African Religions

African religions are based on oral cultures. They represent the old tradition surviving within a context deeply influenced by monotheistic religions, mainly Christianity and Islam, not only through their various denominations but also by supporting the attack of modern secularism.

To propose a definition of religion with reference to the oral African cultures is no easy matter. Within those cultures, religion does not exist as a distinct domain. Indeed, it is part and parcel of normal culture, i.e., the mode of life implying both the ideological perception of the world and a practical kind of social organization. In such situations, religion possesses a denomination of its own, but it may be only conceived as that particular aspect of any culture including beliefs and rituals. In such a perspective, it would be possible to describe religion as that part of culture, or of social life, connected with beliefs and rituals.

Field research, in direct contact with the people, is the only method that can afford the possibility of obtaining reliable information on the theoretical ideas and the actual practices of the local people. As is known, such a method implies a fluent knowledge of the local languages and dialects so as allow for an intense observation of people’s behavior and personal participation in their mode of life. Cosmological ideas are fundamental, but in order to acquire a proper knowledge of their content, patience and time are required so as to gain the confidence and trust of local people. Every informant is to be 3878   religions, African trusted, but in order to gain an acceptable degree of reliability, several other informants are to be approached in order to compare the information received. Field research is considered to be the initiation into the anthropological profession.  In other words,  it demands a previous theoretical apprenticeship and subsequent practical experience in the field. Such a method is required for every aspect of human culture, but when religion is the matter of research a deeper attention is certainly required, since it involves not merely external ritual practices but intimate and personal involvement as well.

The idea of a divinity, i.e., of some being above nature upon whom life and death are thought to depend, constitutes a common element of religious belief. However, there is no homogeneity in this kind of belief. Normally it is conceived in terms of each mode of livelihood. In order to describe the variety of such a concept, the term theism will be used in its ethnological sense. According to this view, it is possible to distinguish a sylvester theism, a pastoral theism, and an agrarian theism.

Sylvester Theism

This may be better explained by reference to the Bambuti Pygmies of the Ituri forest, who have been studied by Paul Schbesta and Colin Turnbull. The forest is also symbolically conceived by the Bambuti in its global entirety as their protector. If anything goes wrong, if a child is sick or game is scarce, or whether any other malaise occurs, it is a sign that the forest has been offended and is displeased, and therefore the forest must be placated. The molimo ritual is then performed in the silence of night, by playing a bamboo flute, normally kept in running water.

Pastoral Theism

Shepherds are nomads who, following their herds, take an interest in obser ving the sky. Not only do they consider the sky as the abode of God, but they identify it with God himself; they even do so with regard to certain atmospheric phenomena. Thus, for the Oromo of Southern Ethiopia, waq, the sky, is also Waq, God. For the Masai of Kenya and Tanzania, en kai, the rain, is also God, En Kai. For them, clouds are regarded as a manifestation of God. Thus, black clouds, heavy with rain, a blessing for the pastures, are a symbol of God’s bounty; white clouds, which do not produce rain, are regarded as a sign of God’s anger; thunder and lightning are interpreted as a sign of some of God’s displeasure. Pastoral people practice collective kinds of rituals. They gather together, when they need to pray, asking for God’s blessing for their children and their cattle as well as for their pastures. The headman or the oldest elder takes the lead. Whilst everyone else in the congregation takes a crouching position, the headman stands up and he leads the prayers, to which the entire assembly responds in one voice, in a mystic atmosphere, En Kaiai, my God.

Agrarian Theism

Agriculture is the main trait of the Bantu peoples. The Bantu are primarily distinguished as a linguistic family; while they are organized in a variety of social and political systems, they all practice agriculture as their form of livelihood. From the religious point of view, their idea of God is strongly related to creation.

However, it is commonly believed that, after completing creation, God somehow retired, ceasing to take an interest in creatures. As a consequence, he has been defined as a Deus otiosus. God’s names are normally connected to the idea of creation: Mungu, Mulungu, Mumbi, Nzambi, and so forth. Theophile Obenga, a Congolese scholar, has defined Mulungu as an Engineer God.

The idea of Deus otiosus is related to the preponderant cult of the ancestors. Ancestors are normally defined as the living dead, because they take an interest in their descendants. Every kind of malaise is attributed to their influence, and therefore ancestors are most frequently prayed to. But the main reason that may offend the ancestor is anger or even hatred among relatives and their descendants. How may the latter expect the ancestors’ protection if the latter are offended by their behavior? Casting out anger is a necessary presupposition before invoking the ancestors’ aid. Notwithstanding the extension of the ancestors’ cult, too much emphasis, perhaps, has been given to the idea of God’s otioseness. There are times, in fact, especially during severe social crises, when the ancestors are prayed to join with their descendants in prayers to God, for the situation is such that only God’s help will be effective.

In the face of mounting secularism, the question ”why religion?” is to the point. The first answer that comes to mind recalls the fact that every religion is essentially therapeutic. Peace of mind is the deepest effect of proper religious practice. But the curing of the body may also be important. If properly conceived and properly practiced, religion may produce an equilibrium of forces, or in case of disease it may give support and even acceptance of a state of suffering. Finally, religion may be a source of inspiration for every aspect of human life. Personal education may be inspired by religion, public life might be sustained by religious inspiration. It is true that, in the past, religious wars for centuries stressed different states’ relations. Even today the effects of religious fundamentalism, a phenomenon entirely opposed to religious ideals, are felt.


  1. Clarke, P. B. & Byrne, P. A. (1993) Religion Defined and Explained. Macmillan, Basingstoke.
  2. Douglas, M. (1966) Purity and Danger. Routledge &Kegan Paul, London.
  3. Durkheim, IE. (1915) The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. George Allen & Unwin, London.
  4. Evans-Pritchard, E. E. (1965) Theories of Primitive Religion. Clarendon Press, Oxford.
  5. Weber, M. (1965) The  Sociology  of Religion.Methuen, London.

 Back to Sociology of Religion