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The need to understand religion in the context of African belief system and culture cannot be under-stressed. Man from its origin is born to worship God in the way his conscience and ability directs him to do. The study of religion is aimed at understanding the similarities and differences in religion, the truth in religion and its relevance to the human society. Africa with its diverse culture has religion as a factor that helps people to live in harmony and work towards corporate development of the environment and the people. Therefore an understanding of African Traditional Religion will create room for a clear understanding of the African people contextually within the framework of their belief system.


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

  1. define religion from different perspective
  2. explain the different types of religion 
  3. explain the need for the study of religion 
  4. explain the significance of religion in society 
  5. further explain the function of religion in society. 


 3.1 What is Religion?

This section is to look at the various definitions of religion. There is no one definition of religionbecause various scholars see religion from their own perspective John Ferguson listed seventeen definition which can be organized into the following categories; theological, moral, philosophical, psychological and sociological.

Theological Definitions of Religion

  • Religion is believing in God 
  • Religion is belief in spiritual beings
  • Religion is the life of God in the soul of man
  • Religion is a mystery, at once awesome and attractive

The above are the theological definition of religion because they centred on the idea that religion has to do with God or supernatural spiritual powers. Religion as a belief in God connotes a common sense answer to what is religion? As announced by St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-74) who said that ‘religion denotes properly a relation to God. Religion being a belief in spiritual being is a rough summary of the view of the nineteenth century anthropologist E. B. Taylor who held that in its earliest form, religion involved a belief in a hierarchy of spirits from the lower to the most powerful beings. Furthermore religion is said to be the life of God in the soul of man, an idea which comes from the nineteenth- century theologian W. Newton Clarke, who stressed the two realities of God and the soul as necessary for religion to exist. Further still, is the definition that related religion to something mysterious that is, religion is a mystery: awesome and attractive. This is an ideology credited to the twentieth century German philosopher, Rudolf Otto, who found the essence of religion in the idea of the holy which he claimed attracts people owing to its mystery and its power.

In summary the four definitions can be summarized thus, a theological definition makes the central criterion of religion belief in a transcendent power which is usually personified as a Supreme Being, but is sometimes conceived as being diffused through powerful spiritual beings or is held to be an impersonal, mysterious, supernatural force.

Moral Definitions of Religion

  • Religion is leading a good life
  • Religion is morality tinged with emotion
  • Religion is the recognition of all our duties as divine commands Religion is a sum of scruples which impede the free use of our faculties

Morality deals with the provision of rules, norms and directives of how people should live their lives in an acceptable manner. According to moral theory, Religion is defined as leading a good life. This definition is pregnant because it does not specify what morality entails. Others say that religion is “morality tinged with emotion”. This is an ideology by a nineteenth century British writer Matthew Arnold who expanded the moral definition of religion by insisting that human emotions or feelings must be added to morality before religion can become real. Religion is said to be the recognition of all our duties as divine commands, a theory of the eighteenth century philosopher Immanuel Kant’s ‘categorical imperative’. He contended that there is a moral law which we all ‘ought’ to obey. It continued that religion in essence exists when that moral law is interpreted as a commandment from God. Religion is defined as a “sum of scruples which impede the free use of our faculties? This definition is attributed to Salomon Reinach, an early twentieth century historian of religions. Although the negative reaction of religion is implied yet, it identifies the function of religion as the enforcing of external laws; attitudes or custom and thus can be classified as a moral definition.

The above examples of the moral definition can be summarized thus: A moral definition makes the central criterion of religion a code of correct behaviour generally affirmed by believers as having its source in an unquestioned and unquestionable authority.

Philosophical Definition of Religion

Philosophically, religion is defined in terms of an abstract, usually as an impersonal concept. Some examples are as follow; religion is what a man does with his solitariness. This definition as propounded by the twentieth century philosopher Alfred North Whitehead identifies the

abstract notion of solitariness as the fundamental religious dimension within human existence. When one achieves a condition of the solitary (as opposed simply to being alone or lonely) one has achieved a religious experience. Furthermore, Religion is defined as the relation of man to his own being, but as a being outside himself. This assertion is related to the nineteenth century philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach’s theory of religion as a human projection. It defines religion as existing whenever human characteristics (such as love, power, knowledge) are transferred to an imaginary being conceived as being outside, yet perfecting those human characteristics. Religion is also defined as an ultimate concern. This definition is offered by the twentieth century theologian, Paul Tillich, for him religion is a relationship which people hold with that which concerns them ultimately. Obviously, this could be God or spiritual beings, but since it is much broader than this it conveys an abstract idea, which can be embodied in a variety of specific objects, symbols or concept.

In summary, a philosophical definition makes the central criterion for religion the posting of an idea or concept, which the believer interprets, as ultimate or final in relation to the cosmic order and to human existence.

