Morality in the African Traditional Setting

Religion and Morality in the African Traditional Setting
Author(s): Ronald M. Green
Source: Journal of Religion in Africa, Vol. 14, Fasc. 1 (1983), pp. 1-23
Published by: Brill
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Journal of Religion in Africa XIV, 1 (1983) RELIGION AND MORALITY IN THE AFRICAN TRADITIONAL SETTING BY RONALD M. GREEN (Dartmouth College, Hanover, N.H., U.S.A.) When Immanuel Kant claimed, almost two centuries ago, there is a rational moral basis to religion-a ‘religion of the core of historical religious faiths-he was speaking within context of a highly ethicalized Western religious tradition. against the radically different background of African traditional religion, however, Kant’s claims initially appear unsustainable. Major features of religious life in Africa, including spirit ship, ancestor cults and witchcraft, all seem worlds removed the ethical monotheism which Kant presupposed. The less apparently ethical dimensions of African religious life such as witchcraft accusations, pose a special challenge to any view which claims that religious activity everywhere possesses an underlying moral basis. In what follows I propose to take up this challenge by arguing that despite initial appearances, African traditional religion does have a rational basis and displays essential conformity to a ‘deep structure’ of universal moral and religious reason. This ‘deep struc- ture’ was suggested by Kant in his own pioneering work on the philosophy of religion.’ More recently, I have tried to reconstruct and represent this view in my book Religious reason.2 Since my claims about African religion make reference to this deep structure, I should perhaps at the outset, clarify what it involves. At the heart of this structure are three requirements of reason: first, a basic rule or procedure or moral choice; second, a metaphysic grounding the possibility of strict moral retribution; and third, (somewhat paradoxically) a “transmoral” suspension of retribution in the face of self-confessed and inescapable human wrongdoing. The first of these requirements is nothing more than the principle of morality itself (Kant’s categorical imperative).3 It involves a single, high- order rule requiring that all morally permissible choices be accep-This content downloaded from on Sun, 17 Jun 2018 15:24:19 UTCAll use subject to
2 RonaldM. Green table to rational impartial think of themselves as possibly individuals affected by their requirement of this ‘deep structure’ moral reasoning involves a one’s own interests to those ultimately justified by its moral system that could not reward for moral conduct rational coherence. Moral sacrifice individual good and social good parently true in the domain often the righteous do suffer-ly) grounded promise of perfect mitment to morality reasonable. The third and final requirement logically from the previous taskmaster requiring unerring exists for private ‘exceptions’ moral obedience. But because always ‘reasonable’ for individuals rests to some extent on undemonstrable retribution, human beings choices. One result of this is based sense of moral self-condemnation. To reestablish moral striving and the possibility of righteousness, therefore, rational persons are drawn to notions of propitiating the very retributive agencies whose existence their moral reason has affirm- ed and to eliciting from these agencies forgiveness and continued moral support. Rationally generated out of the logic of moral reason, these final elements of the ‘deep structure’ have somewhat paradoxical character of suspending or qualifying perfect retribution which moral reasoning initially demands. As complex as these requirements may seem, their expression a concrete religious context is not unfamiliar. The classic theology of the Western religious traditions (Judaism and Christianity) closely conforms to these requirements. Developed over centuries experience, this theology represents a carefully reasoned effort grounding human moral striving in the face of the experiental ficulties that assault moral idealism. The idea of God as CreatorThis content downloaded from on Sun, 17 Jun 2018 15:24:19 UTCAll use subject to
Religion and Morality 3 and Sovereign, for example, expresses the moral requirement impartial regard for all. As judge, God is conceived to standard by ultimately punishing violations of it and by the righteous (usually in some eschatological domain). the face of persistent human iniquity, he is believed to means of atonement and forgiveness, thereby tempering with mercy. The fact that Western theism as we know it conforms to structure is not surprising. Some would contend that this growing as it does on the soil of Western thought, is in fact more than a philosophical ratification of Western religious and one whose domain of validity is limited to the Western culture. Remarkably, this critical attitude finds support in a superficial examination of African traditional For while African religion evidences some ostensible parallels Western religious ideas-and with roughly two thousand ‘tribal’ groups, Sub-saharan Africa can offer examples any religious tendency–these parallels are not extensive. important, even in cases where the parallelism seems direct, examination of African religious beliefs reveals that the contrasts Western ways of thinking are far more striking than similarities. All this further challenges the claim that religion conforms to the deep structure I have outlined. This problem can be illustrated by looking at the role of various African systems of thought. Many African traditional religions make reference to a high god responsible for the of maintenance of the world.5 In some instances this creator supreme spirit is also considered to be a morally good, being who cares about humans.6 Yet even where this is true, the high god in Africa is very often regarded as distanced human affairs. Thus, the Lugbara, as they acknowledge goodness, nevertheless affirm that he is “far away.” He himself punish their sins and there is no moral content in tionship with him.’ Much the same could be said of Mbori, Supreme Being of the Azande,8 Divinity (Nhialic) among Dinka,9 Tamuno of the Kalabari,’o Mwari of the Zezuru,” Ruhanga of the Ankole’2 and other high creator divinities in Africa. As many commentators have observed, even when he is considered benign, the high god in Africa is morally otiose, having little direct retributive relationship with humankind.13This content downloaded from on Sun, 17 Jun 2018 15:24:19 UTCAll use subject to
4 RonaldM. Green Further sharpening the problem sometimes cast in a morally to human affairs it is often to cause evils. In a number of African cultures, epidemics, death by wild animals, by lightning or other random events defying moral explanation are attributed to God.14 As a result, a spirit of fatalism commonly marks popular attitudes or mythic and ritual references to the supreme deity. Among the Katanga peoples, for example, God is alluded to as “The father creator who creates and uncreates.”15 A Dinka hymn vividly expresses this same fatalistic attitude: Spring rain in a dry spell, strikes the ants on the head with a club And the ants say: My father has seen And they do not know whether he helps people And they do not know whether he injures people.16 In this context, it is quite natural that God is not looked to as source of support or regarded as a guarantor of moral retribution. Indeed, the common wish of African peoples is that God, who is far away from their lives, shall stay that way. Even the Nuer, whose attitude to the high god among African peoples probably most closely approximates that of Western theists, make repeated and prayerful appeal that God should turn away and not trouble them.”7 If the idea of God as an active moral retributor seems generally lacking in the African context, so too are many of our familiar ideas of religious reward and punishment. Heaven and Hell are largely alien notions in non-Islamic Africa. There is no messianic hope, no apocalyptic vision with God stepping in to right all wrongs or to punish wickedness.18 It is true that almost all African traditional religions affirm the continuation of life after death. At his decease a person is thought to join a spirit world of ghosts and ancestors and to continue an existence in many ways similar to his life before death. But this belief does not constitute a hope for improved existence or for ultimate reward and punishment. A person’s moral depravity or moral excellence do not generally count in the beyond, and whatever penalties or rewards these may bring have no bearing on the life after death.’9 Taken together, this relative moral indifference of the supreme creator god and the absence of a retributive eschatology have led some observers to conclude that ethical concerns are not central to African traditional religion. Pointing to these absent features in Nupe religion, for example, S. F. Nadel describes the Nupe asThis content downloaded from on Sun, 17 Jun 2018 15:24:19 UTCAll use subject to
Religion and Morality 5 living in a world “devoid of moral purpose” their religion as “non-commital and fundamentally similar conclusion would follow for African religion standard Western religious expressions of necessary features of any morally intentioned raises a question. Are morality and religion really narrowly related as this? Is it not possible for of moral and religious reason to find expression those to which Westerners are accustomed? In what follows I wish to argue that the “deep structure” I have outlined does, in fact, substantially undergird African religious life. Indeed, I will go so far as to contend that Africans live in a morally saturated religious universe. Theirs is a world in which all really significant interper- sonal relationships, including important relationships between humans and spiritual beings, have moral content and are governed by moral considerations. If it is approached at the right level, African traditional religion can be seen to be powerfully shaped by moral concerns. The important qualification here is that to be understood ly African religion must be approached at the right that the high god is often regarded as morally distant. not evidence a lack of religious-moral concern so that God is not the principal spiritual and moral affecting human life. In Africa God is distanced because the work of moral retribution and of the maintenance of essential moral norms is normally performed by spiritual agents of much lower standing: by spirits, of various sorts, by ghosts and even by human practitioners of spiritual arts. This morally vital work, moreover, is carried out amidst the affairs of living members of the community, and reward and punishment, though mediated by spiritual entities, almost always occur within this life. Hence while the specific agencies or circumstances of retribution may be unfamiliar to us, the insistence on moral norms, their religious establishment and support are very much a part of religion in Africa. To speak of “religion” in Africa is to run a terrible risk of overgeneralization. Africa has as many “religions” as it has ‘tribal’ groups, so closely related is religious culture to tribal identity. Despite this diversity, however, there are some broad common perspectives widely shared by many African religions. In particularThis content downloaded from on Sun, 17 Jun 2018 15:24:19 UTCAll use subject to
