An abstract appearing at Taylor & Francis Online on the topic of relationship between religion and corruption reads,
“There is a growing interest in understanding how religion affects corruption. Many empirical studies have suggested that countries with strong hierarchical religions (such as Islam, Catholicism and Orthodox Christianity) are more likely to suffer from corruption. These results are, however, controversial, largely due to the lack of empirical validity of the causal (or theoretical) links that explain such a relationship.”
In this article, I want to provide an explanation (you may call it a theory but I haven’t done any empirical research on the subject) for the relationship between religion and corruption, with a conclusion that it is religion that is the source of corruption.
There are two undisputed facts; 1. That the poorer the country, the more religious it is, and 2. The more corrupt a country is, the poorer it becomes. I have written the two facts in a way that suggests that poverty strengthens religiosity while corruption increases poverty. Thinking of poverty, religion and corruption in this way is intuitive – as anyone would expect a country in which public resources are not utilized for public good will become poorer, and a poor people will easily resort to religious hope. A people constantly faced with lack of food, prevalence of diseases, and general hopelessness for a better future is easily endeared to religious promises; whether such promises come in the form of a new kingdom in which there won’t be death, hunger, or disease; or in the form of getting rich quick after parting with tithes and/or seedmoney (panda bengu). This line of thinking is not entirely wrong, but when one digs deeper he or she cannot fail to realise just how much religion is to blame for prevalence of corruption anywhere it is prevalent.
The core of all major religions is sacrifice. A religious sacrifice is defined by Encyclopedia Britannica as “a religious rite in which an object is offered to a divinity in order to establish, maintain, or restore a right relationship of a human being to the sacred order.” Going by this definition, it is easy to see just how a religious sacrifice resembles corruption. Just as a corruption, a religious sacrifice requires someone who wants favor to find an object, offer that object as payment/sacrifice, and expect favors such as increased wealth, better health, and a personalized natural phenomena in return. Personalized natural phenomena means the individual offering the sacrifice expects a god to intervene in nature such that nature behaves for the good of the person. The good for the individual may include the deity withholding rain until the individual has reached his destination or has completed his outdoor event, the deity causing rain just in time for the individual to plant his crops, the deity subverting an earthquake that could have killed the individual, or the deity miraculously planting a tree over Jonah’s head to give Jonah some shade in the hot sun.
Initially sacrifices to deities were other lives, even as important lives as human lives. As religion evolved, these sacrifices were substituted with others as human and animal sacrifices were seen as cruel. Today the most acceptable form of sacrifice is money, but the reasons for the sacrifice remain intact. Just as humans of old, the religious humans of today still offer money expecting the heavens to give them increased wealth, better health, and for nature to be controlled in their favor. Bribing God therefore is still a practice appreciated today as it was appreciated 5000 years ago, only that the medium of exchange has transitioned from blood to money. In Kenya for instance the idea of bribing God was fervently debated in recent months when the Deputy President William Ruto was attacked for donating money to churches. According to the Deputy President, his donations were nothing but bribery (offering) to God for having seen him come from being a maize seller by the roadside to become the country’s first Deputy President under the 2010 constitution.
The question one should ask at this point is, how does a religious sacrifice contribute to corruption? I agree, similarity in description doesn’t mean a cause-effect relationship exist. More so, many religious teachings in all the major religions discourage corruption – where corruption is treated as theft. Thou shalt not steal, for instance, is ingrained in ten commandments that Judaism and Christianity revere. In hierarchy of sins in Islam, stealing is considered the 23rd greatest sin. “A believer cannot commit fornication and a believer cannot steal. Thus one who fornicates or steals is not a believer. Such a person is devoid of faith. Such a person lacks belief in Allah (S.w.T.) and the Day of Judgement. If such a person dies without repenting for his sins, he does not die a believer”. Despite these teachings, the most corrupt countries remain countries that subscribe to Islam and Christianity. The top 10 most corrupt countries in the world in 2018 were Somalia, Syria, South Sudan, Yemen, North Korea, Sudan, Guinea Bissau, Equatorial Guinea, and Afghanistan in that order. A 2010 Gallup research on the other hand provided that Bangladesh, Niger, Yemen, Indonesia, Malwai, Sri Lanka, Somalia, Djibouti and Mauritania as the top ten most religious countries in the world. If you expand the two lists to top 50, you will find all top 50 most corrupt countries in the world being in the top 50 most religious countries in the world.
If religion doesn’t contribute to corruption directly, how does it do it? Corruption by and large is a function of leadership. A religious country such as Singapore is one of the least corrupt countries, meaning their religiosity has not contributed to their corruptibility. This is because the leadership in Singapore took it upon itself to go against the religious culture of corruption – not by living by the religious teachings, but by actively running away from the influence of religion on leadership.
I hypothesise that religion doesn’t just contribute to corruption by nurturing the culture of bribing deities, but by nurturing the culture of bribing deities through human leadership. The sacrifices that were offered to the gods in ancient times were offered through priests, priests who later wielded political power. Kings in many territories controlled the customs of religious worship and sacrifices, and were the biggest recipients of the proceeds of the sacrifices. They actually determined how the gods responded to the prayers of their subjects. In most territories, these kings were also gods. In modern times, the kings have been substituted by Presidents and Prime Ministers, and in jurisdictions where they are still treated as gods, corruption reigns. That’s why although North Korea is one of the least religious states, the fact that their Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un is revered as one would revere a god helps the country be among the top of the most corrupt countries worldwide.
What the foregoing is telling us is if we want to fight corruption, the first thing we must do is to structure both our religion and politics. We must figure out how to redefine offerings given to gods so that those offering the said offerings do not do so expecting the gods to do them any favors (gods include the Abrahamic God and Jesus Christ). We must also restructure our politics so that the political leadership do not become a people that are revered (feared). We must figure out how our political leadership, starting from the President, are viewed the same way we view WhatsApp Group Admins. We must change our culture so that church leaders are given just the much respect they deserve, but not to a point where we consider them God’s anointed. Countries that have achieved the cultural paradigm of treating leaders as equals, approachable, part of the community, of treating leaders as those that can be promptly tasked to explain how they spend public resources else evicted from office as South Korea recently did, are the least corrupt.