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HISTORY DEPARTMENT MSU

Lecturer: Dr J Chakawa

HISH 421: RELIGION AND SOCIETY IN AFRICA NOTES

INTRODUCTION.

-Religion is a social institution because it affects and is affected by events in society.

-Social life is usually studied from an anthropological, ethnographical and sociological perspective.

-Religion is so complex a term such that there is no universally accepted definition. European observers and travelers looked for points of contact with their own culture and often failed to recognize what religion it might be when a given culture presented itself in unfamiliar ways.

-Even on definition, statements about people’s religious beliefs need to be treated with great caution since we will be dealing with conceptions, images and words which require understanding and knowledge of a people’s language and an awareness of the entire system of ideas of which any particular belief is part.

-Definitions have therefore seen a category of constructions based upon European languages and cultures.

-According to Taylor, religion is belief in the Spiritual being.

-Clifford Geertz defines religion as a system of symbols which act to establish powerful, pervasive and longstanding moods and motivations in men by forming conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic.

-Melford Spiro sees it as an institution consisting of culturally patterned interaction with culturally postulated superhuman beings.

-Robin Horton defines it as an extension of the field of people’s social relationships beyond the confines of purely human society.

-Aurthur Lehmann and James Myers forward that religion includes also the extraordinary, the mysterious, the unexplainable which allows a more comprehensive view of religious behaviors among the people of the world and permits the anthropological investigation of phenomenon such as magic, sorcery and other practices that hold meaning for both preliterate and literate societies.

-According to Bourdillon, there are 3 types of religion namely church, sect and cult.

-For example, vast majority may belong to a church, eg 94% of Rwandese are Catholics.

-Church may become part of a culture- some are born in it.

-In other societies, there are various churches thus the use of the word denomination.

-A sect is a group which depends on voluntary membership and personal commitment. Membership to a group comes after personal conversion.

-A cult cuts itself from the rest emphasizing some kind of reform or renewal in their lives. Is the SDA a sect? What about Masowe? Are Catholic religious orders sects? The term sect does not sound good because it implies that members are unbalanced deviants.

-A cult is a group that is smaller and more remote from the main trends of society than a sect. Lion spirits may be treated as cults.

Religion involves the use of symbols. It is understood by appreciating the concept of ideology which means the science of ideas.

A symbol is an emblem representing to the mind something different from itself- a symbolic device or badge.

-A sign is a way of expressing a meaning. Is an owl a symbol or a sign of witchcraft? It is not a sign of witchcraft until maybe it is found in someone’s granary.

-Whiteness is a symbol of purity and blackness a symbol of evil. A flag is a symbol. There is a huge difference between burning a national flag and defacing a road sign. A sign pointing to Queen Elizabeth High School is both a sign and a symbol (of colonialism).

-Rituals are also an integral part of religion. Rituals can be performed eg marriage vows.

-In studying African traditional religion, it is important to note that they have no books like Christianity and Islam.

-Some areas where information can be found are proverbs, oral traditions, ethics and morals of societies concerned.

-Wherever an African is, s/he always carries his religion with him/her eg to the fields where he is sowing seeds or harvesting crops, to beer parties, funerals, to the examination room or even to a cabinet meeting.

-It is sometimes part of a community’s belief system. When one is cut out, he becomes an outcast.

-Most Africans are torn between traditional religion, Christianity and Islam. The last are not quite embedded because they are weekly religions. For the rest of the week, the building is closed.

ATR is written in people’s hearts, minds, oral history, rituals, religious personalities etc.



Sources

Archaeology

Found mainly in the disposal of the dead. The late stone age use of painted gravestones at sites such as Tzitzikama and Coldstream in the Cape Province of South Africa is of particularly value because it clearly associates the art with the rite of passage. Religion has been inferred from objects assumed to have a religious significance eg figures of clay, terracotta or metal assumed to be idols or from objects associated with the dead.

