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Monday, April 18, 2011


1. Introduction
It seems quite safe to assume that all human beings desire peace. What is not always very clear is what each person means by peace and how it can be attained and maintained. Religion and peace have been almost natural companions in the minds of humans in different periods of history and in different cultures of the world. This is because, although far too many adherents and leaders of the different religions in the world have
disrupted the peace in the society by promoting violence and wars, the vast majority of believers still hold that true religion is a source and guarantor of individual and societal peace. This paper intends to examine the meaning of peace, how it can be attained and what it takes to maintain it in African traditional religion (ATR) and culture. First, we shall give a brief outline of the essential features of ATR and the world-view that constitutes its epistemological framework. This will then enable us to analyse the meaning of peace as a spiritual and moral value in ATR. Finally, by way of conclusion, we shall take a forward look at the possibility of world peace from the perspective of ATR.

Before proceeding with our examination, however, I think it would be helpful to point out a few difficulties and to enter a caveat. One major difficulty that any student of ATR encounters is the absence of scriptures. The world’s oldest religious tradition has been handed down orally and through what one may call some scanty religious fossils, preserved in the cultural and religious artefacts of African peoples. Most believers – and this applies to all religions – are normally concerned more with living out what they believe than with offering a rational justification for their beliefs and practices. It is usually only a few gifted persons (prophets, seers, thinkers) who attempt to probe the depths of religious beliefs and try to persuade their fellow believers – often without success at first – to accept the insights they have to offer. When the results of such penetrating rational reflection are not documented in writing, their diffusion among the members of a larger society and the possibility of their surviving over a long period of time are greatly reduced. For all the positive things that one may say about the dynamism of the oral tradition, especially with regard to religion, it cannot be denied that the fluidity of such traditions constitutes a formidable challenge to the scholar. It is impossible to understand a religion properly if one does not know its history well. The true meanings of present religious practices are often hidden in the layers of a history too long to be vividly present in the individual and collective memory of the believers.

Another difficulty lies in the fact that ATR is not a proselytizing religion. Africans generally take the central religious issues to be so self-evident that no normal human being would need persuasion by another person to accept them. For instance, the Akan of Ghana have a proverb which says: “Obi nkyere abofra Nyame,” meaning that no one teaches a child God; God’s existence is so evident that even a child is able to know that without the help of another. When the basic religious issues are taken for granted as self-evident truths, it is only natural that each person is allowed to work out his or her own general ideas about them, relying on the common heritage of the community, especially the family. As a result, there is a lot of flexibility and variation, even within the same cultural group, about the meanings of some important concepts, especially the concept of God and of spirits. Although there is more homogeneity with regard to public religious practices, since these are characteristically communitarian, this homogeneity is also very much circumscribed within particular clans and ethnic groups. Voluntary borrowing of religious practices often occur between cultural groups and sub-groups. But there is no attempt to forcefully harmonize religious practices. This has led some scholars to raise the question whether we should talk of traditional religion or religions in Africa.

There is also the difficulty of examining a religion from outside. It is common knowledge that the most vocal spokespersons of African traditional religion today are people who are not its adherents. When adherents of other religions study ATR, the starting point is usually the religion of the scholars. On the one hand, there is the danger of reading in too much of one’s own religion into ATR. On the other hand, there is also the tendency in some to assume that the similarities found between some aspects of ATR and the corresponding aspects in the scholars’ religions are due to the influence of the latter on ATR, rather than the other way round. This problem touches both Africans and non-Africans.

The last difficulty I would like to mention is closely linked to the previous one. It is the difficulty that arises from the enormous difference between the conceptual schemes of African traditional religion and thought and the Western-Christian conceptual schemes in which we are now carrying on this reflection.
These and other similar difficulties should make one very hesitant to take dogmatic or quasi-dogmatic positions on African traditional religion in general and on specific issues within ATR.

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