African Traditional Religion (ATR) has a strong impact on other religions, including Christianity. There is a large necessity to conduct a dialogue between ATR and Christianity as the current version of Christianity and the increase of people believing in African religions is alarming. Some researchers argue that the missionary version of Christianity that was accepted by the African population can be understood as hypocritical because many Africans still patronize ATR, particularly in times of emergency. For this reason, the influence of African religions on Africans and Christianity is very strong, mainly in cases of crisis. The current paper discusses the aspects of ATR that have a strong impact on Christianity. It also explores African religions in general and occultism, witchcraft, and divination in particular. The purpose of the paper is to determine the impact of ATR on the paradigm shift of the core center of Christian gravity.
African Traditional Religion and its Impact on Christianity
African Traditional Religion includes indigenous religious practices and beliefs, which are practiced by people living in Africa. African Traditional Religion is defined as an aboriginal and inborn religion of Africans held by the predecessors of present African generations. This religion has resulted from the long-lasting faith of such predecessors. ATR is as old as the primal religion.
African inhabitants practice ATR in various forms and employ a wide range of shades and intensities. ATR focuses on oral transmission. It is significant to underline that a large number of Africans, including people who claim to be Christians and Muslims, practice it. Mbiti’s (1990) book called African Religions and Philosophy was the first one to challenge the assumptions of Christians that views of ATR were anti-Christian and demonic.
For many centuries, the aboriginal religions held by Africans were in danger of extinction because other beliefs and religions including Christianity tried to oppress various aspects of these religions. Currently, ATR threatens to challenge Christianity and shift its traditional perceptions as African Christians mix both religions. A vibrant resurgence of African religions may be encountered in different areas of Africa while leaders of African religions openly organize healing and spiritual services without hindrances.
The situation of the encounter between Christianity and ATR is rather difficult in Africa. During the period of Apartheid South Africa, African religions were widely practiced by people, although secretly. The use of a secret practice is explained by the fact that the missionaries were substantially opposed to traditional African rituals and practices as they considered them barbaric and based on magic or superstition.
The main feature of ATR is a combination of a wide range of essential features that are present in rituals, occultism, witchcraft, and divination. These features undermine the base of Christianity. Occultism poses a serious challenge to Christianity in Africa and other countries. In the African context, occultism has manifested itself in different ways and taken different forms by means of spirits, divination, magic, and witchcraft.
The underlying feature of African occultism is the belief in spiritual life that is full of spiritual forces, which can inflict harm to human beings. According to the traditional African beliefs, sufferings, including diseases, drought, barrenness, or death are explained by the presence of somebody who wants to inflict harm. Mashau (2007) states that “This somebody often belongs to the world of the occult: a spirit has brought pain to human beings and must, therefore, be repelled or accommodated”.
Occultism is a common practice used by the Vhavenda-speaking people who belong to the Venda tribe in South Africa. Mashau (2007) investigates the impact of occultism in Africa by means of studying the Vhavenda-speaking. The author argues that the practice of occultism poses a serious problem to the Christian church in the 21st century. A large part of mainline churches among the Vhavenda-speaking people has lost members of charismatic and neo-Pentecostal ministries, which engage in exorcism in order to conquer the influence of demonic power. Vhavenda people practice occultism in a form of numerous activities, mainly necromancy, divination, astrology, fortune-telling, hypnotism, witchcraft, as well as magic.
It is necessary to note that Africans believe in the power of the cosmos. They believe that people can tap vital forces from the cosmos and use them in order to affect human life favorably or unfavorably by means of divination, witchcraft or magic. Such practice is very prevalent among African people. Mashau (2007) notes that “Africans view life in its totality”. This understanding is based on the attitude of Africans towards the cosmos. For that reason, Africans perceive the cosmos as a hierarchy of powers, whereas each power has its own place in this totality and each one mutually influences the other.
The combination of such powers forms the totality with God who occupies the highest position in it. However, such an understanding of the cosmos hinders Christian perception of it. The priority of human relationships, the ideas of limited cosmic good, and the belief in witchcraft and spirits play a significant role in the hierarchy in African religions.
Another aspect of ATR is the belief that dead ancestors are individuals who bring misfortunes and benefits to their descendants. African people believe that accidents, miscarriages, and diseases result from the actions of angry spirits and dead ancestors of the family. Moreover, they practice the ancestral cult, which is embedded in the faith of African people in life after death. Rituals concerning funerals and burials are aimed at sending the departed person to the world of spirits and expressing condolences to his or her relatives.
Africans highly respect places where their friends or relatives are buried. Moreover, they create a special place for this ritual as, for example, shrines. Such shrines may belong to families, the members of which are closely connected with a departed individual. African residents respect such places. Moreover, in some communities, if animal, bird, or person hides in these special places, it or he/she can be killed.
