AFRICAN TRADITIONAL RELIGION (ATR) Religions practiced on the African continent. A discussion of Africa’s traditional religions presents a number of problems. First, the languages of many African ethnic groups lack a term for religion in the Western sense, as an activity or entity separate from everyday life. Whereas Westerners conceive of religion as an independent system of beliefs or an organizational structure, in Africa religion is a complete way of life. Second, the term traditional is misleading, suggesting to the Western mind something ancient or unchanging. In reality, all religions change as they adapt to historical events and social circumstances, and African religious traditions encompass both continuity with the past and innovation. Finally, the phrase "African traditional religions" risks implying uniformity among African cultures, whereas cultural diversity characterizes the continent. More than 40 modern nations, each with its own particular history, occupy the African continent south of the Sahara. Each nation encompasses numerous ethnic groups with different languages, customs, and beliefs, and African religions are as diverse as these ethnic groups. (North of the Sahara, Islam has long been the dominant religion.) Nevertheless, certain features enable us to distinguish between East and West African religions. These features result from distinctive geographic conditions and long histories of trade and cultural. Even though no body of beliefs and practices can characterize African religion as a whole, certain similarities in worldviews and ritual processes cross-geographic and ethnic boundaries. Generally speaking, African religions hold that there is one creator God, the maker of a dynamic universe. After setting the world in motion, this Supreme Being could only be approach through the deities and divinities, as a result, people do not ordinarily offer sacrifices or organize a cult around this high god. Instead, they turn to secondary divinities that serve the Supreme Being as messengers or go-betweens. These secondary divinities are sometimes portrayed as children of the supreme god, but religious teachings also regard them as refractions of a divine being. Finding no outward indications of the worship of a Supreme Being, early European travelers, missionaries, and explorers dismissed African religions as superstition, animism (attributing a soul to nonliving things, such as trees or rocks), or ancestor worship.
However, African religions do recognize one supreme creator. African religions do not demand adherence to any single doctrine. Their focus is primarily practical, religious rituals serve as strategies for reinforcing life, fertility, and power. The principal vision shared by African religions is that human beings must vigilantly maintain a harmonious relationship with the divine powers in order to prosper. African religions aim at harnessing these powers and channeling them for the good of the community, and ritual is the way to do so. Ritual helps ensure a community’s responsible relationship with ancestors who are guardians of the moral order, with spiritual forces within nature, and with the gods. The many shrines evidence the worship of secondary divinities and altars dedicated to them. Worshipers maintain contact and correct relations with these divinities through prayer, offerings and sacrifices, and other rituals. If people neglect ritual duties, it is expected that the divinity will call them to attention by causing illness or misfortune. Blood sacrifice—the offering of a sacrificial animal—is the most important ritual, expressing the reciprocal bond between divinity and devotee. Shrines and altars to the divinities are generally not imposing or even permanent structures. The most dramatic and intimate contact between human being and divinity occurs in the ritual of trance, during which a divine spirit is believed to take possession of the worshiper. In most cases, rhythmic chanting, drumminng, dance, and other techniques are used to facilitate an altered state of consciousness. Sometimes only the priest is susceptible to possession, but in other cases, as in the vodun religion of Benin, others also serve as receptacles. Under the direction of a specialist in the ritual, the possessing spirits enter participants, who submit to the spirits’ control. The presiding god engages the congregation in dialogue and delivers messages to devotees.