Visits to Southern Africa by Leo Frobenicus before 1930 confirmed the importance of rock art to religious history. There are elements of the supernatural in the rock art of Southern Africa. Colors from paintings have religious significance. For example, among the Ndembu, red represents blood thus power, white suggest milk and semen thus life and black is death and thus evil.

For more information, make reference to T O Ranger and I N Kimambo, A Historical Study of African Religion, BL2400HIS. In the main library.


-anthrpological- mainly by western scholars

-phenomelogical- western and African scholars

-historical- western and African scholars.
Anthropological Research
-has been predominant in Britain and France.

-systematic study of culture.

-western anthropologists came to Africa for their studies.

-their main interest has been in the social function of religion eg Evans Pritchard.

-V Turner wrote about the Ndembu religion in Zambia.

-Mary Kimberly wrote on West African people.

-the problem with anthropological studies has been that French anthropologists were less interested in the religious spheres but focused on cultural studies. One therefore cannot use the studies for comprehensive purposes because they tend to have different interests when looking at similar societies particularly with British anthropologists.

-although in some cases rituals and beliefs have been effectively analyzed, this usually been done in the context of some specific problem of social structure and of culture change.

-psychological theories are based on information or arguments from the non-participant (etic approach). For example, human society evolved through 5 stages beginning with the simple hunting and gathering and ending with a complex nation state.

-in the same way, religion evolved through 5 stages corresponding to evolution of society.

-annimism, the belief in a multitude of spirits formed the religion of the simplest societies with monotheism forming the religion of the most complex. However, Andrew Lang points out that many simplest societies have religions based on monotheism which Taylor claimed was limited to modern societies.

-therefore, there is need to come up with a correct way of studying religion. The emic and etic approach is usable depending on circumstances.


EMIC AND ETIC APPROACHES TO THE STUDY OF AFRICAN TRADITIONAL RELIGION
-The terms emic and etic were coined in 1954 by linguist/anthropologist Kenneth Pike.

Emic and etic are derived from the linguistic terms phonemics and phonetics respectively, descriptors of the dichotomy in all languages between the perceived alphabet in the mind of the native speakers and the actual sounds that they articulate when they speak.

Pike and others subsequently broadened the application of emic and etic to all aspects of human behaviour in culture, not simply language.1 

Emic and etic, in anthropology, folkloristic, and the social and behavioural sciences, refer to two kinds of field research done and viewpoints obtained from within the social group (from the perspective of the subject) and from outside (from the perspective of the observer).

According to Kottak, the emic approach investigates how local people think, how they perceive and categorize the world, their rules for behaviour, what has meaning for them, and how they imagine and explain things.2

“The etic (scientist-oriented) approach shifts the focus from local observations, categories, explanations, and interpretations to those of the anthropologist.

The etic approach realizes that members of a culture often are too involved in what they are doing to interpret their cultures impartially.

When using the etic approach, the ethnographer emphasizes what he or she considers important.”
Although emic and etic is sometimes regarded as inherently in conflict and one can be preferred to the exclusion of the other, the complementarity of emic and etic approaches to anthropological research has been widely recognized, especially in the areas of interest concerning the characteristics of human nature as well as the form and function of human social systems.

Emic knowledge and interpretations are those existing within a culture, which are ‘determined by local custom, meaning, and belief and best described by a ‘native’ of the culture.

Etic knowledge refers to generalizations about human behaviour that are considered universally true, and commonly links cultural practices to factors of interest to the researcher, such as economic or ecological conditions, that cultural insiders may not consider very relevant.

This shows the weakness of etic approach in the study of ATR.

On the other hand emic has its own strengths in bringing the portents of ATR.

The emic approach has a number of advantages.

An insider is normally privileged to understand those expressions and artefacts of particular group of people to which he is a member.

Chavhunduka says that they are some aspects of African culture which are only comprehensible to the reader or researcher who is conversant with African culture, history, folklores and contemporary politics.3

In addition African traditional religion is embedded in idioms, maxims and proverbs which are meaningful to the insider and meaningless to the outsider.