Psychological Definition of Religion

Psychological definition of religion stress that religion has to do with the emotions, feelings or psychological states of the human in relation to the religious object, Ferguson provides the following examples; that religion is the result of seeking comfort in a world which, dispassionately considered, is a terrifying wilderness. This definition is attributed to the twentieth century philosopher, Bertrand Russell. It stresses that because of the misfortunes and sufferings they experience in the world, people seek comfort or consolation in religion. Furthermore, religion is some kind of profound experience. Ferguson attributed this definition to a schoolgirl but since it stresses inner experience, it can be classified as a psychological definition. The nineteenth century theologian Friedrich Schleiemacher also described religion as “a feeling of absolute dependence’. Religion has also been defined as a universal obsessive neurosis. This definition falls within the viewpoint of the followers of the psychoanalytic school of Sigmund Freud who defines religion as a psychological disturbance, one which although universal, must be overcome if humanity is to attain psychological health.

In summary, a psychological definition of religion makes the central criterion of religion feelings or emotions within people, which cause them to appeal to forces greater than themselves to satisfy those feelings.

Sociological Definition of Religion

Sociological definition of religion emphasizes on religion as a group consciousness embodying cultural norms or as a product of society in general. Ferguson listed the following definitions, which falls within this category. Religion is the opium of the people. This definition was classified by Karl Marx with an indication that religion results from the oppression of the masses by those in positions of social or economic power who use the message of religion to keep the oppressed content with their lot in this life in the hope of a just order in the next one. Religion thus plays a sociological function for both the oppressor and the oppressed. Furthermore, religion is defined as the conservation of values. This definition is attributed to the late nineteenth/early twentieth century German philosopher, Harald Hoffding, though it reflects a widely held view of traditional sociologists such as Emile Durkheim or the twentieth century anthropologist, Bronislaw Malinoslci. He described religion as a conservative force within society which defines the fundamental values of the group and then maintains and enforces those values by an appeal to supernatural powers. Also, religion is defined as “a co-operative quest after a completely satisfying life”. Though the emphasis of this definition seems to group it within the psychological, it falls within the cooperative quest in sociological category. There is no particular citation for this quotation by Ferguson but he places it within the definition of some contemporary scholars such as Martin Prozesky (1984), who said that religion is “a quest for ultimate well-being.” This could be concluded by saying whenever societies seek to attain the most satisfying life for their members they are exhibiting religious concerns. Also the contemporary anthropologists, William Lessa and Evon Vogt (1965) echoed the definition of religion as a system of beliefs and practices directed toward the “ultimate concern” of a society.

In summary, the sociological definition makes the central criterion of religion the existence of a community of people which is identified, bound together and maintained by its beliefs in powers or forces greater than the community itself.


Discuss the definition of religion from the various perspectives.

3.2 Types of Religious Beliefs 

There are different types of religious beliefs they include; atheism-those who deny the existence of God or gods, but who still hold to a personal ideology that provide a guideline to their lives.

  1. Deism – is a system of thought advocating natural religion based on human reason rather than revelation
  2. Humanism – is the assertion of the dignity and worth of man and his capacity for self-realization through reason. The humanist usually rejects supernaturalism.
  3. Monism – recognizes only one kind of ultimate substance.
  4. Theism – is the belief in God or gods.
  5. Pantheism – is the recognition of God in everything. It equates God with the forces and laws of the universe.
  6. Polytheism – is the belief in many gods.
  7. Henotheism – is the worship of one supreme god in a pantheon of gods 
  8. Monotheism – is the belief in one God.

The three monotheistic religions are Judaism, Christianity and Islam.The living world religions falls within one or more of the different types of religious belief mentioned above and they include Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Shintoism, African Traditional Religion, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. However, the concern in this paper is to major on African Traditional Religion (ATR) in detail for a through understanding and comprehension.


Explain all the various types of religion.

3.3 Why Study Religion?

It must be noted here that religion is studied because religion is part of cultures and of all history of mankind. A study of religion will allow us to understand the differences and to see the similarities between nations and culture; psychologically, philosophically theologically, sociologically, and morally.
It will also help us to appreciate our own beliefs by seeing them alongside those of others. Furthermore, it will help us to work for ecumenism via a meaningful exchange of ideas between religious group in dialogue, seminar and open discussions.

3.4 The Functions of Religion in Society

Religion is found in every human society in the world. It is one of the’ most important structures in all the established human societies that make up the entire social system. The major interest of religion from the theological point of view is about the sacred, the holy or the numinous.

Religion is concerned with man’s relation to and attitude towards God and the other spiritual beings. Because religion is concerned with the divine, its institutions have been the most viable forms of human associations.Religion concerns itself with the most sublime of human aspirations; it is regarded as the source of morality and public order and the inner peace of the individual persons. It is regarded as a civilizing element. At the same time, it has been accused of being a stubborn obstacle, which retards progress and of promoting fanaticism and intolerance, conflict, ignorance and superstition.In the Nigerian context, religion is regarded as one of the cohesive factors in society. However, the major significance of religion is to bring peace and harmony among men. There is no traditional society in Nigeria that can do away with religion because it permeates all the activities of life.

