Central Beliefs of African Religions

Religion has always played a major part in the different cultures in Africa. Each locale has many varied stories that tie them directly to either a god or the gods they worshiped. However, there is a strong similarity to the stories. First, the god would create the earth, then the animals, and lastly the humans.

Because of the lack of a written language, very little written religious history is available. Most of what is known came in two ways: orally, from parents to children; and the results gathered from the extensive work of archeologists, which revealed a tremendous body of evidence not only of religious practices and ways of life but also how those lives evolved over the years. The traditions were so strong that today's religious practices provide valuable insight into the way they were practiced years ago.

In the Central African Republic, about two-fifths of the population is Christian, mainly Roman Catholics plus some Protestant denominations. Sunni Muslims are a growing minority. The remainder are either adherents of traditional religions or have no religious affiliations.

Common ground among African religions include a cosmos that is populated by divine beings, the existence of sacred places and spaces (for instance a mountain that a god or sacred spirit inhabits), a notion that males and females are both parts of the cosmic scheme, and the idea that society was organized around the values and traditions from early beginnings. Africans have taken strong steps over the years to stave off the influences of foreigners onto existing traditions and beliefs in an effort to preserve indigenous cultures. These efforts have not always been successful.

Many scholars believe that the African countries that have remained most stable into the twenty-first century are those that retained their traditional ways of life and religions. African religions don't have a dogma consisting of strict religious laws to follow; their entire philosophy is directed to nurturing a proper relationship with the divine and how the divine relates to the earth, life, and community. Their rituals revolve around establishing and maintaining a relationship with the spiritual forces in nature and with the gods. This relationship is accomplished through prayers, offerings, and sacrifices made to shrines and altars.

How many religions are there in Africa?

No one knows for sure. Africa is a veritable hub for missionaries. Thus, in addition to the traditional beliefs and independent churches, the Roman Catholic Church made inroads, as did the Baptists and other Protestant denominations. The Ethiopian church, formed in 1892, had connections with the African Methodist Episcopal Church in the United States.

A sacrifice often means the shedding of blood; the ritual of sacrifice releases the vital force that sustains life. In some parts of Africa, a blood sacrifice must be made to the gods. Nowadays animals are sacrificed, though it wasn't always that way. Typically, a goat or chicken is consecrated, ritually slain, and then either burnt or buried — it's never eaten as a meal by the devotees. The purpose of many sacrifices is to assuage the wrath of the gods, which can be exhibited by drought, pestilence, epidemic, famine, or other dire happenings.

The shrines are unimposing edifices — insubstantial little structures placed wherever it seems appropriate; they don't even have to be permanent. Ancestors play an important part in the beliefs, acting as the go-betweens for spiritual access. People don't automatically become ancestors when they die. First, they need to have lived a good life — a moral life that has contributed to the community. When a person gets seriously ill, the cause is some kind of emotional or social conflict, and it is the ancestor, who has been watching over the person, who delivers the reprimand of illness.

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