Religion is…

2 07 2012

07/02/2012  11:59pm  Accra, Ghana

An ode to religion as it relates to my experiences and research in Ghana:


I cannot walk ten feet in this country without some sort of reminder that someone, somewhere believes in life after death, a benevolent God, or in basic religious tenants to live by. Spirituality has pervaded almost every advertisement, public transportation vehicle, store shop title, media outlet, and conversation in Ghana. My favorite examples of storefronts may just be “The Blood of Jesus Nail Salon” or “Have Mercy O Lord Beauty Salon.” Even the newspapers depict this reality in that the bestselling issues are those with some sort of religious scandal on the front—perhaps a famous television Christian pastor has been adulterous, or maybe a Muslim imam has been worshiping at a traditional shrine. The religious demographics of Ghana have been somewhat debated, but most sources say that about 60% are Christian, 25% Muslim and 15% Traditional African Religious beliefs (with very few citizens claiming to be non-believers). When conducting this research, I have become very aware that these numbers really are as unreliable as various sources claim them to be. Upon interviewing Ghanaians, a vast majority of them often claim to participate in the ceremonies of multiple religious groups—most often being their traditional or ancestral tribal beliefs along with their Christian or Muslim faith. This makes my job as a researcher a lot harder, but all the more interesting and exciting.

A way of life:

Today I was having a conversation with a Ghanaian man who I met last summer, and one of the first things that he asked me was to have a conversation with him about what I have learned about the worlds’ religions—how they differ, how they came into existence, and why they matter today. And so we sat and talked for a while until we shared what we have found to be important about the religions of the world, and how they work. I could not help but to think that the resulting long and fruitful conversation would have never happened in America—where we’re ‘too busy’ or often disinterested in talking about such philosophical and never-ending topics in detail. Thus, religion here is a way of life. It is what you talk about, but more importantly it is what you live. In almost all of my interviews thus far, everyone from Muslim scholars to various protestant religions to some traditional believers all seem to agree on one major thing: that we must live a life that depicts our spiritual beliefs. Talking is not enough, but walking the walk is a necessary part of religious expression and authenticity. As one Muslim put it, “your belief is not sufficient, you must practice what you believe in order to be healed” (Personal Interview).

An identity:

When I started this research last summer, I had no idea how to deal with the ultimate question that all researchers face. Do I allow myself to reveal personal biases that will reveal to my subjects who I am and what I believe as the researcher, or do I obey what I thought was the golden rule of the research—to strive to be an objective observer, to minimize biases, and to allow the informant to reveal his beliefs without invading with my own? I realized very quickly that Ghanaians are not going to let me get away with that “Golden Rule”. Ghanaian interviewees are constantly trying to gauge if I can personally relate, if I can completely understand their devotion to their spiritual beliefs. The answer is, as I tell them, I can. My identity as a Christian is a tremendously important aspect of my life, both here in Ghana and at home. It seems that making this known to my research subjects not only helps my research, but also validates me as a researcher on the topic in their eyes. I am able to sympathetically nod to a patient who is trying to explain to me that she prays when she is sick, and similarly I can understand a reference by a Muslim imam explaining that a “genie” is analogous to what Christians consider angels. Through my ability to relate to and understand the sort of beliefs that my subjects bring up, I encourage them to go deeper with what they are trying to say and avoid becoming bogged down by semantics or technical religious jargon. You know, there is part of me that is terrified to be writing this…perhaps all the researchers reading this are completely turned off by my overly biased research methods. However, if we are to be honest with ourselves, no research is ever completely unbiased. Yes, it is commendable to design research projects to minimize all the ways that the findings could result from the bias of the researcher, but it is not always that simple. Perhaps not revealing my religious background could be a form of research bias, causing the patients to only tell me what they think an objective, nonreligious researcher would understand. If anything, this research project has taught me that sometimes my identity does not have to remain hidden behind my research. Instead, in the right contexts, my beliefs can help to encourage a truthful and powerful story from my informants that would otherwise remain unheard. This type of inquiry calls for a researcher who is flexible in her methods, who is ready for what each unique informant has to offer and to request of her. It is clear to me that the interactions I make with my informants both mold me as a researcher as well as shape the way I interpret my findings. Religion is an identity of this research, of the researcher, and of the informants—I have come full circle.

That which connects us:

Just a few days ago, I spoke with a beautiful and brilliant 18-year-old girl named Grace. Before our interview got going, she told me that she was about to take her SAT and that she wanted to go to an American college. I asked her which one, and naturally she said Harvard. I encouraged her to consider Duke as a top choice, as well. 🙂 Grace spoke to me about how her Christian faith has helped her to deal with her chronic back pain. She kept telling me how my questions helped her to process exactly what she believed about how her prayers have been helping her get through her severe back pain both now that she’s come to seek medical care as well as before. Before she shared her insights, Grace wanted to know my religious beliefs. After she realized that my religious background aligned with hers, she began to open up more than I could have asked for. There’s a sort of trust inherent in knowing that the person you are talking with can understand your religious worldview and is not there to mock any sort of beliefs that are shared. Similar instances happened with a doctor that I interviewed about her Islamic beliefs as it relates to her practice of medicine. These situations remind me of a quote from an interview that I had with Dr. Raymond Barfield, a pediatric oncologist at Duke Medicine and a professor at Duke Divinity School on how he used his knowledge of religious beliefs in the care of a patient suffering from end-stage cancer:

It was the language of her life. So it made all the sense in the world to use [it]. It would be a shame to use this language for all the rest of her life and then to suddenly stop. You know, it actually is a language that is far more powerful for someone who frames the world in terms of faith like that than any language I could come up with looking at a palliative care communication manual about how to talk to people about hard things (Barfield, Personal Interview).

It is only when I was able to speak with Grace in the “language” with which she sees the world that I was able to obtain honest answers to my questions and a personal connection that I believe will last for a long time to come. On her way out of the hospital, she was determined to present me with a gift: a book on religion that she had been reading and thought would be good for me to read, as well. Later that day she looked up my number on the research information card that I gave her and called me just to inform me that “God is good, and [her] back will be fine”.


Everyone has a religious worldview. Something that I have learned from scientists like Dr. Raymond Barfield at Duke or Dr. John Lennox of Oxford University is that even if one professes to have no God to answer to, this in itself is a religious worldview. In the US, it seems that it is often thought that one is either “religious” or they are not, but the fact is that we all are. We live in a world that is completely uncertain of the future but that relies on a personal faith that describes that unknown, theist or not. It has never been more clear to me that this question of the life hereafter constantly pervades the minds of the people here in Ghana that I have grown to know and love. In hearing stories after stories of patients facing a variety of debilitating diseases, it has become easy to reason that this is a question that no one can avoid. One way or another we all are going to leave this world, so we can either choose to answer the question now or forget about it only to have it be thrust upon us in our last days. While I have seen the latter happen often in the US, it is apparent that most Ghanaians practice the former, assuring that their personal spirituality is something of a very present reality and not something for a sickly distant future.

-Jessie Narloch




One response

1 09 2012

What a great and well written story. I love your observations and insight. It seems that those in the undeveloped word have such strong faith and conviction that in the West. The faith of a child. God bless them.

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