Chavhunduka argues that African theology is accommodative unlike the Christian religion. He posits that the ATR can allow its worshipers to practice dual religions for example Christianity and ATR at the same time.4


Some specialists of Christian theology such as Reverand Canonn were top ministers in Anglican Church and they ended up expressing the point of view of their church on ATR.

- The etic approach is not always negative.

It has provided reports and certain writings about ATR.

This has helped to wet people’s appetite for further research.

The etic approach has also shown the complexities associated with ATR.

One solution to the emic-etic debate has been to pull both approaches into what is known as combined emic-etic approach.

Emic and etic can complement each other.
Africans have their own world view which is totally different from the rest of the world.

African traditional religion is the indigenous religious beliefs and practices of Africans.

The study of ATR has been problematic from the colonial period throughout into the decolonisation period.

However the coining of etic and emic concepts have brought about essence into the study of ATR.



The etic explanations of ATR were associated with paganism, heathenism, fetishism, animism, idolatry, and polytheism.
Africans believed that God is the origin and sustainer of all things. The idea of God is found in all African societies. African knowledge of God is expressed in proverbs, short statements, stories and ceremonies according to Mbiti.5 In line of that it is important to deconstruct myths spread by Europeans missionaries that Africans had no concept of God. From the etic understanding, African traditional religion was non-existent. In the European missionaries’ mind set, there were no temples in African traditional societies hence their belief was that Africans had no religion. When missionaries came to Africa they had their own cultural and religious orientation. They knew their religion to be celebrated in temples and churches whereas Africans had shrines. The absence of walls in African churches assassinated the character of African traditional religion in the eyes of the European missionaries.
African traditional religion had been clamoured by the term animism. Taylor defines animism as “the doctrine of souls, and other spiritual beings in general”, and regarded this as “the great element of the philosophy of religion”.6 Taylor further argues that the theory of animism divides two great dogmas, forming part of one consistent doctrine.7 The one, concerning souls of individual creatures, capable of continuing existence after death and the other, concerning other spirits, ascending upwards to the rank of powerful deities. Thus, animism, in its full development, includes the beliefs in souls and in a future state resulting in some kind of activation worship. From the study of African traditional religion there are mistakably elements of animism for example the Iroko tree is not an ordinary tree, it is believed to be inhabited by a spirit; the Oshun river in Western Nigeria is believed to be more than an ordinary river because the spirit Oshun dwells in it and makes the efficacious in many respects especially during barrenness. On the other hand, the etic approach saw the African spiritual as demonic. For instance, one Portuguese Christian missionary saw a possessed woman during a traditional ceremony in the Mutapa state and concluded that the devil had entered the kaffir.
The other aspect explained by the etic approach is idolatry. Idol means false god and so idolatry is the worshiping of false god and that which is not real. The word idol is used to describe the object which is an emblem of that which is worshiped by Africans. The object maybe a piece of wood, iron, stone or animals. These objects are symbolic, each of them has a meaning beyond itself, and therefore, is an end in itself. In an etic approach the Europeans viewed the aspect of symbolism in African tradition as the worshiping of deities hence the African religion was more of an idolatry to them. For instance, if a piece of wood representing Obatala (Yoruba deity) is eaten by termites, the worshipers of Obatala will not feel that their god has been destroyed by the termites because a piece of wood is only symbol serving as visible or concrete embodiment of that which is symbolised. ATR is not essentially idolatrous, but it had a tendency to become so if the cult and the symbols of the divinities are so emphasised as to exclude that the Supreme Being. The various divinities that represented are in fact technically representatives or servants of the Supreme Being.
