Confessions 3

If we believe the priests, we shall be persuaded, that the Christian religion, by the beauty of its morals, excels philosophy and all the other religious systems in the world.

Baron D’Holdbach

One of the most irrational of all the conventions of modern society is the one to the effect that religious opinions should be respected. …[This] convention protects them, and so they proceed with their blather unwhipped and almost unmolested, to the great damage of common sense and common decency. that they should have this immunity is an outrage. There is nothing in religious ideas, as a class, to lift them above other ideas. On the contrary, they are always dubious and often quite silly. Nor is there any visible intellectual dignity in theologians. Few of them know anything that is worth knowing, and not many of them are even honest.”

H. Mencken

My first confession was a story of how I became clever, saw the light and left the faith I had been brought up in. The second confession (very Catholic, if you ask me) was a short story of the past. Then there was reflections on Christianity and finally about atheist experience in Africa.

This posting is about what I have become.

A great amount of care was taken to make me a Catholic. It was taught in school as fact. I went to catechism school. Went through the rites, participated actively in church activities and generally without reflection. It didn’t occur to me to question the truth of this religion I was brought up in. Did I have doubts, yes, but not about the truth of the catholic doctrine. I worried a little about whether I would go to heaven or hell. And the book of revelation (the few times I read it) didn’t help matters in this front with its small number of the chosen ones.

When my faith began to wane or maybe I had lost, I read a lot on arguments for god and why they failed. I read on authorship of the bible, on the existence of Jesus and even on miracles. All this reading led to one conclusion only, revealed religions were a scam. I read a little here and there on Islam and even the Gita.

Does Christianity or any religion for that matter deserve the attention we give them? Is there any good in wasting years trying to demonstrate that religions are all false, that their claims are contradictory and many times impossible? Is there any truth in the claims of Christianity? Is there a way to verify any of it? Is it any more true than the religions my forefathers had believed in? If it had been true and was ordained by a god, why did it need violence, deception, evangelism to spread? Was it important that we, everyone, had a religion or believed in a god(s)?

I am at that point in my life where I can say theism is false. That the supernatural claims religions make are baseless. It is not important that one believes in a god(s) as long as one lives well with others. Be kind. Be useful. Life is simple.

Africa interests me. African religion and philosophy more so. How my forefathers lived, what they believed in and how this knowledge made life in society and community possible. How did they face calamity? Death? Disease? And in times of plenty and bountiful harvests or hunts, how did they celebrate? Now this is interesting stuff.

Talk of gods and miracles bore me.

Hell doesn’t interest me. Heaven is a scary proposition. Vicarious redemption is abhorrent. And the gods? They don’t exist. We make them all the time. The raw material needed is a sick imagination and a people gullible enough to believe.

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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?

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.

Creation stories

We have lately been short of news. And we don’t want to make you read any uninteresting stuff. There was a thought to ask what you good people think about marriage; should the state be involved? Is it a scam/ plot by men to subjugate women? Should we change the marriage to kind of contract, so the vows instead of being till death do us part it should read till we get bored with each other or something reasonable.

We will not dwell there but you can weigh in below what you all think.

I want however to tell you the different creation myths as told by Africans to add to that other one you know.

The Lozi narrate that god was still on earth when he created man after creating all the other things. He went on to make different peoples, each with its own custom, language and manners.

The Lugbara say that god in his transcendent aspect created the first men, husband and wife, long long ago.

The Mende say god first made all other things and then created men, both husband and wife.

The Abaluhya believe god created man so that the sun would have someone for whom to shine. Then created animals and plants to provide food for man.

For the Shilluk, god used clay of different colours in making men, which explains the difference in complexion.

For the Bambuti pygmies, god kneaded the first man out of clay, covered it with skin and poured blood into the lifeless body.

For the Akamba, the first man and woman were extruded from a rock.

There are many more such stories.

And then there is the Dogon theory of the beginning

The Luo idea of god

Continuing from where we stopped a few days ago where we treated of African religion in general. We will now look at specific manifestations of the religious experience of different groups found in Africa.

