‘Religion is a way of life; it relates to culture and society as they affect the worldview of the African people’, says Professor Jacob Olupona, theologian of African traditional religion. Given the centrality of religion to the private and public lives of Africans, one surely cannot claim to be studying Africans, their histories, or cultures in any real way if one is not interested in understanding Africans’ indigenous beliefs.
This article outlines the 5 principal reasons why it is vitally important that all those interested in studying Africa or Africans begin with the study of African religion.
African traditional religion has heavily influenced and continues to heavily influence how societies are structured.
As one writer put it, ‘the pervasiveness and power of religions throughout human history and their continuing role in shaping individuals and societies make their study within an academic context essential’ . This is no less true in relation to the study of Africa and its diaspora, where African traditional religion and its derived religions continue to govern the way of life.
Politics has been shaped by indigenous religions for much of human history such that religion provides much of the lexicon and philosophical framework necessary for comprehending social phenomena in Africa. Though Christianity and Islam have made inroads into the continent and amongst the diaspora, African religion is a definitional element in African culture and political society in a way that non-African religions could never be. Thus, how African spaces and communities exist and interact continue to reflect the foundational structures and principles manifest in African traditional religion. Alternatively put, ‘the religious traditions that thrive in the modern world have long and complex histories, and it is impossible to understand politics, both local and global, without an awareness of the dynamics of religious beliefs and practice’ .
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Connected to this is international relations as religion has played ‘a central role in determining the shape and tenor of political and cultural conflicts within and between nations’ . Religion does not just structure individual societies, it had been integral to the structuring of the entire world. African traditional religion, as one of the world’s major religions, whether in its “pure”, “creolised”, or “appropriated” form, has adherents across Africa, the Americas, and Europe, and has been at the forefront of many societal transformations in the modern era.
For example, there was the role played by the principal priest, Okomfo Anokye, in the founding of the Asante Empire at the beginning of the 18th century. There was also the roles played by hougans François Makandal and Duti Boukman in the kindling of the Haitian Revolution later in that century. These men were some of the most consequential in modern history and their principal frame for action was African traditional religion.
Thus, African traditional religion remains a deeply consequential element in world affairs. It is essential for any student of Africa and Africans to ground themselves in its principal tenets.
African traditional religion is key to understanding the culture, philosophy, and worldview of African people.
Religion remains an important source of morality, self-esteem, community, and a people’s relationship with the natural and built worlds. As a result, ‘far from being simply a private phenomenon, religion is integrally involved in configuring the world-view and ethos of major civilisations of our day’ . Combined with ethnicity and nationality, religion is thus a defining element of culture and identity.
Therefore, ‘the study of religion offers an extraordinary window into how human beings give structure to their personal identities, their communities, and their understandings of the cosmos around them’ . Anyone looking to explore the lifeworld of the African must thus engage thoroughly with African traditional religion.
In addition to shaping identity, religion shapes reality, being how we perceive and interpret the world. Religion is central to the shaping of the epistemology of a society, which is to say it is ‘a foundational taxonomic concept that….culture uses to sort out and organise the complexity of human experience’ .
Thus, religion gives category to our world, adding first-level perception as well as deeper interpretation. In this way, religion determines what constitutes knowledge and truth among a people. This makes African traditional religion very important to the study of African political thought and intellectual history.
African traditional religion is integral to the study of modern African history
in order to understand the relationship between Africa and its diaspora, as well as the transformations these two communities have experienced, it is important to understand the tenets of the new African religions that emerged during this period.
The denigration of African traditional religion and attempts at its complete erasure were critical elements in the campaigns against African civilisation during the modern era.
There is a lot to be gleaned from the fact that the religion has remained healthy in most parts of the continent and amongst the diaspora. It has clearly played a central role in Pan-African expression and Black Consciousness praxis during the liberation struggles of the modern era. It shows that across the Pan-African world, despite the assault on African civilisation, communities continued to rely on the assertions, aesthetics, and conceptual frameworks of African traditional religion to bolster esteem and effect resistance.
Related Lecture: The Triple Heritage of African Religion
In the diaspora, African traditional religion grew and evolved into new expressions such as Haitian Vodou. These new religions reflected the new forms of social living of the enslaved experience in the Americas, yet were grounded in African religious principles. They have gained political, social, and cultural importance in countries across the Americas and as such no investigation of global Africa can ignore African traditional religion.
Even within Christian movements on the continent and in the diaspora, one has to understand African traditional religion in order to understand the full nature of religious exegesis in Black and African churches, which have retained vestiges of African religion in their liturgies and theologies.
