“Nyadhi” – A Luo Philosophy of Self-love, Self-virtue, Achievement and Honour

A friend, defined the Luo concept of “Nyadhi” the amalgam of pride, style, and confidence. I found the definition a little light, not meaty enough. I also remembered the definition of nyadhi and its translation into English, which in most cases takes the form of a combination of pride, style, confidence, arrogance etc often left something out. It is a question we’ve struggled to tackle many times with another friend. The definition of nyadhi as pride + style + confidence, feels light. I differ with the idea that nyadhi was universal to the Luo Nation’s DNA and everybody, by virtue of being a Luo, had it. I argue that it was an ideal that was pursued and could be achieved. I attempt to bring broaden the understanding and illustrate its definitions among the Luo.

When we approach nyadhi philosophically, we find that it relates more to self-love and self-virtue. It is akin to what Aristotle called Philautia (in Nicomachean Ethics and Eudemian Ethics) – “to love yourself” or “regard for one’s own happiness or advantage”. Philautia, understood as self-love, can be positive or negative/ healthy or unhealthy.

Healthy self-love is closer to what grows from what the psychologists call high self-esteem, that is, a high cognitive and emotional appraisal of selfworth. It is a matrix through which one thinks, feels, acts and reflects on one’s relation to oneself and to the world. High self-esteem should not be used interchangeably with self-confidence, because self-esteem encompasses how one evaluates all the other emotional states such as triumph, adversity, despair, pride, shame and many others.

Unhealthy self-love is akin to hubris. This is the self-obsessed love. It is an inflated sense of one’s status, abilities, and accomplishments, accompanied by haughtiness or arrogance. While healthy self-love dedicates oneself to the search of truth, wisdom, justice and beauty; unhealthy self-love is not in accord with truth and promotes injustice, conflict and enmity. Unhealthy self-love, is what the Buddhists expressed as desires of the self, which is the root of all evil, unless it is balanced with karuṇā (self-compassion).

Healthy self-love must pair “the love of oneself” with self-virtue. This, I believe, is the same foundational philosophy of nyadhi among the Luo. It is for this reason that ‘Nyadhi’ as a philosophical concept is found alongside others like Pakruok, which is an incantation of one’s own or another person’s praises by members of the audience in turns between songs. Pakruok is not just about self-praise but an expression of social and personal relations through poetic talk or in storytelling (“gano” – tell a story, “sigana” – story). Pakruok is also referred to as “chamo nyadhi” which is a display of virtue or simply “virtue boasting” or “self-laudation.”

Professor Bethwel Ogot, in “Kenya: The Making of a Nation: A Hundred Years of Kenya’s History, 1895-1995″ refers to nyadhi as “virtue boastingbut also adds that “or just plain Luo arrogance.” I don’t agree with the second part, but it is understandable, in the context it was used, because he was describing Hezron Gumbe who used to emphasize to his youthful children that “odak ka ja nanga” to imply that he was a civilized being, putting on clothes, an elite who lived like a white man, complete with bicycles, table manners and serviettes, and mandatory piano lessons at the British Council Conservatoire of Music for the children of elites in the 1950s.

Nyathi was an ideal people aspired to and some achieved. It was not something you are born with simply because one was a Luo. Luoness was only a path one could travel to achieve nyadhi. Nyadhi is virtuous, and dressed in solid achievement. It is not over-confidence or vain boastfulness.

When David Parkin in The Cultural Definition of Political Response: Lineal Destiny Among the Luo” (1978) 
explained that “the recognition among the Luo that socioeconomic status is most easily observed and measured through the achievements of an individual rather than a group is expressed in the concept ‘sunga’ (a proud person)”, Dr.Benjamin M. O. Odhoji – who has written abundantly about the Luo – was quick to point out that “sunga” does not accurately translate to a “proud person” but simply pride aka “a feeling or deep pleasure or satisfaction derived from one’s own achievements.”

In Dholuo Grammar for Beginners, Peter Onyango Onyoyo uses nyadhi and pride interchangeably, but goes ahead and specifies that nyadhi is pride usually in a positive sense. This definition does not take into account the virtue component in nyadhi simply because of the lack of equivalent word in English. Niemeier-Dirven and René Dirven in “The Language of Emotions: Conceptualization, Expression, and Theoretical Foundation” clarify that while “sunga” and “nyadhi” are virtually some form of proud, nyandhi has positive while sunga has negative connotations.

Style in nyadhi should be understood in the context of how Odoch Pido defines it in “Jaber: Reflections on a Luo Aesthetic Expression” defines nyashi as befitting finesse. I’m tempted to believe he refers to high taste as it was understood before Kant’s publication of a Critique of Judgement severed the concept of taste from its moral sense and reduced it merely to an aesthetic one.

If you read Margaret Ogola’s “The River and the Source” you’ll see that the sentence “He rose beautifully to the occasion. After all style had to be met with style, nyadhi with nyadhi” shows a clear difference in meaning between the two concepts. In another section she defines Owuor Kembo, a young single chief, as a person of “great nyadhi, that is full of style and presence”, denoting that style is an important element, but only in the presence of honor and achievement (a young chief).

In the old days, a young man could become ja nyadhi when his father gave him a ceremonial shield (okumba), which was a source of pride and he could brag to his age-mates and peers, or showing his shield (kuot), an indication that his father loved him. Paul Mboya’s “Luo Kitgi gi Timbegi” (p. 157) explains that while okumba was made from buffalo skin, kuot was made from cow skin. Okumba was bigger and heavier in size and was carried by senior warriors in war, or was simply held as a ceremonial shield. I’m illustrating this so that the idea of honor and achievement becomes very clear. In those days, hundreds of years ago, elephants and buffalos and most of the big game used to roam Luoland.

If we borrow from the understanding thatPhilautiacan either be positive or negative, then we can understand why Peter Onyango Onyoyo stresses that pride in nyadhi must be of the positive sense, which when we add to the conceptualizations of Ogot and Odhoji which incorporate a virtue sense, then despite the lack of an equivalent in English, we can conclude that the Luo concept of nyadhi is healthy self-love and self-virtue, and since, as Aristotle taught that virtue is the highest good, so was nyadhi, self-love and self-virtue which manifested as high and positive levels of achievement, at the personal level, and at the societal level.

This is the definition that is captured in “African Philosophy as Cultural Inquiry”, which defines nyadhi as “the practice of displaying one’s worth, which can comprise of possessions, moral qualities, intellectual abilities, or some coveted social or professional role. What is displayed need not be actually possessed, for it is sometimes enough that a person only identifies with such publicly coveted qualities and achievements as a way of playfully enhancing and displaying one’s perception of publicly recognized values” (p. 97).

It is in the element of Pakruok that this display of perceived possession is allowed, that a person may make claims for him/herself which both the person and his/her audience know to be false in real life. In this sense, nyadhi and pakruok are close to each other as playful social norms. This Pakruok, in the sense of chamo nyadhi, can manifest, in meetings and discussions, when people’s socioeconomic status are expressed as initially lavish displays of prestige competition through cash donations.

Another central element of Pakruok is humour, which is used in nearly the same way Marcus Tullius Cicero argued for wit and humour in oratory. Cicero noted that knowledge of very many matters was important, “without which oratory is an empty and ridiculous swirl of verbiage (volubilitas inanis atque irridenda est)”, but “to this there should be added a certain humour, flashes of wit, the culture befitting a gentleman, and readiness and terseness alike in repelling and in delivering the attack, the whole being combined with a delicate charm and urbanity.”

Pakruok generously employs wit and humour.

On the whole, Nyadhi ought to be understood as part of the Luo philosophy of self-love, self-virtue, achievement and societal honour – all ingredients of a well-lived life.

Our cultures and languages are rich, and our philosophies are complex and beautiful. We should study them more and integrate the most beneficial elements in our daily lives.

“Nyasaye” – God for the Luo People

There is a question that has been going around social media, whether the name for God in Luo, “Nyasaye/Nyasae” denoted that God is conceptualized as a woman, given the “Nya” part of the “Nya-saye” name. Let us break it down.

First, it is not clear where the word “Nyasaye” came from. The main hypothesis is that the Luo (in Kenya) borrowed it from the Luhya. Okot P’Bitek was of the position that the Luo did not have a conception of one high God, in pre-missionary history, and that the idea of a single God is missionary propaganda.

This position is true when you look at the nature of conceptualization among Luos in other countries. According to the Acholi, God is referred to as ‘Jok’, as something that breaks people’s back. God, for the Acholi, was a mystical force, or something with vital powers. The Japathola, another Luo group, refer to God as ‘Were’, and just like the Luo in Kenya, who use ‘Nyasaye’ – they share the name with their Bantu neighbors.

The Luo came from Sudan and the Bantus from West Africa, 500 years ago, hence they had distinct origins. Their sharing of the word for God only means that one borrowed from the other, and since other Luo groups have different names for God, it only means that the Luo in Kenya borrowed the word from their Bantu neighbors.

The name for God among the Luo in Kenya, which is not used in Christian circles is Obong’o Nyakalaga. Obong’o means “one”, “one son”, or an aspect that is unique and singular. Nyakalaga means a force that creeps. Creeping in Luo is “lak”, hence Obong’o Nyakalaga is a life force that creeps in the universe or in human bodies, or a singular thing that flows everywhere.

