In this unit, you are going to focus more on the terminologies that have been erroneously used to describe African Traditional Religion. All these terminologies would be examined one after the other with the view of showing their inability to appropriately describe the religion. After  this, you will be faced with an attempt to arrive at a terminology that would be suitable and appropriate to describe the religion.


By the end of this unit you should be able to:

  1. list all the terminologies that have been used to describe African Traditional Religion 
  2. evaluate the appropriateness and otherwise of these terminologies 
  3. offer a critique of current terminologies 
  4. defend the use of a terminology that seems appropriate to you. 


3.1 Errors of Terminologies

As it has been stated in the previous unit, at the beginning of the study of African Traditional Religion the Western scholars dominated the field. Even after them the African that came on board were not better because a lot of them has been brainwashed or Westernized in their orientation that the best they could do is to carry on the tradition of the Western scholars. Consequently, all sorts of terms have been used to describe the African religion. The following are just examples of them:


The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines primitive as “early, ancient, old- fashioned, simple, rude; original, primary”. In the light of most of the words used above to define primitive, it is obvious that it is not an appropriate word to describe African Traditional Religions. There is no group of people in the world today that could be appropriately called ‘early’ or ‘ancient’. The bias in using this word stems from the notion that anything that does not conform to the accepted norms of the Western world is automatically primitive.

Primitive as used here means something like ‘backward’, ‘rude’ or ‘uncouth’. Primitive in most Western writings is a derogatory term and therefore obnoxious. It is wrong to speak of the religion of any living people as primitive on the basis of racial and ethnic prejudice. Therefore, it is not only inappropriate but it is also offensive to describe African Traditional Religion as primitive.


This is another word that has racial and ethnic discrimination at its root. The word ‘savage’ stands at the opposite end of the pole from ‘civilized’. Savage can be defined as ‘violent, brutal, undomesticated as is used for wild animals that cannot be controlled by human beings’. Finally, Microsoft Encarta Premium Dictionary agrees that it is an “offensive term meaning relating to a culture that is unfamiliar and perceived as inferior, especially one not using complex modern technologies”. Though the developed countries usually are quick in applying this word to the whole of Africa, the truth is that savagery is present in the whole world and has nothing to do with development or underdevelopment. For example, if a fight ensues and an African man brings out his cutlass and strikes his opponent to death, is he any different from an American who brought out his pistol and shot his opponent to death? It is on this ground that one would reject the use of the term savage to describe African Traditional Religion.


In the West, the word native has been accepted and used as a derogatory nuance and has become one that is reserved for the underdeveloped non- Western world. Again the Microsoft Encarta Premium accepted that it is an offensive term for an original inhabitant of a place belonging to an indigenous non-white people with a traditional culture, as distinct from a colonial settler and immigrant.

It is important to state however that the word native is derived from the Latin word natives, which means come into existence by birth and thus used to designate things that are innate and natural.


Paganism is perhaps the oldest of all the names that has been used to describe the African Traditional Religion. Paganism has its origin in the Latin word `naganus’ , this word originally means a village-dweller, a country man or a person who lives away from the civilized community. Though this word is originally used as a sociological term to make distinction between the enlightened and sophisticated city dweller and the rustic and unpolished village dweller it has come to have an exclusive religious connotation. The Microsoft Encarta Premium defines pagan as “an offensive term that deliberately insults somebody’s non-belief in religion, way of life, or degree of knowledge, polytheist or pantheist: a follower of an ancient polytheistic or pantheistic religion”. The following has to be noted about the inadequacy of the word to describe African religions:

One, from its very origin, the word is never intended to be used t describe religion of any sort. Two, the contemporary application of the word to religion has carried a derogatory comparison by those who believed their own religion to be superior. Whenever or wherever the word paganism is used to describe African Traditional Religion, it always carries with it a mark of social and racial discrimination. 


The word heathen cane into being as an analogy of the word pagan. It comes from the German root. The suffix —en has the meaning of ‘belonging to’. Heath on the other hand means the wasteland removed from the outskirts of the town, where outlaws and vagabonds and brigands live. Heathen then means a dweller on the heath. Heathenism as an adjective means the habit or the characteristics, or the disposition of heath-dwellers. As it is with its twin-word paganus, heathen which was originally a sociological term became an adjective used to describe religion. The Microsoft Encarta Premium defines heathen as “an offensive term that deliberately insults somebody who does not acknowledge the God of the Bible, Torah, or Koran” or “an offensive term that deliberately insults somebody’s way of life, degree of knowledge, or non-belief in religion”. It has to be noted that the dictionary agrees that the word has come from the German language.

Heathen is a word coined by races that look down from an Olympian height of superiority upon other races. As it is with paganus, the name heathenism is a most unsuitable and obnoxious misnomer as far as the African Traditional religion is concerned.