6 RonaldM. Green there are two beliefs found almost that are critical to understanding African religious life. The first the world is populated by a various degrees of power and impinges on human life. As this is a religious universe.” presses in hard upon them, universe when they look world.”21 The second key notion fering are always to be explained Misfortune in Africa is never sense of this word: people do famine or die just because they victim to impersonal natural misfortune is caused by a motivated in some morally runs its normal and satisfying engage in religious activity. invariably is, Africans seek an comprehensible spiritual beliefs. To say that misfortune has however, is only the most religious belief. Beyond this understandable causalities into includes those beings who act wrongdoing. While nature spirits into this category, it largely ghosts of parents, grandparents, kin group. These spirits are concerned with righteousness, agencies to punish moral wrongdoing community members. A second ble for misfortune, however, legitimate moral considerations. spirits or spiritual beings. They alien ghosts but also living malevolent especially witches and sorcerers. not usually be motivated by that they sometimes play a retributive content downloaded from on Sun, 17 Jun 2018 15:24:19 UTCAll use subject to
Religion and Morality 7 cause is therefore explainable in straightforward When suffering is not deserved, these agencies sible but their interference in human life affords a different moral explanation of suffering: in these instances misfortunes find their cause in sheer ill-will and in the attitude or conduct of morally reprehensible persons. Either way, whether suffering is caused by lineage spirits or by witches, African peoples cannot understand their experience without reference to religious beliefs wholly permeated by vivid judgments of moral right and wrong. ANCESTRAL SPIRITS The moral implications of ancestor cults in the African setting are very clear. If we once make the assumption that moral retribution can be effected by relatively independent spiritual beings below the level of a high god, then there is little in African relationships with the ancestors that need surprise us. We have here what some have termed “morality cults,”22 tightly knit religious retributive systems in which moral goodness is rewarded and badness is punished. Some very common African ideas of personal destiny form a background to understanding these cults. In most African tradi- tional societies, moral authority and social status are a function of age. As an individual (usually the male) matures, he is regarded as more capable of exercising authority for upholding lineage and group values and also more responsible for doing so.23 This increase in authority and responsibility does not stop at the grave. When a person dies, he passes on to continued existence as an ancestor who is still responsible for and concerned with the conduct of living rela- tions. At death, the individual becomes somewhat idealized: his flaws and faults are forgotten and he is elevated to the status of moral paradigm whose concern with proper conduct among his relatives is correspondingly enhanced. As Fry points out, ancestor spirits are different from the personalities of living men and they have special moral authority: Devoid of essentially personal characteristics they represent the essence of what might be called structural personality. Their significance lies in their geneological positions and the rights and duties which derive from them. They represent ideal men who, relieved of personal peculiarities and petty jealousies, are able to act as moral and just guardians of pure morality. …The ancestors are on the side of group values and openness: free from purely personal in- terests they stand opposed to the machinations of those who would go against collective ideals and ignore their social obligations for reasons of jealousy or personal advancement.24This content downloaded from on Sun, 17 Jun 2018 15:24:19 UTCAll use subject to
