Proceedings Of The First Annual Conference Towards A Global Congress Of World Religions - Edited by Warren Lewis - 1978

Monday Morning Session September 4, 1978

The Unitive Elements in African Philosophies and Theologies -- Dr. Kwame Gyekye

In a critical discussion of Dr. John S. Mbiti's book, African Religions and Philosophy, published a few years ago, I accused Dr. Mbiti of "unsupported generalizations, oversimplifications, pre mature judgments, and sparse analysis." Mbiti, in his book, recognizes the diversity of religious beliefs and practices in Africa, and so speaks of African "religions" in the title of his book. In his use of the singular "philosophy," he means, perhaps, to convey the impression that Africans have a common philosophical perspective, although he himself speaks of "philosophical systems of different African peoples."

Mbiti writes: "Since there are no parallel philosophical systems which can be observed in singularly concrete terms and similarly concrete terms, we shall use the singular, 'philosophy,' to refer to the philosophical understanding of African peoples concerning different issues of life." This statement invites two responses: The first is that the "philosophical understanding of African peoples concerning different issues of life" cannot be assumed to be similar or uniform until the philosophical contours of various African peoples have been plotted and delineated, or, failing that, unless certain integrations are given which can reasonably ground the legitimacy or possibility of such a similarity in the African philosophical orientation.

My second response is that the view, "there are no parallel philosophical systems which can be observed," can hardly be taken when one knows, as Mbiti does, that "the philosophical systems of different African peoples" has not yet been formulated, unless one asks a writer to indicate the possibility or necessity of such a similarity in the African philosophical perspective. Mbiti, however, provides no rational grounds on which his views can be anchored, hence the accusations of premature judgment and sparse analysis.

As for the accusations of unwarranted generalizations, I may just cite two examples from Mbiti's book, namely, his well-known views about the so-called "African concept of time," and his views on the nature of moral evil in African thought. Mbiti maintains that African peoples conceive time to be a "two-dimensional phenomenon, with a long past, a present, and virtually no future." The linear concept in Western thought, with an infinite past, present, and infinite future, is, he says, foreign to African thinking.

He says that he has reached this conclusion by a study of the verb tenses of some East African languages. According to Mbiti, the three verb tenses which refer to the future, cover a period of about six months, or not beyond two years at the most. Coming events, he says, have to fall within the range of these verb tenses; otherwise, such events lie beyond the horizon of what constitutes actual time.

Although my intention now is not to controvert specific conclusions in Mbiti's book, having done so in an earlier publication, I wish merely to point out that Mbiti himself is aware that all African peoples have the conception of an infinite being, that is, the Supreme Being. And although infinity is here ascribed to a being, and not to time, it may be implied, of course, that a concept of an infinite time already involved, in that an infinite being necessarily logically dwells in an infinite time; otherwise, the infinite being would be limited by time, and would therefore not be infinite.

But be that as it may, my immediate difficulty is with Mbiti's precipitate generalization of a concept for the rest of African peoples analyzed within the context of just a handful of local African languages. He admits that, "Languages are the key to the serious research and understanding of traditional religions and philosophy." Languages, indeed, are vestibules into the conceptual world. But this indicates simply a concept formulated on the basis of different languages to produce similar or quite similar conclusions.

I am asserting that the similarity or near similarity of such conclusions cannot be assumed a priori, that is, antecedental to the examination of the conclusions of other languages. Thus, for the moment, I am not so much concerned with the correctness of Mbiti's views about what he calls "the African concept of time," as with the basis of his generalizing his analysis for the rest of African peoples.

Another questionable statement Mbiti makes concerns the nature of moral evil in African thought. He says: "In African communities, something is considered evil not because of its intrinsic nature, but by virtue of who does it to whom, and from which level of status." Although the view is controvertible, and I have controverted it elsewhere, my difficulty here, as before, concerns the ground for generalizing it for the rest of African peoples, even if it were true of his own ethnic group.

However, in fairness to Mbiti, I must say that his chapters on the nature, works, and worship of God in African religious thought, as well as the chapter on spiritual being, are elegant and admirable. In these chapters he pulls together in an ingenious way what African peoples in general think and say about God and spiritual being, as can be gleaned from written sources.

Now, I must make it clear that I am not accusing Mbiti of "generalization"; indeed, a great deal of human reasoning is based ultimately on generalization, since most of the premises of deductive reasoning are inductively reached. But I was and am accusing him of "unsupported generalization." My intention in criticizing him some time ago, as now, was not to deny the legitimacy of an authentic African philosophy (using "philosophy" in the singular), but to question the basis of some of his bold, generalized assertions about African thought.

Mbiti's theses, or at any rate, the controversial ones, in my view, lack the necessary scientific or rational fortifications. If one supposes that the philosophical understanding of the various African peoples concerning different issues of life is uniform or similar, then it is one's task to provide rational justification for his supposition. I myself think we can possibly speak of African philosophy, or perhaps better, we can discern across the board some common features of the traditional life and thought of African peoples which can constitute a legitimate, reasonable basis for the construction of African philosophical thought, in the same way we speak of Western, Soviet, or Oriental philosophical thought. The examination of the basis of such a possibility or legitimacy is the burden of this paper.

The basis I have in mind is constituted by the beliefs, customs, traditions, values, socio-political institutions, and the historical experiences of African societies. It is such factors or elements which make up the material fabric of an authentic African philosophy. This observation of mine will immediately evoke cynicism in scholars on African cultures, particularly non-African scholars, who do not hesitate, and are, in fact, given to harping on the diversities of the cultures of Africa; neither do they look for the unitive factors. It seems to me that it is intellectually futile, however, to spend one's effort in pointing out the fact of cultural pluralism in Africa, for that fact is so obvious. It is a consequence of ethnic pluralism in Africa.

On the intellectual level, the works of such eminent and respectable Western anthropologists as Rattray, Herskovits, Daryll Forde, Meyer Fortes, Evans-Pritchard, Radcliffe-Brown, Lienhardt, and others, which dealt generally with specific ethnic groups in Africa, have produced the impression, not at all intended by these authors, that the cultural institutions and practices of one ethnic group in Africa were different from the others. The reason is that, in general, none of these great authors, either through the lack of interest in other ethnic groups or consciousness of his own limitations, tried in any noticeable or purposive manner to relate his own observations or conclusions to those of another scholar, where they were available. The comparisons one may stumble upon in their works were few and far between and were usually made in passing, as they were considered merely tangential to the structure of the work. The great works of such individual Africanists did not provide the opportunity for making a synoptic study of African cultures; consequently, such works failed to convey the impression or idea that African cultures can be examined from their continental perspective.

In this connection, works such as African Worlds, edited by Daryll Forde (1954) and African Political Systems, edited by Fortes and Evans-Pritchard (1940), both of which focus on specific themes, (the former on the cosmological ideas and social values of a number of African peoples, the latter on the traditional political systems of some African societies) are of immeasurable value. They provide one with a horizontal conspectus of the cultural systems of several African peoples. Others, like Geoffrey Parrinder, cover the whole of Africa, or one big region of it, in one sweep, an approach that may have didactic advantages, even though it may leave out some important details and could lead to superficiality if not properly handled. However, it is incumbent on the one who wants to offer a considered opinion on the general nature of African cultures to make comparative investigations, relating one cultural system to the other.

A painstaking comparative study of what scholars have written on African culture leaves one in no doubt that, despite the cultural diversities that arise out of Africa's ethnic pluralism, one does perceive threads of underlying affinities running through them. One perceives common features as one examines the beliefs, customs, values, socio-political values and ideas, proverbs, myths, folktales, and so on, of the various ethnic components of African society. Thus Daryll Forde wrote in the introduction to his collection of essays on social, religious and cosmological ideas of several ethnic groups in Africa: "When these studies are considered together, one is impressed not only by the great diversity of ritual forms and expressions of belief but also by substantial underlying similarities in religious outlook and moral injunction." Later he speaks of "the religious ideas and social values which are widespread in Africa."

In an introduction to a similar collection of studies on the political systems of the different African peoples, Fortes and Evans-Pritchard opined that, "the societies described here are representative of common types of African political organizations," and that "all the major principles of African political organizations are brought out in these essays." They added: "Most of the forms described here are variants of a pattern of political organizations found among contiguous or neighboring societies, so that this book covers, by implication, a very large part of Africa."

I myself think that quite a number of Africa's ethnic groups are so small, and consequently their cultures have been so greatly influenced by those of the larger neighboring ethnic groups, that the cultures of such small ethnic groups may be said to have merged, to a great extent, with those of the large groups. Recently, the eminent Ghanian sociologist, who died a week ago in Oxford, K.A. Buzia, also wrote: "It is recognized that there are many different communities in Africa with different historical experiences, cultures, and religions. But from such studies as have already been done on the religious beliefs and rites of different communities, it is possible to discern common religious ideas and assumptions about the universe felt throughout Africa which provide a worldview that may be described as African."

All this justifies the assertion that ethnicity does not necessarily or invariably produce absolute verticalism in cultures, making no room for horizontal shoulder-rubbing of any kind, and producing windowless monads of cultural systems. One of the major causes of political instability in modern African nations is not, in my opinion, cultural pluralism or even ethnocentrism, but fear on the part of one ethnic group of political-not cultural-domination by the other group or groups, I have never read or heard of a leader of an ethnic group in an African nation expressing fears of cultural domination or assimilation. Fears are usually expressed about political domination. There is no need to express fears of cultural domination, seeing that culturally there are a number of elements common among the various ethnic components of the nation.

