Thinking About Religion
Volume 10 (2012)

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God and the Traditional African Experience: Shattering the Stereotypes[1]

Paul Boaheng
Fayetteville State University


Africa has been labeled, stigmatized and misconstrued as a “Dark Continent,” devoid of the knowledge of God until the arrival of the European missionaries. Some scholars have tried to put this misconception to rest by contending that the knowledge of God was not foreign to Africans. However, some contemporary thinkers have revisited the misconception, insisting that Africa could not independently have had the knowledge of God. For example, in his book, No Apology Necessary (1997), Pastor Earl Carter has contended that slavery in America was divinely sanctioned because it helped introduce Africans to God — the obvious implication is that Africans didn’t know God prior to their enslavement. Essentially, this paper attempts to dispel this misconception by contending that the knowledge of God was already in the minds of indigenous Africans long before the Europeans enslaved them and brought them to America. Consequently, the long-standing notion that European-Americans taught Africans about God is an unwarranted dogma based on a distorted view of African traditional religion. By critically examining some of the hidden theistic elements embedded in African traditional religion, this paper seeks to disprove and reverse the negative stereotypes about African indigenous religion.

Introduction: Some Standard Misconceptions                          

There have been widespread misconceptions about the African Traditional Religion (hereinafter ATR). This misconception has, in some scholars, matured into prejudice and resilient skepticism about the African’s ability to grasp the concept of God. Essentially, the religion is seen by non-Africans in terms of what is visible and observable. Foreigners usually observe only the externals such as the slaughtering of animals, pouring of libation, and worship of idols.[2] Accordingly, it is not uncommon for non-natives to describe ATR in the most derogatory terms. Indeed, ATR has become a religion of scorn and derision to some Western theologians, such as Edward Tylor and Hegel.  Based on superficial evidence, such as the multitudes of images of idol gods and objects, some Western observers have concluded that Africans believe in multiple gods and spirits which are in sharp opposition to the Christian God. For example, Edward Tylor, one of the harshest critics of ATR, described Africans in general as animists, believing that natural phenomenon, including plants and inanimate objects, have souls. In his estimation, Africans believed there were souls in all things; therefore, they worshipped “objects” as opposed to the Christian God.[3]  Along similar lines, the renowned explorer-adventurer Sir Richard Burton has described Africans as fetishists, that is, as people who worship objects endowed with spiritual powers. In his own words: “The negro is still at that rude dawn of faith—fetishism—and he has barely advanced to idolatry…He has never grasped the ideas of a personal Deity.”[4] In short, in the eyes of strangers, Africans believed that natural objects have supernatural powers; therefore, they worshipped those objects instead of God. Thus, it comes as no surprise that some Western scholars have identified ATR with what Professor Joseph Osei refers to as the Stupidity Theory of Religion, according to which “ATR and related moral beliefs including taboos are followed by irrational or foolish people who in their stupidity bow down to stones, trees and rivers instead of the Creator who created such objects and themselves.”[5]

In response to this criticism of ATR, some eminent African scholars, including Professors Edward Blyden, John Mbiti, Kwasi Sarpong, and Bolaji Idowu, have contended that the African people knew and worshipped the same God known in the Western world long before the arrival of the European missionaries. In particular, Edward Blyden has averred that no candid person who has visited Africa can affirm or believe that Africans are incapable of conceiving God. Accordingly, he has encouraged fellow Africans in Diaspora to return to Africa for evangelization, and not to allow Westerners to deceive them into thinking that Africa is the land of “incorrigible barbarism, degradation, and superstition.”[6]  Similarly, Mbiti has contended that indigenous Africans were receptive to Christianity precisely because African religious values were congruent with the tenets of Christianity. He has therefore dismissed the assertion that Africans were savages, destitute of true religion as empirically false.  As he puts it: “no religious vacuum existed when Christianity arrived” [in Africa].[7] In sum, these African scholars are unanimous in arguing that the Judeo-Christian concept of God was not imported to African.

In spite of these scholars’ efforts to put the misconception of ATR to rest, the truth still remains that some contemporary scholars continue to misinterpret the religion. A widespread belief that continues to be uncritically and dogmatically accepted is that Africa could not independently have had the knowledge of God, and that the concept of God was foreign to Africans. Indeed, some contemporary Christian thinkers have gone as far as to contend that slavery in America was divinely sanctioned because it helped introduce Africans to the Christian God — the implication is that Africans didn’t know God prior to their enslavement. For example, in the judgment of Pastor Earl Carter, a founder of Christ Ministries Church of God in Orlando, Florida, God instituted slavery on the continent of Africa as a punishment for worshipping idols. In his provocative book, No Apology Necessary (1997), Pastor Carter contends that “slavery was God’s form of chastisement to bring blacks out of idol worship to the true and living God.”[8] As the title of his book suggests, white people need not apologize to people of African descent for enslaving them, because, the “white man was just the arresting officer; he was only God’s instrument. So the white man owes us no apology, just respect.”[9] He proceeds with this rhetorical question: “Should he [the white man] be sorry if he is just an instrument?”[10] Apologizing to the black man, in Carter’s opinion, is tantamount to saying that the white man, rather than God, orchestrated slavery. The crux of Carter’s argument is that even though Africans suffered dreadfully under chattel slavery, even though they were brutalized, humiliated, and dehumanized, they should be respectful of white people because if the slave ships had not arrived and brought the slaves from Africa to America, they wouldn't have found or known the Christian God. Pastor Carter’s argument has the obvious implication that Africans didn’t know God prior to their enslavement, and that if they had not been enslaved and brought to America, they (the enslaved Africans) would not have known the Judeo Christian God.

