Amollo: Up above the sky, a god for all of us

Benson Amollo

Could an atheist have been an American President? No way.

The underside of modern American politics is its obsession with moral purity where self-proclaimed moralists set the standard with which men and women angling for office have to be cast. In that ordering religion — an epigram of U.S. politics is centered on what the purists believe is religiously American. This is why the election of President John F. Kennedy, a Catholic, was a big deal. It is also why President Barack Obama’s faith has captured the imagination of many and the same reason why Gov. Mitt Romney’s Mormonism strongly features in this year’s presidential campaign.

Why should anyone care?

Let’s look at what epigrams are. They are beautifully poetic sayings that have been used for over two millennia and originated from the Greek term for “inscription.” They also have a tendency towards paradox. The famous saying by the great 18th century philosopher Immanuel Kant said: “I have therefore found it necessary to deny knowledge in order to make room for faith.” It comes from his “Critique of Pure Reason,” a fairly impenetrable text that raises an important and age-old dilemma — the conflict between science and religion. Kant’s argument is essentially that reason should be limited to allow for the prevalence of faith because, without faith, one is neither moral nor free. Without this morality, God cannot exist, and man cannot experience autonomy.

If, for a moment, we put aside the philosophical implications of Kant’s work, we can ponder what faith, or the lack thereof, means for us in the world we live in today. History is littered with the dead or decaying beliefs of human beings. My own religious standing usually strikes many an accomplice or foe quite odd; I’m self-described as a cold-footed Christian. I was born to a very devout Christian family. So, naturally, I was expected to shoe in and follow Christ. But as an adult I chose to leave one foot outside to be able to understand other faiths, religions and the lack thereof. Atheists also give an account of their tortuous journey to that identity. And to this date, debate about religion and the lack of it has grown so voluminous that I would be adding nothing to it. But, the question I ask; do we need religion?

Early in the year, the New Scientist published some findings on “why our minds have a god-shaped space” and what even atheists could learn from the big guy above the clouds. So, now we’re all way more intelligent than our ancestors. So, what is the place of religion in moral probity and who decides? In the United States, the Christian Right is blaming “moral decay” on loose grounding to Christian faith — and militant atheism. This is why the religious question in the presidential election cannot be wished away.

I think that religious belief is intrinsic. That it is something imprinted into our very nature, which is manifested in the belief systems invented by human beings who are always striving to explain the universe. Most of the religions mankind has ever believed in have died out but the ones that have survived and prospered — notably Christianity, Islam and Hinduism — have been brilliant in finding sophisticated ways of survival and proliferation.

Like Kant suggests, there’s a natural void in us to be taken up by religion, and this comes to us differently. In my case, being born in a Christian family was a good enough path to Christianity. It set me forth to educating myself on the Bible, going to church and engaging in “fulfilling” conversations with religious friends with whom we seldom disagree. Hence the decision to leave one foot outside of my Christian faith was the quest to finding the other human souls who would religiously think outside of my Christian caste. It is different from denying the existence of a deity, although my atheist friends believe life’s meaning isn’t suppressed by the lack of religion.

Do we need to put religion to task? What’s religion’s agenda in contemporary life? And to the atheist, is it for him to disprove religion or a deity to make itself obvious to him? In the United States, atheism is a struggling minority — standing at an almost negligible 9 percent, unlike in Europe where it accounts for about 20 percent. Does faith matter in everyday life? And what’s religion’s centrality especially in matters political. So, why would we be obsessed with Mitt’s Mormonism or Obama’s “Islamism”?

Maybe Kant is right that the subjectivity of our “reason” means we should all be more accepting of faith. And perhaps atheists are flat wrong and even foolish to deny faith in a god. To that end, only time — or death — can tell.