Paganism and Heathenism are treated together because the meanings applied to them are similar, if not identical. The word pagan is from the Latin word paganus meaning peasant, village or country district; it also means one who worships false gods; a heathen. But when the meaning is stretched further it means one who is neither a Christian, a Jew nor a Muslim. Heath, on the other hand, is a vast track of land; and a heathen is one who inhabits a heath or possesses the characteristics of a heath dweller. A heathen, according to the New Webster Encyclopedic Dictionary, is a pagan; one who worships idols or does not acknowledge the true God; a rude, barbarous and irreligious person. Etic considers the definition by New Webster Encyclopedic Dictionary and thus treats pagan as barbaric. These words are not correct in describing the indigenous religion of Africa because the people are religious and they do believe in the Supreme Being. If the only religious people are the adherents of Christianity, Judaism and Islam, then all the other world religions become either heathen or pagan, and thus uncivilized. Presumably these terms are used in an attempt to distinguish between enlightenment and barbarity. What has this to do with religion? Thus it can be argued that such terms are more sociological than religious.
According to Frobenius Africa was a place dominated by crude fetishism. Linguists claim that the word is of Portuguese origin.8 The early Portuguese who came to Africa saw that the Africans used to wear charms and amulets and so they gave the name feitico to such things. This is the same word as the French fetiche. The dictionary meaning of fetish is any, object, animate or inanimate, natural or artificial, regarded by some uncivilized races with a feeling of awe, as having mysterious power residing in it or as being the representative or habitation of a deity‟; hence fetishism is the worship of, or emotional attachment to, inanimate objects.
Another aspect to be addressed is Polytheism. According to Parrinder in West Africa, men believe in great pantheons of gods which are as diverse as the gods of the Greeks or the Hindus.9 Many of these gods are the expression of the forces of nature, which men fear or try to propitiate: These gods generally have their own temples and priests, and their worshippers cannot justly be called animists, but polytheists, since they worship a variety of gods.10 While Parrinder was trying to discourage the use of the term animism in connection with the religion of Africa, he created another problem by suggesting the term polytheism. It can be noted that the problems are in a proper polytheism, the gods are all of the same rank and file. The difference between that type of polytheism and the structure of African Traditional Religion is that in Africa the Supreme Being is not of the rank and file of the divinities. The origin of the divinities can be traced; the divinities can be represented; they are limited in their power; they came into being by the power of the Supreme Being who is unique, wholly, faultless and owes his existence to no one. The Africans do not and cannot represent Him in the form of an image as they can do with the divinities. Parrinder made this mistake because in his West African Religion he claimed that the Supreme God or Creator is “sometimes above the gods, sometimes first among equals. This is not correct. The Yoruba, for example, never rank the Supreme Being, Olodimave with the divinities (orisa), neither do the Edo confuse Osanobuwa with the divinities (ebo). The truth of the matter is that Africans hold the Supreme Being as a venerable majesty who has several servants (the divinities) under Him to carry out His desires. He is in a class by Himself. This is why it is not appropriate to describe the religion as polytheistic.
It is important to note that westerners were not interested in religion but in language and cultural issues. They were not in the systematic study of the African religion however, their writings particularist as they were are important in explaining religious activities amongst Africans. Some researchers as demonstrated by Ejizu were evolutionist who strongly believed that Africans were still evolving from Apes to humans while diffusionist scholars thought that anything good out of African traditional religion may only have been diffused to them by doses of Western civilisation.11
In conclusion, emic and etic, in anthropology, folkloristic, and the social and behavioural sciences, refer to two kinds of field research done and viewpoints obtained from within the social group and from outside. The emic approach investigates how local people think, perceive and categorize the world, their rules for behaviour, what has meaning for them, and how they imagine and explain things. The etic approach shifts the focus from local observations, categories, explanations, and interpretations to those of the anthropologist. The etic approach realizes that members of a culture often are too involved in what they are doing to interpret their cultures impartially. However, it is important to note that etic and emic approaches are not the same. They are important in their own ways in the understanding of ATR. Both have their strengths and weaknesses so it is important to take the good out of each.
Bibliography

Baudin, N (1885) Fetishism and Fetish Worshippers, New York, 1885

Chavhunduka, G (2001) The African Religion in Zimbabwe To-day, Harare

Ells, A.B (1894) The Ewe/Yoruba Speaking Peoples of the Slave Coast of West Africa, Chapman

Ejuze, C.I (1988) ‘ Oral sources in the study of African indigenous religion” Big Study African Indigenous Religion” in Cashiers Des Religion Africans, Volume 23 number 45-46,

Farrow, S.S (1926) Faith, Fancies and Fetish, London, S.P.C.K.