There is much of interest to argue against Pastor Carter’s justification for slavery, but that is not the central focus of this paper. Rather, I here want to bring it up simply to point out that Pastor Carter’s book has deepened and reinforced the impression and stereotype in the West that indigenous Africans were unfamiliar with the Christian God prior to the advent of Christianity. More relevantly, I bring his argument up to alert the reader that the misconception about ATR is still “alive”; therefore, it is not “anachronistic” to revisit the issue.  Before I delve into the crux of my argument, however, I would like to briefly address one common issue which continues to mislead some scholars such as Pastor Carter to conclude that indigenous Africans did not know the God worshipped in the Western world.

The lack of shrines in African religious communities for God has significantly deepened the misapprehension about ATR. Christians, Jews, and Muslims have temples, synagogues, and Mosques respectively for the worship of God. African religious communities, by contrast, do not have specific shrines for the worship of the Supreme Being. In Africa, because the lesser gods are said to be the focal point of ritual activity; many shrines are dedicated to them. This lack of shrines for the Supreme Being has contributed to the misconception that the knowledge of God was not known to adherents of ATR.  Some have gone as far as to say that Africans have no concept of God at all, insisting that all the deities they worship are nothing more than “superstitions”. For example, Georg Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831), the German philosopher, famously described Africa as a place of sorcery and superstition.  In his estimation, the African is without the recognition of a “Higher Being” that would have “inspire[d] him with real reverence.”[11] The famous explorer Sir Samuel Baker reinforced this popular prejudice when he presented the following report to the Ethnological Society of London on the Africans: “Without any exception, they [Africans] are without a belief on a Supreme Being, neither have they any form of worship… nor is the darkness of their minds enlightened by even a ray of superstition. The mind is as stagnant as the morass which forms its puny world.”[12] Baker could not find any temples dedicated to the worship of the Supreme Being; therefore, he joined Hegel in concluding that Africans had no concept of the Supreme Being. Similarly, because African-Americans who were enslaved and brought to America didn’t have shrines dedicated to the worship of the Christian God, he, like others before him, imprudently concluded that they were idol worshipers who deserved to be enslaved.

What these foreigners fail to realize is that the absence of shrines for the worship of the Supreme Being does not imply that the concept of God is foreign to Africans. Nor does it imply that followers of ATR do not worship God. From the African perspective, the Supreme Being is ubiquitous, invisible, and invincible; therefore, it is illogical, if not sacrilegious, to represent him in any physical form. The Supreme Being is believed to exist outside time and space. Given that the Supreme Being is immaterial and non-spatial, in the minds of followers of ATR, it makes no sense to make any corporeal representation of him. Consequently, we may infer from the absence of shrines for the Supreme Being that indigenous Africans have great reverence for the omnipresent and omnipotent God. Paradoxically, adherents of ATR would accuse Christians of impugning God’s omnipresence and omnipotence by “confining” Him to temples. 

Attempts at Dispelling some Misconceptions about ATR

As we saw earlier, some Western Christian thinkers have described Africans as animists; that is, as people who believe that objects and animals have souls or spirits-anima. Admittedly, some followers of ATR believe that some objects possess souls. For example, some Yorubas of Nigeria believe that the spirit of an old man dwells in the Iroko tree in the forest. They shun the Iroko tree because they believe the spirit that resides in the tree prowls about at night with a little torch and incessantly terrifies travelers.[13] However, it is an exaggeration to conclude that Africans believe that every object and every creature has souls and spirits. As Bishop Peter Sarpong eloquently puts it: “the Asante [of Ghana] do not believe that the cocoa tree, or the plantain tree or for that matter the palm tree or the grasscutter has a spirit. Yet these are all items of the animal and vegetable kingdoms that are of empirical interest to the Asante.”[14] Even if, for the sake of argument, we concede that some practitioners of ATR are animistic, we cannot justifiably describe the entire religion as animistic; doing so will render one guilty of hasty generalization. Even if one grants that ATR is animistic, it does not necessarily follow that proponents of ATR do not know or worship the true God, as detractors of ATR would have us believe.  ATR holds that there is one God and everything else, including the so-called spirits that dwell in objects, was created by God.[15] Thus, the African “animists” might contend that since they believe the spirits that dwell in animate and inanimate objects come from God, their “animistic” belief does not run afoul of their belief in God. Put otherwise, one can be committed to animism without being a fortiori committed to atheism.