The Acholi and Lango (Luo groups in Uganda) word for God, ‘Jok’ is related to the Luo of Kenya’s word ‘juok’, which can be translated to mean witchcraft, but a more accurate translation should come from its plural form, ‘juogi’ which means spirits linked with ancestors. In fact, among the Dinka (Luo group in Southern Sudan), “Jok” refers to a group of ancestral spirits.

A witchcraft in Luo land is called “ajuoga” but “ajuoga” is also the word for a healer, a doctor, a medicine man. “Jajuok” can also refer to a nightrunner – which is essentially a witch who runs around at night naked, threatening people by rattling their windows or throwing stones at their walls and roofs. Among the Shilluk, juok is “spirit”. In general, among the Luo in Kenya, juok is a spirit force, relating to the Acholi’s (Luo in Uganda) jok which is a vital force.

The Nuer of South Sudan venerate Kwoth, which translates to “spirit”, and which is translated in most English texts as God. However, Kwoth is conceptualized as an invisible and omnipresent spirit that can manifest in multiple forms and entities, each of which can be described independently of the general term for spirits, aka kwoth.

To think of Nyasaye as originating from two words, “Nya” and “Saye”, as a portmanteau, or to think of the “Nya” in “Nyasaye” as representative of the gender of God needs a different kind of argument. The argument on Luhya origin of Nyasaye can be supported by the fact that the Luhya word for prayer is khusaya (verb). But if the word the word was a portmanteau, among the Luo, “saye” is related to “sayo”, which means to plead or beseech. I beseech you is “Asayi”, I beseech her/him is “asaye”, and we bessech him/her is “wasaye”. “Sayo” can also mean begging. In this sense, Nyasaye is an entity that is begged, beseeched, or pleaded to.

In Luo “Nyar” is used to refer to a daughter of somebody or some place. When terms such as “Nyar Dimo”, shortened as “NyaDimo”, is used, it means, daughter of Dimo, Nyar Ugenya or NyaUgenya, is daughter of Ugenya, Nyar Siaya or NyaSiaya is daughter of Siaya. Dimo is a person but Siaya is a place, so it’s a reference of origin or genealogy. Ja Siaya or JaSiaya would imply the same, son/man of/from Siaya. Using the same logic, NyaSaye would mean that Saye is a marker of origin or genealogy of a daughter/woman. Nyar Saye would be a daughter of Saye and that would not make much sense. What makes sense is simply accepting that Luos borrowed the word, “Nyasaye” from their bantu neighbours such as the Luhya and Kisii, in which case, it would mean entity that is prayed to.

If it was a case of “Nya” in Nyasaye means that God, as conceptualized among the Luo was a woman, then other words for God such as “Jachwech” meaning “creator” would have been “Nyachwech” especially since “chwech”/”chweyo” is the creating and “Ja” in that sense simply means the person who is creating. Another angle is to look at how the word “Nyasaye” is used in conversations. “Nyasacha” means “my god”, “Nyasache” means “his/her god”, “Nyasachi” means “your God”, and “Nyasachwa” means “our God”. “Nyasache ber” means “his/her” God is good. These usages imply that, away from the genderisation of the God in the Bible of God as Man, the word itself is not genderised if we look at its Luhya origins.

Whether the Luhya had this word as the conceptualization of God, before the missionaries came, is another matter altogether. What is certain is that it was co-opted during Biblical translations to local languages to represent the God in the Abrahamic religions.

The Bible, in its use of Nyasaye, when the English Bible was being translated into Luo, carried with it the West’s implicit assumptions of the nature of God, hence as opposed to the Luo conception of God as a vital force, the Bible use the same term to present this vital force as the God of Abraham and Jacob, the God of Israelites. These implicit assumptions have helped to erase the actual conceptualization of God among African people. The Bible, as a propaganda tool against indigenous religions or as a scandal of translation, has achieved greatly the erasure it set out to do, thanks to the work of African Christians.

Perhaps the bigger question should be: what is/was the place of gender in indigenous religious systems? I tend to agree with the notion that the Luo did not have a conception of a single supreme being, and that conceptions of God, were in essence, an acknowledgment of the existence spirits with various capacities. These spirits could take different forms and could be used or could use humans to achieve ends which could be negative (causing harm to the greatest number of individuals) or positive (having benefits for the greatest number of individuals) in the community.

African religions and spirituality and associated beliefs and practices focused more on reality, were more organic, and informed various aspects of human life. There was an appreciable element of ancestral worship. Among the Luos, most of the rules in the bigger body of work like Luo Kitgi gi Timbegi (Customes, Beliefs and Practices of the Luo) are akin to the myriad of rules in various books in the Old Testament, and can, to a large extent, be said to have been not only a political governance system (constitution) but also an indigenous belief system. Gender relations in this system were, to a large extent, patriarchal.

#Suicide in African Cultures – The Luo Peoples (Kenya)

Among the Luo Peoples suicide was a taboo. People were not allowed to commit suicide. In the old days, in Luo Kitgi gi Timbegi, it was an absolute taboo to commit suicide. The Luo believed that if a person committed suicide, they had become a ghost and would punish people who spoke at their funeral. To prevent this, if a person committed suicide, say hanged themselves on a tree, they’d immediately be cut down from the noose and caned thoroughly. The Luo believed that the caning would stop the ghost of the person or evil spirits from roaming back home and prompting other people to kill themselves.

A person who committed suicide was not mourned, lest evil spirits haunt mourners. Such a person was not given the respect of being buried during the day. They were buried at night. They were not even given the dignity of being buried at home. They were buried outside the fence of the homestead, or e gunda. They were declared outcasts in the community and their stories told in hushed tones. People were warned not to name a child after such deviants. Victims of suicide were publicly shamed.

The Luo people understood suicide as self-murder. If murder is “the unlawful killing of one human by another, especially with premeditated malice”, then “self-murder” is a “crime”, which involves the unlawful killing of oneself with premeditated malice. There was absolutely no justification for suicide, hence the punishment, and the victims were treated the same way as people who committed murder in the community. Even today, it is not uncommon, for a murderer in the village to be murdered, and even if they are jailed, it is not uncommon for their homes will be destroyed and razed down, almost to erase them and their deeds from communal memory. The Luo did not take issues of self-murder kindly. You had to pay for your act, though dead, before being buried. Those who attempted suicide also received maximum flogging. This was to discourage other people from committing suicide. The punishment was to serve the purposes of deterrence.

In a sense, the Luo conceptualization of suicide in ancient times was similar to the Penal code that Kenya inherited from the British colonial system. In Kenya, today, the Penal Code Cap 63, on Offenses Connected with Murder and Suicide, particularly those sections that deal with aiding suicide (Section 225) and attempting suicide (Section 226), states that “Any person who attempts to kill himself is guilty of a misdemeanor”.

#Suicide in African Cultures – The Kalenjin (Kenya)

20 kilometers West of Eldoret, along the Sosiani River, there is a waterfall, a 70-metre cliff separating a flat land from the rocky escarpment. They call it Koromosho or Chepkit Waterfalls. Old men and women would gather here, convinced that they had become a burden to the community, that they had become too dependent, they would gather here to sing their last songs. It was a ritual, known to many as Sheu.

On these banks, the old of the old, people who felt they had outlived their expectations gathered here voluntarily, sometimes in groups, to hold hands and hurtle down the cliff to their deaths. Their bodies would then be washed by the river downstream and be eaten by wild animals. This was their way of dying in peace without putting undue demand on the community to perform funeral rites, of having complete autonomy of their own lives. This was a common practice among the people we call today as the Kalenjin.

I hear that in Kapsimotwa, located on the Nandi Escarpment in the Great Rift Valley, there is another rocky cliff where old men performed the Sheu Morobi – meaning “there we go forever” in Nandi – jumping 450-metres to their ends.

They did this after ritualistic celebration, of delicacies, honey, and milk, and ceremonies with relatives, who’d feed them with a last delicious meal. They did this to relieve their loved ones from the pain of caring for their old dying bodies. It was an honourable act for an elder to jump off Sheu Morobi.

This ritual, Sheu/ Sheu Morobi, is what we call euthanasia in modern times, practiced here tens and hundreds of years ago.

This is (Not) A Short Defence of Religion

When I was about 15 years old, when herding cows in the village, I used to walk around with an old book titled “A Short Defence of Religion: Chiefly for Young People Against the Unbelievers of Our Days” by Prof. Rev. Joseph Ballerini from the Seminary of Pavia.


Got it from one of the Catholic books Dad had. It’s a very good book, but not short as the title implies, and I think the best defence of the Christian doctrine that I have ever read. Even today I still have the book. It’s a very old book, was first published in 1908.

The preface of the book begins this way:

“It is proper that Catholics should not only have a good knowledge of their religion, but also to give a correct and satisfactory answer to honest inquiries of non-Catholics. At the present day there are great discussions everywhere on matters connected with religion, and immense multitudes of people take erroneous views. Unfortunately, it often happens that Catholics are not in a position to remove their difficulties.”