Studying African traditional religion is essential to gain a better understanding of world civilisations and to be able to truly undertake comparative studies.
Religion is often the vehicle through which local, national, and global concerns are given voice so ‘understanding one’s own background and those of others has become an important factor in educating a person for the 21st century’ . African traditional religion is a major world religion and most continental and many diasporic Africans rely on its truths to navigate the world.
Any scholar who takes seriously the global nature of the human experience can risk not acquiring an understanding of African traditional religion. If not, they will be capable of no more than a superficial grappling with world discourses.
Related Lecture: Revolutionary Gospel – A Political History of Haitian Vodou
Added to this is the fact that the study of religion itself, none more so than African traditional religion, is inherently multicultural. This is because, as alluded to in the previous section, ‘religions move across the globe, changing over time and in new cultural contexts. They constantly interact, leading sometimes to great lessons in human cooperation, sometimes to enormous conflict, and sometimes to creative new adaptations’ .
This posits African traditional religion as a change agent in the geographies it has travelled to and at the intersections it has been subject to. Studying it will also provide insight into the evolutions of spaces and societies beyond the activities of the African citizens of those spaces.
African traditional religion is thus an important tool for understanding developments in geographies as separated as India, where the Siddhi preserve their African conceptions of the world, and Cuba, where Santeria has evolved in step with the political society of the island.
All of this is to say that studying religion ‘engenders deep intercultural literacy’ such that it ‘inculcates unique cultural sensitivities among students’ . Such study gives students access to ‘the rich and exciting world of different philosophies, mythologies, moral-systems, and ritual practices’ . Knowledge of African traditional religion will thus enhance all humanities and social sciences explorations of Africa and Africans and the spaces they have historically and currently inhabit.
Studying African traditional religion requires scholars to work in interdisciplinary ways and develop robust critical thinking skills.
If you are a non-practitioner of African traditional religion, and particularly if you have been educated within the western intellectual tradition, such study will force you to challenge your ideas about the world. This level of self-reflection is essential for the development of one’s academic practice. But it is also important for personal development as ‘religious studies enables the development of critical attitudes… interpersonal awareness and intercultural literacy’ .
These are essential skills for the nurturing of well-rounded thinkers. This is because ‘now more than ever we need people who are aware of their own perspective and how it shapes their perception, [and] who are informed about views other than their own and respectful towards them’ . In order to develop such perspective, Africanist scholars must engage with African traditional religion.
Related Lecture: An Introduction to African Religion
However, to truly develop these skills, scholars will have to immerse themselves in the life-worlds of the religion and its adherents. This will require undertaking studies in a range of disciplines such as law, philosophy, theology, cultural studies, and even archaeology. The result is that the study of religion actually ‘offers students a range of skills that are invaluable for the exploration of human history and culture’ .
One of the principal consequences of the demonisation of African traditional religion has been the intellectual stuntedness that pervades the western academy. There is an increasing shift away from the epistemicide that typifies the academy such that ‘the current consensus is that young persons need to develop a variety of different types of intelligence to be genuinely successful in an increasingly multicultural world society’ . This includes spiritual intelligence as ‘without this type of intelligence young people are not fully equipped with the resources necessary for their full participation in a world that cries out for engaged and compassionate leaders’ .
- Chidili, Bartholomew. “Why Study African Traditional Religion”. An African Journal of Arts and Humanities, vol. 2, no. 1, March 2016. https://www.igwebuikeresearchinstitute.org/journal/2.1.3.pdf
- “Why Study Religion?”. https://religion.unc.edu/about/why-study-religion/
- “Why Study Religion?”. https://www.rhodes.edu/academics/majors-minors/religious-studies/why-study-religion
- “Why Study Religion?”. https://www.swarthmore.edu/religion/why-study-religion
- “Why Do We Study Religion?”. https://home.csulb.edu/~plowentr/Why%20Study%20Religion.html
- “10 Reasons to Consider Religious Studies”. https://sc.edu/study/colleges_schools/artsandsciences/religious_studies/study/10_reasons/index.php
- “The Top Five Reasons to Study Religion”. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/the-religion-pitch_b_7921450
- “Top Five Reasons to Study Religion at Springfield College. https://springfield.edu/programs/religion/top-five-reasons-to-study-religion
Cite this article:
Umolu, Apeike. “5 Reasons Why Africanist Scholars Should Study African Traditional Religion”. The African History Project. Original 2022. Revised 2023.
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The teaching of African religion is a major topic covered on our Foundation Certificate in African History