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Religion and Culture

Religion & Culture | Identity conflicts - Barriers to embracing African traditional religions

Published:Sunday | June 16, 2019 | 12:00 AMDr Glenville Ashby
Vodun priestesses dance at religious ceremony in Ouidah, Benin.
Glenville Ashby

Identity is the fact of being who or what a person or thing is.

This ‘fact’ could be one’s religion, race, nationality, gender, employment, and so on.

Over time, identity can change. Remarkably, in today’s world, even one’s gender can be blurred and radically transformed.

From time immemorial, religion has shaped our view of self and the world. It is one of the most powerful identity markers. It has offered answers to the most enigmatic enquirers: What is life? Does God exist? Does evil exist? What awaits man after death?

Eschatology, or the philosophy of the afterlife, is by far the most compelling of all religious teachings. It serves as a moral compass during life and stirs powerful emotions, none more so than fear and hope. Christianity has presented itself more than any other religion with the only prescription for the soul, for salvation and the assurance against the spectre of death.

From birth, we are nurtured or conditioned by particular religious beliefs. This is either through a formal or informal process. Inculcating religious precepts can also take place at a conscious or unconscious level.

These religious building blocks become part of our unconscious, indelible and very real, although we might think otherwise.

Christianity has always had a captive audience in black people. It has also been a complicated relationship. As enslaved peoples, we struggled to understand God’s plan for us. A wretched existence complicated our faith.

Still, Christianity offered hope, an expectation for redemption and everlasting relief from suffering. It demanded patience and steadfastness to the Word. (Note that a ‘slave Bible’, a ‘redacted’ version of the original, to only include passages supporting obedience and piety, was distributed to slaves. Ninety per cent of the Old Testament and 50 per cent of the New Testament were removed. One of these bibles is on display at the Museum of the Bible in Washington, DC).

However, Christianity was challenged by the impulses of tradition, part of the ‘Black Unconscious’ that would surface demanding expression while threatening the status quo.

But after 400 years of Christian imprinting black traditions are oftentimes forced to retreat. Centuries ago, the West ‘chopped down our traditions like a tree’, but from the stump grew new shoots, and branches from the old root began appearing. Today, more than ever, the stage is set for the revival of African customs and African traditional religions, in particular.

Social media, globalisation and a new cultural zeitgeist willing to revisit history have fed a new black awareness. We have begun to throw off the yoke of Christian dogma, at least on an intellectual level. Many are travelling to Nigeria and Benin to experience the religion of their ancestors.

Still, as mentioned, 400 years of a religion based on fear and damnation (if we err) is never easily erased.

I recall two cases to prove this point. In the first instance, an acquaintance recounted her experience while undergoing a Yoruba initiation in Trinidad. She conceded that she panicked and literally ran from the spiritual house all the while questioning if she had offended Jesus. Such was the hold of her Christian upbringing.

In another case, a close friend participated in a Malidoma Somé ancestral ritual in upstate New York that involved animal sacrifice. For the next two years she was tortured, guilt-ridden, convinced she had offended her deceased mother who was Christian.

These are examples of what I call ‘religious schizophrenia’.

To avoid such conflicts, we must guard against impulsive decisions regarding African traditional religions. We must be deliberate. We must understand every nuance of our religious beliefs. Why do we believe what we believe? Do our beliefs make sense? Are they logical? How do we weigh faith against logic? What do we fear most? If there is the urge to explore and eventually convert to our ancestral practices, we must question our feelings.


Moreover, we must ask, why do we think it is necessary to convert? Do we know everything we need to know about African religious practices? How will our family and peers react? Have we always been free thinkers, unmoved by groupthink?

If we cannot cogently answer these questions, it is best to delay our decision.

Embracing the highly ritualistic African religious system requires a sharp shift in awareness. No doubt, it is resoundingly rewarding and empowering, but it demands dedication and maturity.

An authentic conversion is epiphanic and never linked to overt or subtle coercion. It is never a reaction to circumstances. When it occurs in earnest, there is never wavering in mind, will or feeling.

In truth, every religious practice is existentially meaningful when void of inner conflicts. We must function in a space that is inviolable, unperturbed by the prying of the self-righteous who believe they hold the key to truth. We must make decisions that are free from outside pressures.

In the end, truth predates religion. Religion only offers pathways to experience that truth, a truth that is never fully grasped. Moreover, we must forge a personal path to wisdom and understanding unencumbered by turmoil and ambiguity.

- Dr Glenville Ashby is the award-winning author of In Search of Truth: A Course in Spiritual Psychology, The Believers, and Anam Cara: Your Soul Friend and Bridge to Enlightenment and Creativity. Email feedback to