The book intended to weigh the arguments of guys like Darwin, Huxley, Tyndall, Spencer, Harnack, Loisy etc to show how they are totally unworthy. So at 15 I was already reading arguments and counter-arguments on existence of God, origin of man, origin and nature of human soul, which is the true religion bla bla. Some arguments are logically sound, especially in those cases where he tries to prove that there is no conflict between Catholic dogma and scientific evidence, such as in the evolutionary origins of man. Back then I could see many of the weaknesses in the Professor’s arguments, it was not until I did Biomedical Science and Technology for my Undergraduate and this made it easier for me to access and understand scientific data and findings, and also see the deliberate misinterpretations that the good theologian had engaged in. But the book is way above, in terms of quality of reason and logic, when compared to most of the books defending Christianity that you’ll find on the bookshop shelves today. It is rigorous. It has citations, and very detailed footnotes on direct quotations from books you can hardly find anywhere.


The infallibility of the Catholic Church and its dogma (or as the book says “Every dogma of the Catholic Church is infallibly true”) was also an interesting one to note. Not sure whether it holds any water today. Not with the many scandals rocking the church.

I tried to think about why an organized religious system, like the Catholic Church, would write a book to shield ‘young people against the unbelievers of our days’. Later on I got English translations for Quran and Bhagavad Gita, and downloaded Buddhist texts and books on ancient history, ancient religions and cults and so many many other things. I think nothing exposes the fact that religion is a sociocultural human construct like studying many religions and cultures.


Since 1950s science has produced so much knowledge about the nature of the physical universe that most of the arguments in this 1908 book have been rebutted in millions of discussions in blogs. The Table of Contents of the book is like a summary of the religion-science debates even today, the only difference is that science has shed off most, if not all, its philosophic abstractions and has become more empiricist, more mathematical, more observed data. The usefulness of scientific arguments, tools, and technology can be seen in every sphere of our lives. Sadly, arguments for many religious doctrines still gamble with belief and piggyback on base human instincts such as fear of death.


Like the Prof at the beginning of the 20th century, believers still talk about “supernatural facts” in the 21st century.

How times change. How times remain the same.

To paraphrase the theology Prof: “At the present day there are great discussions everywhere on matters connected with religion. Unfortunately, it often happens believers are not in a position to remove their difficulties.”

Understanding Religion, Fundamentalists/Extremists, and Violence/Terrorism

Ukranian soldier near Pervomaysk - Reuters

If your religion is a religion of peace, if your religion is a religion of love, tolerance, and understanding; then the fundamentalists in your religion should be the most peaceful, most loving, most tolerant and most understanding. Fundamentalists and extremists are people who interpret every word in their Bible, Quran, Bhavad Gita or any other sacred/holy text as literal truth and genuinely live by these dictums. A Muslim fundamentalist/extremist is an extremist in his/her devotion to the literal word of the Quran. A Christian fundamentalist/extremist is an extremist in his/her devotion to the literal word of the Bible. This goes for all the sacred texts. All these peoples are extremes in their faith, and contestations arise when these extremists (rightly) perceive that the literal understanding of these texts to be incompatible with the values, norms, and traditions of modernity in a secular world, and therefore a threat to their living according to the sacred literal truth. It is on this same plane that unbelief is not viewed as that specific person’s individual choice, but a sin. Note that ‘sin’ is a religious language and only has meanings in religious texts, proclamations, and analyses. ‘Sin’ falls in the same pile with words such as ‘salvation’, ‘redemption’  – as in, they only make theological sense. Yet a believer will be quick to judge unbelief as sin and so deserved of the various punishments that are okayed in their sacred texts, irrespective of the fact that this person does not believe in the textual validity, cultural representativeness, moral authority, or historical validity of such texts. Their faith therefore becomes their source of hatred and division, rather than their source of love and communion. It is for this reason that religious inspired hatred and violence is more pronounced in places where that religion is more concentrated. To a large extent, more Muslims will be killed by Muslim extremists/fundamentalists. More Christians will be killed by Christian extremists/fundamentalists, because it is easy to find the sinful (those who do not live by the literal teachings of sacred texts) within one’s own community. The argument that fundamentalists/extremists misinterpret the sacred texts is in most cases dishonest. One only needs to go back to the sacred texts and read. Religions have always inspired violence.

If the fundamentalists in your religion are the most hateful, violent, intolerant, ignorant, inhumane, and all sort of negative attributes, then there is a fundamental problem not only in the motive of the sacred texts but also in its inactivity to school and rein in the most honest of its adherents. In the wild, we can only differentiate soulful, tongue-imprisoning, health-boosting trees from the taste, savour, and nutrients of their fruits. The fruits of any religion are best examined by looking at the most fundamentalist of its adherents.

The problem of religion and violence is more pronounced if the religion is a way of life, if religion is culture and not just a constituent of culture but culture itself, in that it has internal dictates not only on piety, but also personal relationships, family/clan relationships, politics, law, social institutions. Terrorism, then, becomes religiously inspired political violence. All terrorist activities have a political objective. In the broadest sense, terrorism is political activity; it is a religiously inspired violence as a solution to political grievances. It is only in the modern world that religion is seen as a private activity, in the pre-modern world, religion dictated all human activities, from politics to law, from economics to state-building to warfare. Religious crusades did not advance spiritual adventures. They advanced political objectives. Sunni and Shia Muslims do not fight purely to achieve a certain level of holiness. The Catholics and Protestants did not fight to expand the highways to heaven. Catholics in France did not fight Catholics in Habsburgs to earn a sit on Jesus side on the day of judgement. Christian missionaries did not come to Africa simply to make Africans holy. They came to lay the foundation for the colonization and exploitation of Africa. Even today religion and politics remain intertwined and the goal of the complete separation of religion from the economic, political, and cultural structures must continue. Unless this happens, the tendency to fall back to religious inspired violence to solve political, economic, and social grievances – especially by people in regions where religion remains an all-encompassing way of life – will continue.

The new religious undertones and violence beneath the broad sweeps of ‘democracy’, ‘liberty’, and ‘human rights’ also need our attention. Just as it was admirable to die for God, for religion, the new God is the state/nation and it has become admirable for man to die for the state/nation – an imagined community – for which soldiers are sacredly prepared to die. Until man ceases to create gods, god-inspired violence will live with us. I’m thinking about the Global War on Terror and ‘Axis of Evil’ justifications. In the modern world, the words of British Historian Lord Anton that the emphasis on ethnicity, culture and language in the adulation of the national spirit would penalise those who did not fit the national norm. Thus, he said “according, therefore, to the degree of humanity and civilisation in that dominant body which claims all the rights of the community, the inferior races are exterminated or reduced to servitude, or put in dependence.”

We should therefore be wary when the intolerance and bigotry we used to associate with religion, remain the same foundational blocks by which we are promoting equality, democracy, human rights, and political and intellectual liberty. To promote these noble pursuits, we are becoming too comfortable with using violence as a tool. As long as United States and Europe use violence to promote these enlightenment ideals, violence will be used to oppose them. Within countries, as long as the ruling class remains intolerant, prejudiced, and violent against those perceived as ethnic and cultural minorities, these communities/groups will resort to violence against the nation-state, and fundamentalism will continue to have a cruel, violent, and invasive relationship with aggressive secularism. As long as fundamentalists (in Christian, Islam, Judaist, Hinduist etc) view secularism as an establishment designed to destroy their culture, their way of life, as long as ‘modern’ is presumed to mean ‘European’, religious inspired political violence will remain the riposte – and history shows that these fundamentalist reactions to forceful secularisation are prone to become more and more extreme over time.

Words and Morals: An Open Inquiry

words and morals granddebateScholars often create their own vocabularies by giving special meanings to ordinary terms and phrases.

For example, when logical positivists use the word “nonsense” they do not imply the ordinary sense of “without meaning”, rather they refer to a statement that cannot be independently verified.

Giving specialized meaning to old terms allows scholars to say things what might otherwise be difficult to say in layman terms. Of course this may sometimes create havoc for us, the readers. Not that they care.

The heart of this presentation is that language enables, extends, and maintains human value systems. Even though the relation between language and morality can be examined from many perspectives, this presentation adopts a philosophical -linguistic perspective that is informed by evolutionary theory.

Philosophy of Language

One of the most important works in the philosophy of language is ‘Philosophical Investigations’ published by Ludwig Wittgenstein in 1953.

The main conception in this foundational work is that words cannot exist without meaning. Human beings create words to represent a meaning. Usually the meaning is correlated with the word used, but do precede words.

However, meaning is use. The meaning of words can only be known by how they are used in communication.

Since meaning is use, man has developed a moral vocabulary, or rather language that is deemed sensitive to relations that are lived and experienced.

For lack of time, I will avoid a comprehensive discussion of the general evolutionary theories explaining the origin of language. In brief, language evolved because human beings are social animals. Language is an attempt to develop generalized codes that make it easy for members of a society to communicate. The diversity of language as a result of cultural evolution tells us that language developed to satisfy specific needs. Every society had its own specific needs, therefore every society developed its own language. That explains why there are thousands of languages.