Frobenius, L (1913) The Voice of Africa, volume 1, Hutchinson

Idowu, E.B (1973) African Traditional Religion, S.C.M

Kottak, C.P (2006) Cultural Anthropology, Boston, McGraw hill

Mbiti, J.S (1976) Introduction to African traditional religion, London, Heinemann

Parrinder, E.G (1954) African Traditional Religion, Heinemann

Pike, K. Language in Relation to a unified theory of structure of human behaviour, The Hague, Netherlands, Mouton

Stone, R.H (1899) In African jungle, New York

Taylor, E (1891) Primitive Cultures (3rd edition) London, J Murray


Functions of Religion

-First it is important to differentiate between latent and manifest functions of religion.

-manifest is open and evident to the actors while latent is hidden, neither intended nor recognized by the actors.
Manifest functions

-rainmaking ceremony

-brewing beer for the spirits. The intention is clear though sociologists may disagree.

-Can we use chemicals or rituals to stop attack on crops by locusts or catarpillars. Manifest function of religious rites is to achieve a specific material effect. Initiation into adulthood is usually followed by circumcision. Rituals such as entering into religious orders or secret societies, marriages, naming rites, funeral rites etc involve public acknowledgement hence are manifest.

-From an anthropological perspective, these are life-crisis rituals. Rites of dissociation in which one moves from one status to the other is another example.

From a sociological point of view, rituals are not always related to the direct results intended. For example, boys being initiated into manhood might have already started behaving as men by drinking, smoking or indulging in sex. The same applies to baptism, graduation ceremonies.

-Rituals bring people together.
-Religion functions as a defense mechanism- a wish-fulfillment, protecting the psyche from existential realities. For Freud, the effect of religious consolation may be likened to that of a narcotic.

-for example, none of us wants to die. Thus a belief in afterlife provides existential comfort.

-religion may be used as a defense mechanism. Proponents of the idea include but are not limited to Victor Frankl, Irvin Yalom and Ernest Becker.

-defence mechanisms protect us from existential realizations and their accompanying terrors.

-It provides the believer with ways of achieving symbolic immortality.

-Man denies his and overcomes his grotesque fate through religion.


Religion provides comfort and quell dissatisfaction.
According to Marx, religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of the spiritless condition. Marx goes on to suggest that religion justifies laws which limit people’s freedom. It validates the rule of the powerful and the oppression of the weak. It makes sense of economic inequality and other forms of social disparity. Religion soothes those who suffer.

Marx’s view may not be correct because there are numerous examples in which religious groups have led insurrections.


It strengthens human community.

This line of argument was propounded by a French sociologist Emile Durkheim. He identifies 2 elements of religion- belief and ritual. According to him, beliefs are states of opinion and consist in representations. Beliefs are what we think. Rituals are determined modes of action (what we do). He argued that all religions share one thing in common- they pre-suppose a classification of all things, real and ideal of which men think into 2 classes or opposed groups, generally distinguished by 2 distinct terms which are translated well enough by the words profane and sacred. Durkheim notes that sacred things are par excellent and should not be touched by the profane.

Humans may reach to the sacred through prayer, liturgy, dance or song. A sacred element- consecrated bread cannot be treated in profane ways for example by being thrown to the birds.

-Judaism bans menstruating women from attending temple and Hindus do not eat beef because cattle are sacred to them.

-religion happens only within a community or collective setting.

