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African traditional religions - Part 1

Published:Thursday | August 25, 2016 | 12:00 AMPaul H. Williams

The gospel of Christianity is underpinned by the doctrine that espouses that Jesus Christ, the son of the living God, conceived immaculately by the Virgin Mary, was sent to Earth by God to save humanity from sin. His message is that mankind must worship His Father and obey His commandments.

Yet, the doctrine, as told in the Bible, says Jesus Christ was crucified. He shed his blood to save the world before ascending into Heaven, the place where the chosen will live forever. Sinners, those not chosen, will be cast into a lake of fire, Hell, to spend eternity with Satan, Jesus' nemesis.

But where is this doctrine coming from, and why does it have so much universal appeal? There are many books, articles, etc, that seek to answer these questions. That, however, is not the purpose of this article, which is attempting to explain the nature of traditional African religions before the coming of Christianity, and even until today.

By its very nature, the content is a veiled comparison between traditional African religions and mainstream religions, such as Christianity. It is influenced by the work of Professor John S. Mbiti, a leading scholar and authority on African religions and philosophy.

Every aspect of an African life is intertwined with religion, Mbiti says. The people of Africa have their own religions, thus the existence of hundreds of religions with peculiar beliefs and practices. "Religion is the strongest element in traditional background, and exerts probably the greatest influence upon the thinking and living of the people concerned," Mbiti writes in African Religions and Philosophy.




Because traditional African religions is part and parcel of people's lives, there is no line of demarcation between the sacred and the secular, between the spiritual and the material. Life itself is a religion, and wherever the Africans go they take their religion with them.

And the religion belongs to the entire community, not just to individuals, so there are no irreligious people in the community. Religion is part of the ethos of the community, and detachment from the community's religion is divorce from the community.

"Therefore, to be without religion amounts to a self-excommunication from the entire life of society, and African peoples do not know how to exist without religion," Mbiti says.

Though beliefs and practices abound in traditional African religions, there is no strict doctrine that people are expected to accept and follow. People simply become a part of what goes on in their communities. "There are no creeds to be recited; instead, the creeds are written in the heart of the individual, and each one is himself a living creed of his own religion ... religion is in their whole system of being," Mbiti explains.

Just as there is no written creed to follow, there are no sacred scriptures. People live as they believe. Mbiti says, "Religion in African societies is written not on paper, but in people's hearts, minds, oral history, rituals ... Everybody is a religious carrier." And there is no one universal deity that everyone must obey, as well as no agitators espousing one universal doctrine and imposing their beliefs on others.

Conversion from one traditional religion to another seldom occurs. People stick to the religions in which they were born. "Therefore, a person has to be born in a particular society in order to assimilate the religious system of the society to which he belongs," Mbiti writes. Likewise, traditional African religions have no founders whose dogma must be strictly adhered to. Yet, there are people who hold certain elevated position. "They are an integral part of the religious milieu of their society."

Though there is a belief in life after death in all African societies, "there is neither paradise to be hoped for nor hell to be feared in the hereafter. The soul of man does not long for spiritual redemption or for a closer contact with God in the next world ... There is no messianic hope or apocalyptic vision of a God stepping in at some future moment to bring about a radical reversal of man's normal life".