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Tribal Religion

  The term ‘tribal religion’ is applied today to religion previously called animism. While ‘animism’ is rightly felt to be pejorative (for reasons outlined in the article on that subject), to call this complex cultural and religious phenomenon ‘tribal’ is to reduce it to one aspect only, and other names for it (for example ‘culture of non-literate peoples’ or ‘religions of nature’) can be equally partial and misleading. It is difficult to see, for example, why the worship of the millions of Yoruba in Nigeria and the diaspora should be classified as ‘tribal’ when they outnumber the adherents of Sikhism, classified as a world religion. Use of the word ‘tribal’ refers to the fact that all such religions began as the practice of small groups, extended families, clans or tribes, and were originally confined to the ancestral lands of these groups. The religion becomes an identifying feature of members of the group, so that even when exogamy is practised, they remain bound together by symbols and practices as well as by blood relationships.

Although the matter is complicated for scholars by the way in which tribal religion is often subsumed into so-called ‘higher’ religions (for example early Christianity or Hinduism), it nevertheless has a number of features which distinguish it from ‘world’ or ‘universal’ religions. There are clearly very different experiences behind religions as diverse as those of native Americans, the peoples of Africa, the indigenous peoples of Australia, Indian tribals and so on. However, certain common features can be seen. Each tribal religion is based on a particular area—often a sacred space, or containing sacred places dear to the ancestors. It has a spiritual homeland, as it were—not disembodied (like the heavenly Jerusalem of Judaism) but an actual geographical area. Adherents have one language, one culture, and one code of behaviour, usually governed by the fact that the members of one tribe or village do everything together (that is, hunt, farm, make tools and so on), and depend on one another for survival. The religion makes no claims to universal validity, and there is no question of mission and evangelism.

Such religions are essentially conservative, directed to preserving the stability and continuity of society. Relationships are of central importance, expressed and reinforced by ritual relationships between individuals, villages, the living and animals (on which the humans depend for survival) and the living and the living-dead. There are no scriptures: oral tradition has authority, but direct experience is considered more important than the word of another. A spirit-filled person, such as a diviner, prophet, priest or shaman, may speak with authority, to explain dilemmas, heal illnesses (seen as diseases of the family or of malfunctioning relationships rather than as mere physical afflictions) and resolve conflicts.

Since in such societies all life is religious, there are seldom exclusively ‘religious’ functionaries. The chief, the householder, the mother have sacred status, but equally the elders of either sex and the sexually immature have special access to divine wisdom, or may be used to channel it. Every action has religious meaning, and care must be taken to conform to custom and to please the ancestors. Myth and legend are used to explain the existence of the world, the gods and divine reality, and their truth is never questioned. (What we call) ‘theology’ is expressed in parable and proverb. Generally, religion is focused on the preservation and improvement of this present life, the here-and-now, though there is a sense of community with the ancestors who have gone before and the generations still to come. Religion is life-affirming, and a means of harmonizing humankind with the natural world.

Tribal religion makes demands on its adherents as total as those of any ‘world’ religion. It is in no sense expansionist, and is tolerant of other religions. One is either born into the faith or not, though some adaptation from one cult to another may come about because of marriage. In the modern world, adherents of tribal religion are vulnerable to evangelism from the world religions, but in many areas the rediscovery and renewal of ancient tribal religious belief and practice can be a major step in the assertion of individual, cultural and political identity. EMJ

See also tribalism.Further reading E.B. Idowu, African Tribal Religion, a Definition; , John B. Taylor, Primal World Views.



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