The specific needs that every society possesses are the foundations of morality. A baby is not born with the capacity to learn a specific language. They are born with the capacity to learn any language, and consequently the capacity to learn morality.

De Waal in the book ‘Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved’ tells us that there are three levels of morality. The first is the Building Blocks or Moral sentiments. Here language gives meaning to building blocks such as capacity for empathy, tendency for reciprocity, sense of fairness, and ability to harmonize relationships. The second level is peer pressure, where there is an insistence that everyone behaves in a way that favours a cooperative group life. The third level is judgment and reasoning, where we internalize the needs for a specific type of behaviour and rely on self-reflection and logical reasoning to make moral judgements.

I’m more interested in discussing the third level, that of judgment and reasoning. Here, we are always trying to pass judgment over our own actions and the actions of others. We rationalize what we do, trying to understand the meanings of our actions; why we do the things we do, and the way we do them. The way we can achieve this level of morality is by language. We need rationality to pass judgment over actions, but to let the other know how we feel or what we think, language is needed. High social interactions are needed to achieve this level.

One of the roots of morality is social interaction and language is at the roots of social interaction. If we pass language to other generations, we also pass morality through our judgments, and we teach them about morality through language.

From this argument, I think the debate about moral absolutism and relativism are important examples. While we may not consciously recognize it, we are passing over the same arguments that were developed by philosophers centuries ago to judge actions and determine whether they are moral or not. Now that is the beauty of language, it allows us to maintain valid arguments however old, and it also gives us the capacity to access and hopefully incorporate novel conceptualizations of morality in our lives.

Changes in Meanings, Changes in Language

Now because the meanings precede words, changes in meanings also mean changes in words. These changes are often a reflection of our understanding of moral values in the society.

Recently in a study published in Psychological Science, psychologist Patricia Greenfield from the University of California, examined changes in word use and its association with moral values in United States and Britain. The main argument in the study was to test whether the moral values of humans adapt to their social environments.

To discover the changes in values, the researcher analyzed more than 1.1 million books published in the United States and 350,000 books published in the U.K between 1800-2000.

I think it’s important to say that books rather than being mere objects on the shelf have actually grown to become participants in every conversation. Books may announce their presence or may not but they remain the greatest influence of how generations have discussed moral concepts, and how moral values have been spread to other societies.

Back to the study, Greenfield searched for tell-tale words such as “obliged” (a key concept in interdependent societies – collectivism) and “choose” (the power to make personal choices – individualism). She also searched for the synonyms of these words.

The findings show that the use of the word “obliged” (moral obligations) steadily declined from 1800 to 2000, as use of the word “choose” (moral choices) gradually increased. (“Choose” passed “obliged” in the early 1920s.)

Similar findings were reported for the words “give” and “get.” While “give” began the 19th century with a huge head start, “get” caught up around World War II, and the two were neck and neck until the 1970s, when “get” forged ahead, never to look back. In short people don’t wait patiently to be given, but strive to get what they want. It seems like patience, as a virtue, is dying.

Use of the words “individual,” “self,” and “unique” all steadily rose over the course of the two centuries, while “obedience,” “authority,” “belong,” and “pray” all gradually declined. The use of the words “feel” and “emotion” also increased, reflecting “the growing importance of psychological expression.”

These findings confirm that words change as the environment changes. Meanings attached to moral values change in response to social changes. While people living before the 19th century were obliged to act according to specific moral codes, the 21st century seems to support the argument that every person is a ‘unique, individual self’ hence moral choices define decisions over moral values rather than blind obedience to an absolute moral standard.

The Universalization of moral codes

How are these moral codes universalized?

In introducing the theory of Evolution, Darwin, in Chapter Four of ‘The Origin of Species’, noted that the human moral sense is the most important difference between humanity and the lower animals. There is consensus from multiple disciplines of study that language stands out boldly as a uniquely human characteristic.

It is therefore safe to admit that human morality requires language. Linguistically based moral codes often oblige people towards morality. Language helps us to access moral thinking and enforce moral codes at low cost.

Language also supplies us with a shared representation system that supports our pursuit of moral actions. When people share a language, they are able to cooperate and foster morality.

However, it is important to reiterate that cooperation always requires groupings. Within these groups, symbolic language can be used to facilitate group cohesion and cooperation hence fostering group-oriented morality.

From history, it is possible to see how cooperative moral values have been expressed and spread through language. For instance, all the organized religions in the world are word-centred. This means that they strongly emphasize that followers must memorize cooperation-oriented moral concepts presented in their books.

From the Bible, we learn that Deuteronomy teaches that followers were to learn the religious commandments in their hearts and verbally pass them on to their children. The Quran calls on all Muslims to memorize the holy text. The similarity between these religious traditions is that they want their followers to internalize a normative code that promotes cooperation. This cannot be possible without language.

However, we have also known that morality, descriptively speaking can function for the benefit of the in-group at the expense of the out-group. This is because of the prescription of what a group considers moral or prescriptive, what they think they ought to do, what they think is right and wrong. Such in-group moralities can brutally disadvantage or even terminate an out-group, or they can work in a way that benignly protects the in-group from out-group influences, with little or no detriment to the out-group.

Note that even though we might consider such a “moral system” as ethically corrupt, it would still act as a normative and moral system within a group in a functional sense. These in-group moral codes stated in language illuminate inter-group conflict and the differential fitness of human groups in history.

To summarize this argument, we can say that it is hard to assess moral norms without language. For example, language makes it easier to assess the moral behaviour of people considered to be deviants. This can be done through gossiping.

Secondly, language provides a low cost means to enforce social control. For example, since punishment endangers the person who metes it out, it is much less costly to mark a deviant individual with a word than to punish him.

Third, the whole process of assessing, marking, and tracking behaviour becomes more efficient through the shared representation system of abstract and symbolic language. Allow me to give a lengthy example of what a shared representation system means in the world today.

For some time now I have been interested in the language of human rights. We have a political system, such as the United Nations, that have been given the responsibility to pursue and actualize collective moral values on behalf of the countries of the world. Now this supra-political unit has been developing certain moral codes presented as ‘Conventions of human rights’. The phrase ‘human rights’ comes with specific descriptions of what that entails.

Now if you have also been watching You Tube videos – especially those involving Sam Harris or Dawkins, you’ll have noticed that there are certain cultural practices such as FGM and child sacrifice that have featured prominently as examples of why morality is absolute. What we don’t always realize is that before the establishment of the human rights conventions, FGM was never cited generously an absolutely immoral act, but rather as a culturally retrogressive practice. Without direct intervention, it was assumed that as the society progresses, FGM will die a natural death.

Another example is terrorism. Even though we know that the branding of these violent acts as ‘terrorist activities’ helps the United States to pursue a political agenda, we should not forget the Judeo-Christian conservatist agenda that supports that branding. Thus, the US and allies can simply forget the atrocities they are committing in the Arab world and send drones to kill innocent Pakistani children under the guise of ‘anti-terrorism’. Note that if someone says that terrorism is an absolutely immoral act, it follows that ‘anti-terrorism’ is a moral response. This is what we call in international relations studies as a “humanitarian intervention”. But is in actually one? That is a discussion for another day.

While this does not in any way support the heinous acts and crimes, it tells you how meanings are structured when you have an existing moral code to guide interpretation. The human rights conventions are moral codes and adoption by member countries is a way of universalizing these codes past linguistic boundaries. The human rights and all the UN conventions are moral value systems.

The bridging of the gap between legal codes and moral codes is important because law and morality are both means of social control. Their language is descriptive and directive. Descriptive language gives information, directive language guides conduct.

Fourth, language significantly extends social control mechanisms and helps “allow groups to evolve into adaptive units” and this advances cooperation.

Finally, linguistically based social controls also help facilitate group fitness in relation to conflict problems with other groups and environmental pressures.


In closing, it is to be understood that the human person is the basis of realizing moral values. There is none, under and above, that is needed to guide humans to act morally. The human person is the sole guarantee for social stability, harmony, peace and authentic development and progress, and language and communication function as special cultural tools for the attainment of this social objective. Language can therefore, be a positive instrument for the humanization of the social order. In an era of moral choices, we should all be vigilant of not only the description of moral codes but also its effect on our moral conduct, at all times.


Download PDF here: Words and Morals FIKA

Richard Oduor

Prepared for the Freethinkers Initiative Kenya (FIKA) Debate on ‘Morality and Religion’ on August 17th, 2013

The Clash between Darwinism and Creationism: 1859 to present

In this posting, I’ll talk about the American response to Darwinism and the continuing clash between Darwinism and Creationism in North American schools; 1859-1900 and later developments. Such an examination will show how the same arguments have been adopted by scholars, theologians, and churches the world over.

Fundamentalist religious groups have never accepted the uneasy relationship that exists between religious institutions and the theories of evolution and natural selection in the Western world. In America, those who believe in the Judeo-Christian accounts of the creation of the world as outlined in the book of Genesis have for centuries acted as political pressure groups to eliminate the teaching of Darwinism in schools by imposing their beliefs on public education (Strickberger 2005).