8 RonaldM. Green It is these ancestors, then, punishing moral violations. are believed to derive their authority ly act on their own and are motivated which they previously held as of these attitudes are seemingly the ancestors expect service become irate when neglected. unable to conceive or repeatedly ly dies, one of the first instincts sacrifice to the ancestors. In been deliberately neglected for are content (as with living persons, much the ancestors want), but is readily attributed to the neglect. In such cases, sacrifice-agricultural products-can help cipally, as a demonstration weal, and as we might expect, best offerings to set it right.become benevolently active and on behalf of their living kin.required. At a minimum it properly treated and will choose descendants, causing no further African beliefs thus preserve living and the dead. Dependence tinued respect from and support least benign neutrality on the ed, this may seem to be a minimally kind of egoism on one side and this assessment misses the profound the fulfilment of lineage and setting. To say that morality duties would not overstate the relationships beyond the local moral mistrust or open conflict. the community of moral relationship, rather than force prevail.27 sibilities generally and responsibilities content downloaded from on Sun, 17 Jun 2018 15:24:19 UTCAll use subject to
Religion and Morality 9 same thing since nearly all members of the Lineage duties are one’s moral duties. In addition the respect for elders embodied in the attitudes virtually sums up the dispositions required for cessful group life in this setting. As Middleton, the Lugbara most of the social interaction of any…individual or family is with kinsmen, and these are essentially relations of authority, for which there are more formal sanctions. The network of authority relations must be sustained if Lugbara society is to continue and its members to live in amity and peace.28 Generous consideration for the needs of ancestors, therefore, is not just a narrowly self-protective measure, nor is it even a morally understandable expression of gratitude for their past services (although it is also both of these). Above all, it is an affirmation of the essential values of self-discipline and respect for legitimate authority which form the moral basis for society as a whole. The deceased do not inflict trouble, however, only when they are personally neglected. In addition, they are regarded as enforcers of lineage and social rules generally. Forms of conduct which disturb the group’s peace-enmity, quarrelling, incest, failure of specific kin duties such as the support of orphans or the proper distribution of bridewealth-can be severely punished by the ancestors through the infliction of sickness or death. This process of maintaining group unity and solidarity can begin even before the elder crosses the boundary to the spirit world. Dur- ing life, a lineage head may “invoke the ghosts” against refractory kinsmen. It is a sign of genuine moral integrity on the part of an elder that he displays true impartiality in this and will not hesitate to call for spirit punishment even against his own sons if they break lineage rules or defy authority.29 On his death-bed an elder may openly curse kinsmen who have wronged him or who he believes have violated the expected standard of conduct. Alternatively, he may remain silent and die with resentment in his heart. Curses or recriminations of this sort are greatly feared and are believed likely to cause a run of misfortune unless the wrong that occasioned them is righted. The fully moral character of these curses or recrimina- tions is illustrated by the fact that anger or a sense of having been offended are not enough to ensure their efficacy. In addition, the aggrieved party must have right on his side. One who knows himself to be wrongly accused or blamed need not fear any purelyThis content downloaded from on Sun, 17 Jun 2018 15:24:19 UTCAll use subject to
10 RonaldM. Green malicious curses or recriminations. But an individual whose con- duct has occasioned legitimate resentment fears trouble even if the public is ignorant of his deed. To avert catastrophe, he must repent and try to make reparation to the individual he has wronged. Should a wronged or angered kinsman die before this is done, he will likely become a pursuing spirit and misfortune may be unavoidable.30 The importance of the ancestor spirits in defending group values is further underscored by the role these spirits play in morally significant ceremonies and rituals. Sacrificial rituals may be occa- sioned by the occurrence of any misfortune or they may be necessitated specifically by feuding or quarrelling within the lineage which has brought misfortune in its train. During these rites, the ancestors’ spiritual presence acts as a general force for group har- mony and for active efforts at reconciliation. It is commonly believ- ed, for example, that the ancestors as spiritual beings are in com- munication with one another, are omniscient and are able to penetrate the hearts and minds of living men.31 Because of this, any concealed anger or hatred among kinsmen renders rites of propitia- tion ineffective. This means that even ordinary rites of propitiation aimed at eliminating misfortune have the effect of reinforcing the group’s unity. But ceremonies specifically occasioned by feuding among kinsmen have the sterner requirement that outstanding wrongs must be righted and relatives must become “cool” in their hearts to one another.32 No less in Africa than elsewhere, of course, practice does not always follow theory. Feuding parties often find it difficult to put aside animosities and, in the presence of too much sacrificial beer, a ceremony of reconciliation may become a brawl.33 But even when this happens, there is a strong sense that such behaviour is likely to occasion new and more serious misfortunes. The spirits play a very similar role in vital ceremonies of oath- taking and truth-determination. False avowal or perjury are in some ways prototypical moral wrongs. They pit the self in its nar- rowest and most egoistic inclinations against society’s necessary in- terest in veracity. Moreover, whereas all wrongs begin in the deepest recesses of the heart but eventually express themselves in public deeds, these remain at this inward level and evade ordinary means of detection. In a religious and moral framework, therefore, it is to be expected that these wrongs will be a special province and concern of metaphysical retributive agencies who transcend theThis content downloaded from on Sun, 17 Jun 2018 15:24:19 UTCAll use subject to