-creates common bonds among members of social groups and tie members to the group as a whole. Beliefs and rituals are commonly recounted and practised and together they provide a vital glue that holds the social group together.


Uniting people

-Through totems- first found by Durkheim from hunter-gatherers of Australia.

-Similarly, people have been united through belonging to the same church.

-Totems were sacred in the sense that people were not supposed to eat theirs. Totem was the ancestor of the clan eg the Ndebele of the Khumalo clan or the Rozvi of the moyo totem. Totems formed the basis by which clans could gather eg to appease spirits. They became emblems of society and guided marriage rules.

Religion sometimes contain reflections on societal structure.
Religion assures its followers that there is a larger cosmic order.

-argument by Peter Berger, a sociologist and Lutheran theologian that religion is the audacious attempt to conceive of the entire universe as humanely significant.


Supporting values and attitudes

-Radcliffe Brown likened religion to a structure where each component has a role to play. According to him, a society needs for its existence certain sentiments in the minds of its members- a controlled and organized system in the minds of its members focussed on some object.

-Sentiments are instilled into individual members of society by customs or ceremonies which impart sentiments into new generations. In Zimbabwe, rituals may be performed in response to troubling sickness or other afflictions. Members of a patrilineal society cooperate to make such a ceremony successful, daughters-in-law prepare food. Among the Ndembu, ancestors demand rituals when neglected.

-Rituals if disrupted threaten structural coherence of a group eg incest upsets kinship and marriage arrangements in society. The same applies to adultery.


Peace

-According to Radcliffe Brown, religion has the function of maintaining social values. One of the most important social values is peace. Grudges and all that which leads to conflict ought to be eliminated. Rituals are sometimes if not often intended to achieve peace and harmony.

-Normally it is crucial for grudges to be set aside before rituals can proceed so that their purpose is ultimately achieved.

-Bourdillon used the 1950s Taita of Kenya to elaborate this idea. They lived in scattered homesteads of up to a dozen houses. Lineages were bound by the age-system and they depended on land. They had lineage shrines where rituals were occasionally held to express unity. In such rituals, the hearts of living persons were purged of anger. There was a strong belief among the Taita that angry hearts, secret grudges etc were dangerous. They could cause illness and afflictions. In the kutasa ceremony, the person squatted, sipped beer/water/cane juice, sprayed mouthfuls of the liquid and denied any anger in his/heart. It was therefore a declaration of the end of conflict and momentarily restored peace.

-In short, the health of the Taita community required harmonious relations. They also believed that an angry heart could be self-destructive. Religion had the function of supporting and cementing authority based on age. Churches sometimes set aside a day to pray for peace.
Rites of Passage

-Religion is used to resolve social disruption that can come as a result of events such as death. Funerary rites are crucial in explaining the change of status of the deceased from one of the living to one of the dead.

-According to Robert Hertz, funerary rites played the role of severing relations with the deceased and uniting the disrupted family. Burying in the forest is severing but kurova guva ceremony unites the family. Rites of passage were used to change from one age set to another. Look at the Zulu and the Ndebele. Initiation ceremonies were also important as a rite of passage.
Basic Needs

-Religion is used to meet basic needs of members of the community eg the need to eat, reproduce, mantain an appropriate physical environment. In agriculture for example, peasants know the importance of tilling the land, buy appropriate seed and fertilizer, but they also know that it may not rain, their crops may be destroyed by disease or pests. To cater for the unforeseen, they therefore use religion. They ask good rain from God.

-Communities living near sea depend on fishing and they know the importance of religion to prevent being swept by currents or if near rivers being attacked by hippos or crocodiles. Such arguments have been advanced by B Malinowski.
Explaining Meanings

Another function of religion is to enable people to explain meanings of events around them. Examples are drought, sickness, lightning, good fortune, war, election results etc. Religion also serves the functions of controlling events or controlling social relations or providing explanations. According to Nadel, religion often expresses and supports moral values and guides people’s actions in their secular lives.




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