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?


Standing on the shoulders of giants

When one reads Mbithi’s African religion and philosophy, you get the idea among many of his claims that Africa was and is too religious. In fact, when I finished off the book, the thought that there would have been skeptics among our ancestors became so doubtful. So you can imagine the joy I found while reading Odera Oruka’s Trends in contemporary African Philosophy.

First, Paul Mboya, though not a skeptic had this to say

I believe God exists. But no one is capable of knowing what God is. Those who claim to do so are wrong.

Next, Muganda Okwako says

God talk is the gossip of the lazy. If god exists, he can only help god, not man(esp. the Africans). The black man should forget religious fanaticism and learn to try to achieve great things.

And finally, Njeru who said

I am not a Christian. Christianity I saw as the white man’s bluff, his witchcraft in Africa.

wise sayings

by Zera Yacob, philosopher (1599-1692)

on fasting and absconding certain foods for religious ends

God does not order absurdities such as ‘‘Eat this, do not eat this; today eat, tomorrow do not eat, do not  eat meat today, eat it tomorrow. . . neither did God say to the Mohammedians: ‘eat during the night, but do not eat during the day.’ ’’

human beings are all equal because they are all endowed with intelligence and are fated to die.

Truth occurs only when all persons agree on a given matter or value.

On obligations

Thus, the first foundational obligation of human beings is to love others as you would yourself, and not to do to others what you would not do to yourself.

On men

‘‘There are four kinds of men. The person who knows and teaches, he himself being educated: he is a scholar; ask him questions and learn from him. The person who knows and does not teach, although he is a scholar: he is intelligent; remember him. The person who does not know but teaches: he is in need of guidance; teach him and guide him. The person who does not know and does not want to learn: he is a fool; keep away from him.’’

On wisdom

Wisdom is not good if the action is not good.

On sorrow

Sorrow is of two kinds. One type is that of conscience: the rational soul becomes sad out of lack of knowledge. The animal soul feels sorry out of lack of food and drink and the like.

African Religion and Philosophy

by Canon John Mbiti

This is a good introductory book to students on African religion. It is short on philosophy though. In any case, the only time he talks about anything close to philosophy is when he talks about African time and the concept of evil, justice and ethics, on this, shortly.

It seems to me however, that at some point his ideas of god, African gods, is coloured by his christian beliefs. It is Christianity that has an abstract or unnamed god. The Egyptians named their gods and one would expect, at least, named gods if the idea of god was not an abstract thing among traditional societies in Africa.

There seems to be a thin line between secular and religious authority. In fact, this distinction doesn’t even come into play. There is no sphere of life, per Mbiti, that is not religious or doesn’t involve religious feeling.

I am not sure I agree with Mbiti that there was no irreligiousness in African traditional societies. This, in my view is erroneous and should be worthy of study. In every age there have always been people skeptical of the traditions, including the religious ideas active in their times. So of interest to me is how skepticism was articulated.

His comments on evil, ethics and justice I found to be quite interesting and it is to that we now turn.

He writes for example about the Ankore who do not feel they can offend god because god is the final principle or among the Azande, Akan and so on who believe god has no influence on people’s morals.

Among the Bavenda, they believe in a god who punishes the community for the infractions of the chief.

Among the Nuer, he tells us, there is a belief that to be proud of one’s wealth may offend god causing them to take away cattle and children.

What I find deeply disturbing is the belief among some communities that never or rarely does a person or being of higher status do what constitutes an offence against a person of lower status. It is this belief or principle that supports the argument that god cannot commit evil against his creation.

The belief on restitution is however quite interesting. African life is earthbound, very much so. Mbiti tells us that according to most African peoples, god punishes in this life. The gods are concerned with the moral life of mankind and that with a few exceptions, there is no belief that a person is punished in the hereafter for what they do in this life.

I am not sure of the source of his next point concerning the Africans view of humanity in totality. He says to most peoples, no person is inherently good or bad but acts in ways which are good when they act in conformity with the mores of the community and bad if contrary. So for example, in a society that does not forbid sleeping with another’s wife, to do so is not bad unless there is a breach, maybe sleeping with a person’s wife not in your age group or cohort.

To expand on this, he argues in African societies, morality is more ‘societary’ than spiritual. It is a morality of conduct rather than a morality of being, that is, it defines what a person does rather than what they are. That is to say, a person is what he is because of what he does rather than he does what he does because of what he is. Kindness is not a virtue unless someone is kind.

Moving away from the above considerations, I found his comments on secularism, communism and capitalism interesting, and I will quote it extensively

[]In their extreme positions, these -isms despise, reject and even oppose religion. They are movements away from religion, and it is this which makes them relevant to any discussion on religion.

Secularism has an undermining effect upon religion, but it may well be to the good of religion if the latter injects religious principles into secular life instead of waging a war against secularism.