The word idol has its root in the Greek word eidolon. In the Greek, the word means ‘form, copy, figure”; hence an object resembling a person or animal and worshiped as a god idol, image”. The main problem with this word is if it is appropriate to use this word to describe the whole of African Traditional Religion? With the descriptions above, it is clear that the word idol never at the beginning carry the undertone of falsehood although it has acquired this meaning over time. Therefore in the light of the current derogatory and contemptuous nuance of the word, it should not be used to describe any religion whatsoever.

Apart from this, the word idol does not technically accurately describe African Traditional Religion. This is because the so called images and idols that are seen in the religion are mere symbols that are
representative of the deity and absolutely meaningless apart from the spiritual connotations. Thus, it is grossly unfair to describe the religion as idolatry. For example, the images of Mary and Jesus in the Catholic Church have not turned Christianity to an idolatrous religion.


This is another word that has been used to describe African Traditional Religion having made it depart from its original meaning. According to E. B. Taylor who traced the history of the word from the time it was first used by the Portuguese the word was adopted by the Portuguese who

likened the African veneration of religious symbolic objects to the amulets and the talisman they themselves were wearing. These amulets were called leitico’ a word which means charms and is in turn derived from Latin factitius. Since fetishes are things that are made with hands it does not apply to African Traditional Religion because to them deity is not something made with hands.


This word is popularised by E. B. Taylor who defines it as the doctrine of souls and other spiritual beings. In his use of animism however Taylor posits that animism is an attendant factor in any religion, in every culture at any level of development. This is to say that as there are traces of animism in African religion so are they in all other religions. He also maintains that anthropomorphism is predominant in animism. In regard with this, animism cannot be said to be a monopoly of African Traditional Religion and so, it would be unfair to describe the African Religion as animism.

Ancestor Worship

There are still other investigators who have defined African Traditional Religion as ancestor worship. According to them, all that the African people regarded as spiritual beings were no more than deified ancestors. Like other terminologies, this term is not true of the African Traditional Religion. Though one cannot deny that the belief in ancestors is a strong element in African Traditional Religion, it has to be stated that the ancestors are not worshipped but venerated; and veneration of ancestors is also not the monopoly of African Traditional Religion.

3.2 Towards an Appropriate Terminology

This may sound rather elementary, but the issue of the precise name of the subject has not been fully settled. A group of scholars, led by E.B. Idowu, insist that one could legitimately speak of African Traditional Religion in the singular. J.S. Mbiti thinks that there is no basis for such a position. He maintains that the title of the subject should be in the plural; African Traditional Religions, because of the heterogeneous nature of African Religion. J.V. Taylor had earlier pointed out that there is a remarkable number of features as well as the fact of a basic world-view which fundamentally is everywhere the same in sub-Saharan Africa. As farajclowu is concerned, a careful look through actual observation and comparative discussions with Africans from various parts of the continent will show, first and foremost, that there is a common factor which the coined word negritude will express aptly. There is a common Africanness about the total culture and religious beliefs and practices of Africa.

TD,QngbMbiti accepts the existence of a single, basic religious philosophy for Africa, he is emphatic that there are as many religions in the sub-Saharan African background as there are distinct ethno-language groups. We speak of African religions in the plural because there are about one thousand African peoples (tribes), and each has its own religious system”. African traditional religions are not universal but tribal, each being bound and limited to the people among whom it has evolved. One traditional religion cannot be propagated in another tribal group. And there is no conversion from one traditional religion to another. The views of scholars were for a long time split along the two positions, with authors like Benjamin Ray and E. Ikenga-Metuh supporting the

opinion of Mbiti. More recent scholarship appears however, to favour the use of African Traditional Religion in the singular. The argument being that the existence of a common world-view as well as similarities in belief-systems, ritual forms, values and institutions across the various regions of the continent, provide a sufficient basis for keeping the singular form of the name. There is no reason to single out African traditional religion, while accepting as normal a multiplicity of denominations, even rival sects in other religions of humankind, including Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam


From the beginning of the study of African Traditional Religion, which of course was started by Europeans who did not gave a good understanding of the religion, African Traditional Religion had been described with various wrong and prejudices terms like primitive, savage, native, paganism, heathenism and idolatry among others. Since the coming of African writers and authors, attempt have been made by scholars like E. B. Idowu, J. S. Mbiti and J. V. Taylor to propounded a more acceptable terminology in describing the religion despite the various criticism against a homogeneous terminology.


The following are the major points that you have learnt in this unit:

  1. Various erroneous terminologies that have been used to describe the African Traditional Religion are primitive, savage, native, paganism and idolatry among others. 
  2. African authors and writers like E. B. Idowu, J. S. Mbiti and J. V. Taylor have attempted to propound a more acceptable terminology to describe the African Traditional Religion. 


Discuss the applicability of the various terminologies that have been used to describe the African Traditional Religion.


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