I wish to point out that there are some ethnic groups in Africa who, as a result of the unrealistic boundaries drawn almost a century ago by our colonial masters, are spread over two or more neighboring African countries. There are Ewes in Ghana, in Togo, and Dahomey (that's Benin). There are Gans in Ghana, Ivory Coast, and Togo. There are Yorubas in western Nigeria and Dahomey. The Bantu people, I suppose, are spread over Central and South Africa. If one were to look closely at the ethnic configuration of Africa, one would perhaps see other instances of such ethnic dislocations or transplants. The consequence of this ethnic dislocation, however, is that it is possible to see particular cultural patterns cut across nations in Africa. All that I have said so far is an introduction to my paper.

I wish now to present some of the worldviews, socio-political ideas, values and institutions which can be said with certainty to pervade the cultural systems of different African peoples. Here I shall be brief for lack of space and time, and, for similar reasons, I shall not normally make mention of specific peoples who hold such and such doctrines. What I have done is to extract the common elements in the cultures of African peoples as may be found in as many of the existing publications as I have been able to look at so far. Such common cultural elements can be considered as the unitive elements or basis upon which African philosophy and theology can be constructed. In some cases, the attempt to bring out the philosophical implications of beliefs or ideas has led to brief philosophical discussion.

Let us start with metaphysics. It can definitely be maintained that all African peoples have the concept of God as the Supreme Being, who created the whole universe out of nothing, and who is the absolute ground of all being. The Supreme Being is held to be omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient; He is uncreated and eternal. In addition to the Supreme Being, African ontology recognizes entities, which include deities, or what are called "lesser spirits." In many books, you read about "spirits," but I prefer to say "lesser spirits," in so far as God, or the Supreme Being, is also a spirit, albeit, the absolute or greatest spirit. Ancestral spirits, man, and the physical world of natural objects and phenomena, these are the entities in African ontology. But the ontology is a hierarchical or gradational one, with a Supreme Being at the apex and a phenomenal world at the bottom of the hierarchy. The hierarchical character of this ontology, however, does not detract from the reality of any of the entities.

Although there are several categories of being, the Supreme Being is, in fact, the ultimate reality, that which is really real. As the uncreated and first cause, He is independent of all the other categories of being. The other entities are real just because, being rooted in the Supreme Being, they participate in His reality. Their reality is therefore derivative and adventitious. Thus, while the Supreme Being is the absolute reality, the other entities, being dependent categories, are only relatively real. African ontology is thus neither wholly pluralistic nor wholly monistic; it is both pluralistic and monistic. Or, while it admits several entities as real, it recognizes only one of such entities, namely the Supreme Being, as the ultimate reality, the really real. The African ontological universe is essentially a spiritual universe, a universe in which supernatural beings play significant roles in the thoughts and actions of the peoples.

What is primarily real is spiritual. But it must be noticed that the world of natural phenomena is part of this spiritual reality. Thus reality in African thought appears to be one and homogenous. That is to say, there is no distinction between the sensible and the non-sensible world, in the sense of one being real and the other unreal, as we have it in other metaphysical systems, such as Platonism and Neo-Platonism. The distinction lies merely in the perceivability of one, vis-a-vis the unperceivability of the other. The hierarchical character of the ontology implies, it seems, that a higher entity has the power to influence or destroy a lower entity. And this fact indicates that it is an ontology that spews out a theory of causality. Since man and the physical world are the lower entities, occurrences in the physical world, particularly the unpredictable and the irregular ones, are causally explained by reference to supernatural powers. Their conception of the world as primarily spiritual leads to the concept of a world of action. This concept of action is developed in their metaphysics of potency. The spiritual beings or powers are endowed with powers of varying potencies. They are considered the real or ultimate source of action and change in the world. And since every causal situation involves action and change, causal reference is generally made to powers or spirits. Cause, then, is conceived in African thought in terms of spirit, which, by implication, means power or agency.

In African causal explanations, the concept of chance does not seem to have a place. As the absolute being and the ultimate being, the Supreme Being constitutes the controlling principle in the world. This fact, together with the African belief in the orderliness of the world, leads all Africans to the belief in destiny or fate. It is possible to assume that if man was fashioned, then he was fashioned in a certain way which would determine his inclinations, dispositions, talents, and so on. Just as the maker of a car or an aircraft can determine its speed or durability, so the Creator of man and the world can determine a number of things about him. The notion of a preappointed destiny in African thought, therefore, may have a reason in this way. Perhaps it might not have a reason if men were supposed merely to have evolved and not been created by a Creator, as we have it in Epicureanism, for instance. What is not clear in African thought is whether this destiny is chosen or decided on by the individual soul, or is divinely determined or divinely imposed.

The African philosophy of the person is rigidly dualistic. A human being is both body and soul. However, the common conception of the soul appears to be widely varied in its details. In some cases, the soul is conceived to be tripartite, and in others, bipartite. Beliefs in disembodied survival, in life after death, and the conception of the ancestral world where the dead live, are anchored in dualistic presuppositions. It is the undying part of man, namely the soul, which continues to live in the world of spirits. The universal African belief in psycho-physical causal interaction is the whole basis of spiritual or psychical healing practiced in all African communities. Divination and witchcraft are psychical phenomena, commonly experienced in all African communities; it is believed that certain individuals are born with certain spiritual abilities, such as are not acquired through experience.

These abilities are supported by extrasensory powers. Through the faculty of extrasensory perception, certain individuals are able to perceive spirits and receive messages from them to be communicated to people. It may be concluded from this that man's powers of perception are not wholly or exclusively connected with the physical senses, and that human beings are not entirely subject to their limitations of space and time. Telepathy and clairvoyance, obviously, are aspects of the phenomenon of divination; the African diviner can gain knowledge of the thoughts of another person or certain facts without the use of his normal senses. Some communication goes on between the diviner and supernatural powers. Thus divination links the physical and the spiritual worlds.

In Africa, as perhaps elsewhere, there are stories of certain living individuals communicating with the dead, which, if true, would give evidence of survival after death. Divination, then, would appear to be part of parapsychology, and should be investigated seriously; for if it is thought to be genuine, it might establish that the human mind is not material, but a spiritual substance. It should also be obvious that divination has implications for epistemology and the philosophy of mind. Divination and witchcraft, as psychical phenomena, tie in with the spiritualistic metaphysics of African peoples.

All over Africa, there is a general belief that God, the Supreme Being, did not create evil along with good. God's creation was good and perfect. The problem of evil as explained by African thinkers derives from supernatural forces and from man's own desires, choices, and wishes.

As regards the foundations of African ethics, it may be said that African moral principles derive from African thinking about the needs of individuals and the needs of the community. It is a society of person-oriented morality. In African conceptions, it is experiences of human beings living in society which provide the guiding principles of ethics. Moral values are grounded in human experiences and relationships in this world. Values grow out of existential conditions in which human beings function; consequently, what is right or wrong is judged by its consequences for the individual and the society. African ethics, following from the African philosophy of communalism, is essentially social ethics, the ethics that seeks the promotion of the interests and welfare of all the members of the society.

There is hardly any book on the sociology of Africa that does not point out the humanistic attitudes of African peoples and the communal structures of African society. Hospitality, generosity, compassion, concern for the welfare of others, sense of brotherhood, spontaneous communal fellowships, and sentiments, all of which are ingredients of African humanistic philosophy, have been remarked upon by most, if not all, writers, including European travelers to Africa in the 19th and 20th centuries. Dougal Campbell, a Briton who spent twenty-nine years in Central Africa, including Zambia, from the latter part of the 19th century to the early part of this century, observed: "Hospitality is one of the most sacred and ancient customs of Bantuland and is found everywhere; everywhere, until European individualism comes along. A native will give his best house and his evening meal to a guest without the slightest thought that he is doing anything extraordinary."

David Livingston, dear to all Africans, made similar remarks in his diaries. And Rattray, a British anthropologist in the employ of the colonial administration in Ghana in the earlier decades of this century, spent about twenty to thirty years among the Akan peoples, particularly among the Ashanti of Ghana. Rattray made similar remarks about the Ashanti. In fact, in most African societies the word "brother" is used with an all-encompassing connotation. In Africa, an individual is enjoyed for his own sake. Spontaneous conversations between peoples in African communities who may not have met before are eloquent testimony to the African enjoyment of people.

Here I may be permitted to quote President Kaunda of Zambia, who most adequately articulated the African position. President Kaunda wrote: "Our love of conversation is a good example of this enjoyment of man. We will talk for hours with a stranger who crosses our path, and by the time we part, there will be little that we do not know about each other. We do not regard it as an impertinence or an invasion of our privacy for someone to ask us personal questions, nor have we any compunction about questioning others in like manner. We are open to the interests of other people. Our curiosity does not stem from a desire to interfere in someone else's business, but is an expression of our belief that we are all wrapped up together in this bundle of life. And therefore a bond already exists between myself and a stranger, even before we open our mouths to talk."

The individual is considered of great value, as is recognized in African prayers, in which requests are invariably made for more children, fertility, abundant life, and health for all. The institutions of orphanages and homes for the aged were unknown in all traditional African societies. The idea that the state or some voluntary agency should care for the aged is a bizarre idea which was never conceived in the humanistic African society. In African societies, old people live with their children and grandchildren, who regard it as their responsibility or moral duty to look after them. Old people are wanted and venerated. They are never considered an impediment to the enjoyment of one's life. These attitudes of members of the community toward the old folks among them provide the old folks with the real feeling of self-fulfillment and the worthwhileness of their lives. Episodes common in Western society, such as a lonely old woman dying without the public noticing for several weeks, or an old woman trudging through the deep snow to go to the supermarket, hardly occur in African societies; and they baffle the understanding of Africans living in Western societies.