Furthermore, people practicing African religions pay special attention to the names and highly respect their dead ancestors. This feature can be seen in the process of giving names to a child. In Nigeria, for instance, “name Babatunde means father returns”. This name is given to an infant boy who is born right after the death of his grandfather while to an infant girl Africans give name Yetunde that means “Mother returns”. The meaning of such names points to the fact that Africans do not believe at the end of life. Moreover, they mean that African people believe that the soul of the departed person returns to the newly born child in their family.
It is significant to underline that African residents use various symbols in order to express respect for the dead relative or friend. For example, they stop such normal activities as wearing white, red or black colors which symbolize bereavement, shaving heads, or extinguishing fires in their homes. In addition, some societies tend to bury some personal items with the dead, mainly cooking pots, spears, money, ornaments, as well as clothes.
Mashau (2007) notes that the practice of occultism among African people is embedded in the practice of the ancestral cult. Africans argue that demonic powers seize a chance to invade those individuals who take part in this practice. Furthermore, persons who participate in ancestral cult practice fear their ancestors even more than they fear God as demonic power invades and inflicts fear in their lives.
Colors play a crucial role in the conduction of rituals. The most widely used ritual colors are white, black, and red. They signify special things and have different meanings in different African areas. For example, black animals are given as a sacrifice in Nigeria, Uganda or Rhodesia. Africans who live in these areas believe that a black color means sacredness and purity. However, in other African areas, black color refers to the danger, death or even evil. These people recognize white color as a signification of sacredness and purity, whereas other African communities perceive white color as the color of danger, death or evil.
One should emphasize that witchcraft and divination are indispensable parts of the African religion. Africans believe that rituals conduct the transition of individuals and groups of people from one stage of life to completely another. According to their religion, initiation rites tend to have a far-reaching implication for the life of a person in particular and their community in general. It is necessary to underline that the belief in witchcraft is dominant in nearly every African community or tribe. Every member of such a community acknowledges mystical powers created by God. African people believe that this power can be used for good things, mainly for the treatment of the sick, searching for life partners, exorcism of evil spirits, searching for success in career, as well as election to a political position.
Lugira (2009) states that the existence of witchcraft is almost everywhere as “people seek protection against it in a variety of ways”. Africans tend to use charms, amulets, and talismans in order to avert evil. For example, pregnant women tend to wear a talisman around their waist with the aim of protecting their unborn children against witchcraft. Hunters use a lion’s tooth as protection against evil, whereas heads of households hang amulets on the doorposts of their houses in order to protect them.
Witchcraft symbols undermine the basic ideas of Christians. The level of witchcraft accusations relates to Christian leaders and Christians. Moreover, the author states that the result of witchcraft accusations on Christians who live in Africa is twofold. Firstly, they serve as a vehicle for propagating African Traditional Religion. Secondly, they demean members of the Christian religion because some Christians may reconsider traditional African faiths and become less committed to their Christian faith.
It is significant to underline that accusations of other religions may have a negative impact on the other. For this reason, African Traditional Religion may have a substantially negative impact on Christianity. Moreover, it may add an opposite effect to the attraction aspect of Christianity. Unlike Western regions where cases of wizardry and witches are usually not taken seriously, the impact of witchcraft accusations in African regions has a large potential of undermining the views of Christianity. The features that undermine the faiths of African Christians include belief in the existence of spirits as well as magic.
Magoola (2013) states that “What makes witchcraft so wrong is not that the Christian faith speaks ill of it or that foreigners disdain it, but that the craft itself is against the most central precept of African life – the preservation of life”. Therefore, fighting against the practice of witchcraft is a moral obligation that all African residents should follow. Furthermore, the Christian church should address the problem of such accusations. In case the accusations are true, the Christian church should discipline its members “into authentically walking with Christ”. In addition, the church should present a concise and clear definition of witches and witchcraft in order to deal with such accusations.
Another aspect of African Traditional Religion is divination, which is characterized by the reading of omens, the use of oracular mediums, as well as the movements of objects or sacred animals. For example, Africans believe that atmospheric spirits control the flight of omen birds. Carved figures that are used in divination serve as focal points in personal invocations and public ceremonies.
Another problem faced by African Christians is a large number of denominations, divisions, groups or sects in the church. African Christians initiated many of them as they wanted to escape from the control of foreign missionaries and wanted Christianity to reflect African problems, culture, and traditions. Within the continent, Africans have adapted Christian rituals and beliefs to fit their own needs by means of establishing their own churches. Many of these churches have strong elements of African religion. African people think that Christianity with its strong emphasis on salvation in the next world does not meet their needs.
African Traditional Religion has a significant impact on the process of the paradigm shift of the core center of Christian gravity. This process is to be seen in homage to ancestors, worship of African deities, divination, magic, as well as other rituals. The impact of African religions on Africans and Christianity is very strong. African religions in general and occultism, witchcraft, and divination, in particular, are aspects that undermine the basic ideas of Christianity. ATR does not express the practice of ritual sacrifices but the way of life of African residents. Therefore, the church should encourage African Christians to engage in Christian spiritual life.