Why do people think religious houses are NOT ESSENTIAL, while these other centres of mass gathering (markets, malls etc.) are essential for a time like this? Do we really understand what people get when they visit their religious houses and how important they see these contacts? Are we being merely elitist and dismissive, from a public policy angle…

Let me start with a caveat. I am not exactly religious. I could attend church like four times a year and no one can compel me to. I also cannot be intimidated by some of the scare tactics employed by those who want to lure me. I believe one can have a relationship with God on his own. I am not arrogant enough to call myself an atheist, and although I could engage anyone on the subject, I am aware that there are grey areas in life that even the most ardent atheist or agnostic has to leave in the realm of some superior being. Science has not explained a lot of things about life, no matter how it has tried. I, therefore, respect anyone’s belief system. One of my issues with religion is the proselytisation bit. The constantly jostling for souls among the Abrahamic religions. It reminds me of Nigerian banks seeking endlessly for customers that they don’t intend to assist but take from. I don’t like the idea of some people trying to convince others that their own ways are right and others are wrong. I detest even more some of the tactics and languages employed against the other side by the born again or ‘Izala’ (true muslim) members of each side.

Well, we are in very odd times. I was a bit surprised at how easily many religious people folded and took it on the lam, the moment COVID-19 was announced. Most of them did not even try to exercise their faiths. Some smart ones have been trying to justify, behind their laptops on many a Zoom-talk, how their steps are logical and how the church is not the building and so on, but clearly many of the miracle claims of many have been revealed to be pure shams. We cannot compare 2020 with 1918. Churches were closed in 1918, but they laid no claim to curing the lame, the blind, the deaf, or even raising dead people to live again. These new churches, especially, have done just that. Anyhow, they shut their doors, and but for a few whimpers here and there, the monstrosities they built have remained symbols of helplessness, and a departing era.

Then Donald Trump, the POTUS, spoke a few days ago, announcing that in his view, churches, mosques and synagogues are essential services, and that got the world thinking again. It also got a certain section of the liberal press into a flap. Trump accused some state governors of categorising abortion clinics and liquor stores as essential services, while locking down firmly on religious houses. For me, the argument is watertight, even as many people believe that Trump is, as usual, playing to the gallery and trying to win some November votes. Add to the liquor stores and abortion clinics, large malls, where hundreds have congregated, touching trolleys and items on the racks, have remained open as ESSENTIAL SERVICES, while religious houses are closed for the past four months. Yet, no word had been said about how the religious houses can begin to reopen, howbeit gradually. Liquor stores are there for people to stock up on their booze. There is a new culture among those who prefer to remain at home, to get drunk by 10 a.m. This has increased incidences of child abuse and domestic violence. Idle ‘Uncles’ are preying on kids. Small crimes are climbing due to hunger and idleness. Marriages are crashing the more, and alcohol is weakening the immunity of hundreds of millions of people around the world. I would have put this down to some deliberate desire of some powerful people to reap more cadavers, but I think the strategy so far – especially after data has emerged – is down to simple stupidity. Those who say they are smart are just not so smart anyway – Michelle Obama said as much that she has been in many top-level think-tank meetings and been disappointed at the level of thinking of those who run the world.

I am interested in one question only: Why do people think religious houses are NOT ESSENTIAL, while these other centres of mass gathering (markets, malls etc.) are essential for a time like this? Do we really understand what people get when they visit their religious houses and how important they see these contacts? Are we being merely elitist and dismissive, from a public policy angle, seeing issues only from our ivy league perspective? Is there any representation from the really vulnerable or are we shutting down their voices from afar?

Abortion clinics sometimes provide essential services, but their prioritisation could also encourage promiscuity among the young, who know that there is a place to terminate pregnancies around the block, round the clock. It seems the world is working hard at devaluing the worth of humans by the choices we have taken. Is this deliberate? Again, real data has emerged, enough time has elapsed, and it should have since been time to recalibrate our strategy. What is going on? People love to bash Trump naturally, but I try not to follow the herd; the herd is usually wrong. Thinking about the goings-on again, I think there is a need to point out to the world, using some short points, that indeed religious houses may be essential services. Recall that I am no religious fanatic. I, however, believe that subject to limits, religion has played and continues to play a good role in organising society, offering succour to billions around the world, and indeed religion has been central to the evolution of science and innovation, the way we know them today. The end of religion has not arrived, and may not in a while to come. We can reform religion, but we must not hold religion in disdain because we have the power of bureaucracy or the mob on social media. I personally like the fact that people head to churches and mosques and billions actually get calmed down by doing so. Perhaps it is the best that humanity can manage. Let us see just how essential religion is, especially from a Nigerian perspective:

1. Psychological Services: In a country like Nigeria where visiting the ‘shrink’ is not as popular as it is elsewhere, only our religious houses offer such services. There is a spike in mental cases presently. People trust their pastors and imams more than they do the odd psychiatric doctor or psychologist. Many churches I know, serve as rehab centres for poor drug addicts, where governments have no provisions. Okay, why are these religious leaders not being actively pressed into service to assist the medical doctors in a world going into total mental meltdown at this time? Why are they shut out and told they don’t matter?

