January 7, 2008

Book Review: Religious Ethics in Africa

Religious Ethics in Africa
Peter Kasenene, Religious Ethics in Africa (Kampala, Uganda: Fountain Publishers, 1998), 110 pp.

One of several books that I picked up while in Uganda last year was Religious Ethics in Africa by Peter Kasenene. Since I am always interested in reading Africans themselves when learning more about a subject of importance on their continent, I was intrigued by this brief work on morality and ethics.

The author himself explains why he wrote this book:

The book discusses the teachings of the major religions in Africa, namely African traditional religions, Christianity, Islam and the Baha'i Faith on each of the selected moral issues. Although the different religions have been put side by side giving them equal treatment, the basic position is that, with relevant adjustments to changing situations and circumstances in Africa, the traditional ethic should be recaptured and used as a basis for moral reasoning and decision-making (iii).

An expansion of the author's university lectures, his work covers a diverse range of ethical issues: ethical theory; religion, ethics, and morality; preservation and promotion of one's life; respect for other people's lives; sex outside marriage; marriage; and family life.

I found this book a helpful and informative descriptive tool. What do some of the main religions in Africa teach regarding various ethical questions? Kasenene provides concise and useful answers. From alcoholic drinking to polygamy, from abortion to bride-gift exchanges, he provides us with informative comparisons of religious morality.

However, he moves from describing what religions teach about morals to prescribing how Africans should live ethically virtuous lives. In doing so, he never grounds his "shoulds" of behavior with reasons. As a matter of fact, he removes any objective criteria for morality when he says:

In the end, everone is morally responsible for his or her actions. People are not machines and so they have to decide personally on what to do, irrespective of what theories, custom, law or even religions prescribe. A person's religion guides him or her on how to behave, but the choice remains his or hers because religious guidance is not infallible (101).

In attempting to insure human responsibility, he undermines it by ultimately leaving ethics up to one's own conscience.

Additionally, throughout this book Kasenene gives his own evaluation of ethical behavior, sometimes disagreeing with all of the surveyed religious views including African traditional religions. His concluding comments on each ethical issue often sound more like a liberal Western scholar's opinion than the views of one who wants to recapture traditional African morality in reasoning and decision-making.

As a result, Kasenene's book is of limited usefulness. A reader can consult it to gain an understanding of different religious views on ethics in Africa. At the same time, he or she should beware of the attempts to move toward an African ethic by the author.