Nobel winner assails religious intolerance

Times Staff Writer

Religion, Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka says, is the 21st century’s defining issue -- just as W.E.B. Du Bois predicted race would be for the 20th century.

On one level, he says, spiritual practices can enrich humankind. But religious fundamentalism is the greatest threat to peace and democracy in the world today, according to Soyinka,the Nigerian writer who won the 1986 Nobel Prize for literature.

“With the death of ideology in general, and the death of communist ideology in particular, which virtually amounted to religion, religion ... has stepped in to fill the vacuum,” he said in a recent interview. As evidence he pointed to conflicts in Darfur, Chechnya and Indonesia.


Soyinka, 72, who has endured imprisonment, exile and many death threats for standing up to dictatorial rule in his homeland, was in Southern California last week to give a lecture on “Deities for a Secular Dispensation” at Claremont Graduate University’s Institute for Signifying Scriptures.

The institute studies all forms of scriptures -- not just written sacred texts such as the Bible and Koran, but also messages appearing in other forms: through figures, icons and objects.

In June, the institute started its first major collaborative research project: Scriptural Fundamentalism Among Peoples of Color in the United States. Soyinka’s talk was the institute’s inaugural address in the distinguished lecture series.

As he sees it, intolerance is at the root of the dissension in the world. And the major religions are guilty of contributing to the problem.

“Judaism, Christianity and Islam are completely soaked in intolerance,” Soyinka said.

“There is no reason at all why a religion cannot just expose and disseminate its own believed virtues,” he said, “and not at the expense of denigrating the belief systems of others.”

Conversion “by example is absolutely legitimate; it’s a mark of culture and civilization,” he said. “But there isn’t much of that.”


During the lecture -- which he read while standing ramrod straight for nearly an hour without so much as taking a sip of water -- Soyinka extended an invitation to study the Yoruba religion of his native Nigeria. He called Yoruba a “potential model for the spiritual cravings of seekers.”

Yoruba is an “invisible religion,” he added, because it is “overshadowed ... by other elaborate and territorially rapacious world religions.”

But Yoruba has much to teach people about tolerance, he said, because deities in the Yoruba pantheon make that religion one of “the most humane anywhere.”

The Yoruba people have no hostility for the piety of other people, he said, and traditionally have been willing to look at another tradition and find equivalents in their own.

Practiced by the Yoruba, who live in western Nigeria, the religion was brought to the New World by slaves in the 17th and 18th centuries and thrived in Brazil, Colombia and Cuba, he said.

One characteristic of Yoruba is the accommodation of ancestors in the lives of the living. The world of the ancestors is woven together in “domestic consciousness,” he said.


Each Yoruba home has a family shrine.

At this shrine the head of the family, known as olori ebi, exercises ritual powers for communicating with the objects of devotion, according to the reference book Religious Traditions of the World.

Of special significance is the olori ebi’s ritual relationship with ancestors, who are considered important sources of power. No milestone in the family, such as birth, marriage or funeral, can occur without the olori ebi’s involvement.

Traditional Yoruba mythologies and practices figure heavily in Soyinka’s works.

In awarding literature’s most prestigious prize in 1986, the Nobel judges cited Soyinka as a writer “who in a wide cultural perspective and with poetic overtones fashions the drama of existence.”

They said Soyinka, the first African to win the award, “possesses a prolific store of words and expressions which he exploits to the full in witty dialogue, in satire and grotesquerie, in quiet poetry and essays of sparkling vitality.”

Soyinka, who writes in English, has written plays, novels, poetry, essays and memoirs. His latest book, “You Must Set Forth at Dawn: A Memoir,” was published last year.

A review in Publishers Weekly said, “By turns panoramic and intimate, ruminative and politically resolute, Soyinka’s memoir is a dense but intriguing conversation between a writer and his times.”

He was raised in an Anglican home, but he has always had an “internal affinity” with Yoruba traditions, he said. He describes himself as a secular humanist.


As a boy, Soyinka was intrigued by egungun men: masked Yoruba dancers who perform at festivals and other important ritual occasions. On his best Sundays, he got to sing in the choir and watch an egungun procession.

Soyinka’s fascination with ogun, the Yoruba god of metal, continues to this day. Ogun is a deified ancestor and the first king of Ife, the most sacred city of Yoruba-land, where adherents believe the world began.

Soyinka said he doesn’t visit any place of worship but uses Yoruba traditions as “an exemplar” of his personal spirituality.

The Nobel laureate’s talk was not easy to grasp -- even for some graduate theology students in the audience.

Vincent Wimbush, director of the institute, later explained in an interview that Soyinka is too careful a thinker to say that one tradition is “ideal and perfect.”

Soyinka’s point in lumping together the world religions -- focusing on Christianity, Judaism and Islam -- was to contrast them with more local traditions. Wimbush added that some faiths became world religions because, as Soyinka said, they became “territorially aggressive.”

“It’s not just one person’s attitude or group’s attitude. It’s part of the structuring,” said Wimbush, a Harvard-educated New Testament scholar and historian of religions.


Soyinka said Nigeria was more religiously tolerant when he was a child.

In those days, Christians and Muslims lived as neighbors, observing one another’s festivals and sending good wishes and food. If his family hadn’t sent Christmas goodies to their Muslim neighbors, they would have been insulted.

Now that he is a septuagenarian, Soyinka would like to retire to writing and reading the many books on his list. But the political situation in his country will not let him, he said in the interview before the talk.

“I don’t feel at peace with myself ... if much is going wrong around me in which I have not intervened,” he said.

Wimbush said he would encourage those who heard Soyinka to take up his invitation to learn about religious traditions, sensibilities and practices that are different from their own, “so that we can be informed by these other traditions and we can learn some things about ourselves as we learn about these other traditions.”

“We should hear someone like him, who puts out a challenge to rethink the kind of structures of our religious myths and religious traditions,” Wimbush said.