Similarly, the indictment that ATR is fetishistic is groundless, in my opinion. Fetishism, as we explained earlier, is the belief that objects have supernatural powers. To see why it is inaccurate to describe ATR as fetishistic, let us examine the etymology of the word “fetishism.” The word fetishism is derived from the Portuguese word feitiço meaning an object. When the Portuguese first arrived in West Africa, they found out that the indigenous people they encountered on the coast wore some objects of spiritual value, such as talismans and amulets. Therefore, they (the Portuguese) assumed that the natives worshipped those objects independently of the Supreme Being.

However, given the above etymological meaning of fetishism, and given that traditionalists do not worship objects in isolation, the equation of fetishism with ATR is simply a tendentious distortion of the essence of the indigenous religion. It is true that some adherents of ATR wear sacred objects, particularly talisman.  However, this does not, in any way, justify characterizing the entire religion fetishistic. Many foreigners seem to lose sight of the fact that while the natives they encounter worship God through objects they wear, they do not worship those objects per se. Those objects are merely means to an end; they are not ends in themselves, to use Immanuel Kant’s famous phraseology. This being the case, when those objects outlive their usefulness, they can be justifiably disposed of. Indeed, there have been instances where members of ATR have discarded their sacred objects for failing to perform certain tasks entrusted to them. The value of the Supreme Being, on the other hand, is said to be intrinsic. His value is intrinsic in the sense that He, in the eyes of Africans, is inimitable and irreplaceable. Thus, to say that adherents of ATR do not know God because they worship sacred objects they wear is to display ignorance of ATR.

Ironically, most Western observers who described Africans as fetishists can to this day pray overtly to God through sacred objects they wear such as rosary beads, medals, and crucifixes. If ATR is identified with fetishism because sacred objects are found in that religion, then consistency requires that we label Christianity fetishistic. Indeed, since sacred objects are found in Christianity (and indeed all religions), it is not unreasonable to say that the religion of Western observers itself is undergirded by a commitment to fetishism.  One might say that in wearing sacred objects and petitioning God through those objects, they have already infected their own religion with just the same sort of fetishism they vehemently impugn. Accordingly, one might conclude that their repudiation of ATR on the grounds that it is fetishistic appears self-refuting.

Adherents of ATR have also been accused of worshipping ancestors. However, there is no evidence to substantiate this indictment, either. While ancestors are highly respected for living an exemplary and impeccable moral life, they are not worshipped or divinized, contrary to what some foreigners think.  Without a doubt, ancestors are venerated, but indigenous Africans worship God and God only. Veneration and worship are two separate and distinct words. As one writer later came to realize, “there was ancestor reverence, not ancestor worship.[16] Ancestors are considered intermediaries, playing subservient roles and not regarded as Supreme Beings worthy of worship. To be sure, venerating “intermediaries” is not peculiar to ATR.  Some Christians, including Roman Catholics, venerate their Saints, but we don’t accuse them of being Saint Worshippers, nor do we condemn their veneration of saints as polytheistic. Similarly, Muslims regard Muhammad as a moral paragon, and thus venerate him. However, they vehemently deny the claim that they worship Muhammad.  In short, ATR is no more ancestor worship than Islam is Muhammad worship or Catholicism Saint-Worship.

The Supreme Being: Too Powerful and too Sacred to be Approached Directly

Some Adherents of ATR believe that the lesser gods derive their power from the Supreme Being, who is believed to be too powerful to concern itself with the problems that we humans face in our daily lives. According to some Western scholars, it is a contradiction in terms to suggest, as indigenous Africans do, that God is the creator yet he is totally withdrawn from concern of his creatures. James O’Connell expressed this seeming contradiction this way:

There is an apparent contradiction between the supremacy of the high-god and his withdrawal from concern with the world. The attributes assigned to him heighten this effect of contradiction. He is said to be at the origin of things, often as a creator, he is all-knowing and all powerful…. But in spite of these attributes the high-god is not usually directly worshipped, he has no priest and no shrines dedicated to him…” [17]

The plausibility of O’Connell’s argument rests on the tacit assumption that because God is withdrawn from concern with the world, he has nothing to do with the everyday affairs. His argument ignores the indigenous African belief that God, out of concern, has delegated the care of the world to lesser beings who are thought to be his ministers or priests. It is reasonable to say that if he didn’t care he wouldn’t delegate the care of the world to his subordinates. In short, the fact that the Supreme Being sometimes chooses to remain aloof doesn’t necessarily impugn his omnipotence or omnibenevolence, as O’Connell would have us believe. African traditionalists revere God so much so that they deem it unworthy to bring their concerns directly before the Supreme Being. This claim is buttressed by a popular saying of the Igbo of Nigeria: “God is like a rich man, you approach him through his servants”. Similarly, Akans of Ghana and many other African societies believe that just as one cannot seek to consult with a great King directly, given the hierarchy of powers in the traditional political system, it is more so inappropriate to seek a direct consultation with God, who is by definition, the Supreme Being[18]. It is thought that God takes very little interest in the minor day-to-day affairs of individuals. He is rather overtly concerned with matters of supreme importance.  Seen from this perspective, the Supreme Being has created lesser spirits as his lieutenants to take care of the ordinary problems of life. This implies, as one writer puts it,

