Most people born in Africa before the 20th century received by default the glasses of African Traditional Religion with which they involuntarily came to know the world. For many today the world is still colored by those old lenses. In ATR, the gods are concerned mostly about physical actions and not theoretical beliefs. Nearly every bad thing that happens can be blamed on a spirit, yet I have not heard people praising the swikwembu when good things happen. This is what we would expect since Paul marks ingratitude as a mark of pagan religion (Rom. 1:21).
“[ATR] is purely eudemonistic, the religious ceremonies having as their sole aim material benefits connected with the terrestrial life, e. g. abundance, health, peace, and good sleep!”
Junod, vol. 2, 428.
“Since people often fear death and witchcraft they look for means by which to strengthen or increase their life-force. There are different kinds of amulets which people trust in believing that by these they will counteract the work of witchcraft. Some of those amulets are pieces of cloth or wood or metal. Many members of the ZCC regard their star badge as this kind of thing. I once took away one of those badges from one of the workers at our hospital and the next day he came to me asked for it back. He said: ‘Please give it back to me, I didn’t sleep at all last night. I’m very ill because you’ve taken away this protector of my body.’ Another man told me that when he has that star, that badge, even ghosts and evil spirits are afraid to come near him.”
Van Rooy, Koos. “Word for Africa” Institute for Reformational Studies, 1990, page 11.
The gods have physical power, but they do not rule or govern the world by laws. Thus, we are doomed to living in a capricious world—experiences on earth do not conform to a great, single purpose. Storms, floods, earthquakes, epidemics, and poverty are somehow attributed to the spirits working together. Though the spirits are believed to be always doing, the causes can never be certainly or precisely determined because they do not observe settled laws or constant natures that would anchor the world to a metaphysical rock. The Greeks saw that the world was constantly changing (Heraclitus, ca. 500 BC), but yet they also saw a timeless, unchanging element in the world (Parmenides, ca. 400 BC). Such glimmers of stabilizing grace as Parmenides bequeathed to his people, have been refused by ATR to those who are stuck in its millennia-long rut.
The gods expect obedience to traditions. Because ATR’s gods are ancestors, they require adherence to the “old ways.” The way things were done when they were alive. Since these ways are passed down orally and not literally, they are constantly changing. Notice the differences between Shona, Zulu, and Venda taboos. Just as their languages began together and have slowly drifted apart, so too have their traditions.
- Babies must wear a string
- Boys must go to circumcision school
- Uncles are the main actors in lobola
- Graves are built with bricks
- Fear of certain animals like owls and chameleons
The gods hear and answer prayer. The “thabelo” or “xikhongelo” word groups are common summaries for all religious duties in ATR. How many times have we heard someone describe all church serves or religious activity as “xikhongelo” (prayer)? The spirits keep active by answering prayer according to their abilities and moods. In this way, they mediate between the living and the invisible powers. Since bad things often happen in a sinful world, the common man finds an abundant store of reasons to believe in witchcraft.
Rather than seeing pain and problems as a result of sinful choices by responsible people, ATR catechizes its adherents with a tremendous fear of the ever-active spirits who are usually involved in the bad, painful things of life.
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