Religion and Politics in the World and South Africa: How Dumb Numbers Count

2014-07-01 11:08

In a recent edition of Spectator Magazine, it was observed that “religion is the new politics,” and “the West's politicians generally aren't interested in religion, and increasingly this means that they don't understand the world”.

It went on – “Disputes and conflict abroad are viewed (by the West) in terms of ethnic strife or economic hardship - but, all too often, religion is driving events. This is most evident in the Middle East, where national boundaries have dissolved and reformed along sectarian lines.”

Since the Arab Spring, the Middle East has become an icon zone for religiously driven political flashpoints as far flung as Somalia, Kenya, Nigeria, Indonesia, Chechnya, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and many beside. Even the world’s largest democracy, India, is now characterized by religious nationalism, whilst the global home of democracy - the USA itself - is noted for its Bible Belt, right wing religiosity, evangelical crackpots and televangelists.

It is probably safe to say that in general people are drawn to religion by circumstance and cultural affitnity. It is also easy to understand its attractions since it provides succor, a sense of belonging and a bond beyond the family unit. But what exactly is it?

Definitions vary - but not by much.

Two examples are

• a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe ….(that generally) contain a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs

• a specific fundamental set of beliefs and practices agreed upon by a number of persons or sects

Despite many marginal variations in definition, three elements are pervasive; the notion of belief, a critical mass in humans numbers, and an environment of social pressure. At a cynical level, such beliefs are an open ended license to do as one pleases provided you have enough support. At the extremes, David Koresh and Jim Jones’ cults spring to mind – as does the barbarism of 9/11.

But from a global perspective it highlights ever more ominous possibilities.

Contrary to initial expectations, the rational (Western) model of the democratic nation state functioning hand in glove with the hallowed sovereignty of the individual, a free market economy and institutions guaranteeing personal freedom might be under increasing threat as globalization takes hold with intellectual rough-necks from across the cultural divide invading its geopolitical domain.

There have already been plenty of precursors.

The twin towers, London subway and Moscow opera theatre bombings were by no stretch a totally new or unique phenomenon – although they had new perpetrators and methodologies. Pre-war Germany was a cerebral and advanced society until Hitler’s brand of fascism subverted its values and inflicted a religion of hate, entitlement and bigotry on its people. Likewise Cambodia was considered a safe place until Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge sought to ideologically cleanse Cambodian society under the noses of the world; Rwanda was dubbed “the Switzerland of Africa” until close to a million Tutsis were slaughtered in a hundred days of bloodletting– initiated and perpetrated by (Hutu) ideologues.

Today, globalisation breeds an infinite number of potential friction points between rational values and the beliefs and dogmas of an irrational world. In other words there is a very good chance of clap trap, superstition, fraudulent ideologies or plain evil damaging the lives of decent, hard working people as they come into contact with those less evolved.

South Africa is no exception.

Contemporary South Africa is a microcosmic case study of this phenomenon with all the dynamics taking place within our very borders.

The past two decades have seen accelerating attempts by a cognitively challenged and dogmatic alliance to plunder unearned economic resources that it lacked the capacity to create in the first place and still lacks in sufficient measure to direct or manage. So it uses the irrational to justify their confiscation.

With a profound disregard for the democratic principles on which the nation was founded, quasi-religions, petty ideologies and trumped up doctrines have blossomed in support of what the confiscatory ruling establishment wants to achieve, shielded as it is by a cognitively limited parliamentary majority.

Here are some.

1. The Struggle

“The Struggle’s” origins are understandable since the demise of apartheid required genuine struggle against the authorities. But the term has since lent itself to abuse and serves as a dysfunctional rallying cry for “the masses”.

It has become a default setting to justify arguments when reason threatens. It is also cloaked in its own vocabulary, lore and cults. So, for example the “struggle” for workers’ rights trumps those of the nation’s citizenry at large who would gain immeasurably from an economy free of barriers that shelter the productively inferior – the employed elite.

It is also invoked to justify affirmative action – a social experiment that has failed universally in alleviating poverty. Like “workers’ rights” affirmative action promotes elites, entrenches privileges and damages prospects for the majority of South Africans.

“Black Economic Empowerment” (BEE) is a blatant invocation of the Struggle’s liturgy which for two decades has created a filthy rich Black class, largely devoid of value creation capacity and management ability. Again, the country’s citizenry pays “off balance sheet” – because the opportunity costs are obscured behind ideology, liturgical bluster and the concealment of the opportunity costs.

2. (the perceived evil of) Inequality

“Inequality” is a doctrine of negative rational value because it serves as a euphemism for inferiority. But it provides emotive value, which South Africa’s ruling establishment exploits by condemning the historical roles of colonialism and apartheid, against which it seeks “restitution”.

But facts tell a different story.

Inequality is a condition with its roots in prehistory – not colonialism. Asymmetries or inequalities between peoples in various parts of the world only began to close following the first phase of globalization – disparagingly dismissed today as “colonialism” - and was exposed when those whose technologies trumped the tradition and superstitions of the vanquished were laid bare.

Inequality was always there.

3. Social Justice

“Social Justice” too wears a religious badge.

Philosophers such as Rawls, Godwin and Concordet promoted the notions of social justice, and Man’s duty to strive for just outcomes for all. Others, such as Adam Smith and Frederich von Hayek dismissed the idea as “a quasi-religious superstition” and a concept belonging “not to the category of error, but to that of nonsense”.

The underlying difference between these philosophies was that the former focused on outcomes and results that appeared subjectively to be just (others might have taken a different view, which would destroy their arguments); whilst the latter focused on processes by which justice could best be achieved. The difference in visions has been defined as the unconstrained versus the constrained approach, where the former is imposed by intervention, the latter arrived at through free individual interaction.

It is easy to see why the former appeals to South African policymakers; it plays God and assumes powers that can force predetermined outcomes.

Thus at both a national and international levels, religion – or at very least, the irrational - can be seen to create growing pretexts for conflict – much as it has for centuries. What is new today is that as diverse cultures come to co-habit the same space through rapid globalisation, likely flash points increase exponentially.

It can only be hoped that space occupied by rational secular values will remain open and that intellectual integrity will remain in place.

In the South African context two decades of “democracy” has shown disappointing limitations in a non-cerebral, collectivized environment. A focus on the irrational and prescriptive, the erosion of individual sovereignty and the confiscation of accumulated value seem bound to continue for as long as power is held by ideologues limited in vision.

Thus, as a prototype for a shrinking world of conflicting visions, cultures and cognitions, the current South African model offers little hope and a lot of work lies ahead.

But who knows? Maybe we should be considering a redefinition of the geopolitical nation state - as is evidently happening in the Middle East - and then choosing where it is we would like to be!

It is just possible that we should be watching that space. It seems as good a bet as any.

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