Ogot (1964) notes that the original homeland of Western Nilotes is a difficult historical problem which has defied any satisfactory solution. What little is known is that about 1000CE they were living in the open grass plains of the present Equatorial and the eastern parts of the Bahr el Ghazal province of the Republic of Sudan.

The Luos, a Nilotic group, are divided into three groups; Northern, Central and Southern Luo and are found in Sudan, Ethiopia, Zaire, Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania. The Northern group found in Ethiopia and Sudan is believed to have moved the least as compared to their other kin who moved South to their present homelands in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda.

Studies show, that while the concept of god is similar in some fundamental ways between these groups, there re slight variations that have been attributed to changes in time and space as these groups moved and interacted with others along the way. The argument being advanced here us that a change in the way of life results in a change in the idea of god.

Ogutu (1975) informs us that to the Luo, Jok is the ultimate object of ritual and was worshipped at the chiefdom shrines which were either erected for the purpose or were unusual natural phenomena or outstanding landmarks in the landscape. In most cases, these shrines , those that were built, were the houses/ homes of the leader of the group. The function of Jok, we are told, was limited to the clan and chiefdom. They also believed that Jok rested where people wanted it to rest. One can see here that the god worshipped was still a local god, almost under the direction of its human worshippers. We see eventually, this god transformed to an omnipresent god.

In the same work referred to already, the author, referring to a work by Okot p’Bitek says sacrifices were offered at the chiefdom shrines to Jok (god) and to the ancestors and any hostiles ghosts were dealt with accordingly. It is evident there was some belief among the Luo of a life after death in some form. Where these spirits (ancestors) resided is one that I have not seen answered.

From Ogot (1961), we learn that to the Shilluk Juok. Jok is the greatest spirit, and creator and sustainer of the world and everything in it. He notes, referring to a work by Leinhardt, that Juok is conceived in trinity that is in spirit and body. While referring to an article by Hayley, he says Jok can be seen as a natural power permeating the universe, neither well nor badly disposed towards mankind, unless made use of by man. It can be said that Jok is a kind of impartial, impersonal, limitless and universal power.

Ogot argues that because the people believe the vital force, that is, jok, can only be received through intermediaries as the ‘spirits of the air’ or prophets. For this reason, it is expected that the ancestors or medicine-men, diviners should be treated with respect.

To the Padhola, another Luo group, Were (god) is conceived of as one Supreme Being that manifests itself as Were Madiodipo ( god of the courtyard), Were Othim (god of the wilderness). The name of god is never spoken, but always referred to as Jamalo ( the one from above) (Ogot, 1972).

It should be noted, in passing, that to the Central Luo, the idea of a god responsible for man’s suffering did not exist.

As I mentioned in the beginning, that the idea of god is determined in time and space, the Luo concept of god changed during their migration from a god that rested where the community wanted it to, to a god found everywhere (Nyakalaga). What merits comment here is that the sun and other stellar objects, as many others have claimed, was not worshiped as a god but rather was seen as a manifestation of god, that is, the sun as the eye of god.

While it is generally believed by majority of Kenyans that the Kenyan Luo have always been fisher folk, this is in deed far from the truth. Evidence show that they were pastoralists and agriculturalists and only adopted fishing once they settled around the lake region. Fishing became a religious activity centered on the fishing vessel.

It is to be noted, to the Luo, any doubt on the existence of god Nyasaye/ Were/ Jok was an absurdity.

The Luo of Kenya perceive god as  jachwech (moulder), nyakalaga (omnipresent) and jarit (protector). Unlike other groups, for example the Jews with their god of Abraham, Jacob and Isaac, the Luo see god as wuon ogendni (guardian of all people).  God is also said to exist in space (nyakalaga- everywhere present) and in time (wuon kwere- father of ancestors).

The cosmology of the Luo simply states that god moulded the earth. A creation ex nihilo is a concept they have no word for.


Ogot (1961) The Concept of Jok. African Studies, Vol 20 2.

