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PAGANISM


PAGANISM
Besides the negative view of African traditional religion based on its lack of scripture, African traditional religion has suffered other injustices especially in the way it has been named.

It has been called pagan. That this is a misnomer is easily seen from the origin of the word 'pagan'. The Latin root suggests that a pagan is originally a rugged, country person. Later on, "paganism" was employed to refer to any religion that was not Islam, Judaism or Christianity. It is an injustice to call West African traditional religion, with a strong belief in a God who is unique, incomparable and a Creator, paganism.


HEATHENISM
The word heathenism too is a misnomer when applied to traditional African religion. A heathen is somebody who is supposed not to know God, one steeped in the worship of idols. Nobody with the least knowledge of Africa can honestly say that Africans do not know God. In any case to designate a whole religion as heathenism is, to say the least, uncharitable.


FETISHISM
Why the word fetishism has caught on as a description of African traditional religion is again one of those mysteries. The word derives from the Portuguese word feitico which means an object or an article. Discovering that the West Africans they met on the coast were wearing objects of religious value like charms, talismans and amulets, the Portuguese imagined that the religion of West Africans was a worship of such objects. One need not labour the point that this is a great injustice. What about the wonderful names given to the Supreme Being and the honorific appellations he enjoys among us?

The truth of the matter is that there is no religion in the world that can be called fetishism.

And if because sacred objects are found in African traditional religion the religion is fetishistic, then we find ourselves in deep waters. There is no religion in which such objects are not found. In Christianity we respect statues and crucifixes, medals and rosaries. They, too, are objects. But we understand that these are a secondary aspect of the Christian religion. Do they not also use prayer-beads? Do the Muslims not venerate the Kaaba?

ANIMISM
The term animism too, appears to be the choice of many. Coined by the great Taylor of Britain, animism is derived from the Latin word anima. The thinking behind the use of that word to describe African traditional Religion is that Africans believe that objects and animals have souls or spirits-anima.

While this may be true, it cannot be said that Africans believe that every object and every creature has such a spirit The Asante do not believe that the cocoa tree, or the plantain tree or for that matter the palm tree or the grasscutter has a spirit. Yet these are all items of the animal and vegetable kingdoms that are of empirical interest to the Asante. In any case, again, the idea that some objects have spirits is not peculiar to Africa. It is simply incorrect to call African traditional religion animism.


IDOLATRY
Idolatry simply means the worship of idols. The ideas found in African traditional religion comprise the belief in a Supreme Being, the ancestors, the lesser gods and powers and potencies.

Why such a religion can be linked with the worship of statues, pictures or images representing divinities which is how the Pan English Dictionary defines the word "idol" - is another of those inexplicable stereotypes. Even if, for the sake of the argument, it is admitted that lesser gods are idols one worshipped, then they form only part of the religion and, therefore, cannot be made to represent the whole religion. It is obnoxious to call African religion idolatry.

PRIMITIVE AND NATIVE
Primitive is a derogatory term. It may mean first in time or it may mean " backward or " savage". African religion is not backward nor does it precede any other religion. It evolved as human beings came to live in Africa. African religion should not be described as primitive. In the English language, the term native has come to connote uncivilized, somebody from Africa or one of the so-called "primitive" societies. This is an unfortunate understanding of the word native

The Italian is as native to Italy as the Maori is native to New Zealand. Every religion, therefore, is native to where it is founded. African traditional religion cannot be singled out and "honoured " with the word " native".


ANCESTOR WORSHIP
But probably the worst of the epithets used to describe African traditional religion is ancestor-worship. As has been mentioned, ancestors do form part of the religious thought of the African. But the existence and the veneration of saints too form part of the thinking of Christians, of whatever denomination.

No Christian would accept it if Christianity were termed "Saint worship". Christians would rightly protest. The reason would not simply be that there are much more important aspects to Christianity than the Saints. The protestation would be justified on the grounds that indeed Saints are not worshipped, Saints are not deified, Saints are not the ultimate object of our petition and praise or adoration. We honour Saints as having lived our lives and being worthy of emulation and we pass our petitions through them to the Almighty God. We impose their names on ourselves to remind us of their lives which we would then be urged to imitate.

This is exactly the same idea in the veneration of ancestors in African traditional religion. Ancestors are not divinized. My father who dies and is regarded as an ancestor remains my father and I refer to him as my father. I honour him and I respect him for what he has done for me and others. By reason of the radical change of mode of existence, it is believed ancestors have acquired a power that is higher than human. But neither they nor the lesser gods can act independently from the will of God, the all-powerful, eternal, all-knowing, superlatively great God. African traditional religion is no more ancestor worship than Islam is Muhammad worship or Christianity is Saint-Worship.

POLYTHEISM
What is going to follow about the concept of the Supreme Being should make it clear that the word Polytheism should not be used to describe African traditional religion.

Polytheism, in the classical sense, connotes a situation where two or more divinities are believed to hold an equal status. In a polytheistic situation the pantheon of gods comprises deities none of whom is thought to be greater than others, even though one may be considered as primus inter pares. This is not the case with African traditional religion where the Supreme Being is the creator of all other divinities and does not form part of the pantheon of divinities but holds a position unique to himself.

TOTEMISM
Totemism is the belief that there is a relationship between human beings or groups of human beings on the one hand and creatures of the animal and vegetable kingdoms on the other.

Totemistic ideas are strong in the African traditional religion. But this does not justify our labeling the whole religion totemistic. Indeed, totemism, in relation to the other concepts, is only an insignificant aspect of African traditional religions.

GOD IS KNOWN
Unfortunately, the foregoing and other misconceptions regarding traditional religion have persisted and caused a lot of confusion. The religion is seen by the skeptics only in terms of what is visible and observable and of worship. Consequently, they come to describe it in the most uncomplimentary terms. They observe only the externals, the slaughtering of sheep and cows, the breaking of eggs, dancing and weird acrobatics, sometimes frightening and " savage display of sheer physical power. In its Constitution on the Church, even Vatican Council II speaks of " those who in shadows and images (emphasis mine) seek the unknown God ''. Apparently this is in reference to primal religions ". But God is known in these religions.

This is where the mistake lies. Religion is essentially something imperceptible, spiritual. It touches the human person inwardly. It helps to answer fundamental questions in life. This applies to all religions.

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