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Thinking Globally about African Religion

Abstract and Keywords

The global dimensions of African religion sweep across the plains of the African continent and into the African diaspora. Contemporary “African religion” is itself a product of globalization, for it is less a single tradition than a sociological context in which the elements of a variety of indigenous religious experiences are combined with Islam and Christianity. New religious structures reflect emerging values and the adoption of new practices in a changing social context. In the case of the African religions, this process reflects a growing pluralism among religious institutions in Africa. There are independent churches in Africa, including the Celestial Church of Christ, the Christ Apostolic Church, and Cherubim and Seraphim in West Africa; Zulu Zionist churches in South Africa; and the Simon Kimbanque Church in Zaire. This article also discusses Pentecostal or charismatic churches, mainline mission churches, indigenous traditions and faiths, and civil religion in Africa.

Keywords: Africa, globalization, Islam, Christianity, independent churches, pluralism, charismatic churches, mission churches, indigenous traditions, civil religion

The global dimensions of African religion sweep across the plains of the African continent and into the African diaspora. Contemporary “African religion” is itself a product of globalization, for it is less a single tradition than a sociological context in which the elements of a variety of indigenous religious experiences are combined with Islam and Christianity. All three of these dimensions—indigenous religion, Africanized Islam, and Africanized Christianity—are part of the interactive, globalized African religious experience.

Some of the products of this growing interconnectedness of African and Africanized religions are new religions. As Max Weber has observed, the charismatic becomes routinized, and new faiths become accepted as established traditions. Following Ernst Troeltsch's categories, a breakaway sect can be characterized by the presence of doctrinal or ritual differences among the church's membership, and the new African religions have elements of both. These new religious structures reflect emerging values and the adoption of new practices in a changing social context. In the case of the African religions, this process reflects a growing pluralism among African religious institutions.

As globalization affects African religion both within Africa and throughout the African diaspora, new identities emerge. In the African Christian church, the Islamic mosque, and the Santeria temple, a new pluralism in African identity links the values, memories, and civil associations of a variety of African worldviews and (p. 528) moral systems. These are affected by their interactions with each other and with the cultures of the Western world.

The very language we use to describe the diverse religious experiences of people of African origin and descent is not only recent but also heavily dependent upon non-African paradigms and Eurocentric views. Terms such as Africa, black, and Pan-African all derive from recent conceptual periods in history where parts of the geographical area we now so readily call Africa interacted with Europe. It is this interaction beginning with trade and followed by the latter horrors of slavery and colonialism, that led to the Eurocentric idea of African religious cultures and worldviews.

As a consequence, it is difficult to come up with a distinct notion of African religion that is independent of the shaping tendencies of the paradigms and terms of the Western world. A truly indigenous understanding must include not only the history of Africa before colonialism but also aspects of living African communities that have derived from diverse heritages. Although the effort to define African religion can be challenging, a number of scholars, writers, and theologians have made the attempt. Writers associated with the Pan-African movement, for instance, which dates back for over three centuries, have sought to refine their sense of common being by looking at the totality of African religions within the global environment.


In looking at the relationship between African religion and globalization, we should not assume that globalization is an inevitable force that will one day replace all traditional values within the world with one common consumerist mass culture. In Africa globalization has had a significant impact upon traditions and cultural values, but at the same time African traditionalism retains a resiliency and adaptability that enables it to maintain cohesion both in non-Western environments and in the context of faiths such as Christianity and Islam.

African traditions are adaptable. Instead of offering inflexible dogmatic beliefs, often they provide frameworks for viewing and processing information. If a new piece of information does not fit an existing framework, it can modify but not necessarily reject the framework. For example, a form of taboo observed by an African people can be maintained until the old framework adapts, and it changes. What is interesting to ask about African immigrant religions is not so much what aspects of their traditions have been abandoned as how the frameworks of the traditions have adapted.

(p. 529)

An interesting case in point is the changing roles of women within African religious communities. Such women are commonly expected to preserve culture and traditions. As a consequence, a significant proportion of African church members are women. Yet these largely female congregations demonstrate a wide variety of attitudes toward the participation of women, from very limited to active leadership roles.

Another impact of globalization on African religion affects the nature of African civil societies. Both within Africa and worldwide, African religious institutions serve as a source of identity and legitimacy. Across Africa religious leaders have challenged authoritarian and dictatorial political and military leaders such as the Abacha military dictatorship in Nigeria and in Moi's Kenya. During South Africa's apartheid era, the church played a critical role in racial reconciliation, and more recently Archbishop Desmond Tutu chaired a committee on reconciliation. Within the African diaspora, African religious communities have actively participated in the social life of their communities as well.

African Christianity

In describing African religion, we have to include the versions of Christianity and Islam that interact with traditional forms of African religion. Christianity in Africa is authentically African, but it is also global in that it is found in various forms in African communities in Africa, Europe, and the Americas. It is diverse not only in its geography but also in its three main strands: the African independent church movement, charismatic or Pentecostal churches, and the mission or mainline churches.