While Africans universally maintain the existence of a Supreme Being and other supernatural beings, African philosophy unmistakably teaches that man is the center of things. This African philosophy is akin to Chinese Confucianism. A Supreme Being should see to the needs and interests of man. Religion, according to the African view, should have a human or social relevance. African humanism, unlike Western humanism, is not antithetical to religion or a supernatural metaphysics. The metaphysics of Western humanism does not entertain supernatural entities, such as divine beings or spirits. What is really real or what fundamentally exists is matter, according to Western humanist metaphysics. African humanist thought regards reality as fundamentally spiritual. African humanism, placed within a holistically religious ambience, cannot set itself against supernaturalism or other-worldliness.

The aim of Western humanism in rejecting religion or supernaturalism is allegedly to set the human mind free to enable it to concentrate its energies on building the good society on earth. Africans believe that in seeking the heavenly kingdom, every earthly comfort will be given to them. Consequently, African prayers are brimful of requests to the Supreme Being and the lesser spirits for material comforts and the things necessary for the building of the good society. Africans do not hold that devotion to the welfare or interest of humans in this world, which for them is the crucial meaning of humanism, should necessarily lead to the rejection of supernaturalism. It is possible, in their view, to believe in the existence of supernatural entities without necessarily allowing this to detract from the pursuit of human welfare in this world. Hence in African thought, there does not appear to be a tension between supernaturalism and humanism.

Communalism is another basic category in African theosophical thought. The communal structure of every African society is too well known to be remarked upon. Communalism, the doctrine that the group constitutes the main focus of the activities of the individual members, is an offshoot of the African philosophy of humanism; for the needs and interests of every individual member of the society can hardly be satisfied otherwise than by a social system, a communal system, that is geared toward the promotion of the general interests of the individuals who belong to that system. Communalism places emphasis on the activity and success of the wider society, rather than, though not necessarily at the expense of and certainly not to the detriment of, the individual.

In African social philosophy, communalism and individualism are not held as exclusive concepts. In this philosophy, the supposed antithesis between the individual and the society is held to be false. African humanism thus places the greatest premium on the welfare of the human being, and African communalism sets great store by the activity, achievement, and the common good of the group or community as a whole. Satellite ideas to these two suns of African thought include the concern for solidarity, the responsibility for one's fellow human being, mutual aid, reciprocal obligations, interdependence, sharing, cooperation and the absence of competition, the social and altruistic ethics of African societies, and the communal ownership of the land. All these elements or factors lend credence to the view of the indigenous African moorings or origins of modern socialism in Africa. There is hardly any African writer on socialism in Africa who has not avowed that socialism is deeply rooted in African culture and tradition. Hence, modern African political leaders and writers prefer to call their brand of socialism "African socialism," because they regard their socialist ideology as having African ingredients. Thus, President Senghor of Senegal wrote: "Negro African society is collectivist or, more exactly, communal. We had already achieved socialism before the coming of the European." Nyerere also stated that African socialism is "...rooted in our past, in the traditional society which produced us. Modern African socialism can grow from its traditional heritage, a recognition of society as an extension of the basic family unit." Nkrumah also said, "If one seeks the political answers of socialism, one must go to communalism. In socialism, the principles underlying communalism are given expression in modern circumstances." And President Kaunda said that, "in the traditional society, socialism has always been practiced by the village headman and the chief and his court".

About four or five decades earlier, Dougal Campbell, the Briton who resided in Central Africa and to whom I have already referred, had made the following observation in his book published in 1922: "Despite the seeming anomaly, all Bantu are pronounced socialists, and socialism is their fundamental and fixed form of government. In view of the rise everywhere of questions relating to socialism and economy, much that is instructive may be gathered from a study of existing conditions in the lives of Central Africans. The social status of equality observed by the primitive of mankind is now the aim and ambition of the most highly civilized communities. In Central Africa, we have a complete, objective lesson before us of the result of life under conditions of equality."

But notice, incidentally, how Campbell describes as "primitive" those people who had attained certain social values and ideals which the "highly civilized" had been seeking to attain. The political organizations of African societies exhibit a very high degree of similarity, if one carefully reads Fortes, Evans-Pritchard, Rattray, Buzia, Danquah, and others. Institutions such as chieftaincy, popular representation on the chief's council, the clear and unambiguous role of the people in the election and deposition of the chief, the pursuit of consensus and reconciliation in political decision-making processes -- all of these are quite similar. In African ontologies, cosmologies, psychologies, certain areas of ethics, socio-political values, ideas, and institutions, one perceives some common unity of elements that can surely constitute a legitimate basis for the systematization and sophisticated reconstruction of African philosophy. It is more than likely that when individual modern African philosophers come to formulate the philosophical system of African peoples, differences of interpretation will emerge in some areas. This will be quite understandable. Nevertheless, there will still be some philosophical ideas which the majority of the philosophers of Africa will adhere to. And this will not be peculiar to African philosophy. Western philosophy, for instance, is full of diversities. What, for instance, can one say is the Western philosophy of person? There is no such thing as Western philosophy of the person, for there are several philosophies of the person. And this is so on practically every other philosophical issue. But this fact does not prevent us from talking about Western philosophy in the singular.

There is no denying, I think, that philosophy is brewed out of a cultural soup. Whatever else philosophy aims at doing, it certainly aims at the examination of the intellectual foundations of culture. Philosophy is, in fact, a conceptual response to the fundamental human problems posed in any given human society in any given epoch. For this reason, a great number of philosophical activities and writings in most parts of the world have been aimed at the articulation and elaboration of a given culture. By virtue of the fact that a philosophy must have its roots in the culture of a people, we are able to refer to the philosophical ideas of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle as Greek philosophy; and to those of John Locke, Bishop Berkeley and David Hume as British philosophy. How can we possibly refer to the philosophical ideas of the above mentioned philosophers as Greek or British if those ideas did not have a basis in the cultures, traditions, and mentalities of the societies which nurtured them, or if they were antithetical to the whole thrust of Greek or British cultural ethos? Bertrand Russell said in the preface to his book, Eastern and Western Philosophy, that his aim was, "to exhibit each philosopher, as far as truth admits, as an outcome of his milieu, a man in whom we have crystallized and concentrated thoughts and feelings, which, in a vague and diffused form, were common to the community of which he was a part."

Now, in modern philosophy, how can we explain the persistence and prevalence of rationalism among European continental philosophers on the one hand, and of empiricism among philosophers of the British Isles on the other hand, if not by reference, respectively, to the European or the British mind? Or, how can we explain the preponderance of the spiritual element in Oriental philosophical writings, if not by reference to the Oriental mind and traditions? In such contexts, "mind" refers to the characteristic mentalities, the habits and tendencies of thought produced by actions and the impressions resulting from experiences and instincts. So understood, "mind" is the product of certain unconscious social or cultural influences and experiences which, to a great extent, determine the bent of an individual thinker. All this underscores the particularity of philosophies.

The upshot of the foregoing discussion is surely that we cannot completely and absolutely divorce the philosophy of an individual thinker from that of the people, from the parent ideas among the people. So-called folk ideas and beliefs constitute the warp and woof of the material fabric of the individual philosopher, whose importance lies in his ability, through critical examination, to make coherent the diffuse ideas, beliefs, and feelings of the people of the community. The individual is heir to a whole apparatus of the concepts and categories within which he works out his thought. Now, if it is true that a given cultural milieu forms the basis of a philosophy, and that culture provides the controlling and organizing concepts and categories for philosophizing, then it can be concluded that it is legitimate to construct an authentic African philosophy (using "philosophy" in the singular) and theology on the basis of the unitive elements of African cultures, such as I have tried briefly to indicate here. The task facing modern African philosophers consists in turning their philosophical gaze on the analytical examination and interpretation of African culture. The main sources of such a philosophy will be the proverbs, myths, folk tales, beliefs, and customs, rituals, and religious songs and prayers, socio-political institutions, the artistic expressions of the people, and so on. As a part of the peoples of Africa, and speaking the languages, modern African philosophers are in a unique position to analyze, elucidate, and interpret the philosophy of African peoples and to sharpen its contours on the global philosophical map. Thank you.

Irving Hexham: Thank you very much for a most stimulating paper, which sets for us the thesis against which, later, we're going to have the antithesis of Fred's and Myrtle's presentations. I think the best thing now is if we try to limit questioning to clarification only; then after we've heard Fred's presentation, we can debate the issues which have been raised between the two approaches, rather than getting straight into a debate now on the crucial issues of methodology.


Fred Morgan (Researcher in Afro-Asian Religion at University of Bristol): When you speak of common elements in African philosophical thought, what are your sources for arriving at these elements?

Kwame Gyekye: As I said in the paper, I extracted these common elements from publications, from reading anthropological and sociological works. One has to make a comparative investigation. In this case, since most of the books focus on a particular ethnic group, if one wants to have a general knowledge of the nature of African philosophy, theology, or culture, one has to read and relate various books on the many ethnic groups. The great works of anthropologists Herskovits, Daryll Forde and British-American scholars John Milton, Lienhardt, Goody, Cambrikenner, are excellent books. But they concentrate on just one specific people; they don't relate their findings, their conclusions, to others. Of course, one might have said, perhaps half a century ago, such comparisons could not be made simply because material to be compared was not available. Since the forties, however, much research has gone on, and therefore it is possible, now, to have what we call a "horizontal" approach to the study of Africa.

Fred Morgan: I really had something more specific in mind. For example, when you say that divination and healing can be identified in every African culture, that is a matter of observation.

Kwame Gyekye: Yes, it is a matter of observation. I haven't been to all the African tribes; I depend on what people in the field say.

Fred Morgan: Ideas about a Supreme Being who is the ground of all being, etc., may well be a matter of abstraction or philosophizing on the part of anthropologists, rather than a matter of their observations.

