African Traditional Religion

Wyatt MacGaffey

in African Studies

ISBN: 9780199846733
Published online October 2012 | | DOI:
African Traditional Religion

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The term “African Traditional Religion” is used in two complementary senses. Loosely, it encompasses all African beliefs and practices that are considered religious but neither Christian nor Islamic. The expression is also used almost as a technical term for a particular reading of such beliefs and practices, one that purports to show that they constitute a systematic whole—a religion comparable to Christianity or any other “world religion.” In that sense the concept was new and radical when it was introduced by G. Parrinder in 1954 and later developed by Bolaji Idowu and John Mbiti (see Proponents of African Traditional Religion). The intention of these scholars was to protest against a long history of derogatory evaluations of Africans and their culture by outsiders and to replace words such as “heathenism” and “paganism.” African Traditional Religion is now widely taught in African universities, but its identity remains essentially negative: African belief that is not Christianity or Islam. To understand the issue one must go back to the beginnings of anthropology in the 19th century and follow its evolution (see 19th-Century Background). As the European empires in Africa began to break up after World War II, both missionaries and African nationalists sought to defend Africans and African culture from their reputation for primitivism and to claim parity with Christianity, the West, and the modern world. At the same time a movement that began after World War I and intensified after World War II supported the idea that Africans retained values that the militaristic and materialistic modern world had lost and that Africans individually and collectively were spiritual people. Such generalizations have been challenged by scholars who say that Africa is too diverse to support these notions. Ethnographic studies contradict the simplicities of African Traditional Religion and reveal the complex relations of religion with politics, economics, and social structure (Ethnography). A more radical challenge has been mounted recently by anthropologists and historians who argue that the concept of religion itself has been defined in implicitly Christian terms and that the collection of data to be treated as “religion” depends on an implicit Judeo-Christian template that often radically mistranslates and misrepresents African words and practices (see Criticism). Certain religious topics have proved perennially fascinating to both scholars and the reading public with reference to the world as a whole, not just Africa. They include “witchcraft,” “symbolism,” and “ancestor worship.” These topics, lending themselves to exoticism, give rise in acute form to the problems of intercultural misunderstanding. “Healing,” on the other hand, sounds familiar and beneficial, although in practice what is called “healing” is often far removed from Western ideas of sickness and medicine.

Article.  9491 words. 

Subjects: African History ; African Languages ; African Music ; African Philosophy ; African Studies

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