African Independent Churches

African independent churches include the Celestial Church of Christ, Christ Apostolic Church, and Cherubim and Seraphim in West Africa; Zulu Zionist churches in South Africa; and the Simon Kimbanque Church in Zaire. These churches reflect the nexus between African indigenous beliefs and Christianity. Converts to Christianity in Africa, like those in Latin America, retain significant aspects of indigenous culture. Many of the first mission converts were socially (p. 530) marginal members of their communities who, with the rise of colonialism, became the new local elites. The social dominance of these African Christian elites led to the emergence of new religious rebels: new spiritual leaders who claimed they had been called by God to begin authentic African churches.

These new African leaders relied upon both Christian and indigenous traditions as the source of truth and authority. Thus the African independent churches retained aspects of indigenous tradition and belief. Christian images of divine leadership, the Holy Spirit, and faith healing, for example, were integrated into African ideas of community, ancestor worship, and revelation. Moreover, individuals could engage in a form of religious pluralism by participating in Christian and indigenous traditions at the same time, combining aspects of both. A naming ceremony, for example, could be utilized to incorporate significant aspects of indigenous and traditional beliefs. Hymns in African languages incorporated indigenous sayings and values. Special Africanized church services were created to supplement existing English sermons.

These syncretic processes, however, were not coordinated with one another, and the African independent church movement was often divided. To some extent these churches were separated from other African churches. They had difficulty in expanding their efforts beyond their original ethnic base. They were plagued with many of the same ethnic and political divisions that have separated the wider African society and created a series of contemporary political crises.

African Pentecostal or Charismatic Churches

African Pentecostal or charismatic churches are a rapidly growing sector of the African Christian communities. Unlike the African independent churches, which incorporate elements of indigenous African tradition, the charismatic church reflects the values of modernity, including Western rationalism and scientific/logical reasoning. Aspects of African spirituality such as divination, witchcraft, and polytheistic beliefs are strongly discouraged and are even portrayed as a product of the devil's influence. Yet these same churches often tolerate spirit possession as consistent with the Pentecostal tradition of “speaking in tongues.” Pentecostal or born-again styles of worship are prominent in African immigrant communities as well as in Africa itself.

Charismatic churches place a strong emphasis on the reality of the devil, a concept that is defined in a variety of ways among African societies. Concern (p. 531) about the devil leads to the importance of exorcism and the practice of deliverance by the Holy Spirit. In some ways these practices—and such elements of Pentecostal spirituality as fervent prayer, pragmaticism, and proximate salvation—are close to African styles of spirituality. Yet born-again adherents in fact give very little recognition to the values of African indigenous traditions, and they critique traditional African beliefs as evil, superstitious, and contrary to the teachings of Christianity.

Mainline Mission Churches

The European and American mission church denominations remain the largest and the most organized churches in Africa, in spite of the recent upsurge of the Pentecostal-charismatic communities. The Methodist Church, for example, boasts many centuries of presence in Africa. Though patterned after their mother churches abroad, the mission churches have adapted to their local situations. The 1960s—a time when most African nations became independent—was a watershed in the social history of these denominations, for they began to put in place innovations adapting their European practices to African spiritual sensibilities. More recently they have had to adapt to the increasing popularity of charismatic-Pentecostalism in the African scene. A number of mainline mission churches have adopted charismatic services as a way of preventing their youth from abandoning the churches as they did in the 1960s and 1970s when the mission churches lost a sizable number of their congregations to the African independent church movement.

Loyalties to mainstream mission church identities persist in the diaspora communities of African immigrants in America and Europe. Episcopal, Baptist, and Catholic churches increasingly offer services that reflect the interests and concerns of these immigrant communities. Churches in the United States have developed ethnic ministries that minister to a wide range of immigrant communities, including Africans. Among their accommodations are the use of African languages in hymns. They sometimes conduct services entirely in African languages. Often these services are held on Saturday or Sunday evenings in addition to the Sunday morning services. Since not all Africans speak the same language, only where there are significant concentrations of such African language speakers as Igbo, Yoruba, or certain Ghanaian and Ethiopian communities will special language services be provided.

Accompanying the rise of ethnic and national congregations in Europe and America is the increasing number of African clergy ministering solely to African (p. 532) congregations. Such priests and ministers are found especially in the Catholic Church, with a growing number in Episcopal, Anglican, and Methodist mainstream churches. These African priests offer evidence that Africa has become a global center of Christianity and is able to send its own missionaries abroad.

African Islam

The second heritage of African religion is the global faith of Islam. Unlike Christianity, which entered Africa primarily as a conduit for the disavowed and outcasts of African communities, Islam came to Africa as a religion of trade and commerce. Its pragmatism, scholarship, and globalizing linkages encouraged the development of vast trade empires across North Africa throughout the Middle Ages. Since no Muslim could become a slave, many Africans converted to Islam for protection as well as advancement.