That humans should avoid appealing to the Supreme Being except in matters of great importance or when appeals to lesser spirits have repeatedly failed. To ask the Supreme Being for help with minor concerns like changing a job or winning a football game would be to show an arrogance bordering on blasphemy[19]

Unbeknownst to some Western scholars, this traditional belief is not distinctive of ATR. To be sure, one of the Ten Commandments explicitly proscribes calling the name of God in vain. “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not leave him unpunished who takes His name in vain.”[20] Christians believe that God is holy, pure, perfect, and righteous; therefore, using His name in any form should be taken with great seriousness.  This being the case, Christians are required to not “bother” God with their minor concerns. Thus, it is not unreasonable to presume that some Christians would concur with African Traditionalists that invoking the name of God is a serious matter and should not be taken lightly. In short, both followers of ATR and Christians seem to hold that we disrespect God by appealing directly to Him in matters of trivial importance.

Monotheism in ATR

Some Western detractors have acknowledged the inappropriateness of categorizing the indigenous African religion as atheism — the belief that there is no God. However, they have maintained that the indigenous Africans’ belief in the existence of lesser deities alongside the existence of God makes their religion polytheistic, as opposed to the Christian “monotheistic” God.  For this reason, some have argued that “it is absurd to equate him [the African God] with the Deity of the Lord’s Prayer.”[21] However, to dissociate the Judeo-Christian God from the African “God” on the grounds that ATR is polytheistic is to display a superficial understanding of the indigenous religion. Polytheism, as Bishop Peter Sarpong reminds us, “connotes a situation where two or more divinities are believed to hold an equal status. In a polytheistic situation the pantheon of gods comprises deities none of whom is thought to be greater than others, even though one may be considered as primus inter pares.”[22] Thus, ATR is not polytheism because in polytheism there are many gods in a pantheon struggling for supremacy, in which all the gods are of equal importance. In short, since the Supreme Being does not form part of the pantheon of numerous deities, it is a misnomer to refer to ATR as polytheistic. If one believes, as adherents of ATR do, in the hierarchy of beings, then the “polytheism” charge evaporates.  Followers of ATR place beings in a hierarchy of superiority, with the Supreme Being always on top. Since polytheism, in its classical meaning, presupposes that the Supreme Being and the lesser gods are all of the same rank and file, ATR cannot justifiably be classified as a polytheistic religion.

My argument above should not be construed as saying that because ATR is not polytheistic, it is necessarily monotheistic. I am aware of other alternatives to monotheism and polytheism. For example, there is the possibility of henotheism; that is, the belief that there is one Supreme Being among several.  However, as I aim to show shortly, ATR cannot plausibly be associated with henotheism. While both practitioners of ATR and henotheists believe in one god without denying the existence of others, henotheists worship other gods (besides the one Supreme Being). The religious beliefs of the Hindus and classical Greeks, which are examples of classical henotheism, can throw considerable light on our understanding of the issue at hand. For instance, while Hinduism contains many different kinds of beliefs including monism and polytheism, the early Vedic Hinduism is widely associated with henotheism. Although the traditional Hindus generally worship one god, they readily concede that there are many other gods that can be worshiped as well. Similarly, the religion of the ancient Greeks and their worship of the Olympians is a classic example of henotheism. While Zeus is considered the supreme deity of eleven other gods, all twelve were worshiped, each individually by a different sect or temple.[23]

In stark contrast, indigenous Africans regard only the Supreme Being worthy of worship. Other lesser beings play an intermediary role; that is, the Supreme Being is worshipped through the lesser beings. Thus, the key difference between henotheism and the structure of ATR is that indigenous Africans do not worship infinite variety of independent Supreme Beings. The origin of other spiritual beings are created or derivative; their power is limited; and they came into being by the power of the Supreme Being who is unique. Thus, monotheism, in my judgment, should be the accurate description of ATR.

From the African perspective, the relationship between the Supreme Being and the lesser deities is “one-sided”, so to speak: the lesser deities are dependent on the Supreme Being but the Supreme Being is not dependent on them.  In other words, the lesser deities are inferior to the Supreme Being because the former owe their existence to the latter (the Supreme Being), who owes His existence to no one. In Aristotelian or philosophical terms, one might say that the Supreme Being is the final uncaused-cause or unmoved-mover of all things. I am here disagreeing with Parrinder who innocently attributes to Africans the view that the Supreme Being is “sometimes above the gods, sometimes first among equals.”[24] The Supreme Being, as I have contended, is always “above the gods”, and His power is matchless. He is not primus inter pares: He is not the first among equals or peers. Followers of ATR believe in the Supreme Being under whom subordinate deities are obligated to serve His will.

