Is religion a force for good, or does it cause division, radicalism and hatred? For many people, beliefs provide a compassionate moral framework for living. But for some others, it can be the justification for persecution and killings. So when does religion go bad? Fiona Ledger travels to Uganda for this week's Big Question: Can too much religion be bad for us?
Most of the word's population is religious. It is thought that some five billion of us claim some kind of religious affiliation. Yet, religion can be seen as something negative, especially when it comes to extremism: the attacks of September 11th, 2001 in America , the invasion of Iraq and the ongoing tensions between Palestinians and Israelis could all be said to have major religious underpinnings. And some analysts argue that religion is at the centre of most of the conflicts around the world. So is religion a good thing, or can too much of it be bad for us?
Let's take Uganda, for example, where most people profess to be religious - those practiaing Christianity are in the majority, with followers of Islam a sizeable minority. Many people also believe in traditional faiths. Uganda endured more than twenty years of civil war and economic hardship after independence in 1962. Today all the major religious groups say they are growing - so, are they doing so in harmony?
"Muslims and Christians in Uganda get on well together," a member of the congregation of All Saints Anglican Cathedral in Kampala tells Fiona. But do his fellow church-goers ever worry that too much religion can be bad for us?
"It depends on how one practises it"
"When a person is religious and they have no convictions of the spirit, their actions are dangerous"
"Yes, especially when it is mixed with politics."
But mixing religions recently got one of Uganda's senior politicians into trouble. On a trip to a rice project, Vice-president and practising Catholic, Gilbert Bukenya visited a traditional ancestral shrine, owned by a Muslim farmer. Local newspapers accused him of engaging in witchcraft. "There is a lot of pretence and hypocrisy," says the vice-president's press secretary, Simon Kaheru.
The story of religion in Uganda is one of violence and exclusion. In the 19th century, the King of Buganda had 26 of his pages ('the Martyrs of Uganda') burned to death because they had converted to Christianity. And for Muslims at the start of the 20th century, life was hard, says Dr Idriss Sergo Kassene, secretary general of the Muslim Council of Uganda. "They were sidelined. They were left behind in the area of education."
Today Muslims and Pentecostal churches accuse each other of putting pressure on Ugandans to join their faiths. But Fiona hears that Uganda has been spared any significant inter-faith tensions, even with the atrocities of its first Muslim head of state, Idi Amin - one of the most violent and cruel leaders in Africa.
"He was doing those things as an individual, not in the name of Islam. We had Milton Obote, who was a Christian and also was appalling. Christianity is not blamed for that", says Dr Idriss Sergo Kassene.
So what of the question: can too much religion be bad for us? Uganda can offer a tragic answer. It is the story of a cult called the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God , which at the end of the 20th Century, preached the end of the world. The cult, based in the east of Uganda, took the prediction to a terrible conclusion - mass suicide. More than a thousand people died.
And today, that same exploitation of spiritual belief is to be seen behind the brutal 18 year-old war in the north of Uganda. The leaders of The Lord's Resistance Army claim spiritual instruction directly from God and have terrorised rural communities for nearly two decades. Norbert Mao, a local MP, believes the development of this group was the culmination of a history of oppression in the north.
"I believe their leadership used religion to set themselves up on the high pedestal of moral righteousness. People have been killed on the express of orders of Joseph Kony , one of the leaders, because at that time it is not Joseph Kony, it is God speaking through him."
But today in Uganda, religious leaders meet regularly to find ways to tackle the war in the north and the battle with HIV and AIDS. Father John Mary Waligo of the Ugandan Human Rights Commission tells the Big Question, "We have grown together in the last 8 years, praying together, working together, going to the north to visit the refugees, uniting around the idea of peace."
This edition of The Big Question was first broadcast on 5th February 2005
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