It has been said by people that religion has some functions, manifest and latent in maintaining peace and harmony in society. It has also been a popular saying that what has no function ceases to exist in the society. Since religion has continued to exist from ages, it is then quite obvious that it must have important functions to play in society. Our attention then should now address those manifest and latent functions of religion. Thomas F. O’Dea distinguishes six functions of religion in the society, as follow:
Religion by its dealings with the divine beings which are concerned with human destiny and welfare, and to whom humanity may respond and relate themselves, provides support, consolation and reconciliation] Every human being needs moral and spiritual support in the face of uncertainty. They need consolation when they are disappointed and reconciliation with society when they are alienated from its goals and norms. religion provides important spiritual and emotional comfort and consolation in the face of failures and disappointment in lif
(Religion makes relationship between humanity and the divine possible through cult and the ceremonial rituals and thereby gives humanity assurance for a new security and feels more confident in the midst of the uncertainties and impossibilities of the vicissitudes of 1,Through its authoritative teaching of beliefs, and values, or dogmas, it also provides solutions to conflicts and ambiguities of human opinions and points of view. This function of the priest and dogmatic theologians contributes to stability, order, peace and harmony in the society and thereby help to maintain status quo.
<Religion gives sacred backing or support to the custom norms and values of an established society, by maintaining or upholding the dominance of group goals or values or needs of the generality of the society over individual wishes and needs, and thereby suppressing the individual impulses for the general good of the society. That is, religion does not allow individual needs and impulses to over-ride the general interest of the society Since there are many sinners in every society, some methods must always be found in handling such people of deviant behaviour. /Religion also prescribes rituals in which guilt can be expiated and the individual or sinner released from bondage and reintegrated into the social group. Thus religion hallows the norms and values of the society; contributing to social control and thereby aiding order and stability; and helps in the reconciliation of the sin
religion also provides a standard of values in terms of which the stablished norms, rules and values may be critically examined and found seriously wanting or lacking. This is especially likely to be true in respect of religions which emphasize the transcendence of God and His consequent superiority over, and independent of the established authorities in the societp The prophetic function in Judaism brought serious conflicts between the priests and the prophets. The prophetic function is always a source or means of important social protest against established forms and conditions. The African Traditional Religion is a priestly religion and its dogma is rarely challenged. Whatever the priest says is accepted by all without questioning or rationalization. And in most cases the priest is always under the control of the secular authority. This is a common sphere in hierarchically organized societies such as that of the Yoruba and the Edo.
Religion aids self identify. When individuals accept religious values and the belief about human nature and destiny associated with them, they develop important aspects of their own self-understanding and self-definition. Secondly, as they participate in religious rituals and worship they openly dramatize the significant elements of their own identity. In these various ways religion affects individuals’ understanding of “who they are “and” what they are”. Davis, a sociologist has expressed the idea that religion gives the individual a sense of identity with the distant past and the limitless future.
In the passage of life many and new problems confront the individual. At infancy, the individual must learn the basic trust in other human beings; later on they must develop some ability to function
independently, to stand on their own feet, and later still they must learn to defer some of their satisfactions and to discipline their impulses or urges while they pursue the approved social values.
Religion give spiritual backing or support to norms and values, it supports the disciplines in the society on many important respects; it also supports in uncertainty consolation in failures and defeats. It contributes to the development of the individual activities. In all, religion involves itself in educating and enlightening the individual. In short, religion helps man to grow into full maturity. The various rites-of-passage; birth, naming ceremonies puberty, circumcision, initiation to adulthood, marriage and burial rites in Nigeria have religious significance. They help to integrate man fully into the society to which he belongs. In Nigerian traditional society it is strongly believed that the well-being of the community depends upon the good will of God, the divinities and the ancestors. Therefore before any venture is embarked upon in the society, those spiritual powers are consulted and taken into confidence.

Having established the fact that religion is indispensable in the life of a traditional African, we should have to take note of the truth expressed by Professor Whitehead, that religion is not necessarily good. In fact many people have accused religion of bringing division and disharmony into the society as a result of schism consequent on different interpretations given to doctrines or ideas and the struggle for positions and power. As Whitehead said, “The uncritical association of religion with goodness is directly negative by plain facts.” He argued that horrors such as human sacrifice, cannibalism, sensual orgies, object superstition and degrading customs could attend religion.

However, we could conclude that religion helps to integrate not only the society, but also the personality. It does this by giving release from sorrow and release from fear. It instils guilt and at the same time provides release from it. Religion also gives the individual a sense of identity with the distant past and the limitless future.


What are the functions of religion?


This unit provides a general introduction of religion with emphasis on the definition of religion, types of religious beliefs, the reasons for studying religion and the function of religion in the society. Religion is seen as an indispensable institution in the society despite of its positive and negative influences.


The following are the major points of this unit:

  1. Religion can be defined from various perspectives. 
  2. There are six types of religious beliefs: deism, humanism, monism, theism, polytheism and henotheism. 
  3. Most functions of religion are sociological 


  1. Define religion with reference to its sociological, theological, psychological, phenomenological, anthropological and philosophical definitions. 
  2. Explain why religions ought to be studied. 
  3. Briefly explain the various types of religions which are regarded as living religions. 
  4. What are the functions of religion in the society? 


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