It should also be stressed that the lesser deities are not in conflict or competition with the Supreme Being. Rather, they are all emanations of the supreme God. The well-known Akan proverb — all the lesser deities are children of God (“Abosom nyinaa ye Onyame mma”) clearly implies that the Supreme Being and the lesser deities coexist peacefully. Because it is believed that the lesser deities receive instructions from the Supreme Being, from the African perspective, we sin against God by going against the orders of the lesser gods. To illustrate, among the Yoruba of Nigeria, it is taboo to drink palm wine because it is prohibited by the minor deity Obatala. Thus, anyone who drinks palm wine not only sins against Obatala, but also sins against the Supreme Being.  In short, any sin committed against Obatala constitutes a sin against the Supreme Being. It is worth mentioning that since it is believed that the lesser gods owe their existence and authority to the one true God, practitioners of ATR do not take themselves to be violating the first commandment of God; to wit, “thou shalt have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3). All told, the lesser deities do not seek to usurp the authority of the Supreme Being, nor do they seek to pick a “fight” with God. 

The relationship between the lesser gods and the Supreme Being is analogous to the relationship between God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit or what Christians refer to as the Trinity. Christianity posits that God exists as a Trinity; in this view God exists as three distinct persons who share a single divine essence. However, they vehemently reject the notion that they worship three different gods. In other words, while most Christians acknowledge the existence of Jesus and the Holy Ghost, they believe they worship God and only God.  Analogously, since the Supreme Being has created lesser deities to handle specific types of problems on His behalf, supporters of ATR could acknowledge the existence of these lesser deities without compromising the absolute unity of the Supreme Being. In short, both Christians and indigenous Africans recognize the existence of one true God in the presence of lesser spiritual beings. The lesser deities are intermediaries or mediators between the living and God just as Jesus, in the eyes of Christians, is the intermediary between God and humankind.

Recently, some prominent African scholars have rightly argued that ATR is monotheistic. However, they have insisted that because practitioners of ATR concede the existence of lesser gods alongside the Supreme Being, the monotheism attributed to ATR requires modification. Professor Bolaji Idowu has famously suggested the term “diffused monotheism” as the necessary modification or qualification.[25] However, in my opinion, the term “diffused monotheism” is not a “fair” description of ATR. Given that most Christians recognize one God, but also acknowledge the existence of Jesus and the Holy Ghost, consistency demands that we associate Christianity with “diffused monotheism” as well. Put otherwise: if worshipping a single God while accepting the existence of other spiritual beings commits one to endorsing diffused monotheism, then both Christians and followers of ATR would be committed to diffused monotheism. That is, Christians would be as guilty of much the same ‘crime’ as African traditionalists. For while both hold that only God is worthy of worship, both undoubtedly acknowledge the existence of other divine beings — Jesus and the Holy Ghost in the case of Christians, and lesser gods in the case of traditionalists. I don’t mean to imply that the trinity is an example of “diffused monotheism”. To be sure, Christians would not accept it if Christianity were termed "diffused monotheism". They would rightly protest. The protestation would be justified on the grounds that Christians do not worship three distinct Gods. Since the "three persons" of the Trinity are not distinct gods to be worshipped independently of God, it is erroneous to describe Christianity as “diffused monotheism”. My point is that neither Christianity nor ATR can justifiably be classified as “diffused monotheism.” Put differently: both should be classified as monotheistic religions without “qualification.”

The Source of African knowledge about God

Having tried to dispel some of the misconceptions about African Traditional Religion, I would now like to turn my attention to the source of African’s knowledge about God. From where did African knowledge about God come, if not from the Western Missionaries, one might curiously ask?  Careful investigation of some indigenous and traditional maxims, sayings, and appellations reveal that the God described in the Bible and worshipped in the ‘Western’ world is the same God that adherents of ATR intuitively knew and worshipped through lesser deities. Succinctly put: For traditional Africans, the knowledge of God is innate and intuitive. For this reason, the Akan conventional wisdom holds that the existence of God is so obvious that it does not need to be taught even to a child (Obi nkyere abofra Nyame). This Akan fragment implies that European Missionaries did not implant the knowledge of God into empty minds of Africans.  To purport that Africans didn’t know God before the European missionaries came to the shores of Africa is tantamount to saying that some human beings, at a point in time, lacked the concept of God, something which, in my opinion, is conceptually impossible. I do not mean to imply that the knowledge is a simple matter. My point is that, regardless of where we live, we all have the idea of God.