Origin of Species.Because Charles Darwin published “The Origin of the Species” in 1859 when America was on the eve of the civil war, serious opposition to the work began in the 1870s in the post war period. Initial rumblings began to emanate that science was becoming a threat to religion. However, due to the presence of an imminent threat of biblical criticism, the Protestants failed to perceive the details of Charles Darwin’s study hence causing delay in their response. In 1873, during the international meeting of the Evangelical Alliance, the question of evolution was finally voiced. Charles Hodge; a Presbyterian theologian from Princeton took the challenge and allayed fears of the impact of evolution and natural selection by saying that these were not new concepts, the only new concept was Darwin’s own version of the two concepts.

By proposing a design that nature was controlled by chance, he concluded that Darwinism was atheism. After this initial declaration by Hodge, Borden P Browne who was a professor of philosophy in Boston University characteristically interpreted Darwinism as being expressive of; “Life without meaning; death without meaning; and the universe without meaning. A race tortured to no purpose, and no hope but annihilation. The dead only blesses; living standing like beasts at bay, and shrieking half in defiance and half in fright” (Pyne 1996, p.12)

For Americans, the Origin of Species and the Descent of Man only intensified the allegation that science continued to attack faith. By disregarding the underlying belief that humanity was a semi divine creation and that the universe was expressly designed for the benefit of mankind, the evolution theory and the schemes of natural selection posited that just like all the other animals, man too was involved in the struggle of existence. Theologians and religious institutions were expressly against the fact that the natural selection debased man to the level of other animals by denying human beings the unique qualities of the mind, intelligence and the soul.

Darwinism created doubts on three fundamental components that had maintained belief in religion for centuries. It shattered the belief in the presence of any design and purpose, the belief that there existed a Creator or a Designer of the universe, and lastly in the belief on the presence of the human soul. The shaking of the later belief consequently created pertinent questions on the existence of life after death-a belief that had been held belief in religion for centuries.

Not even the educated public could afford to be less attuned to the ramifications of the evolutionary theory and natural selection that had created confusion and controversy among philosophers, theologians and scientists. Some were driven to suicidal thoughts. A case in point is the wife of Historian Henry Adams; Marion Hooper Adams who after the loss of her father was engulfed in depression leading to her committing suicide due to depression and doubts on the existence of immortality after death (Pyne1996. p. 13). Her death was attributed to the controversy of the evolution theory as her husband; Henry Adams had uncannily predicted her religious crisis. Marion could not succeed in reconciling her beliefs in religion and the scientific evidences of natural selection.

The 19th century also saw the rise of American geology but its development was affected by serious controversies that were both theological and scientific. Just towards the end of the 18th century clashes over the origins of the earth had began to be felt in the intellectual circles. Catastrophists perceived Creationism as outlined in the book of Genesis as the only logical explanation to the perfection of nature. The “uniformitarians” were against this explanation as literally presented in the Bible. Instead they postulated that the formation of the earth resulted from uniform and continuous courses working over long periods of time. These debates were transported to the periods after the beginning of Darwinism in the 19th century (Mandelker 1984).

When the ramifications of the Darwinian Theory eventually reached the majority of Americans, their reactions reached dimensions of hysteria. Everybody sensed that with his study, Darwin had deliberately and effectively destroyed the fundamentals of religion. Earlier on through the works of Paley and other historians of his kind, the world had been made to believe that though miraculous and mysterious natural processes, God had directly created new species. From the geological records, these geologists and naturalists had almost completely convinced humanity that the earth as it existed was the product of a grand cosmic design implying that nature was reflective of the Divine Mind and Purpose (Pyne1996).

However, as the years trudged on to the lure of positivist science, new converts were being acquired to be practitioners of this novel empiricism. In essence, a new divide of belief was created. People had to either choose the orthodox view of creationism if it suited their understanding of existence or alternatively chose the novel scientific positivism as expressed in Darwinism. The overlap between these two facets characterized the notable hostility of Darwinism in America.

While creationism was held foundationally on the presence of a purpose of nature that satisfied the belief that the world and humanity moved towards a predetermined end, the theories of evolution and natural selection described the movement of nature to be marked with random and purposeless variations. Even though Darwin himself was persuaded that nature was governed by natural law as opposed to miracle, catastrophe, or the caprice of a Creator, he maintained that through these chance variations and adaptations in nature evolution proceeded along a probable evolutionary chain. In his journey to study the species in South America (1831-1836) on the Beagle, he had observed and recorded several mismatches between species and the environments they inhabited. This led to the postulation that as opposed to the creationist theory, to exist in the changing environments organisms had to espouse a wide range of adaptive mechanisms to ensure their survival.

The liberal Protestants in America were especially more loathsome of Darwinism, as Darwin insisted on delineating the evolutionary process which implied that nature and the existence of humanity was laid waste in the brutal struggle for existence. They could not fathom that the postulations of the superfecundity and plenitude of nature, miscegenation, mutation, ugliness and randomness were the basis upon which natural laws operated. The mere fact that natural selection as Darwin had explained led to the extinctions of some species created a religious and philosophical ferment of great magnitude.

Ten years after the publication of the “Origin of Species,” and the rise of the anti-Darwinism movement which is attributed to Protestantism, Herbert Spencer developed a philosophy of science with the intention of allaying the controversies between religion and science that Darwinism had created. In his publication, the “System of Synthetic Philosophy”, Spencer expounded on the theories of evolution which had specifically been limited to biology, linguistics, fossil life, education, political history, architecture, psychological phenomena, child rearing, and rights of women, manners, morals, fine arts and in any other discipline in which the theory of evolution could be applied. Even though Charles Darwin publicly praised Spencer as “the great expounder of the principle of Evolution”, the two works not only differed in methodology but were also derived from different schools of thought (Pyne 1996; Numbers & Stenhouse 2001).

The “System of Synthetic Philosophy” was especially instrumental in accommodating Darwinism in religion because he attempted to explain that religious coherence as it existed in those ages was buttressed by the authority of truth derived from science. His intention can be said to have been the creation of a new form of science that incorporated both the scientific truths and religious beliefs into a form of natural religion that would replace the orthodox Christianity. If such an intention is understood to be one driven by arrogance, then it best describes the evangelical zeal he set in the interpretation of the evolutionary theory and its subsequent incorporation into the perfectibility of human life in his book, the “System of Synthetic Philosophy”. However, even though his work was instrumental it never vanquished the hostilities between science and religion.

As the ramifications of Darwinism continued to create an upheaval in religious circles, the Old Protestantism order which had its basis on the interrelationship of science, faith, the Bible, civilization and morality began to crumble. In 1869, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. offered a prediction of the catastrophe that was impending. He predicted that the collapse of the interrelationship would not be dramatic. He also intoned that the many vested interests of churches were rooted in evangelical idolatry and bibliolatry. For these reasons churches could not be expected to accept the implications of the novel views and explanations of the existence of man and the universe as the Bible could not challenge the scientific standards (Marsden 2006). The truth of the matter was that the creation evidence as detailed in the Hebrew books could not just be taken at face value as factual evidence of the creation of the world by a Supernatural deity.

By the 1970s so many evangelicals believed in the seriousness of the threat of Darwinism to religion but they did not share the analytic conclusions that Holmes had so aptly predicted. W.A Stearns attributed the current threats to Christianity as being no more than a continuation of the assaults that Christianity has been enduring (Mardsen 2006, 17). Other leaders reiterated that just as the skepticism, deism and atheism had been defeated in the Enlightenment, Christianity will be victorious again. While positing that never since Christianity has been strong as it was then, Stearns added that they will work together under the Evangelical Alliance to lift all people to achieve victory with the afflictions of modern rationalism, skepticism, the Papacy or any other false system.

These were the opinions that characterized fundamentalism. As an organized movement, it had two major forms. One front operated within the denominations where seminarians and ministers purged modernists and liberals with the sole intention of saving the orthodoxy. This form of fundamentalism cantered mainly in North America. The second form of fundamentalism was more of a popular crusade that was directed not only towards modernist and liberal heresies but also against Darwinism and the deteriorating moral trends in the society. While former mainly involved seminarians and conservative ministers, the latter was advanced by less scholarly or less academic preachers. These two forms of fundamentalism were joined into a form of loose coalition as they were working against a common enemy: Darwinism.

At the end of the 19th century it seemed that religious leaders had started becoming in terms with the evolutionary theories, but still approximately half of the population in the United States still denied the scientific truths postulated by the Darwin theories. This proportion which rejects Darwinism in its entirety believes that human beings are a product of a Supernatural creation that happened at some time in the history of the universe.

With regard to the uniqueness of the political and constitutional history of the United States, and the long history of a religious culture the creationism movement became more popular hence characterizing the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. It should be understood that the majority of the European settlers who came to North America during the 17th and the 18th centuries were settlers who were fleeing from religious prosecution from their mother countries (Dixon 2009).

Many of these settlers were non conformist Protestants who had adopted the belief in a personal relationship with God and the study of the Bible. They were Puritans, Quakers, Congregationalists, Baptists and Methodists. Since the settlers constituted a majority of the United States population at that time, these distinct religious groupings became the characteristics of the religious culture in the United States of America. Thus, due to the multiplicity of churches, there arose a need to separate the church from the state so as to prevent any favouritism of the any of the church groupings by the state. This spirit was aptly expressed when the First Amendment explicitly prevented the Congress from ever establishing any form of national religion. Despite this constitutional provision, other states still maintained contact with established churches but these were to soon die off leading to the full separation of the church and the state (Dixon 2009).