Kwame Gyekye: Anthropologists try to give us generally the bare facts, and then it is the philosophers who are interested in attempting to perceive the philosophical significance, the philosophical relevance, of these works of anthropologists. This is what I have been doing. I try to conceptualize, to introduce some logical order into these discrete and isolated observations. As you know, some African thought is very difficult both for the African and the non-African scholar. One has to be really experienced in oral scholarship, because there are no written sources on African thought produced by original African thinkers, by the African wise men, by African ancestors. What they did produce comes down to us in the form of proverbs and myths and institutions and so on. If you want to study African philosophy and thought, these would be your materials; and then you introduce some logical order. If African people say, for instance, that "beyond God there is no other being," then you try to deduce the logical abstractions. This is the only approach available if you want to construct African philosophy, if you want to systematize African thought; because we do not yet have systematized African conceptual structures. Of course, we do have them, but they are not in written form. The proverbs, for instance, as I have shown in my paper, are reflections on the experiences in the world, telescoped for us in language. You find the proverbs are so terse, so brief, and yet they are condensed ways of expressing ideas. These have to be the sources which the scholar must rely upon. So I read Herskovits, I read Pritchard and Forde, and then I try to make philosophical sense out of it. This is why I will say it is possible for another African philosopher to come along and produce interpretations different from mine.

Fred Welbourn: Professor, I would like further clarification on this issue: Is there anything you can call "African" and apply it to the whole of Africa? I think, personally, there is very little that can be called "African," applied to thought, religion, sociology, and so forth, either in West Africa, East Africa, South Africa, or North Africa. Not only this, but inside of a given country, there are so many differences. I speak of Uganda, because I have been there for 14 years. I am afraid that it is impossible to speak of "African" in a general term as a common denominator. In Uganda, there are so many ethnic types: in the north the Nilotic, and the Bantu in the south. Between the Bantu and the Nilotic, in language, in life, in many things, there is such a tremendous difference. For instance, the Bantu consider all the other Ugandans as second-class people; they have an expression in their language by which they refer to the others as infra-human beings among Africans in the same country in which they live.

Kwame Gyekye: I do not at all deny differences or diversities in African cultures. These differences are there, and this fact is so obvious, one does not have to spend time harping on these differences. I am trying to say that, while we talk about differences, we have to try to see whether also we can talk about affinities or similarities. Is there anything at all in common? It is my thesis that there is.

Irving Hexham: I think we are beginning to get into the debate that is going to come up later. Could we take Eileen's question?

Eileen Barker: Mine isn't meant to be a debate question, but it may sound like one. You said that "cause" is important and that "chance" is ruled out, and you said a tiny bit about "choice," which I would think of as the third of the three. But did you say that one cannot generalize about "choice" as a concept? Would you make any generalization about the African view of free will, openness?

Kwame Gyekye: I was talking about choice in connection with the problem of evil, and I was talking about chance in connection with the African explanations of causality. In African thought, destiny is not considered chance, as you have it in Western thought; everything that happens, happens according to some order.

Eileen Barker: Does choice come in with that causation?

Kwame Gyekye: The problem of determinism and free will is very interesting. In the chapter of my forthcoming book which actually focuses on the Akans of Ghana, I am trying to analyze our concept of fate or destiny. I came to the conclusion that, in spite of their belief in pre-appointed destiny, they regard human destiny as so general -- that is to say, that destiny merely provides us with the broad outlines of a person's life -- that this concept of destiny allows a wide latitude for the expression of the individual; this is the basis of choice. Although there is destiny, not everything that happens in one's life constitutes a page in the book of one's destiny. Destiny is so broad, so general, that, perhaps, just certain great events in the life of the individual are included in the destiny. There are many other things that are not included in destiny, and this would be the basis for the exercise of choice and free will. For instance, they would say that it is not in my destiny that on the fourth of September, 1978, I should be in Bristol to give a lecture; this event does not matter. But they will say that the day I shall die is in my destiny; or, perhaps, how I will die is in my destiny.

Warren Lewis: Kwame, you made a brief allusion to a teaching on evil. You said that God didn't create it, he created a good world; then you said evil arises, perhaps, from the deities on one hand, perhaps from the human will on another.

Kwame Gyekye: From the supernatural powers.

Warren Lewis: Is there a Fall myth across various African cultures? Is there an Adam-and-Eve model? Is there an archangel? What is the name of whoever it is in the spirit world who messed us up?

Kwame Gyekye: In my own language, we call that the oboson, the deities. On the one hand, we have attributions of God as omnipotent and all-loving; then, we also have evil. So, (a) God is omnipotent; (b) God is all-loving; (c) the evil exists. The problem a expressed in the West: if you take any two of these propositions, it makes the third inconsistent. If you take (a) and (b), if God is omnipotent and God is loving, then there should be no evil. If God is omnipotent, he has power to eliminate evil. If you take (b) and (c), evil exists and God is loving, so God is not omnipotent. If you take (a) and (c), then God is not all-loving. That is the problem in a Western nutshell. In African thought, we consider God to be-all-loving, omnipotent and all that. We think that evil cannot be explained in these ways, by finding the logical connection between propositions. Evil is the result of the activity of the spiritual powers, the evil spirits. In African thought, the lesser spirits actually have some sort of independent existence, and they operate independently of God. Of course, the problem of evil, I would like to say, also exist in African thought. If God is omnipotent and all-loving, and he sees these supernatural powers, these lesser spirits, do evil, then he should come down upon them and try to stop them from inflicting evil on the world he created. Why doesn't God do so? Why doesn't he intervene on behalf of poor man and destroy the works of these powers, these supernatural forces? Since he is omnipotent and he is also benevolent, all-loving, he should do that; but he doesn't. So we also have that problem. Our people explain that evil comes from supernatural powers and from man's own wishes and desires, resulting from the general nature of destiny.

Irving Hexham: Now we take Angela's question, and after that we break for coffee.

Angela Burr (School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London): Your point is an interesting one. Could you possibly explain it on two cultural levels, in terms of cultural superstructure and cultural deep-structure? One would expect great diversity in terms of local and social and economic structures in one's cultural super-structure: diversity of belief in African society. But, on a deeper level, one would expect to find some kind of cultural deep-structure unification, which is what you have been talking about: basic assumptions which people would have in general, in common. They would, of course, on a super-structural level articulate these very differently, in different terms, because of local differences.

Irving Hexham: With that comment, and Kwame's agreement, let us end this session. It raises the question of religion and its cultural expression.

There Is No African Religion (Are There Two Kinds Of "Religion?") -- Dr. Fred Welbourn

I'm not responsible for this title, but in two senses it does present a case which I should want to argue: in the first place, if it means that in traditional Africa there is not one religion but many religions. There's as much difference between the monotheism of the Maasai and the poly-spiritism of the Ganda as between Christianity and the village Hinduism. My student, Francis Anyika, has even argued that the Igbo themselves have not one but many religions. In the second place I would accept it if it means that -- at least in East Africa -- there is no vernacular word which can be used to translate what is understood by "religion" in the West. This is true also of Hebrew and Greek. "Religion" is a Roman invention. It may be positively misleading to use it in a study of African society.

When the Gikuyu Karing's Association, in 1929, declared its intention of returning to the purity of tribal custom, it decided to have nothing to do with dini for seven years. (Dihi is derived from an Arabic word which means a whole way of life. But it is used throughout East Africa to describe imported systems of creed, myth, ritual and moral precept; Islam, many variants of Christianity, and, by derivation, the independent churches and syncretistic movements are all dini.) In the same spirit, the Bugand Government used to refer to pagans as men who have no dini. An alternative was "those who do not read"; and the equation is significant. It lends point to the statement of a Ganda civil servant who, brought up as a Christian, discovered in his retirement the virtues of the old tribal spirits: "There's no conflict between dini and kusamira. Dini is good. It has brought us education and science. But kusamira -- That's part of being a Ganda." It lends point also to the criticism that, as a priest, I had commented on Kabaka Yekka (the "king alone" party): "The kabaka has nothing to do with dini. He is a matter of obuwangwa, essential nature."

Again, I have had to use a vernacular word "kusamira'''' because, without circumlocution, it's difficult to translate it into English. Dini implies something foreign, something about which choice is possible -- just as a man may change his clothes, or choose to go naked, according to his company. Adapting the Ganda civil servant, he might say, "Clothes are good. They give respectability. But skin -- that's part of being a man." On the other hand, there's no such choice about kusamira. Like the kabaka, it's part of essential nature. The spirits are there (even if invisible), experienced (as we experience atoms) as an integral part of the environment. If you encounter a spirit, you must kusamira. It is the appropriate form of response to a particular class of beings who exist in Ganda society. To neglect kusamira because you become a Christian is not to choose Christian dini instead of Ganda dini, but to cut yourself off, under the influence of foreigners, from a fundamental part of Ganda society. In the same way, the Gikuyu dissidents were not choosing Gikuyu dini in preference to Christian dini. They were saying that to be Gikuyu was the first essential: that this involved by definition such practices as clitoridectomy, and that even if, as was hoped by another group of dissidents, these could ultimately be accepted by Christians, Christianity was at the best an optional extra, better left alone until pure Gikuyu society had been reestablished.

In making this sort of distinction between dini and tribal custom, they were doing no more than they had learned from at least some of the missionaries who told them that they had no dini; and there is no doubt that in doing so the missionaries thought they were saying not, "You have no revealed religion" but "You have no religion." We could not say the same today. "Tribal religion" is, as much as the "world religions," a subject of concern to scholars, missionaries and administrators. The question is whether in the two connections we are not using "religion" in two different senses and whether, therefore, clarity would be better served by eliminating the term altogether.