I will utilize part of Saint Anselm’s Ontological argument for God’s existence to develop this point. By “God”, Anselm means the greatest conceivable being, that is, a being that cannot conceivably be improved upon. In arguing against the “fool” — a person who denies God’s existence — Anselm maintains that to meaningfully deny the existence of God, the fool/atheist has to have the concept of God in his mind; he has to think of it.  But if God existed only in his (the fool’s) minds, then he (God) could be greater; that is, God would be “the greatest possible being that could be greater,” and this is a contradiction in terms. Thus, to avoid contradiction, “the greatest conceivable being” must exist in reality. The gist of Anselm’s argument is that even those who dispense with the idea that God exists must have the concept of God. Since God is the greatest conceivable being, it is impossible to conceive of or even imagine God without also thinking of his existence. While I think Anselm’s ontological argument does not succeed in proving God’s existence, and while I think his argument could not be used to convert an atheist, I think he is right on one important and relevant point: the concept of God exists in the minds of all human beings, including even the fool (and Africans, I must add). If the fool didn’t have the concept of God in his mind, he couldn’t possibly deny God’s existence. In other words, one cannot think and talk about something that does not exist in one’s mind. This is a conceptual truth. So, we can coin Anselm’s argument and conclude that the fact that the African thinks about God naturally leads to the conclusion that the concept of God exists in his mind.

Anselm’s ontological argument, as I have alluded to, and as many commentators have pointed out, is not sound. Contrary to what Anselm asserts, conceivability and existence cannot be used as synonyms. For example, we do conceive of unicorns and trolls, but that does not mean there actually are unicorns and trolls. Given the obvious failure of Anselm’s ontological argument, the traditional African cannot prove the existence of God by invoking the authority of Anselm.  However, notwithstanding the apparent weakness of Anselm’s argument, we can concur with him that the concept of God existed in the minds of Africans in particular (and human beings in general) long before they came into contact with Western Missionaries. To be sure, in the appellations of God in the Akan language, we see the very same idea that motivates Anselm to construct the ontological argument for God’s existence. For example, in Akan (Fante) thought, God has always been considered as the highest being imaginable. Consequently, as one African scholar aptly puts it, “God is likened to the elephant Oson kese a w’ekyir nnyi abowa (Thou mighty elephant: there is no animal mightier than you). The elephant has no superior among the animals of the forest. It is the largest of them all. He is the Highest conceivable being. He is called Bubur-a-obur-adze-do (He who is infinitely greater than all).”[26]  Thus, while the traditionalist does not use the ontological argument to prove the existence of God, it is indubitable that the concept of God—as the greatest conceivable being—was not alien to Africans.

Stretching Anselm’s argument, adherents of ATR could maintain that logical or philosophical proofs and analysis simply are not necessary to validate their belief in the Supreme Being. Thus, the Akan fragment quoted earlier: the existence of God is so obvious that it does not need to be taught even to a child seems to corroborate the notion that we are all born with an instinctual knowledge or concept of God’s existence. The fragment simply affirms the doctrine of innate knowledge of God, according to which humans, including Africans, don’t need complex philosophical analysis to grasp the concept of God. Of course, I don’t mean to imply that Africans are not capable of rational, analytical thinking. My point is that we can know God independently of any rational or philosophical discourse.[27] In saying this, I am vehemently disagreeing with Emil Ludwig who proclaimed that “the untutored African” cannot conceive God because, in his judgment, “Deity is a philosophical concept which savages [Africans] are incapable of framing.”[28] 

Practitioners of ATR are not alone in holding that we can grasp the concept of God innately. Indeed, there is a passage in the Bible which mentions the law of God as being written in man's heart and conscience. For example, the apostle Paul explicitly pointed out in Romans 2:15 that God has written intuitive knowledge of His law in our human conscience; therefore, the knowledge of God is innate. People will know innately that God exists; no more will they have “to teach their friends and relatives how to know the Lord. All, from least to greatest, shall know me.” (Hebrews 8: 11). All these Biblical passages seem to buttress the traditional African belief that the knowledge about God is innate, that is, it does not require any deep philosophical analysis, as Emil Ludwig would have us believe.

Names and Attributes of the Supreme Being

Followers of ATR call “God” by different names, but they all have innate knowledge of the same true God.  Western commentators who insist that the Judeo-Christian concept of God was foreign to Africans overlook the fact that virtually every African ethnic group already had a term or name for the Supreme Being. These terms include: Onyankopon, Olodumare Mungu, Mulungu, Katonda, Ngai, Asis, Ruwa, Ruhanga, Jok, Modimo and Unkulunkulu. These different names referred to one and the same God known in the Western world. Additionally, traditional Africans assigned to God certain divine attributes.  For example, the Akans of Ghana refer to God as Toturobonsu (the fullest of completion), Tetekwaframoa (Eternal), Odomankoma (The Gracious One), Breskyirehunuade (Omniscience).  The pertinent point here is that these terms and attributes predated the arrival of the European Missionaries. One might plausibly say that if Africans did not have local terms or names for God, it would be practically and logically impossible for the foreign missionaries to translate the Christian idea of “God”. The mere fact that our indigenous ancestors had local names for the Supreme Being surely gives the lie to the widespread claim that Africans could not conceive of God until the Western Missionaries arrived in Africa.

