“What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.” (A. W. Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy) We all wear mental “glasses” that control what we think about God. Most of us are not aware of these glasses—our worldview, or presuppositions. What are the presuppositions (assumptions) that are common in Africa?
African traditional religion (ATR) is a theological system that controlled the mindset of much of Africa for hundreds or even thousands of years. There is no “single” system of ATR since its teachings have never been written down. They do not have temples, houses of worship, holy days, or teachings. All of this can beg the question, “Is ATR then a religion?” Yes, because ATR or animism is the name given to the beliefs and actions that traditionally have governed Africans’ passions and religious devotion. Scripture describes all false religion in 1 Pet. 1:18: “futile way of life inherited from your forefathers,” Yet these old ways determine how the majority of a billion souls hear the gospel today.
In African traditional religion, God is a collection of unknowable, fickle spirits who have differing powers that they use for and against us, often at the request of our enemies, during our entire lives.
“…[the Vhavenda] also venerate and pray to their ancestors like gods.”
Wessman, Reinhold. Journals and private papers stored in the Berlin Missionary Society, 1889. Quoted in Kirkaldy, Alan, Capturing the Soul: The Vhavenda and the Missionaries. 2005, page 176. At least 9 other times, the first missionaries referred to the original Vhavenda as worshipping multiple spirits.
“Any man who has departed this earthly life, becomes a shikwembu, a god. … Since every human being becomes a shikwembu at death, there are consequently many categories of these. … The two great categories of gods are those of the family, and those of the country, the latter being those of the reigning family. … Moreover, each family has two sets of gods, those on the father’s side and those on the mother’s, those of “kweru” and those of “bakokwana.”
Junod, Henri. The Life of a South African Tribe, 1926, vol. 2, page 374.
Mankhelu, an Nkuna n’anga with deep knowledge of both Tsonga and Pedi customs says, “The village of my mother is as the home of the gods. (ka mamana hi ko psikwembyen).”
Mankhelu wa ka Shiluvane, died in 1908. Quoted in Junod, vol. 1, page 268.
These gods are the collection of family ancestors who have died in the past. Even in books written by Africans, they constantly mention the effect that unknown spirits and spirits from past generations have on us today.
Mike Maimele, a pastor writes, “So, as a force in the earth, you enter an environment that is already occupied by other forces, some of which are in opposition to you. … It happens everywhere and to everyone. … “evil spirits” et. al. (Dealing with Gangsterism in Your Life. 2008, pages 2, 3, 6, and throughout.)
Many pastors commonly speak about generational curses and spirits of “poverty,” “joblessness,” “barrenness,” and “failure.” Who keeps those curses in force? Where do all these competing spirits come from? ATR is as polytheistic as Greece with its Pantheon (Acts 17:16, 22-23), Egypt with her gods (Ex. 12:12), and Abraham’s ancestors with their “gods.” (Josh. 24:15) Polytheism is the soul’s natural response when darkened by sin yet still feeling the impulses toward God that are woven into each nook and cranny of creation.
Worshipping many gods is called polytheism. Animism is a particular kind of polytheism where the “gods” are constantly influencing the world in which we live. ATR is both polytheistic and animistic. When someone wearing these glasses hears about the Christian God, they tend to include Him within their group of previous gods. “Oh, I know what gods are, so this new God must be basically similar to these other ones.”
The world is populated with invisible spirits, yet according to ATR they are ultimately unknowable. As with most animistic religions, ATR has no sacred texts or writings that tell about their gods. The Greeks had myths, but no book. All that can be known through revealed propositions such as Jesus statement, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life,” is locked away from those who inherit the glasses of ATR. We can’t know their reasons for acting as they do. We can’t know their names. We can’t know for sure what they love or hate. We can’t know the actions they have done, or the actions that are just natural consequences of men making bad choices. Junod writes that the theology of ATR is “very confused and even contradictory.” This perpetual ignorance produces a worldview of uncertainty and fear. Since knowledge is impossible about the most important part of life, then what hope can we have to know anything else?
The most far-reaching and damaging doctrine of ATR is the mutability of spirits. The gods are not absolute. Speaking about the religious beliefs, Junod writes that ATR is a “somewhat confused mass of religious ideas, and we must not look for anything logical and organic. We may even meet with contradictions, conflicting statements.” (Junod, vol. 2, 372.) Taboos can change. ATR requires that Africans must follow rituals around birth, circumicision, lobola, and death, but the customs may change from Pedi to Venda to Tsonga to European. The religion is as fluid as the unwritten language that serves to clothe it. Changeful gods mean that knowledge of causation and science are impossible. Why should anyone try to record the causes of someone’s sickness and death when they are sure that the death was caused by the whim of one of the spirits in answer to someone’s jealousy? What society would prosper in science if they didn’t first assume there were unchanging physical laws? Why should anyone think about political or moral philosophy if life is controlled by fickle, invisible, spirits rather than laws? Thus, ATR deserves the blame for the great poverty of the continent.
The gods are fallible. Since they cannot see everything, they can be tricked. Since they are not absolute their desires can be overturned in time or when a more powerful spirit arrives. They do not gain special wisdom after death, and there is no doctrine of omniscience. So, ATR’s view of providence is capricious and untethered to any transcendent skill.
ATR has many gods who are really the spirits of those who have died before us. Rarely is the connection between natural condition and primitive religion more clearly seen. This theology is as bad as the poverty and social ills of the continent.
Other articles in the series on African Traditional Religion:
African Traditional Religion 1: Africa’s God
African Traditional Religion 2: The Gods Never Sleep
African Traditional Religion 3: Similarities with World Religions
African Traditional Religion 4: African Christianity has the Same Theology as ATR.
African Traditional Religion 5: ATR is Uniquely Used by Satan