Perhaps I can make my question clearer by reference to a slightly different, though still African, context. When I started studying African independent churches, I started from a missiological interest. But I found that I needed the help of scholars in a wide range of "secular" disciplines; and I know that my book was used not only by missiologists, but by anthropologists, historians, and political scientists. Without knowing it, I had been writing not about "religion," but about something much more fundamental; and the issue was at once clarified for me when I met the African Israel Church Nineveh. Here was a community (Gemeinschaft) which had ample creed and myth and ritual, but would have been grossly misdescribed, unless this "religion" aspect was presented as part and parcel of an attempt to establish a whole way of living in colonial Africa. The same surely has to be said about attempts to teach early church history in terms of liturgical and doctrinal developments while ignoring Clement's statement that fishing is an activity suitable to Christian gentlemen. There is a sharp contrast with the four Birmingham congregations studied by Thompson ('57), where he found that so-called secular affiliations -- membership in trade unions, political parties and the like -- much more commonly than church-membership, had an integrating function -- provided something of a Gemeinschaft in comparison with the Gesellschaft of the churches.

It seems to me that, whether or not there are satisfactory German words to describe the two different phenomena represented by the African Israel Church Nineveh and the Birmingham parishes, it is quite impossible to use for both of them the word "religion" or even the word "church." To do so is simply to ignore their inner meaning. The problem is not confined to the study of religion; it is surely the basic difference between the British school of social anthropology and the attitude of behaviorists. It is also the problem with which Laing was wrestling in his approach to psychotics. The standard textbooks did not describe the way in which psychotics behaved with him -- because the books were concerned with the "objective clinical signs," while for Laing "the therapist must have the plasticity to transpose himself into another strange and alien view of the world... In this act he draws on his own psychotic possibilities."

The same sort of thing happens when a European studies "religion" in Africa. He has his "clinical signs" of what religion is. Among other things, he understands it as one institution among others -- political, economic, legal and so forth. He probably regards it as a voluntary activity. He finds similar signs in Africa and describes them in terms of his own experience: not, it is true, of voluntariness -- the facts cannot be stretched that far -- but as an institution separate from other institutions, to be described (by comparative religionists) without any reference to the social context. There is, of course, a school of British social anthropologists who see the understanding of African religion and African society as interdependent. They are, I suspect, drawing on their own religious possibilities, as Laing wished to draw on his psychotic possibilities, to enter into an alien view in a manner denied to those whose experience is limited to "Birmingham religion." When this happens it becomes possible to see traditional "religion" not as one social institution among many, but as a dimension of all institutions: not as a set of "clinical signs," but as a total -- if strange and alien -- way of life, a way of life of which the "clinical signs" are but one mode of expression. Again, I do not think that one word is adequate to describe both categories. To take an example from another culture: for a Hebrew to take a political decision was always to take a theological decision, since God was the focus of political authority; to take a theological decision was always to take a political decision, since the focus of God's activity was the life of the nation. There was no word for "religion" as a separate activity.

There are, it seems to me, at least three different social phenomena in Africa all designated as "religion." There is first traditional "religion." This is a given part of social experience. Although it deals with crises of individuals as well as of society, it is primarily an affirmation of social solidarity. In principle, it is involved in every aspect of life. It is not a voluntary option; and it cannot, except with gross distortion, be studied as a separate institution. It belongs to what H.W. Turner calls an "ontocratic" society, though I prefer "unitary."

At the other end of the scale is the "Birmingham" type of religion, which is found increasingly -- whether in traditional or Christian dress -- in the towns. It is voluntary. Although it may be concerned with the affirmation of missionary mores, its primary focus is the salvation of individuals. It has little connection with what goes on outside the church building. It is one element in "a modern secular state and religiously plural society." (H.W. Turner) (In 1978 this statement may need verbal qualification.)

Thirdly, there are some of the independent churches, some rural congregations of missionary origin, and Islam, perhaps, in most of its East African manifestations. They are voluntary -- at least in the sense that choice does in fact occur. In a secular and plural society, they provide a strong sense of identity for their individual members and are closer in ethos to tribal solidarity than to Western individualism. In principle they are involved in every aspect of life.

Between these three types there are many mixed and intermediate types. There are obvious resemblances and an observable. if not indeed predictable, transition from one to the other. But there are obvious resemblances, and an observable transition, between male circumcision in African societies and in our own. I do not call the latter "initiation;" and I gravely misrepresent the former if I describe the circumcision element as any more than the focal point in a six-month rite of passing from boyhood to manhood. I suggest that at least the same difference exists between traditional and "Birmingham" religion. I cannot justify the use of the same word for both. In "Birmingham," both religion and circumcision have become residual of more fundamental, and radically different, forms of behavior. One has to do with ontology -- with what it means to be a man. The "Birmingham" variety is simply an optional extra. One has to do with commitment, with ultimate concern. The "Birmingham" variety is simply one possible hobby among many; and, if this is "religion" and "religion" refers to spiritual beings, then traditional African societies do not have it. God and the ancestors (like the kabaka) are matters of commitment, of essential nature. They are integrally related to every aspect of life. They are not "putative" but empirical beings.

In his study of the Sotho, Setiloane treats the ancestors as the first group in his description of social structure. They relate to the living in somewhat the same way as an all-pervasive welfare state relates to contemporary local government. This is to get the accent right. The ancestors are concerned with every aspect of life and, therefore, whether or not it is a study of "religion," a study of the ancestors must be a study not merely of "ritual" behavior but of the whole of life in relationship to them. So I return to the kabaka. My Ganda friends have the gravest difficulty in accepting the view that the kabakaship is a religious phenomenon; and, if by "religion" they mean dini, they are no doubt right. Dini is an imported institution which cannot alter the essential nature of Ganda society (though there is evidence that internal political forces since independence have been able to do so. I know young, educated Ganda for whom the kabakaship is already no more than a memory). But, if by "religion" they mean "ultimate concern," then the kabakaship was its primary symbol; and no study of the essential nature of Ganda society could be complete without it. Put in other terms, if we try to use the word "religion" only in its Birmingham sense, the Ganda had no religion, only ample symbols of essential nature, of ultimate concern.

These, it seems to me, are what we ought to be studying; and they will teach us much about a complementary study of the West. African independent churches ought to be studied not as "religious" phenomena but as examples of social schism in whatever form. Political parties cannot be adequately understood without reference to their charter myths. Unitary societies have to be analyzed in terms applicable to communism and nationalism but not to plural societies. The technological worldview is in ontological opposition to the primal worldview. African witchcraft beliefs are strictly analogous not to British covens and claims to occult knowledge but to our attitudes to colored immigrants. African cults of the living dead are comparable not with Western spiritualism but with Churchill memorials and the Patrice Lumumba University. Spirit possession is matched by pop sessions; exo-psychic mythology, by Freudian concepts. "African theology" and "Black theology" have to do not with Western conceptualizations, but with the ontological question of the dignity of African man. They are matters not of dini but of essential nature.


R.D. Laing, The Divided Self. (1960).

G.M. Setiloane, The Image of God among the Sotho-Tswana, (1975).

R.H.T. Thompson, The Church's Understanding of Itself, (1957).

H.W. Turner, 'The Place of independent religious movements in the modernization of Africa,' Journal Religion in Africa, 2:1 (1962), pp. 43-53.

There Is No African Religion...? -- Myrtle S. Langley

"There is no African Religion." The statement is not mine. But, rightly or wrongly, I presume that I am being asked to argue that there is no such thing as a unified African religious system, that it is impossible to define what is uniquely or essentially African in Africa's religions. I should at once like to identify myself with Dr. Welbourn's two introductory points:

Only in two senses does it, the title, present a case which I should want to argue: in the first place, if it means that in traditional Africa there is not one religion but many religions. There's as much difference between the monotheism of the Maasai and the poly-spiritism of the Ganda as between Christianity and village Hinduism... In the second place, I would accept it if it means that, at least in East Africa, there is no vernacular word which can be used to translate what is understood by 'religion' in the West. This is true also of Hebrew and Greek. 'Religion' is a Roman invention. It may be positively misleading to use it in a study of African society.1

My offering is a preliminary case study in support of Dr. Welbourn's first point: "In traditional Africa there is not one religion but many religions." Preliminary, because insufficient work has been done to make final statements about Africa's religion or religions; and a case study, because such work as has been done suggests many African religions varying markedly in content across the continent and throughout the ages. In my remarks, therefore, I shall confine myself to one aspect of the "religious" beliefs of one people: the Nandi of Kenya. The argument of my brief thesis runs somewhat as follows: From the available evidence, there appears to exist, in parts of contemporary traditionalist Nandi, an unhappy juxtaposition of beliefs and practices related to worship of the Supreme Being and veneration of the ancestors. Furthermore, it would appear that this juxtaposition derives from interaction between the Nilotic Nandi and their Bantu neighbors (when and where is not to be precisely determined as yet). Consequently, far from there being a unified "religious system" across the continent of Africa, it can be argued that even systems of recognizably distinct ethnic groups, as we know them today, may lack "unitariness" or unitive coherence.

But first, to introduce the Nandi, their origins and their "religious" beliefs.