Superficial Understanding of ATR

The knowledge that most Westerners have of ATR comes mainly from the ceremonial and ritual functions they see traditional religious leaders perform in public. These traditional religious rites and rituals are usually dismissed as demonic and anti-Christian by many Christians, including African Christians. For example, most Christians dismiss certain ritualistic practices including libation and drink offering as “unchristian”. Accordingly, African Christians who pour libations are excommunicated in some churches. Many foreigners and some Western-educated African Christians overlook the fact that these ritualistic practices are designed to worship the same God that Christians worship. Libation, for example, is considered a medium through which the prayer is communicated to God.[29] Practitioners of ATR believe that God created the heavens and earth and owns everything in this world.  Therefore, traditional chiefs always “give the first or pour the top part of the drink in Libation to God, symbolizing their theology that God must be given the first part of the first fruit of everything before humans partake of it.”[30] Thus, contrary to what some foreigners think, there is nothing anti-Christian about libation. Indeed, as Pastor Asare Yankson shrewdly puts it, “libation relates directly to the concept of tithing which Jacob vowed to practice along with the pouring of Libation as worship to Yahweh.”[31] Unfortunately, many Western observers who witness these rituals being performed fail to grasp the full meaning of the rituals. As the Akan elders would say: Ohohoo ani tuatua ho, nanso, onhu ade (“The stranger has big eyes but does not see a thing”).


The lesson here is that many practices and customs which we encounter in different cultures are often more complicated than they first appear. Because foreigners cannot understand these hidden complexities, it is only reasonable that they avoid being judgmental and dismissive. In short, they need to be careful to avoid casting a Western standard upon indigenous cultures and religions in evaluating them. Without thoroughly understanding ATR, they should not be dogmatic and ethnocentric by assuming that their religious practices are intrinsically superior to that of Africans. Judging the religious practices of other people without first understanding their cultural and religious contexts might be perceived as arrogance[32].



[1] I need to guard against being misunderstood. The title of my paper should not be taken to imply that the whole of Africa has one homogeneous traditional religion or culture. I am aware that even within the same country such as Ghana, there are a variety of ethnic groups with traditional cultures that differ in some respect. However, I believe there are deep underlying affinities running through these traditional religions which justify speaking of an African traditional religion.
[2] See Peter K. Sarpong. “Can Christianity Dialogue with African Traditional Religion?” @
[3] See Edward Tylor, Primitive Culture, (1871) (reissued by Cambridge University Press, 2010)
[4] From Benjamin Ray, African Religions, Symbol, Ritual, and Community, (Prentice-Hall, Inc., Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey), 1976, p. 51
[5] Joseph Osei, The Challenge of Sustaining Emergent Democracies, Xlibris Corporation, 2009, p. 223. Chapter 13 of his book is devoted to arguing against the Stupidity Theory of Religion.
[6] Edward Blyden, “The Call of Providence to the Descendants of Africa in America” in Tommy Lott, ed. Africa-American Philosophy, Prentice Hall, 2002, p. 70
[8] Earl Carter, No Apology Necessary, 1997. Charisma House, p. 103

[9] Ibid. 115

[10] Ibid. p. 116

[11] Hegel, W.F. The Philosophy of History, trans. J. Sibree, introduction C.J. Friedrich (New York: Dover Publications, 1956, p. 95).
[12] From Benjamin Ray, African Religions, Symbol, Ritual, and Community, Prentice-Hall, Inc., Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1976, p. 3
[13] Indeed, the Yoruba people believe that anyone who sees the Iroko-man face-to-face will be rendered insane and die prematurely
[14] Peter Sarpong. “Can Christianity Dialogue with African Traditional Religion?”
[15] I am not by this implying that ATR is polytheistic. As we shall see shortly, since practitioners of ATR do not worship infinite variety of independent Supreme Beings, it is a mistake to label ATR polytheistic. Similarly, in my opinion, it is a mistake to associate ATR with henotheism. I will have more to say on this later. Suffice it to say now that henotheists worship many gods although only one of the gods is elevated as supreme. By contrast, indigenous Africans worship only one Supreme Being. In other words, other lesser beings are not worshipped or deified.
[16] Chancellor Williams, Destruction of Black Civilization (Chicago: Third World Press, 1956), p. 129
[17] From Benjamin Ray, African Religions, Symbol, Ritual, and Community, Prentice-Hall, Inc., Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1976, p. 51

[18] I owe this point to Dr. Joseph Osei.