2. Marriage Counselling (Of Collapsing Marriages, Spike In Domestic Violence): There is a spike in domestic violence lately, including serious strains on many marriages. Many men in our clime, are wired to be on the road – hunters and foragers. Now they are at home, dissecting the behaviours of madam and the children in microscopic fashion and also being dissected and cheapened. Well, mostly the religious houses offer this service in our country. Yes, you could say the pastors are still otherwise available at home or via the internet. But with the fear around this disease, they are discouraged from seeing anyone – except if their services are rightly recognised as essential and their counselling considered as value-adding. There should be a way of continuing this service. And no, Zoom cannot help very well in many bad situations. Perhaps the goings-on at this time is meant to damage the family institution. The liberals seem more in favour of same-sex marriages, no marriages at all or any arrangement that does not product children.

3. Suicides and Depression: This is part of the mental issues mentioned above but these two needs to be specially emphasised. The promises of the hereafter is what gets billions of people hopeful around the world. Atheism cannot explain what happens hereafter. Atheists are unsure of the hereafter but religion offers some ideas, even if one can pick holes in them. More people believe in the explanations of religion and this saves many from suicide and depression around the world. Already there is a spike in suicides and depression because of COVID-19. Many people ‘offed’ themselves and still do, because of the fear sold with the disease. In Bangladesh, U.S.A, India, peasants, ordinary folks and medical doctors have been killing themselves, while medical doctors are mainly focused on COVID. The medical personnel could use the help of religious bodies.

4. Food and Shelter For Millions: Many religious houses provide food for millions of hungry people, and shelter for millions of the homeless. Yes, they could still provide cooked food, but they are just mostly now dismissed as charlatans, not people who provided a service, even if in the recent past. Some of them have provided these services on a large scale in the past but now find this difficult to do because of strict lockdown rules. Their staff cannot make it to work, and even markets open only a few times in a week. To make matters worse, this is the time that more Nigerians are going hungry and in need of such services. Some religious organisations have been dismissed as mere criminals and this is not encouraging to them to continue the work they have been used to. I think as much as we want them to be more responsible and we want to weed out charlatans, we are often being very unfair to these people.

5. Extra-Medical Issues (And Where Hospitals Reject Patients): In the U.S.A and elsewhere (including Nigeria), hospitals were told to cancel elective surgeries and people were told not to go to hospital, except they had emergency the moment this COVID thing showed up. Most people even elected not to go near hospitals anyway, especially given the fear with which the disease was enveloped, no thanks to the mainstream media. Religious houses have always been a half-way houses; somewhere people in our kind of country go for pre-medical services, succour and advise. Many go to their pastors for some encouragement before embarking on surgeries, for example. The jab in the arm often offers the hope that sees them through. Even medical doctors agree that a bit of hope helps in the healing process. Many doctors tell patients to put their faiths in God when they are about to go through a difficult and risky procedure. So, even though COVID is a dangerous disease and no pastor, imam or rabbi should interfere or expose themselves, we should at least acknowledge that they had a great role to play in the medical value chain in peace time. No, religious houses are not useless; they are essential.

6. First Line of Succour: Religious houses are the first lines of succor for hundreds of millions of people, especially in Africa. They are where our people find peace, comfort and calm, away from the maddening crowd. They offer an escape, while some offer tranquility. Others, a spiritual connection. Yes, our people need to visit churches and mosques less frequently but the succour that weary souls get in these places, is simply priceless, and often helps to save society from more trouble.

7. Income Redistribution: Some of the religious houses offer a great income redistribution service. Some of the leaders are modest people who understand that they need to constantly lift the vulnerable up with the resources they get from the more affluent. That service seems to be in abeyance presently. Millions of Nigerians are able to meet some of their obligations through what they get in the religious houses. A certain Pareto principle plays out. Only the top 10 per cent provides the resources which sustains the churches and the bottom 30 per cent, who give next to nothing, also benefit from the largesse of the 10 per cent, especially in the good religious places.

8. Some Religious Houses More Efficient Than Government: This is a fact. Some of the religious houses have a better handle on resources compared to government. Some have created whole, efficient communities out of the resources they get, and some are far better focused than government could ever be. They operate like private-sector enterprises. They are not all useless. The resources given to them go a lot further than it could ever go if given to government. That is why millions of our people don’t miss their obligations to these religious houses. Whereas this is odd, our governments must do better in resource management in order to reverse the distrust of the people.