The Nandi

l. The People

The Nandi live in the western highlands of Kenya and belong to the Kalenjin cluster of an East African people, successively classified as "Nilo-Hamites," "Paranilotes" and, most recently, "Highland Nilotes." The Kalenjin can be divided further into four sub-groups: (1) the Pokot (Suk) and Marakwet of the Rift Valley; (2) the Sabaot (including the Kony) of Mount Elgon; (3) the Keiyo and Tugen (Kamasia) on the floor and sides of the Rift Valley; and (4) the Kipsigis (mis-named Lumbwa), Terik (or Nyang'ori) and Nandi (Chemng'al). None of these sub-groups is in itself homogenous; included among the Nandi, for example, can be found remnants not only of other Kalenjin sub-groups, but of Luyia (Bantu), Maasai, Sirikwa, Ak(g)iy (Dorobo) and others. Nevertheless, they all share a common cultural and linguistic heritage.2

2. Their Origins

For our purposes it is important that something should be said about Nandi origins and migrations. However, it must needs be brief and somewhat oversimplified. As recently as twenty years ago it was thought that the Kalenjin arrived at Mount Elgon from the region of Lake Rudolf about the year 1600 (AD) and there encountered Dorobo hunters-collectors and Bantu settlers. Since then, comparative linguistics, archaeology and oral history have transformed our knowledge of the East African past. The Highland Nilotes (ancestors of the Kalenjin), it is now believed, entered the highlands of Kenya sometime before A D 1,000 and absorbed Southern Cushitic-speaking peoples who had been there for over three or four thousand years already. Says J.E.G. Sutton:

The "Highland" Nilotes consisting of the Kalenjin, however, derive from a much more ancient population in Kenya. This is clear from comparative linguistics. The differentiation of the Kalenjin languages into three principal groupings -- Pokot, Elgon and southern Kalenjin -- and several sub-divisions within these, and earlier still the split between Kalenjin and Tatoga (who now herd over scattered grassland areas of northern and central Tanzania), and the assimilation of an older southern Cushitic element which is indicated by loan-words, require a period of settlement of a thousand years or more centered on the western Kenya highlands. Archaeological evidence, though not so explicit, will help to bear this out.3

Throughout this time of migration, expansion and absorption, cultural interaction was taking place, for example, the borrowing of age-set systems, customs such as circumcision and clitoridectomy, agricultural methods and, presumably, what we term "religious" beliefs.4

The name "Nandi" was first mentioned in writing by Johann Ludwig Krapf in 1854, and first put on the map by Henry Morton Stanley in 1876.5 It is not a very reputable one. Derived from the Swahili word mnandi, meaning "cormorant," it was used by traders, missionaries and colonial authorities to refer to the Kalenjin generally, and more particularly to the sub-group known to themselves and others as the Chemng'al (meaning "many words" and probably derived from their tendency to engage in long deliberations before reaching a decision), and presumably indicated their "voraciousness."6 They were well-known for their warlike nature and had a reputation for lightning raids on trading parties. The British sent no less than five punitive expeditions against the Nandi between 1896 and 1905-6, one of the chief Nandi transgressions being to replenish their store of arms by dismantling the Uganda Railway and to appropriate the telegraph wires as ornaments for their women.

3. Their "Religion"

My personal acquaintance with the Nandi dates back to 1966, when I arrived in their midst to lecture at a teachers college. At the time I found many of the people, especially the young, experiencing a crisis of identity. This led to my subsequently returning and undertaking research on three rites de passage: initiation, marriage and divorce.7 "Religious beliefs" as such were therefore not my central concern, but I could scarcely escape them! Because for the Nandi, all of life is religious.8 Every aspect of their cultural framework, material, social and spiritual, was a closely interwoven, direct response to the physical environment in which the people found themselves. Even today, after some fifty years of change, it is difficult to separate the "sacred" from the "profane," so-called.9

The initial key to our understanding is the Nandi concept of kiet, which may be translated "world" or "order," but is probably better rendered "nature." Nature or kiet can be understood in the narrow sense of natural forces such as rain, thunder and lightning, or more commonly in the wider sense of "nature" with a capital "N," signifying "the balance of nature," "world order" or "cosmological balance."

In this "natural" scheme of things the Nandi recognize what may be termed a hierarchy of personal and impersonal forces: God, the thunder gods, the shades of the ancestors (or "living dead"), magic, and medicine.

God or Asis (Asis is the indefinite noun, and assist as the definite, meaning "sun") is the beneficent creator, sustainer of life and arbiter of justice. Symbolized by the sun, he is the giver of light, rain and fertility. He is known by other names such as Cheptalel, Cheptilil, Chebobkoiyo, Chepkelyensogol and Chebonamunni, which can be rendered by translation (respectively) "the shining one," "the holy one," "the benefactor," "the omnipotent or supernatural" and "the protector." However, it is not at all certain that the linguistic connotation is the correct or only interpretation of these names of Asis. On the one hand they may be purely descriptive of the sun and on the other (as I have reason to believe) they may refer in some of their forms to female ancestors of the Nandi.

Ilet-ne mie and Ilet-ne ya are the good and bad thunder-gods whom Asis allows to send life-giving rain or destructive lightning.

More important to daily behavior and everyday living are oik (singular: oindei) -- the shades of the ancestors, the "living-dead." These shades may act either in a beneficent or maleficent manner towards their descendants, depending on how they are treated in this life and the next. Consequently, they act as an incentive to the Nandi to act kindly towards elderly relatives and require propitiatory offerings of beer and milk. Even today, the oik are placated and their restraining influence felt. For example, I recollect the puzzlement expressed by the young Swedish wife of a non-practicing Nandi Muslim when relating to me her mother-in-law's dismay at her acquisition of a moonflower plant (datura sauveolens sp.) for the garden. It was, she stated, unlucky, and, moreover, snakes liked it and might therefore enter the house. Libations of milk and beer would have to be placed on the floor in readiness. I then explained to the young woman that the Nandi believed snakes to be one of the guises under which the living-dead returned to visit relatives.

Magic is widespread in Nandi and its perpetrators greatly feared to this day. It is to be distinguished from medicine, although both magical cures and herbal remedies can be employed simultaneously.

Harmful sorcery -- evil magic -- is practiced by sorcerers and sometimes by "seers." Divination and anti-sorcery -- good magic -- are practiced by several types of persons whose functions often overlap.

Medicine is practiced by the herbal doctor or medicine man whose function is solely beneficent and who learns his skill by apprenticeship to a senior.10

Perhaps it would be helpful at this juncture to say that Nandi society was a decentralized one with groups of neighborhoods and neighborhood elders legislating. Ritual matters were in the hands of ritual elders and specialists who did not belong to a particular or priestly class. Rather they were chosen from among those of senior status held in respect by the community. However, there had settled in Nandi sometime during the first half of the nineteenth century a family of "seers" or laibons from the neighboring Maasai. From the chief of these ritual experts, the Laibon, the Nandi sought sanctions at such times as the seasons for circumcision and planting, the occasions of raiding expeditions and war, and in the event of drought or crisis. His role was neither priestly nor political. It was the British who endowed him with an overtly political role when, in 1906, they made Kibeles paramount chief. Indeed, there were no chiefs among the Nandi until the arrival of the British!

God and the Ancestors in Nandi

What I have outlined appears to be a coherent system and is. My problem arose when confronted with G.W.B. Huntingford's statement to the effect that the ancestors in Nandi acted as intermediaries between men and god (Asis). I could find no evidence for this, and informants expressed similar disquiet. Certainly the oik are placated and their restraining influence is felt over behavior; but Asis is also directly appealed to daily for protection, during war for success, at the planting of crops for fertility, and in the event of difficult judicial deliberations for the implementation of justice. Witness the following prayers:

At sunrise the guardian of the house, standing or sitting with his arms crossed, said:

God, I have prayed that you will guard the children and the cattle.


God (Asis), as you rise, rise with me.

In the morning, during times of war, the mothers of the warriors went outside their huts and, after spitting towards the sun, said:

God, give us health.

At the rain-making ceremony, the people sang:

God, we have prayed to you.
Give us rain.
Look at this beer and milk.
We are suffering like women laboring with child.
Guard pregnant women and oxen for us.

On ceremonial occasions, elders prayed:

God, give us blessing,
God, give us life,
God, give us fertility and cattle11

These prayers are ample proof that the Nandi prayed directly to Asis without the need for intermediaries.12 So too, according to J.G. Peristiany and I.Q. Orchardson, did the Kipsigis.13

With this apparent contradiction in mind, I attended a conference in Nairobi. Among the papers given was one by Christopher Ehret entitled "Some Possible Trends in Pre-colonial Religious Thought in Kenya and Tanzania." It was skeptically received by many, but for me it provided fresh stimulus and illumination as it focused in part on the question of God and the ancestors in Nandi.

Interaction of "Religions"

Ehret asserted in general terms:

In ancient East African and Middle Nile Basin thought, it would appear that the great uncontrollable factor governing life and death for the community as a whole was climate, and so God was named with climatic metaphors. In the Middle Nile Basina major application of this concern was a rain-making ritual directed specifically to the high God. In contrast, for neither proto-Bantu -fambe "God" nor for its replacement in early Eastern Bantu, -lungu, can any underlying climatic metaphors be suggested. The religious thought of the Bantu-speaking immigrants into East Africa had been nurtured in the equatorial forest regions where climatic fluctuation was an insignificant factor in the maintenance of life. Instead, other aspects of life, such as the problems of disease, and of social order and belonging, emerged as the primary religious concerns; and therefore religious practice among the early Bantu centered on the spirits closer to the individual, and the high God remained usually a remote figure not directly invoked.14

Now according to this schema, my suspicions were being confirmed. The Nandi fitted into the former and not into the latter category.

They addressed Asis directly, as was to be expected. It remained to look more closely at what Ehret and Huntingford had to say on the subject of the "spirits" before reaching a final conclusion.

The following quotations summarize Huntingford's general and particular conclusions on the subject:

Asis is really to be regarded as the personification of an element that regulates the balance between man and nature, identified with the sun in name because the sun is an obvious and visible body whose effects on the earth can be felt by even the most primitive savage. This element is one that can be approached only through a mediator, and for the Nandi the principal intermediary is the body of the spirits of the dead Nandi. who being still members of the tribe, are considered to be effective agents in the affairs of the living up to the third ascending generation from that of the oldest of the living: beyond that, their names are mostly forgotten and their influence weak.

