A question for believers

In the Abrahamic religions.

How many of you became converted to your various beliefs after reading Anselm’s Ontological argument or were persuaded to the belief because of Paley’s teleological argument?

How do we make the jump from argument to the being of a god?

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Burying Okoth, reflections

I am using Okoth here to stand for the African. This, therefore, is a reflection on African customs around death and burial with specific reference to the Luo of Central Kenya. In the last post, I did ask who owns the dead and if it is possible for one individual to lay exclusive claim of the dead. These questions, I think, we will continue to grapple with for a long time to come.

In this reflection, I want to do the reader some justice by introducing Ken Okoth and Luo customs regarding death. I will then look at some scholarly articles on the conception of death in Africa and the associated rituals, the meanings attached to them and so on.

I want also at this point to correct some form of disinformation that has been repeated ad nauseum on twitter by unread Kenyans that burial rites was introduced to Africa by the colonizers that we all left the dead to die in the forests. While this is true for certain nationalities like the Kikuyu, the Nandi, there were elaborate funerary practices in many places in Africa depending on the social status of the dead.

It is necessary that we have a working definition of culture before we can proceed. It has been defined as that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, law, morals, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society or as the arts and other manifestations of human intellectual achievement regarded collectively or the ideas, customs, and social behaviour of a particular people or society. It should be noted also that culture has these basic characteristics

  • learned
  • shared
  • based on symbols
  • integrated
  • dynamic

With definitions behind us, we can briefly look at how the Luos dealt with issues surrounding death. But first, a cautionary note. Paul Mboya wrote about Luo Customs in 1938, that is half a century after the colonialist first set foot in Western Kenya. I mention all this because it will be evident in a short while how culture is dynamic. And this is an important point.

When an old man died, Mboya tells us, the first wife stripped her clothes followed by all others in the homestead to signify the death of he that clothed them home. If however, the man did not respect his first wife, she would refuse to strip and had to be persuaded but the cat was already outta the bag. A pre-burial (buru) ceremony was conducted in the wilderness where the enemy was fought. The grave was dug in the centre of the house of the first wife, or if she had died, a small hut was built. Burial took place on the fourth day for a man and third day for a woman after which there were several days of plays, tugo, to celebrate the dead. There was a public dress for the widow(s) of the dead. During the mourning, if any of the widows had bracelets, these were to remain covered until on the day of tero mon (when a widow got a guardian).

After several days of celebration and cleansing, bulls were slaughtered for elders, brothers in- law, and if the deceased was a wealthy man, a he-goat or ram was slaughtered for people from the homeland of his mother. If he had been a village elder, an elder was chosen on this day.

From the moment the family gathered in the house of the first wife following the death of the man, no one had sex. Nobody was allowed to go back to their houses until all the conditions set by custom were met. Then and only then did the bereaved members have sex.  At this point, I would just add that mourning period lasted from several months to a year and different ceremonies were performed in this period.

It is evident from the foregoing that among the Luo, there were elaborate ceremonies surrounding death. In a manner of speaking, there were no private funerals. The question of whether you had lived with your villagers or whether you had been estranged does not arise in death.

In Funerals in Africa, Jinra and Noret write

These events continue to provide crucial insights into the state of society, as they are integral to social, economic, religious, and political life. For Westerners, among whom death is normally a private and family affair, this is sometimes hard to fathom, but in the African context, funerary rites are oft en the communal event sans pareil, with ramifications going well beyond the events themselves.

The contestation of Okoth’s body and his cremation, can be understood, in the words of Jinra and Noret as representing social breakdowns brought about by religious changes, colonialism, urbanization, economic and others. Funerary practices should be seen as a link between the living and the living dead. We are told death is a crisis, it shakes the society and requires ritual treatment.

In The African Conception of Death: A Cultural Implication, Baloyi argues that the misunderstanding and conflict that
often arise in multicultural context especially the workplace, is due to the different conceptions of experiences
such as death, its cultural implications and meanings of the rituals performed during and after death. He notes, to the African, death is conceived not as discrete event but as part of the life cycle. The dead continue to exist among the living dead or ancestors. The dead live in community with the dead.