9. Cradle To Grave Services: We disparage religion as being useless and religious houses as being bores, but whether we like it or not, life’s most important events have been colonised by them. They offer cradle to grave services. One of the sadder episodes of this COVID is that many have died in the epicentres of America and Europe, without the normal consecration of their souls to God by their religious leaders, who have been kept out of reach and rendered into nothingness. Many of the sick and infirm who later died in the hospitals have been treated no better than experimental lab rats by the medical ‘experts’. A number of them died frightened, confused and disappointed, because they couldn’t get those final assurances from their religious leaders, about a better hereafter. Life’s most important events are the forte of religious houses – childbirth and christening, coming of age, marriages, death. No secular institution can replace these roles except we want to turn human beings to mere machines.

Some Other Points

Better Crowd Management In Religious Houses: I aver that there is better crowd management in religious houses, more than there could ever be in malls. So why the continuous victimisation? I was at Abuja’s NEXT supermarket recently and it was filled to capacity, with everyone roiling around the alleys, touching goods, replacing them and shopping. Why are malls more important than churches, mosques and synagogues? Is this more than the business of stopping COVID in its tracks? Can one catch the disease in a church but not in a mall? A scientific explanation is urgently required please. I believe if we cannot manage more than a hundred people per church, per service, or 200, now is the time to start.

Even The Buildings Are Important: Many have said the people are the church and not the building. Top pastors have also said it. They are only half-correct. The building is also important. I personally like the tranquility of a Catholic Church when I attend. People are usually very nice to each other inside churches (except in a few I have been in times past where they get all rude and aggressive when trying to collect offerings and tithes). I personally like the history that stares down on me in the more traditional and orthodox churches. Whereas in Europe they have turned most of the old churches into bars and pubs, I don’t believe it is the way for us to go here, even though I detest the competition for whose cathedral is largest in a country whose people are dying of hunger. Europeans, Americans and others, are generally more depressed than we are here, in spite of their stratospheric GDP per capita. They are not happy. For pastors who think the Internet or TV services are just as good, they should remember that the poorest amongst us cannot find electricity or internet data money and so have remained cut-off. We must not boil religious services down to mere elitism.

Men of Little Faith: I grew up listening to sermons about a day that will come when Christians will have to worship in secret, lest they be killed or arrested. I didn’t see most pastors referencing the possibility of this when the COVID lockdown started. They aren’t even writing now. Many have shown up to be total cowards. Why are they not engaging the governments very logically on this matter? Why me, a non-church goer? Some are busy talking up a storm on the Internet, devising ways of optimising tithes and offerings using Internet banking in the ‘new normal’. For those ones, it is still all about the Benjamins. The danger is that even if this present lockdown is justified, can the same strategy be deployed in the future; announce a big disease and lock religion down? If COVID does not clear early, do we lock religious houses down forever? Does it also count for anything that on May 23, Nigeria lost nobody to COVID? Or that our fatalities in Africa are so few? Are we locking down in solidarity or subservience to the Western countries?

The Excesses of Religion In Nigeria: Some believe it is a good time to punish religion for its excesses, especially in Nigeria. The flash, the bling, the boasts, the con jobs. The proliferation of religious houses, as if they are mama put joints. Chances are religious houses are more ubiquitous than mama puts in Nigeria. The Abrahamic religions are often in a mortal combat. As the Christians vow that they heard from God himself that there should be a church in every Nigerian building – and don’t forget the hotels – the Muslims (especially up north) don’t joke with the building of their mosques. Most of the palliative monies sent up North end up being used to build mosques. Political leaders embezzle funds, but ensure they put these buildings in place to mesmerise their people. What do we do about the pastors who acquire fleets of Rolls Royces and pay no tax because ‘thou shall not touch my anointed’? What do we do with the private jets? What do we do with regulating false claims of miracles on TV? Don’t we now need a Charity Commission, as proposed earlier but shut down by the same pastors who have since gone limp? What do we do with the proliferation of sects up north? Or the fact that many religious bodies just spring up spontaneously in Nigeria, with no registration at the CAC or anywhere, leading to non-traceability of their prime movers when trouble starts? Can we direct the attention of the rich churches back to Nigeria’s futile economic diversification quest? Can churches lead the next industrial push for Nigeria? It will not be odd. in the past Islam, Christianity and Judaism were majorly catalytic to the opening of new epochs in development, science, the arts, knowledge at different periods of history. Perhaps they can try again.

It is a new day. Let us refrain from punishing and lampooning religious houses. If they aren’t useful to us now, they surely were in the past. And they would usually be there when we finally close our eyes and depart the world. Yes, I support Trump on this. Religious houses are essential services. In Nigeria, at the peak of the lockdown, essential services became a political matter. Those of us left at home couldn’t help but feel useless while a few ran the nation. It was a classic case of ‘if you are not seated around the dinner table, then you are most likely on the menu’. Thank God we can now go to work. Let’s get the religious houses off the menu. They are literally being carved and made ready for gastric digestion presently. These religious houses save millions of lives yearly, so they are essential.

‘Tope Fasua, an economist, author, blogger, entrepreneur, and recent presidential candidate of the Abundant Nigeria Renewal Party (ANRP), can be reached through topsyfash@yahoo.com.