The proper Nandi name for the spirits is oik, singular oindet, though they are sometimes called musambwanik, singular musambwanindet, a word of Bantu Kavirondo origin (Kakumega and Hanga, umusambwa, 'ancestral spirit'), which is properly used in Nandi of evil, elemental spirits which are otherwise called chemosit, plural chemosisiek. These evil spirits have never been people, and among them are those that carry disease. No offerings are made to them... A man may be walking along a path, and suddenly feels his foot catch in something which trips him; he can see nothing which can have done it, and attributes the fall to a musambwanindet. But he can do nothing, for these evil spirits are not to be placated by any offerings, and the most that man can do is keep them out of his dwellings...15

According to Beech, some Suk denied belief in a future life; but it seems clear that there is a form of ancestor-cult like that of the Nandi, with snakes playing a similar part as vehicles of the spirit.16

Obviously Ehret takes Huntingford at face value on the subject of intermediaries, but his linguistic evidence is so strong as to compel some suggestion of borrowing and religious interaction -- just as I had suspected. I quote:

In many of the recent non-Bantu speaking societies in Tanzania and southern and central Kenya, an emphasis on the ancestors in religious practice has been evident, but in a number of cases there exists clear linguistic evidence for earlier Bantu influence on spirit conceptions. A case in point is that of the Kalenjin of western Kenya. Nandi ancestors, for instance, have distinctly greater immediate importance in religious observances than the high God. On the other hand, earlier Bantu influence of some kind on conceptions of the ancestor spirits appear in the wide adoption in western Kalenjin dialects of a Luyia-Gisu term, in the form of mpwatn, a borrowing dating probably to the period 1,000-1,500 AD. This term seems, in general, to be coming to apply primarily to an implacable evil spirit, a non-ancestral being possibly of ancient local provenance in western Kenyan thought, rather than the usual non-evil, placatable ancestor spirit. But there are other indications in Nandi usage which point to the original adoption of this term as a synonym for ancestor spirits. So its borrowing by Kalenjin communities may well indicate an earlier North-east Victoria Bantu influence on Kalenjin conceptions of the relative importance of ancestor spirits. That the high God once had at least somewhat greater immediacy for religious practice among the Kalenjin seems indicated in any case in the wording of Nandi sayings and cursing formulas, which because of their standardized form can preserve earlier statements of ideas.17

Assertions from the Nandi came to confirm the Bantu Luyia terminology. Only in areas influenced by the Luyia was the term musambwanik in use, and the puzzlement of Walter Sangree as to why the Kalenjin-acculturated but Luyia-speaking Tiriki should have two terms for the ancestors, baguga and misambwa.18

I consequently came to the following conclusions about the "religion" of the Nandi, in the process positing an interaction of two differing "religious" systems sometime in the past: The Nandi connect God with the sun. Some assert that God is the sun, while others advance the more sophisticated notion that the sun is a manifestation of God. I have gathered information from varying sources and come to the conclusion that to say that the sun is a symbol for God is probably the best interpretation. Points to note are as follows: At morning prayers, Asis is asked to rise with the supplicant: "Asis, as you rise, rise with me." At evening prayers, sometimes ashes are thrown towards the West -- in the direction of the setting sun -- in the belief that Asis can curse as he disappears for the night. It has been held that at the time of solar eclipse, Asis ceases to be.

On the evidence of comparative linguistics, it can be plausibly argued that about two thousand years ago the Southern Nilotes (ancestors of the Kalenjin) borrowed the concept of God/sun linkage from the Rift Southern Cushites who, in the last millennium B.C., linked God with the sun. The linkage continues in modern Iraq, where the same word is used both for sun and God, and in modern Kalenjin, where there may or may not be a slight distinction made. For example, in Marakwet, Asis is applied to both God and son; while in Nandi, Keiyo and Kipsigis, Asis (the indefinite "sun-ness") is applied to the Supreme Being, whereas asista (the definite noun) is reserved for the sun in the sky. This modern distinction serves to strengthen the contention that the linkage was always figurative and in no way implied that the sun was God.

Furthermore, the origin of the concept can be traced to the Middle Nile Basin from whence these people came. Moreover, both East African and Middle Nile Basin thought of the time associated divinity with the elements, because the great uncontrollable factor governing life and death for the community was climatic; but the ancestral spirits were primarily associated with human beings and, being derived from the life-force or "shadow" of the living, were of a different kind or essence from the Supreme Being. This is clearly seen in Nandi beliefs concerning Asis and the spirits of the ancestors (oik): they are different in kind and are approached in different ways and for different reasons.

On the other hand, the religious thought of the Bantu-speaking immigrants into East Africa was nurtured in regions where climatic fluctuations were an insignificant factor in the maintenance of life and where the problems of disease, social order and belonging became the primary religious concern. For this reason, their religious practice centered in the spirits close to the individual, whereas the Supreme Being usually remained a rather remote figure not directly involved in the affairs of day-to-day living.

Consequently, one can detect in the Nandi "religious" system not only the Southern Nilotic heritage of God/sun linkage and the ancestor cult but also extraneous elements, probably of Bantu origin. The evil spirits -- musambwanik and chemosisiek (feared and guarded against) -- are most likely to have their immediate origins among the Luyia and Dorobo respectively.


Finally, some concluding remarks of relevance to the subject of this conference, and a story, from Ireland.

Comparative linguistics, archaeology and oral history suggest that during Africa's past, various religious systems have interacted with and borrowed from each other. All too often false similarities have been found because scholars have been too ready to make generalized deductions about apparently related peoples. Instead, perhaps, they ought to have worked on the assumption of "different until proved similar!" To take only one example, that of the ancestors, Huntingford might just as well have generalized to the tribal people of Southeast Asia as to the Pokot. And what of pre-Greek, pre-Roman, pre-Christian Europe? The Christianization of Europe has been subjected to minimal scholarly research. Perhaps the "unhappy juxtaposition" of the saints as intermediaries and Christ as sole mediator in Catholic and Protestant Christianity, respectively, is of the same nature as that of the ancestors in Nandi. Surely there is no uniquely African, Asian, European or, for that matter, Western "religion," but rather differing responses of man to his environment expressed in the context either of pre-literate, pre-rationalistic, pre-technological cultures, or of those belonging to our modern scientific era. '

While reading the proceedings of the Barrytown Conference, I came across Francis Botchway's tale of the engineer who was puzzled by the tree which would not be moved until the gods had been consulted; no modern machinery was sufficient to move its bulk until the gods which inhabited it had been requested to leave, whereupon it fell with the push of a hand. I was reminded of a story related to me by my sister on a recent visit to Ireland. (I'm Irish, or Anglo-Norman, to be more exact; for my forbears went over with Cromwell to settle the Irish question once and for all!) The pre-Christian Irish planted circles of trees known colloquially as "forts," or so the story goes. Recently, one such fort was interfered with to make way for a modern thoroughfare. Its location has since been the scene of numerous accidents and mishaps. But who remembers how to consult the gods? The druids have long since disappeared. It's fifteen hundred years and more since the coming of Patrick and the conversion of Ireland, but still the differing "religions" can be distinguished side by side...


1 F. B. Welbourn, "There is no African Religion" ("Are there two kinds of 'religion'?") -- paper read at Bristol, September, 1978.

2 On the Kalenjin people generally and their origins, see: A.C. Hollis, The Nandi: Their Language and Folk-lore (Oxford: Clarendon, 1909); G.W.B. Huntingford, The Northern Nilo-Hamites, also The Southern Nilo-Hamites (London, International African Institute, 1953), "The Peopling of the Interior of East Africa by Its Modern Inhabitants," in R. Oliver and G. Mathew (eds), History of East Africa, Vol. I (Oxford: Clarendon, 1963): J.E.G. Sutton, "Some Reflections on the Early History of Western Kenya," in Bethwell A. Ogot (ed.) Hadath 2, (Nairobi, British Institute in Eastern Africa, 1973); B. E. Kipkorir with F. B. Welbourn, The Marakwet of Kenya. (Nairobi, EALB, 1973); A. T. Matson, Nandi Resistance to British Rule 1890-1906 (Nairobi, EAPH, 1972).

3 J.E.G. Sutton, "Some Reflections," he. cit.. p. 22.

4 For substantiation, see Christopher Ehret, "Linguistics as a Tool for Historians" in Bethwell A. Ogot (ed.), Hadith I (Nairobi, EAPH, 1968); "Cushites and the Highland and Plains Nilotes to AD 1800," in Bethwell A. Ogot (ed.), Zamani: A Survey of East African History (New Edition. Nairobi, EAPH, 1974); Southern Nilotic History: Linguistic Approaches to the Study of the Past (Northwestern, 1971.)

5 G.W.BN. Huntingford, The Southern Nilo-Hamites. p. 19.

6 I.Q. Orchardson, The Kipsigis (Nairobi, EALB, 1961), p. 5.

7 Myrtle S. Langley, "Ritual Change among the Nandi: A Study of Change in Life-Crisis Rituals 1923-1973," Bristol, doctoral dissertation, 1976 to be published in 1979 by Christopher Hurst, London, under the title The Nandi of Kenya: Life Crisis Rituals in a Period of Change.

8 John S. Mbiti, "Africans are notoriously religious..." in his African Religions and Philosophy (London, Heinemann, 1969), p. 1.

9 It is a moot point as to what distinguishes a "religious" from a "secular" world view. For example, B. E. Kipkorir asserts: "It is safe to assume that the Kalenjin were originally a highly secular people." ("The Sun in Marakwet Religious Thought," paper read at the Conference on the Historical Study of African Religions, Nairobi, June 1974). Taking F. B. Welbourn seriously, I prefer to speak of the "religious" nature of African societies inasmuch as they possess primal world views expressing by their symbolisms the essential nature of society and what is of ultimate concern.