He writes

The mourning or grieving process cannot therefore be linked or limited to some time span in a discrete sense. It is for this reason that Africans take time off from work when their loved ones are dead, to perform rituals that eternally connect them to the deceased. Therefore from an indigenous African ontological viewpoint, death does not imply an end to life, instead, it marks the beginning of another phase of being.

In this sense therefore, death rituals become very integral parts of society living. They perform important functions of linking the two worlds; that of the living and the living dead (those recently departed and are still remembered) and are seen as important in maintaining balance and harmony between the living and the living dead. These rituals include, but are not limited to, bereaved family members shaving their hair, and the slaughtering of a domestic animal.

Baloye continues to argue that Ubuntu and Umuntu are ways of life of the African, that is, being-with- and- for-others. This being transcends death. He writes

Providing food to the masses of people who come to the funeral including slaughtering an animal is an Ubuntu philosophy imperative. The process of burying the dead, the accompanying rituals and the veneration of the living dead constitute performances and conversations as authentic.

It’s been argued elsewhere that nearly all African communities believed in burying the dead in their ancestral
land, where the spirit of the dead would join with the spirit world. Among Ghana’s Ashanti, families,
relatives, and members of the community would mourn at the homestead of the deceased (Owino, Bereavement and Mourning in Africa). He says the Luo usually buried the fruit of the yago (Kigelia africana) tree in a grave in the dead soldier’s homestead in the same manner they would have buried his body.

It appears to me, then, that the decision by Okoth and those close to him to consider cremation and a private funeral is an anathema to the people of Luo Nyanza and goes contrary to beliefs held by many Africans, however, since we can agree on culture being dynamic, a time may come when cremation will become part of culture. Maybe we will have public cremations, I don’t know.

Maybe, a new set of questions arise

  1. How do we reconcile the African philosophy of Ubuntu/ Umuntu with the individualized culture of the west?
  2. What compromises should be made between an individual’s wishes for after death and those of the community?
  3. Can the rituals around death be separated from the contestations around property inheritance to allow a public burial for a private individual?

 

Of God and other manenos

Most of us would agree that the objectivity of good was a thing we had settled and dismissed with the existence of God. Theology and absolute ethics are two famous subjects which we have realized have no real objects.

Ramsay 1925

If the prospect of integrating faith and contemporary experiences is to be ultimately successful it must be sufficiently radical. And to be sufficiently radical it must get to the root concept of God. And to be sufficiently radical respecting the concept of God it must radically depart from the philosophical world-view which has given the traditional faith in God a cultural form which no longer serves well that faith.

Leslie Dewart, Catholic theologian

It is possible that in their time the Five Ways (Aquinas Proofs) were an exciting expression of the whole movement from the actual world to the reality of God… But there can be no doubt that they no longer express anything of the sort.

Howard Root.

individual African’s religious commitments in line with philosophy as apriori- additional thoughts

In this post, I presented the view of Mbiti that where the African is, there is his religion which would imply the African was always religious. But this, argues Okot P’Bitek, is not true. Mbiti was a Christian pastor and his biases influenced his thinking. It can be argued the same about Okot, that his irreligiosity influenced his thinking.

He writes for example.

in so far as Africans believed in certain ‘powers’, they may be called religious; but, as most of them did not hold beliefs in any deities similar in conception to the christian god, we may refer to traditional Africans as atheistic in their outlook.

What then should be the duty of the scholar interested in studying African religion(s)? He says it is remove the susty Greek metaphysical dressings as quickly as possible before African deities suffocate and die just like the Christian God has perished. He says further that deities exist to serve the interests of men. The African deities are for man, and not man for them.

The student should leave behind the idea that the temporal order of nature is in some sense inferior and illusory. There is no other-worldiness in African religious thought. The ethics is not grounded on a promise or threat by some god that the good people will, in the future, enjoy life in heaven, while the bad will cook in great fire. To the African, this is the only world, and it is neither inferior to any other not illusory.

While Christian apologists and theologians argue their god is unknowable, the knowledge of Africans about their deities is not limited, inadequate or ridiculous in anyway. It should be known that for most Africans, the names, abode and characteristics of their deities are known and knowable.

Finally, the student interested in African religion must leave behind the belief in a one God and the assumptions which arises from it.

Other practical lessons that can be derived from African religion is on matters of sex. On this Okot writes

Christian sex ethics, its other-worldiness, and its preoccupation with sin are important areas for study because, here Christianity contrasts vividly with African religions.