To exercise the same spirit of the separation of the church and the state, statutes were enacted to prevent other established religions from imposing their own version of Christianity on others. This led to the abolition of religious instruction in public schools. The passing of religious beliefs onto the younger generation was left to be done at home or in the Sunday school. This provision that completely eliminated religion in schools was what ushered in the clash between Creationism and Darwinism as the 20th century drew to a close.

The first instance of the clash with regard to the education occurred in 1925, when Dayton; a small town in Tennessee banned the teaching of Darwin’s evolution theories in public schools within their locality (Dixon 2009). The end of the sensational debates led to the elimination of the evolution theories from the science curriculum of most schools throughout the United States and for the duration between 1925 to the 1960s, the clash between Darwinism and Creationism subsided as they had both been eliminated from instruction curricula of public schools.

The elimination of such important scientific principles in the education curricula did not present any serious threats to the scientific development of the United States until the surprise success of Sputnik mission; a Russian space program which was launched in 1957. For fear that America was lagging behind in scientific development, a national panic arose that the scientific standards in American schools were low. The abolition of Darwinism in schools could no longer be tolerated. Acting against the wishes of many American parents who viewed Darwinism as the causative agent for the social ills in the society, the courts re-introduced the learning of the evolutionary theories in American public schools.

The 1960s to the 1970s led to the rise of the theories of the Intelligent Design. However, the religious fundamentalists especially those in North America were also determined to establish a way by which they could also be enshrined in the curricula. These developments led to the concepts of Intelligent Design and Scientific Creationism. There were those who advocated for the teaching of both evolution science, the creation science in addition to another alternative such as catastrophism so as to create a balance between the violently conflicting theories of Creationism and Darwinism.

Through the idea of an Intelligent Design, postulated by a biochemist Michael Behe and a lawyer Phillip Johnson, a new way through which the concept of God could be taken back to the classrooms. However, the teaching of the Intelligent Design in American classrooms did not see the day as judges ruled that it had been religiously motivated and therefore a breach of the First Amendment in 2005(Dixon 2009; Numbers 2006).

The clash between Darwinism and Creationism in America was watched with amused detachment or in some instances notions of superiority by the British as they could not understand that there still existed some culturally backward communities in America that prevented children from garnering knowledge on the theories of Darwinism. Given that their era of controversy had long ended, they could not understand that unlike in Britain, the United States had far different historical differences among its population. The presence of interdenominational rivalry that existed in the United States did not exist in England during the time of the evolutionary controversy. The supremacy of the Church of England and the existence of a Parliament with a long tradition helped settle down the controversies that raged after the publication of the “Origin of the Species” and the “Descent of Man”. Moreover the Fundamentalist Christian movement that took off in the United States in the World War I period did not take off in Britain (Dixon 2009).

In his analysis of the developments of the clash between Darwinism and Creationism or rather the Intelligent Design, Yeats observes that just like any other American he does not understand why naturalism should exercise monopoly in North American classrooms. He reiterates that individuals who espouse Darwinism are using the courts to sustain the principles of evolution and natural selection in public schools. He could not understand why an issue about the origin of existence could only be explained by Darwinism when there were a multitude of other options that could be taught in the public schools. However, given the motivations behind the intelligent design, a bad case was presented to the judicial system and from that bad case emanated a bad decision. By trying to use scientific data to prove that the theory of Intelligent Design was at par with Darwinism hence losing the case before a court under modern jurisprudence with judges who underwent secular training.

Therefore, while religious fundamentalists may attempt to negotiate for a dualistic approach in the education system, they have to understand that the attorneys as well as the system of training existing in North America is steeped in Naturalistic philosophy. Thus, unless the religious fundamentalists propagate the understanding that Darwinism is a religious tenet as in secular naturalism and that the education system as well as the public school’s science educators is nothing but the missionaries of the religion, any attempt to introduce any other theoretical understanding of the origin of man and the universe will be viewed as being religiously motivated. However, some argue that much as Darwinism can escape the reference of being classified as a religion, what matters is the element of faith. So long as students are taught to have faith in Darwinism as being the conclusive explanation of the origin of man, then it is religion and it should not be taught in public schools in North America.

In North America, the continuing conflicts between supporters of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution and natural selection on one hand and the supporters of the creationist theories on the other are just the 21st century’s skirmishes that have characterized the struggles between science and religion. Creationism as a theory and its pseudo-scientific offspring; the theory of Intelligent Design are products of the historical, cultural and religious characteristics of the population in North America.

So long as these underlying characteristics of the population persist, there is limited evidence that a time may come in the near future where the supremacy of Darwinism in the public school system will be challenged with creationist theories like the Intelligent design or any other theory, so long as such a theory is deemed to have originated from religious motivation. Currently, with the observable lack of interest in the theories of Creationism by current President of the United States of America; President Barack Obama coupled to the support of Darwinism in schools by the Supreme Court as well as the overriding interpretation of the First Amendment, it is no surprise that religiously motivated anti-Darwinism in North America will continue to be kept out of American classrooms.

There is very little, when one judges the history of these developments, to suggest that Darwinism will not continue to be part of the science syllabus in countries with secular systems of governance. Creationism, held afloat by nothing but belief, will also be taught in many countries but it will never strangle Darwinism as far as understanding natural biological phenomena is concerned. There are mountains of evidence to that end, mountains that cannot simply be washed away.


Richard M. Oduor/Richie Maccs, Nairobi

Mr. Oduor is a writer, poet and critic. He did Biomedical Science and Technology (Bsc. Hons) and in line to pursue a Masters in Strategic Management. He is a founding Partner of a young company; Expert Research & Management Consultants and Founding Member at the Center for Intervention Against Alcohol (CIAADA). His prose and poetry have appeared in print and online journals and anthologies and the first poetry collection is due for publication. He has freelanced and copywrited for various local and international private research entities.




Darwinism, Religion and the Idea of God

The Greatest of all naturalists

Charles Darwin: The Greatest of all naturalists

When the “Origin of Species” appeared on November 24, 1859, a new intellectual impulse was generated and just as a novel generative idea defines a philosophical epoch, an intellectual movement that would define and engulf a whole generation began. While it can be generally posited that Darwinism in itself was but a terminus of the linkages in intellectual development in that century, it is much more preferable if we posit that Darwin inaugurated the reflex of the universal spirit of natural science.

While the “Descent of Man” included the species Homo sapiens as a natural consequence of the evolution theory, thus explaining its existence as nothing but a natural development from lower animal life forms; which was a rather natural progression of Darwin’s doctrines of the origins of species, the turbulence that the sole assertion would create was beyond his comprehension at the release of these works. Far beyond the bounds of natural philosophy, scientific theorism, religious and ethical depths, the reactions ranged from acknowledgement and admiration, from aversion and repugnance while a select minority maintained a sober and unprejudiced judgement.

To some, Darwinism represented the flambeau that would light mankind to perceive and discover new paths of truth and attain moral and spiritual perfection. On the side, Darwinism was also viewed as an unproven hypothesis that threatened to radically transform the noblest and grandest achievements of the past centuries and thrust them into a heap of ashes. Alternatively, Darwinism was also representative of the highest level of scientific, moral and religious height that humanity had ever ascended (Schmid 2008). Thus, under these overriding circumstances it was virtually impossible for guardians of religion and moral interest as well as those respectable individuals with sacred acquisitions that man had ever been endowed with, to assume the roles of idle spectators.

It would have been better if these groups of people delayed their onslaught on Darwinism until they had attained a significant level of evidence to judge or at least waited until the controversies subsided to levels that could warrant an unprejudiced analysis. However since, Darwinism was seen as being hostile to Christianity as well as the theistic view of the universe, these agents voiced their controversy. On the other hand, extreme materialists and the sublime monists, who are nonetheless hostile to Christianity, decided to use Darwinism as a reference point for shattering all belief of the existence of a Creator and Master of the world (Schmid 2008).

Cumulatively, taken as threats to God and religion, individuals with ethical and religious acquisitions could not afford to accept a reserved position on the matter. In essence, silence would have been understood to be an inglorious retreat. Therefore, it is important to understand the position that religion took with regard to the Darwinian theories.

Charles Darwin, Darwinism and Religion: 1859-1900

To pose a highly reliable discourse on the interactions of Darwinism and religion, it is only prudent that we take a look at the scientific problem in itself before digressing to the views of Darwinism as propagated by religion. At basic, this attempt desires that we first and foremost discuss the purely scientific theories that Darwin postulated. Generally, these theories attempt to give an answer to the question: “How did the different species of organic beings on the earth originate”(Schmid 2008).

Living in the midst of an endless variety of plants, animals and human beings, man has continually striven to understand the nature of all these by observation and design of laws that are in congruence to the natural world as it existed in a given century. With the facts of reproduction partially understood and after designing explanations for the existence of the species in immeasurable epochs of the history of the earth, we are finally faced with the task of developing a believable explanation of the origin of the first species, be it a plant, an organic being or an animal.