10 See my "Ritual Change among the Nandi," pp. 25-8, for greater detail at this point.

11 Various oral and written sources.

12 G.W.B. Huntingford, The Nandi of Kenya: Tribal Control in a Pastoral Society (London, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1953), p. 136.

13 J.G. Peristiany, The Social Institutions of the Kipsigis (London, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1939); I.Q. Orchardson, op. cit.

14 Christopher Ehret, "Some Possible Trends in Pre-colonial Religious Thought in Kenya and Tanzania," paper read at the Conference on the Historical Study of African Religions (Nairobi, June 1974), p. 5.

15 G.W.B. Huntingford, The Nandi of Kenya, pp. 136, 142.

16 "G.W.B. Huntingford, The Southern Nilo-Hamites. p. 89.

17 Christopher Ehret, loc. cit.

18 Walter H. Sangree, Age. Prayer and Politics in Tiriki. Kenya (London, OUP, 1966), pp. 33-44. The baguga are recently deceased paternal and maternal agnatic ancestors; the misambwa are the generalized ancestral spirits. Apparently the way to getting the misambwa's attention is through the baguga. Of course Sangree is unaware that the Nandi terms for paternal and maternal agnatic ancestors are inguget and ingoget, respectively.


Irving Hexham: I think we will follow the procedure we followed earlier, and simply ask Myrtle and Fred questions of clarification. I'd like to thank them both for their papers, which have been very stimulating, and will add to the discussion this afternoon.

Angela Burr: Were you saying that all African people have the same degree of religion?

Myrtle Langley: No, I was saying that, in a general sense, if you equate religion with societal concerns and the nature of life, you do find different systems in Africa, which now and in recent times have interacted to produce systems which, even of themselves, aren't unitary or coherent, but which, of course, people will transform through interaction into a system.

Angela Burr: I was wondering if you were saying that African traditional society was in no sense secular, or that Africa is not as secular as the West.

Myrtle Langley: This depends on what you call "secular," or what you call "religion." I think that for the Nandi, for example, ritual might be what we call secular ritual today; for example, life-crisis rituals -- particularly initiation, though not so much funerals. And yet, when you analyze the rituals and the symbols of the rituals, there is a great deal of "religion within symbols," although it is concerned with what we call "secular" life in the West. Whereas in West Africa there are many systems -- the divinities, the priestly class, what you might call on the surface "religion," -- in the East, you won't get what you would immediately call religions.

Kwame Gyekye: How would the two speakers define "religion?" I know that this is a big question, but also very important, especially in categorizing bodies of doctrines or beliefs.

Myrtle Langley: I have put the word in quotes right through the discussion. I use it in the sense of people's response to their environment in a total way, which includes their response to life as a whole and to the origins of life, and, therefore, the Supreme Being, and the ground of their being, their ultimate experience.

Kwame Gyekye: Do you think that definition is applicable to other religions?

Myrtle Langley: Yes, I do, which is why I would say one can't get away from religion. But some will call that "secular," and there you have the perennial problem of definition.

Fred Welbourn: Part of the object of this paper was to eliminate the use of the word "religion," since it is quite impossible to define. I think religious studies ought to be concerned with humans living.

Irving Hexham: Have you got a name for those studies?

Fred Welbourn: I would study "commitment."

Irving Hexham: "Department of Commitment?"

Fred Welbourn: Yes. I would unquestionably include Marxism.

Angela Burr: Isn't that based on the premise that all human beings have commitment?

Fred Welbourn: No, we might find ourselves studying non commitment. It is very interesting that my colleague at the University of Bristol, who is teaching religion and literature, though he and I work entirely independently, found out about the same time I did that we are saying commitment is what we are really talking about.

Kwame Gyekye: Would you say that Marxism and atheism are religion?

Myrtle Langley: I would say so, yes, but I think you should try to define the term and put some parameters on it. As soon as you use "religion," everyone in this room has particular ideas of what we mean. One uses the term "ideology" for Marxism, yet some say Marxism is not an ideology; so you have the same problem, haven't you?

Fred Welbourn: Marxism and religion should be studied in the same bracket as religion, which doesn't commit me to denounce it.

Harold Turner: One could talk about a "department of religion and irreligion." I wouldn't want to, but one could.

Fred Welbourn: Taking "irreligion" there as a positive thing?

Harold Turner: As a thing always related to religion, as it were, parasitically. It doesn't arise independently or apart from reaction against religion. It's historic. The two do belong together historically, and empirically they can't be separated.

James Dickie: The word "dini" is used in Arabic to translate "religion," but it is by no means the same thing. It means "custom." Christianity never rooted itself in Europe as a "dini;" it was simply one ingredient in a complicated broth. Islam unquestionably is a "dini." A "dini" embraces all aspects of life -- economic, cultural, aesthetic, positively everything! Which raises the question of how far a comparison of Islam and Christianity is possible. One can compare them only up to a certain point, because they are not both "dinis."

Fred Welbourn: As far as East Africa is concerned, that which they call "dini" is not "din." "Dini" is an imported system, which is like changing your clothes, whereas "din" is more like changing one's skin. What I regard as important is "din," whether it is found in some places in Europe or Islam or in Africa. In this sense, African indigenous religions are "din," whereas in most cases, Christianity is not, nor Islam. Because these misunderstandings arise, I don't want to use the word "religion." Luber, an American psychologist, who wrote about religion, asked 68 different social scientists what they mean by religion and got back 68 different answers, some of them completely incompatible. Or else we take up with Mr. Facum, when he says: "When I say religion, I mean the Christian religion, and when I say the Christian religion, I mean the Protestant religion, and when I say the Protestant religion, I mean the Church of England as by law established." We either have this complete confusion, so "religion" means almost anything we want it to mean, or we get this sharp definition. Neither of these will do. So, let's abolish the word.

Harold Turner: If you do, you've just got to get yourself another word for the same range of phenomena which you are going to be studying. You are changing the labels, and you may protect yourself from some of the points about which you may feel sensitive. But what you are studying remains the same, the same field of interest.

Irving Hexham: How would you define religion?

Harold Turner: I'll give you my working definition. It comes from Joachim Wach, and that whole range of scholarship which lies between these two extremes Fred is talking about. I intend mine as an open and working definition, and every word is important: "An active and total response to what is encountered deeply as ultimate reality." Naturally it is a bit loose at the edges, but it is a religious definition of religion, so that we do know what we are talking about.

Myrtle Langley: But isn't the Marxist then talking about ultimate reality when he is talking about "man as the measure of all things?" This is why we include in our definition something the common man would not include.

Harold Turner: I would include Marxism, in the sense that it was mentioned last night as a heresy, as one would include irreligion in the study of religion. But I wouldn't call Marxism a religion in the sense that it lacks the essential thing that religious people through history have lived and died by, namely, some transcendent reference. Marxism, in practice, opposes and wants to get rid of known religion. That is a funny position to be in, if you are going to call it a religion.

Fred Morgan: You seem to be arguing for your own self-sufficiency here. Where do you begin in listing the religions? Do you begin by saying there must be a transcendent for it to be a religion, or do you begin by listing those who declare themselves to be religions? Do you start by listening to someone else's self-declaration as a religion, or do you say: "I will declare if you are a religion or not!"

Harold Turner: I don't start theoretically like that; I start empirically, by gathering together a group of words in languages which refer to things which we would, on the face of it, call religious: like worship, altars, prayers, or sacrifices. We don't call those primarily economic or political activities.

Fred Morgan: But that is because within our religion we call these items religious.

Harold Turner: Not just within ours. Those are our terms for them, but other people have terms for altars and priests and prayers and sacrifices. The items we're discussing have a family resemblance, whatever the language or term.

Fred Morgan: Let's turn the situation around: other people may have terms for things which don't occur in our religion; then, from their point of view, we may not count as a religion, because we don't have those things.

Harold Turner: But the things I'm talking about we do all share. We do have sacred places. All the peoples of the world have places of worship. There are certain basic things: people pray, they seem to have been doing it for as long as human history, though, at the fringes, there are points to be explored.

James Dickie: Surely any definition of religion embraces two components: a religion embraces dogma and ritual. Marxism has a basic dogma, but I don't see it has any ritual.

Angela Burr: Of course it has! What are left-wing demonstrations? (laughter)

Eileen Barker: Can I just put in one thing? I know I'm out of order, but they have all been out of order too. I get very worried at this sort of meeting when people start saying religion is or religion is not, you just have this platonic idea, or it has just got two points! I agree entirely with Harold that there is a family resemblance and I'm sympathetic towards Fred; but I think that if you throw the name "religion" out you create as many new problems as you solve. Surely, what we wish to call "religion" depends on what our problem is. If we want to see how certain practices function in a particular way, then we can look at secular rites, secular beliefs, people going to altars. If we want to know what people choose to regard as sacred, then we are asking another set of questions. We arbitrarily decide that one thing is religion, and fail to look at what our question is. We then define religion either functionally or ontologically or socially or some other way, and we will exclude a whole lot of important things which we ought to allow ourselves to examine.

Kurt Johnson: The Marxists in Japan don't consider the Unification Church a religion. They are very adamant about that, but for different reasons. Certain Jews and Christians in the United States similarly argue that the Unification Church is not a religion, but a political movement. It's a matter of perspective: perhaps from the Japanese-Marxist, or the American-Christian perspective, the Unification Church is not religion.

Irving Hexham: We meet again at 2:30, to take up the argument about religion in Africa. Now, let's eat. 

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