Maybe, the time has come for all of us to say with Fritz Mauthner that

God is dead. The time has come to write his history.

individual African’s religious commitments in line with philosophy as apriori

in one of my many interactions on twitter, I was presented with the challenge of writing my take on on individual African’s religious commitments in line with philosophy as apriori. 

Disclaimer: I am not a philosopher in the sense of having a technical training in philosophy, but I can philosophize (everyone is a philosopher) or so I tell myself. That while the challenge was to give my take, I will not limit myself to my own thoughts but will reference a few philosophical works I am familiar and finally, this can be filed under a work in progress subject to improvement or deletion.

Second, I give the genesis of this challenge or rather the context of this challenge. In his book, Trends in Contemporary African Philosophy, Odera Oruka notes

Philosophy is apriori and as such gains the liberty to evaluate science without losing its credibility as a discipline.

Which I think is limited only to the field of science and not religion. It is my considered opinion that philosophy was hijacked by the early church to defend its absurd position and to make absurd beliefs appear reasonable to a small elite that could not reconcile what they knew and talking donkeys or transporter fish or virgin births and resurrections of the dead.

Before we continue, we need to know what apriori means? Britanica defines it thus

priori knowledge, in Western philosophy (does apriori change with region? so we have a different meaning when we talk about Oriental philosophy?) since the time of Immanuel Kant, is one that is independent of all particular experiences, as opposed to a posteriori knowledge, which derives from experience.

I a argue religious commitments, whether African or otherwise, cannot be apriori. I did not, for example, come to the belief in gods apriori but from deliberate effort from my parents at home and my school teachers during Christian religious (mis)education. In fact, I can confidently argue that if deliberate effort was not expended in giving us religion, we would be without one.

To make this point, I will reference two schools of thought; one represented by Samuel BAker that argues the African is without religion and the other by Mbiti who argues the African is religious in all things and point out in passing brief critics of either view. In Wiredu’s Blackwell Companion to African philosophy, Oladipo notes that to S. Baker,

Without exception, they are without a belief in a Supreme Being, neither have they any form of worship or idolatry; nor is the darkness of their minds enlightened even by a ray of superstition. The mind is as stagnant as the morass which forms its puny world.

the African has no religion. In response to which, Okot p’Bitek argued that such entho-geographers looked in the wrong places in their search for what constitutes African religion and philosophy. To him,

the oral traditions of a people, as expressed through their songs, dances, funeral dirges, and material culture,

are what constitute their philosophy of life. To get to the religion or philosophy of the African, one has to look at daily conduct of affairs. In looking for a metaphysics, these scholars were looking at the wrong places and are guilty of trying to impose certain ideas alien to specific situations where they don’t apply.

And in response to this negative thesis by Baker, John Mbiti, foremost among the apologists for African religion(I don’t agree with some of his works) responded thus

Because traditional religions permeate all departments of life, there is no formal distinction between the sacred and the secular, between the religious and the non-religious, between the spiritual and the  material areas of life. Wherever the African is, there is his religion: he carries it to the fields where he is sowing seeds or harvesting a new crop; he takes it with him to the beer party or to attend a funeral ceremony; and if he is educated, he takes religion with him to the examination room at school or in the
university; if he is a politician he takes it to the house of parliament.

Again, Bitek one of the foremost critics to Mbiti, in his pointed out that the absence of a word for ‘‘religion’’ in all African languages means that there is no special compartment that the African calls ‘‘religious’’ that is separate from the day-to-day participation in the life-process. 

Oladipo also argues that this argument by Mbiti is ‘‘uncritical assimilation’’ of Western conceptual categories in African religio-anthropological, and in some cases philosophical, scholarship. It is further argued that in African traditions, morality is worldly, that is, the people’s conception of what is right and wrong is a product of ‘‘their own moral perception or understanding or knowledge’ and has nothing to do with the gods there being no religious founders or edicts to be followed. It can be said African morality is practical and pragmatic.

In concluding this post, I posit this question by Okot p’Bitek (on christianity but I think applies to the other revealed Abrahamic religions)

How could a religion that has little practical value and also seems in some ways to encourage asceticism provide a philosophy of life for living in the African world?