[19] Robert Baum. “Indigenous Religious Traditions”, in Williard Oxtoby and Alan Segal (eds.) p. 19

[20] Exodus 20:7

[21] C. Bouquet, C Man and Deity, Heffer, Cambridge, 1933, p.106

[22] Peter Sarpong. “Can Christianity Dialogue with African Traditional Religion?” @, mine)

[24] Geoffrey Parrinder, West African Religion, London, Epworth, 1961, p. 12
[25] It is “Diffused-Monotheism" in a sense that while they acknowledge only one true God, they hold that that one God interacts with people indirectly through emanations of himself - he is diffused into several forms. For more on this, see E. Bolaji Idowu, Olodumare, London: Longmans, 1962, p.202f. Diffused monotheism may or may not be pantheism depending on how one defines pantheism. To be sure, there is a scholarly dispute as to how pantheism is to be understood.  As one scholarly rightly points out, the term pantheism is a “large, vague term of theological abuse.” (A. H., Armstrong 1976: 187) If pantheism is defined in terms of the belief that all things are emanations of God, then it wouldn’t be unreasonable to say that diffused monotheism is a form of pantheism. However, if it is defined as a doctrine that identifies or equates God with nature, then it would be a mistake to link the two. Since most proponents of diffused monotheism, including Professor Idowu, subscribe to the theistic view that God transcends the universe, presumably they would sever the link between diffused monotheism is pantheism. Anyway, whether or not diffused monotheism is pantheism is not directly relevant to this project. What is germane to my project is whether ATR, like Christianity, can aptly be described as monotheistic.
[26] Benjamin Oguah. African and Western Philosophy: A Comparative Study in Richard Wright, ed. African Philosophy: An Introduction. 3rd edition. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1984, p.224
[27] Godfred Tangwa, one of the prominent African scholars, in his undergraduate days was asked to research on this topic: Describe God in the conception of your own people and then critically assess such description in the light of theism. He decided to seek assistance from an elderly traditional Nso’ priest. He (Tangwa) asked him: Taa (elder), how would you describe God, the way we, Nso’ people see him. The Taa spontaneously reacted:

You want me to describe God?’ Yes, I confirmed eagerly.  ‘Are you a fool?’, he queried When you get back to school, ask your teacher for me whether he has nothing useful to teach you.” Godfrey Tangwa, “Globalisation or Westernisation Ethical Concerns in the Whole Bio-Business” in Patricia Illingworth and Wendy Parmet eds. Ethical Health Care, Pearson Prentice Hall, 2006, p. 475

The traditional leader was trying to put across the point that since the knowledge of God comes naturally and effortlessly, the teacher was wasting precious time by asking children to “research” on God.

[28] E.W. Smith (ed.) African Ideas of God, Edinburgh, 1966, p. 1

[29] Libations are not unique to ATR. Indeed, libations were common practices in the Jewish community as witnessed in the Old Testament.  I am grateful to an anonymous reviewer for pointing this out to me.

[30] Sednak Asare Yankson, Africa’s Root in God, 2007, p. 54

[31] Ibid., p. 54

[32] I would like to thank  unnamed reviewers for the journal for comments on an earlier version of the paper,



  1. Blyden, Edward, “The Call of Providence to the Descendants of Africa in America” in Tommy Lott, ed. Africa-American Philosophy, Prentice Hall, 2002
  2. Bouquet, C. Man and Deity, Heffer, Cambridge, 1933
  3. Carter, Earl, No Apology Necessary, published by Charisma House A Strang Company, 1997
  4. Chavunduka, Gordon. “Christianity, African Religion, and African Medicine”
  5. Hegel, W.F. The Philosophy of History, trans. J. Sibree, introduction C.J. Friedrich (New York: Dover Publications, 1956
  6. Idowu, E. Bolaji. Olodumare, London: Longmans, 1962
  7. Kant, Immanuel, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, translated and edited by Mary Gregor NY:  Cambridge, 1998
  8. Mbiti, John “The Dialogue Between African Religion and Christianity,
  9. Mbiti, John, African Religions & Philosophy. London: Heinemann, 1969
  10. Oguah, Benjamin, “African and Western Philosophy: A Comparative Study” in Richard Wright, ed. African Philosophy: An Introduction. 3rd edition. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1984
  11. Osei, Joseph, The Challenge of Sustaining Emergent Democracies, Xlibris Corporation, 2009
  12. Oxtoby, Williard & Segal Alan (eds.) A Concise Introduction to World Religions. Oxford University Press, 2007
  13. Parrinder, Geoffrey. West African Religion, London, Epworth, 1961
  14. Ray, Benjamin African Religions, Symbol, Ritual, and Community, Prentice-Hall, Inc., Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1976
  15. Sarpong, Peter, “Can Christianity Dialogue with African Traditional Religion?”
  16. Smith. E.W. (ed) African Ideas of God, Edinburgh, 1966
  17. Tangwa, Godfrey, “Globalisation or Westernisation Ethical Concerns in the Whole Bio-Business” in Patricia Illingworth and Wendy Parmet eds. Ethical Health Care, Pearson Prentice Hall, 2006
  18. Tylor, Edward, Primitive Culture, (1871) (reissued by Cambridge University Press, 2010)
  19. Williams, Chancellor. Destruction of Black Civilization (Chicago: Third World Press, 1956)
  20. Yankson, Sednak, African’s Roots in God.  Sankofa Heritage Books Hemstead, New York, 2007


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