Sub-Saharan Africa encapsulates the history of Islam, especially its contribution to knowledge, politics, and culture. The history of the western Sudanese empires of Ghana, Mali, and Songhi remain the most coveted phase of African history. Mali and Senegal, especially, were great centers of Islamic culture and intellectual discourse. The ancient cities of Timbuktu, Gao, and Genne were centers of Islamic education, science, and culture as they maintained close links with the Mediterranean world.

At the same time, Islam contributed greatly to the growth of East African civilization, especially along the coastal region where trade with the Arab world flourished. One result of this was the development of such linguistic cultures as the Swahili (based on a synthesis of Arabic and Bantu languages); another was the growth of maritime commerce long before colonialism entered the region.

Islam, like Christianity, has been able to adapt, capitalize, and even exploit the technologies of modernity in favor of expanding its own faith as a global religion. Like African Christianity, the growing presence of expatriate African Muslims worldwide has begun to alter many of the largest cities in the Afro-Atlantic world. In London, New York, Washington, D.C., and Atlanta, Ghanaian Islamic communities are becoming prominent. Mosques in these cities that were once dominated by Arab and Pakistani communities are now beginning to witness a strong influx of Islamic Africans from West Africa. Within these African Muslim communities abroad, however, divisions based on ethnic and traditional origins remain.

(p. 533) African Indigenous Traditions and Faiths

Globalization takes on a slightly different form when it comes to indigenous African religions. Although the vast majority of Africans are Christian and Muslim, those who are followers of indigenous faiths have had a disproportionate impact abroad. Globalization has also become a powerful impetus in the worldwide expansion of African traditions such as the Yoruba faith of Ile-Ife and Oyo in Nigeria and as the Fon in the republic of Benin. These variant forms of African traditions share many of the core beliefs as their African predecessors but the indigenous nature of them have been masked as they have been adapted to Christianity.

Yoruba religion, expressed in Afro-Cuban Santeria, Afro-Brazilian Candomble, Shango tradition in Trinidad, and to some extent Vodou in Haiti, continues to refashion the culture and religious landscape of the New World. In the United States, the Yoruba-derived Orisha tradition is becoming an alternative devotional practice for thousands of Africans and even a growing number of Europeans and European Americans. This rich tradition has for over a century been the subject of scholarship in several fields: the humanities and social sciences; African, Caribbean, and American religious studies; and artistic and literary creativity and criticism. The steady stream of scholarly and popular works on Yoruba religion—both as it is practiced in West Africa and as it influences the African-based religions of the New World—suggests that this religion especially can no longer be viewed as a local ethnic tradition but one that has in many ways attained the status of a world religion.

This globalization of African religious traditions embraces both African immigrants and Caucasian and Latino converts. They retain ties to Africa by importing priests such as Nigerian Youruba-Ifa holy men. Indeed a sizable number of Ifa priests have developed a strong clientele and semi-permanent homes in many of America's largest cities.

In some cases African immigrant religion intersects with African American culture. African immigrants have helped to revitalize African indigenous religion in black American communities. Some of these communities have formulated a mythic linkage with traditions such as the Yoruba kingdom of Oyo or the cities of Ile-Ife and communicate regularly with these cultural centers for the purpose of expanding and reinforcing these traditions within American society. A major American center for this revitalization is the Yoruba community of the Oyotungi Village in South Carolina, whose leader and Oba (king) Oseijami Adefunmi I, has created a pan-African–U.S. traditional Orisha society. These Orisha devotees regularly visit Nigeria during the Ifa and Oshun festivals, and through their financial support they help to maintain cultural practices that are in the decline in Africa itself.

(p. 534) African Civil Religion

The fourth category of African religion is a trend that can be loosely described as a kind of African civil religion. Many traditional religious myths, rituals, and symbols have been embraced by secular institutions and leaders as a means of developing greater legitimacy for themselves within African societies. Many members of indigenous elite social strata within Africa and throughout the African diaspora have adopted religious practices to enhance their political influence, taking on symbols that would link them with notions of sacred kingships, ritual power, and historical-mythic legitimation.


The globalization of African religion, therefore, entails not only the death of African traditional values but also in many cases their expansion and promotion. This is the product of an innovative and somewhat unpredictable reshuffling of many of Africa's cultures, faiths, and traditions—which have become a force for change in both Western and non-Western societies. This is nowhere more evident than in the crosscurrents between contemporary religious communities in the Americas and the expansion of African religions within the African continent itself. These movements are sources of cultural continuity, stability, and authority and demonstrate the remarkable resiliency and strength of character of African cultures. They have also at times been sources of tension, division, and conflict. These characteristics of innovation and diversity will continue to evolve as African religions expand from their roots in the three pivotal traditions of Christianity, Islam, and indigenous faiths.


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