Ogot (1964). Kingship and statelessness among the Nilotes. The Historian in Tropical Africa. 284-304

Ogot (1972). On the making of a sanctuary. The historical study of African Religion. 122-135

Ogutu M.E.G (1975) An historical analysis of the Luo idea of God. Unpublished Thesis, University of Nairobi.

 

African religion(s)

“I am an African, and I set my pride in my race over against a hostile public opinion”.

I find these words by Pixley ka Seme very befitting of the journey we are about to embark on. Abrahamic religions can be dismissed without further argument. This is not say volumes have not been written to prop them up as being the only true religion, an exercise which in of itself, I find very ridiculous. Why a religion whose writings are supposed to have come from the god itself to need apology, is one of those things that begs to be answered. Did the god do such a bad job that men and women have built careers and empires explaining away what the god meant to say or what it wants.

Most of the early visitors to Africa, because they didn’t understand the ways of the people, claimed we didn’t have a religion nor systems of government and this thinking justified among other things the missionary activities and colonialism.

While there has been much scholarship on African religion(s) by theologians and historians, most of this work remains in the sphere of academia. It is not part of popular culture. One can easily walk into a bookstore and find any number of books on Christianity or Islam and they are cheap too, it is not the same with books on African religion and I hope that it will get as much attention as other world religions.

One of the questions we hope to address in this odyssey is whether we should talk of African religion in the singular or religions. And here, the question is whether they are separate and competing religious ideologies or parts of a greater theistic whole that would support the idea of a central origin that spread out through Africa.

To start of, we define religion not only as the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal god or gods but as a process of human beings to reconnect with deity or whatever people consider to be a supreme being or cause behind existence. Further, it is argued that religion in its full form encompass ritual, myth and metaphysics. While the Abrahamic religions are monotheistic, the African religion is henotheistic, that is, god appears as personality, as nature and also transcending forms and names, beyond creation itself.

In talking of African Religion(s) we mean here those forms of religion that were developed on the continent of Africa by its indigenous peoples from ancient times, that is prior to the introduction of other religions from outside Africa. We must have note at this early opportunity that most African cultures have no corresponding word for religion as it is in the western world.

The difficulty that has been identified by scholars of religion in Africa is the absence of written material except for the Neterian Religion. We will not get into the dispute of whether North Africa is Africa or belongs in the middle East and whether the ancient civilizations thereof belong to Africa or Middle East. Religion in Africa is passed down from parent to child orally. So far as I can tell, I have found no African religion that was a proselytizing religion. Religion was a living aspect of life. There was no need to look for converts.

As I have already mentioned, African religion can be looked at as Polytheistic monotheism, that is, a system of religion presenting a supreme being and lesser gods and goddesses who serve the Supreme and sustain creation. It is this conception of religion that was earlier on referred to as henotheism. The proselytizing Christians and Muslims argued that monotheism is the advanced concept of religion. Yours truly thinks this is hot air. While there were conflicts between African nations, none of them have been ascribed to a difference of religious opinion as has been the case in most of history of Europe. It can be argued successfully that any religious conflicts on the continent can be linked to conflicts between Islam and Christianity.

The concept of revelation as is claimed by the Abrahamic religions stand in stark contrast to African religions, Hinduism and Buddhism that argue that which is transcendental and unintelligible cannot be related in words, as the intellect cannot fathom the true nature of the Supreme Being. While still on Western religion, we must note here that the claim by practioneers of revealed religions that observance of the tenets of their religions leads to piousness is unfounded and contradicted by the behaviour of missionaries and the general population that ascribe to said religious beliefs.

In concluding this introduction of the general layout of what we shall be looking at, I will mention that the idea of Trinity is of African origin. The three aspects are Amun– the unintelligible and hidden underlying reality which sustains all things; Ra– the subtle matter of creation as well as the mind and Ptah– the visible aspect of the divinity, the phenomenal universe.  So we say

He whose name is hidden is AMUN. RA belongeth to him as his face and his body is PTAH.


This post is informed mainly by the paper by Muata Ashby ‘What is Religion and what is an African Religion.