Since no man ever had the opportunity of witnessing the origination of other species as there are enough evidential proofs asserting that when Homo sapiens finally appeared, all other organisms were in existence. In the natural history of the progression of science, there reached a time when scientists desisted from attempting to solve the question as it was deemed unprofitable and utterly insolvable. Any attempt in solving it would require the use of unjustifiable hypotheses which in themselves could not provide an appropriate answer to the whole phenomena. Having faith in religion simply rendered these investigations useless because the question had aptly and fully resolved in religion.

In religion, all species had their origins from the creative act of God. This solution for the question of the origin in species sufficed for religion because as a believer, all things including the universe itself, was the work of God. Since religion is grounded on belief and as such cannot be taken as being indifferent or antagonistic to the scientific impulse behind investigations into the origin of the species, Darwinian evolution theories had a profound impact on religious belief. Traditionally, religion was grounded on the belief that both social and biological systems were designed by an intelligent supernatural deity.

Evolutionary theories denied that there existed a god who with a supreme purpose designed biological creatures. Since religion lies in human driven attempts to appeal to or control natural forces, which had long been incomprehensible to man but thought to be humanlike but supernatural, the concepts of God and soul arose. Both these concepts are supposedly eternal in nature and immaterial. Owing to the general insecurity of humanity and the instability of nature, religion provided the understanding that there had to be in existence a supernatural being who had the capacity to manage and control these components of the universe. It is such a propitiation that maintained deep beliefs in religions and cults. Through offerings and sacrifices, human beings sought to restore order, ameliorate guilt and provide benefits by appealing to the divine creator (Strickberger 2005).

Before Darwin, Galileo and Copernicus had challenged the notion of a powerful deity as the controlling force behind the whole universe. In their view, the idea of God only served as an explanation of the initial creation but not of the incessant manipulation of the solar system. However, their explanations could not cause such religious turbulence as Darwinism would cause. Darwinism posed that biological relationships; inclusive of the origin of man as well as that of all other species in the universe could only be explained through natural selection in the complete absence of a controlling or managing God.

At the onset of Darwinism a majority felt that the randomness and uncertainty of the evolutionary theories had almost completely replaced the existence of a deity with conscious, purposeful and human like characteristics. The postulation that evolution was a historical process and that species were not created spontaneously but rather formed via a succession of selective events in the past was a direct contradiction to the religious beliefs which maintained the understanding that there could not exist any form of biological design or otherwise without the existence of  Grand Designer.

With regard to evolution, interactions between different species and their environment results in the selection of successful traits that are further enhanced by selective events. Therefore, environmental adaptation has the capacity to continuously modify structures and organs over long periods of time, and complexities that had initially been unlikely singular spontaneous events progress to become evolutionary probable events. Even though the variability on which selection is dependent on may at times be random, adaptations are not because natural selection only chooses and perfects that which is adaptive (Strickberger 2005). With natural selection, the designs and purpose of a supernatural deity are not necessary.

Everybody who is acquainted with the hostility of the reviews, treatises and sermons just after the works, “The Origin of the Species” and the “Descent of Man” were released will understand that at the time Charles Darwin was perceived as a wicked infidel who had completely abandoned God as the Creator of the universe, a man who had completely undermined the authority of the Scriptures, a man who degraded human beings to the same levels as beasts and lastly as a man who had abandoned the universe under the control of chance. For centuries and centuries men had comfortably adopted the belief that God was the creator and that Nature as it existed was but an evidence of God’s purpose and design.

These men could not understand nor even tolerate that things could just grow without being products of the divine craftsman nor that the exquisite adaptations of organs to the environment was not a divine design but due to natural selection of variabilities that simply chanced to be favourable to the organism at a specific time. More serious was the disbelief that man, animals, vegetable or any form of inorganic nature had the same pithecoid ancestry.

Darwin’s Reaction to the Upheaval

These upheavals were strange to Darwin who could not simply understand what the fuss was all about. In fact, he regarded these hostilities with mild irritation and innocent surprise. In response Darwin wrote to Asa Gray in May 22, 1860 that, “With respect to the theological view of the question, this is always painful to me. I am bewildered. I had no intention to write atheistically” (Banton 11). To a Dutch correspondent, Darwin wrote in 1873, that since it is the impossibility of conceiving the universe with the help of our conscious selves that drives man to believe in the existence of God, he concludes that it is safe to surmise that the whole subject of the existence is beyond the scope of the intellect of man, but man has to do his duty. All through these attacks Charles Darwin maintained that he had a belief in a God.

While answering an earnest student who sought to know his opinions on religion, Darwin reiterated that he considered the theory of Evolution to be in compatibility with the belief in a God. In the same note to the German student, Darwin added that it should always be understood that different individuals had different opinions on what is generally referred to as God. On the insistence of the student who was like many other not convinced with his answers, he wrote that Science had nothing, absolutely to do with Christ (in reference to attacks from Christianity)(p, 12). In the same year while writing to J. Fordyce, he exhibited the typical Victorian individualism by saying that, “What my own views may be is a question of no consequence to anyone but myself”.

Such was the passion of Darwin for natural history that he could not fully understand that he had shattered the simple faith of belief in a Creator; a belief that had been held by thousands and thousands over the centuries. Having grown old and not the best of health, and at the same time possessed by his own pursuits he could not spare time for irresolvable questions. To shatter accusations that he was an atheist, he said that even in the most extreme circumstances he had never been an atheist as to deny the existence of God. In fact what could appropriately describe his state of mind was being as agnostic.

To get a more in depth understanding on what drove Darwin’s views on religion, lets take a look at Christianity as and its influence on his growth and development an a very tender age. Religion, science and Charles Darwin interacted strongly during the early years of the naturalist’s life. Before, Darwin released his works, science and religion, especially Christianity had maintained a form of a harmonious relationship. During the early 19th century and even before that, many naturalists of repute were clergymen who studied nature as an exposition and appreciation of the designs of the Creator. Students of the day depended on theological works by William Paley (1743-1806) that attributed the natural exquisite designs to the existence of the Grand Designer: God.

These naturalists also explained the perfect adaptation to the environment to the same grand designing. Based on these early exhibitions of intellectual development, it was therefore not a surprise that Dr Robert Waring Darwin(1766-1848) contemplated the clergy as being the most appropriate career for his son even though the young Charles Darwin had found medicine while at the University of Edinburgh to be distinctly uncongenial (Dupree 1986). During Charles years on the Beagle, he shared a cabin with Captain Robert Fitzroy; an intensely Orthodox man. Together they wrote an article defending the British missionaries in New Zealand and Tahiti (Dupree 1986).

Thus, Darwin as a person and Darwinism as a set of scientific theories both originated from the Christian culture. In fact the scientific community of that time profoundly depended on Christianity as a direct economic support and as a rationale for the social usefulness of science. It is also important to remind ourselves that when Charles Darwin went to Cambridge it was for the idea of being ordained as he had deeply studied and admired Paley. On board the Beagle, Darwin quoted the Bible as an authority on morality, a belief that was laughed by many officers on board the Beagle. In fact some German phrenologists once described him as possessing a “bump of reverence developed enough for ten priests” (Banton 13). On the basis of these facts it is impossible to accept the belief that his views expressed in the Origin of the Species had any intention of assaulting religion.

In the next posting I will talk about the American response to Darwinism and 1859-1900, and later developments in the 21st century, especially with regard to the war between Darwinism and Creationism in American Schools because these perspectives define strands of thought the world over.


Richard M. Oduor/Richie Maccs, Nairobi

Mr. Oduor is a writer, poet and critic. He did Biomedical Science and Technology (Bsc. Hons) and in line to pursue a Masters in Strategic Management. He is a founding Partner of a young company; Expert Research & Management Consultants and Founding Member at the Center for Intervention Against Alcohol (CIAADA). His prose and poetry have appeared in print and online journals and anthologies and the first poetry collection is due for publication. He has freelanced and copywrited for various local and international private research entities.


Banton, M. Darwinism and the Study of Society: a centenary symposium. Routledge Press: New York.

Dixon, T. (2009). America’s Difficulty with Darwin. History Today. February 2009. Volume: 59 Issue: 2, p. 22-28.

Dupree, A. H. (1986). Christianity and the Scientific Community in the Age of the Darwin. In, God and nature: historical essays on the encounter between Christianity and science; David C. Lindberg, Ronald L. Numbers. University of California Press.

Mandelker, I. L (1984). Religion, Society, and Utopia in Nineteenth-century America.  University of Massachusetts Press, 90

Marsden, G. M. (2002). Fundamentalism and American culture. Oxford University Press US, 10-22

Numbers L. (2006). The Creationists: From Scientific Creationism to Intelligent Design, Expanded Edition. Harvard University Press.

Numbers, R. I., & Stenhouse, J. (2001). Disseminating Darwinism: The Role of Place, Race,  Religion, and Gender. Cambridge University Press.

Pyne, K. (2006). “The American Response to Darwinism”. In, Art and the Higher Life: Painting and Evolutionary Thought in Late Nineteenth-Century America. University of Texas Press.

Schmid, R. (2008). The Theories of Darwin and Their Relation to Philosophy Religion and Morality. BiblioBazaar, LLC.