Capitalism, he writes, is anti-religious when it exploits man to such a degree that he becomes simply a tool or robot and loses his humanity. If capitalism reduces man to the material level only, then it has contradicted the religious image of man which in all traditions, depicts man as both physical and spiritual.

And as I mentioned earlier, I am not sure of some of the views Mbiti expressed were not coloured by his Christianity. At the end of thos work he writes or rather wrote

I consider traditional religions, Islam and other religious systems to be preparatory and even essential ground in the search for the ultimate. But only Christianity has the terrible responsibility of pointing the way to that ultimate identity, foundation and source of security.

I should in passing that he saw schools as breeding or recruitment grounds for churches and was for the idea that schools should be used to indoctrinate.


Is a poem by Langston Hughes. He writes

I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Nobody’ll dare
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”
So while I am an African, and maybe proudly so, that poem is relevant in the discussion we are about to have. Africa interests me in many ways than one. In an earlier post, I did ask if an African philosophy exist? Today I want us to revisit the topic by addressing a different question, the challenge to African philosophy. As Hughes says in his poem, I want to say with him that tomorrow, Africa will be part of humanity and history and that her philosophy will be worthy of study.
In the Journal of African Studies Vol 1, Taiwo argues that Africa’s philosophy is haunted by the ghost of Hegel. This ghost is to be found in his, Hegel’s, seminal work, the Philosophy of History in which he claimed to treat the philosophy of the world.
Hegel’s work begins thus
The subject of this course of Lectures is the Philosophical History of the World. And by this must be understood, not a collection of general observations respecting it, suggested by the study of its records, and proposed to be illustrated by its facts, but Universal History itself.
And one might think with such a bold introduction, the world does not mean northern Europe alone but the everywhere he human spirit is to be found. This however is not the case with Hegel. To Hegel, Europe is absolutely the end of History.
According to Hegel, we are told
Africa must be divided into three parts: one is that which lies south of the desert of Sahara–Africa proper–the Upland almost entirely unknown to us, with narrow coast-tracts along the sea; the second is that to the north of the desert–European Africa (if we may so call it)–a coastland; the third is the river region of the Nile, the only valley-land of Africa, and which is in connection with Asia
And I think it is this view of Hegel that has lived on to present day, where pundits talk of Sub Saharan Africa. In Taiwo’s view, Hegel does this to make Africa safe for History. Since Egypt is no longer in Africa but the middle East, it can now be considered as making part of history. While placing Egypt in Middle East, North Africa is in Europe!
If Hegel is to be believed, the Negro
“exhibits the natural man in his completely wild and untamed state and has no knowledge of an absolute Being, an Other and a Higher than his individual Self.
One wonders then why others writing about Africa argue that it is littered with gods. That the Yoruba have a pantheon of 400 plus 1 gods if he, the Negro, has no knowledge of anything above his individual self. One wonders if this lack of knowledge is what led the colonialists to argue the African had no religion.
Taiwo concludes his piece thus
Until it is taken for granted that Africa is part of History, that the study of anything cannot be complete unless it encompasses this significant part of the world, no amount of iteration of what Africans have done will move the victims of Hegel’s ghost. Until they get rid of the voice of the Hegelian ghost whispering in their inner ear that Africa is not worth it, that Africa has nothing worthwhile to offer, they will continue to botch the challenge that Africa poses to philosophy.
Africa interests me also in its paradoxes; so rich yet so poor. Take DRC for example. It is a mineral rich country yet so poor in terms of human development, infrastructure, is insecure and has leadership challenges or Kenya for example where the ruling class are thieves and the ruled are idiots, following the thieving class blindly without question.
The second question then is what must Africans do to change their situation? My first answer is education. And no, I am not saying we are not educated, that isn’t it. Our education has failed to produce engaged citizens, thinkers and revolutionaries. It has failed to produce a people that demand accountability of their leaders. It is an Africa where the wife of a 90 year old president can proudly say the country will, if it comes to that point, be led by her dead husband. It is a shame.
The second solution, is that Africa must become less religious and more skeptical. The idea that whenever calamity strikes, everyone from the president to the poor fellow in the village hopes some god will do something must change. We must begin to question what is it in our system of doing things makes us so vulnerable. We must ask why our leaders, our research and development institutions are not coming up with solutions to some of these problems. Drought should not mean we start starving. Why are we not investing enough in foodstuff. We have a storm and floods everywhere in our cities. Why have not improved the drainage systems and so on.
On the economic front, Africa must demand fair trade agreements with her bilateral partners. Trade between African countries must go up and finally, value addition. Africa must manufacture. It must industrialize. It cannot produce cocoa and import chocolate from whatever or produce coffee beans and import processed coffee at double or three times the cost. That must change. This is the Africa I want.
Lastly, I dream of an Africa where Africans will emigrate not because of conflict but because they can afford to live elsewhere. They will not be looking for work or security but maybe for bad weather, you know like cold climes or tornadoes and such.
A man can dream.