet politics is only one facet of religious activities in Africa. Art and culture are other facets of religion that security architects should consider. Christians and Muslims and traditional African religions have engaged in art and cultural enterprises for hundreds of years, and this can lead to peaceful existence in many cases. As Kaba (1976) points out, the interdependence between art and society, and the subsequent question of the function of art, belong to the old debate which has divided the artistic world into two broad factions. Radical writers and critics, sometimes labelled as revolutionary, think that the artistic universe is intimately connected with the socio-political context in which creativity takes place, and hence that art must play an active rle in the society. The conservatives, while not necessarily opposing the active involvement of individual artists in politics, cleave to the view of art for its own sake and truth (p. 201). Art, religion, and culture all can integrate to create an atmosphere of positive nurturing influence in Africa. This is further supported by Walter (1972) who points out that music and dance had key roles in uncontaminated African society. They were ever present at birth, initiation, marriage, death, as well as at times of recreation. Africa is the continent of drums and percussion. African peoples reached the pinnacle of achievement in that sphere.African dance and art were almost invariably linked with a religious world-outlooks in one way or another[and] religion is an aspect of the superstructure of a society, deriving ultimately from the degree of control and understanding of the material world (p. 38). Where religion finds a positive expression in society, it can have a peaceful impact on the region. Where religion finds a negative expression, as through violence caused by extremists, it can lead to conflict and destabilization.

Causes and Possible Solutions

Causes of violence and conflict from a religious perspective tend to be found in one groups intransigent intolerance toward another group. When one group has strong beliefs that do not admit any room for others, it creates tension. When this same group is willing to take up a violent struggle to force its beliefs onto a society as a whole, it becomes a major problem. It is this type of situation that leads to war and domestic terrorism, whether it is through groups like Boko Haram, ISIS, Al-Shabab, or others. It is a problem that has to be addressed and that can be addressed through religious literacy, which promotes understanding.

Religious literacy is focused on education, and education is something that is often missing in regions where people are roped into extremism. Education helps people to empathize and appreciate the perspectives of others, and it teaches them to be able to talk and sort out differences using logic and respect. But in places that are hurt by poverty, there is often no chance for education. So focusing on religions literacy alone is really not sufficient. There has to be a focus on addressing the issue of poverty as well so that there can be some room for education in the first place.

At the same time, people have to realize that there has to be a missionary spirit that comes in peace. When Christianity spread throughout Africa starting in the 2nd century AD, it did not spread by way of the sword as Islam often spread. It spread because the missionaries were kind and they preached a new and better way of life through Christ. They taught people how to love, how to forgive, how to be nurturing, and how to commit oneself to the God of truth and justice. This helped to create great development in Africa for many years.

So it is important that while religious literacy be promoted there also be promoted by security architects a sense of virtue and appreciation among people. For example, security architects can recommend that schools dedicate time out of the year toward helping students research the various religions of Africa and present them favorably to the school in a way that helps to promote respect and appreciation. Governments can also promote poitive religious activities, like dance, art, music, or other cultural expressions that are rooted in positive religious observance. This can be tied to worship as well, but there should be a sense of peace that is combined with the entire process.

Additionally, sometimes conflict is caused by economic reasons, such as resources like oil in Sudan (Barnard, 2015). Powerful elites can control the resources, and those without influence can seek to gain it by seizing control of government or attacking its infrastructure in a bid to gain control over its vital resources. The main objective is to gain strength through economic powerbut the motivating factor is religious because the group taking action wants to spread its beliefs and promote them instead of have them marginalized by a power structure that does not represent them. So for this reason, it is important to reduce the risk of conflict by creating an environment in which it is possible for all groups to have a say in government and to not be marginalized by a powerful elite.

But is it always possible to have an egalitarian society? In Africa, there are large wealth gaps, and many people do not have much influence or economic means. There is great corruption in many states, and people do not always feel equal to one another. Issues of religion come up as ways to foster identity, but even now religion is sometimes just a way to get around addressing other issues.

That is why it is important to approach these issues from the standpoint of religious literacy, because it allows one to think about the numerous factors that influence religious action, belief, practices, and what causes conflict. Whether one is looking at Boko Haram in West Africa, Al-Shabab in East Africa, Al-Qaeda in North Africa, or Christian issues in South Africa, one can see that there are currents and customs that play a part in all states, and there are economic, social and political factors that determine the extent to which people turn to religion for answers.


Religion has always been an important part of society throughout history. Yet religions have always come into conflict, too. The Jews were enslaved by the Egyptians. The Christians were persecuted by the Jews. The Muslims and Catholics fought for centuries. Protestants and Catholics warred with one another in parts of the world. Hindus and Christians and Muslims have battled in India. In Africa, there are currently struggles between extreme groups like Boko Haram and governments, and there are struggles between Christians and Muslims that need to be better addressed. They can begin to be addressed by the promotion of religious literacy, which can foster understanding and appreciation instead of allowing resentment and hatred to push people to violence. The climate of fear and anxiety in states like Somalia or parts of Nigeria is distressing because with a little bit of religious literacy people would be more accepting and tolerant. Yet there also needs to be some focus given to economic, social, and political factors as well.


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