Strickberger, M. W. (2005).  Evolution. 3rd Edition. Jones & Bartlett Publishers, p.  63-71

Yeats, J. L. (Dec 22, 2005). First-Person: Call Darwinism What It Is-A Religion.   http://www.bpnews.net/bpnews.asp?id=22351


Is Life Meaningful? What is the Purpose of Life?

“Maybe you can afford to wait. Maybe for you there’s a tomorrow. Maybe for you there’s one thousand tomorrows, or three thousand, or ten, so much time you can bathe in it, roll around it, let it slide like coins through you fingers. So much time you can waste it. But for some of us there’s only today. And the truth is, you never really know.”
― Lauren Oliver, Before I Fall

“You could die at any moment. You might not even live to see the end of this paragraph. Not only that, you will definitely die at some moment in the future. If not being prepared for death entails knowing when and where it will happen, the odds are that you will not be prepared. Not only are you bound to die and leave this world; you are bound to leave it in such a precipitate fashion that the present significance of anything – your relationships, your plans for the future, your hobbies – will appear to have been totally illusory. While all such things, when projected across an indefinite future, seem to be acquisitions of a kind, death proves that they are nothing of the sort. When the stopper on this life is pulled by an unseen hand, there will have been, in the final reckoning, no acquisition of anything at all.

And as if this were not insult enough, most of us suffer the quiet discomposure, if not frank unhappiness, of our neuroses in the meantime. We love our family and friends, are terrified of losing them, and yet not in the least free merely to love them while our short lives coincide. We have after all, our selves to worry about. “ – Sam Harris, The End of Faith, p. 37


A few months ago, a friend passed me a link of South African miners who’d been mauled by the hiss of bullets. CNN was all over the place advertising the butchery of the black skin. I had a little more time on my hands, and decided to sample the opinions of the world’s intellectual young minds trying to grapple, trying to laugh off the stupidity of the African people. Any African who’d read the CNN comments on the post would obviously get annoyed. It was the miners, with their ‘barbaric and crude’ weapons who were to blame. As usual the police were only responding to a call of public order. I closed the page, dropped my anger in the dust bin. Here in Kenya, 40-plus policemen were felled by bandits in the now infamous Baragoi massacre. What then is the purpose of life?

Watch and listen to the volley of bullets from a firing squad, pulling victims to their knees, sagging with every blast and losing what we refer to as life to the ground. Accidents cut short ambitions of individuals and families. Diseases crush the hopes and push millions to darkness. We live in a world where the inevitability of death is spread before our eyes in huge bold letters. We lose our loved ones each day. Strangers, friends, and acquaintances all fall to the same pit and all the living can offer is a flood of tears, comfort to the living, and a fitting end off. Every single death reminds us of the briefness of life. Yet why should one spend his life thinking about death?

The world is an interesting place, where the blood of tyrants and their victims soak the sacred earth they both despise.  How we perceive death fully influences how we lead our lives. Death terrifies us of our insignificance in the world. Everything human beings engage in is a pure transparent attempt to keep the fear of death at bay. Even though we don’t think about our own deaths, we know that there is not doubt at all that we’ll die. To prolong our lives we engage in activities aimed at keeping the fear of death at bay. Human advancements are merely an attempt to experience a better, longer, and more fulfilling life.

The fear of death and what happens thereafter is the reason for the existence and practicing of faith-based religions. Organized religions have bound the world’s inhabitants in a dogmatic prison with the promise of eternal heaven for the faithful adherents and hell for the disobedient. For fear of eternal damnation, billions have bowed to these religious truths that are accompanied with a set of rituals to dramatize the messages. To the uncritical mass, these bodies of knowledge offer a single answer: a single truth that is ‘self evident’ and protected from questioning. The strands of religious beliefs and assorted rewards after we pass the gate are countless and cannot possibly be tackled at length in this post.

Religions provide man with a simple and unquestionable explanation on the origin of man and the universe and his relation to the Creator, as well as the purpose of man in this life.

Genesis 1: 28: Be fruitful and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.

Ecclesiastes: 12:13: The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.

Quran 51:56: I have created the jinn and humankind only for worship.

Bhagavad Gita: The real goal of life is to know God.

Knowing God and keeping God’s commands as prescribed in the different and sometimes contextually clashing Holy books is presented as the source of meaning and purpose of life. Each religion has a set of dogmas whether literally procedural or anecdotes of spiritual directions that adherents must follow to realize find the meaning and realize their purpose of living. In all the religions, with the exception of Buddhism, there is a reward for those who truly and wholesomely adhere to these religious prescriptions.

Religions are culturally attuned and hence differ in popularity from one region to the other. That they have been a major source of human misery is a fact that does not need much discussion. Religious conflicts dot the world’s history and blood of innocents have been spilled in the name of religion for millenniums. Those who have attempted to closely examine religious beliefs and present these falsities to the world have been branded pagans, heretics, unbelievers, etc and unilaterally conscripted to the worst forms of punishment in the afterlife. For me religions are no more than simple attempts to explain the origin of man and the universe, and by extension find meaning and purpose in life. They are cultural cobbles with roots in myths.

While millions fight to maintain the supremacy of these religious reasons as definitive of the meaning and purpose of life, only a minute number of the world’s population live according to the tenets they daily howl about; but its man’s nature to lie to himself in order to conform to overriding doctrines. Further, these prescriptions are a rough road to walk so millions hopelessly falter hopeful that an act of repentance will absolve them and shot them straight to the heavenly realm.  I write these not to criticize religious people, but to convince them to view themselves as beads stringed together with other human beings, in a journey to … Is life a train to nowhere? Maybe our lives are just a passing fancy in the whirlpool of existence.

For the great majority, the meaning and purpose of life is not something that ever crosses their mind. They just live. A child is born, a few years into life they are registered into kindergartens where they begin their lifelong indoctrination. Education is the key to life – that’s the call! From kindergarten to college one is exposed to a set of pre-determined subjects… and so we accumulate knowledge that is suited for various professions that form the economic superstructure. In short, the purpose of life is to earn a living, to eat-live-and-die. Everything we do in life, in all professions including sports and entertainment is to survive. Survival is the primal and basic purpose of existence. Unfortunately, we all die in the end and pass the baton to the next generation through our progenies.

Human beings have advanced to a stage where we don’t necessarily have to kill our neighbours to obtain nutrition and survive. Our ‘hunting’ is much safer than was a millennium ago. We simply sit in offices and engage in a few economic activities and wait for the reward at the end of the day or month. We have evolved to an extent to an extent where morality and ethics have become key to defining the meaning and purpose of our lives. The desire to be moral and ethical beings is the main reason for the rise of spirituality the world over.

While the seeds of materialism are still being sowed and the excesses of consumerism continue to devour the very ground we walk on, the very air we breathe; millions of the world’s inhabitants are seeking an inner self – seeking an inner path to enable them to discover the essence of their being. Spirituality builds the deepest values and helps us to develop the meanings by which we should live. There are many spiritual practices such as prayer, meditation, and contemplation and both allow each individual to develop their inner life.  Spirituality destroys the false boundaries between religions, ethnicities, races, tribes, and people.

Through spiritual experiences we are able to discover the link between us and all that exists. As Fuller notes;

meaning of lifeSpirituality exists wherever we struggle with the issues of how our lives fit into the greater scheme of things. This is true when our questions never give way to specific answers or give rise to specific practices such as prayer or meditation. We encounter spiritual issues every time we wonder where the universe comes from, why we are here, or what happens when we die. We also become spiritual when we become moved by values such as beauty, love, or creativity that seem to reveal a meaning or power beyond our visible world. An idea or practice is “spiritual” when it reveals our personal desire to establish a felt-relationship with the deepest meanings or powers governing life.

One can be spiritual without the heavy burden of religiosity because spirituality emphasizes humanistic ideas on moral character. The meaning and purpose of life can be found in spiritual experiences because spiritual beings attempt to build qualities such as love, compassion, patience, tolerance, forgiveness, contentment, responsibility, harmony, and a concern for others. The pursuit of these virtues undoubtedly create a higher state of awareness as individuals seek to perfect their owns beings, seek wisdom, and be in communion with al that exists. It is also interesting that while religion and science remains in a tug of war, many scientists continue to consider science and spirituality to be complementary, not contradictory as long as supernatural explanations are not used to describe reality; hence the rekindling of scientific interest in holistic conceptions of reality. In this regard, Buddhism presents the most advanced conception as far as a spiritual life is concerned.

Our little lives are occupied by little fibs and trials. Each day wakes up preprogrammed for us. The sun will rise and set, as nature’s laws will. Science has made great strides in helping us understand the world, but the reality is that there are needs that a mere understanding of our world, scientific or otherwise, will never fulfill. There is clearly a sacred dimension to our existence, and coming to terms with it could well be the highest purpose of human life. But we will find that it requires no faith in untestable propositions like Jesus was born of a virgin or that the Quran or the Bible is the literal word of God, to find this dimension. Its an old argument but when we do good, we feel good.  Be virtuous.

Know thyself.

Richard Oduor a.k.a Richie Maccs

Nairobi, Kenya