Religion and Morality 11 limits of sensory experience. This is clearly so in A variety of ceremonies exist to ensure the truthfulness declarations and the bindingness of oaths. These mal and ritualized avowals before spirits who are wrathful if unspoken reservations of falsehood accompany declaration. Or they may involve various ordeal Among the Dinka ashes are placed on the tongue water and drunk during a truth-determination believed that the individual who lies immediately these ashes will fall seriously ill.34 Among the sionally lethal potion may be used in an ordeal whether or not an individual is guilty of concealing homicide.”3 As one might imagine, even the threatened poisons serves as an incentive to honesty. But these potions resides in the fact that they are judgments by the spirits, whose knowledge of the and whose power to punish is certain. Africans thus live in a world populated by spirits moral order. Foremost among these are the ancestral spirits I have been discussing, who operate in texts where their will is experienced through spirits exist, however, who relate directly to specific social contexts. It is commonly believed for example, that a murdered man’s spirit will pursue will not relent until the malefactor confesses and to the deceased’s family. Finally, there are some belonging to ancestors or others) who do not act directly but who rely on human agents to effect their underlie the power of spirit mediums and some titioners.36 Since mediums are very prevalent and in this retributive setting, a word about them is In those societies where he exists, the medium’s mine the cause of illness or misfortune. He (or less able to do this by means of direct connection with in a state of possession, the medium actually becomes sonality (whether an ancestor or lineage hero) and will he communicates. Much has been written on the psychology and sociology of spirit mediumship,”3 but what noteworthy in this context is the medium’s moral role within spiritual retributive system. Simply stated, the spirit medium is content downloaded from on Sun, 17 Jun 2018 15:24:19 UTCAll use subject to
12 RonaldM. Green living, human spokesman for between the spirits and men, and this confers, he is also able to human beings. The fact that no longer to represent his own possessing spirit affords the respect. As the voice of the spirits, community to moral conduct preacher and teacher. Garbett Korekore mediums: During the course of the public seance the medium speaking as the spirit- guardian, will urge the congregation to uphold the laws of the forefathers. He tells them to refrain from sorcery and from committing incest and adultery. Anger with one’s neighbors leads to sorcery which enrages the spirit-guardians, and possibly to homicide, which in addition pollutes the earth. He may also order the congregation to keep the twice-monthly rest days set aside in honour of the spirit.38 This same authority while possessed also renders the medium a suitable judge and arbiter when the community experiences sharp moral disagreements and resulting misfortune. The moral explana- tion for suffering and the remedies the medium offers are not regarded as his at all. Rather, they are believed to express the will of the omniscient spirits who represent an unassailable moral judiciary. This “objectivity” of judgment renders the medium’s edicts morally and psychologically acceptable. As Field observes, a supplicant to the spirit medium “will accept…the same advice that he has rejected from his parents or his wife and he suffers thereby no loss of face.””9 By translating the medium out of his individuali- ty and subjectivity, possession allows him to approximate the status of an ideal impartial moral judge. In view of this role, we might expect that the spirit medium, in addition to considerable personal charm, psychological discern- ment and a sense of theatre, also possesses keen moral insight. Observers commonly report that this is so: the success of a spirit medium rests very much on his ability to sense the rights and wrongs of an issue and to articulate latent communal moral judgments. While the phrase vox populi, vox dei puts matters somewhat incorrectly, since the talented medium does not just vocalize majority sentiment but is able to identify, direct and ar- ticulate the sometimes inchoate moral feelings of a group, it is true that a successful medium serves as the voice of collective moralThis content downloaded from on Sun, 17 Jun 2018 15:24:19 UTCAll use subject to
Religion and Morality 13 judgments expressed as the spirits’ will. He is thus able moral pressure to bear up on a recalcitrant individual posing himself or others to the charge of partisanship. without saying that a medium who repeatedly defies valid moral sentiments or who imposes wild and idiosyncratic tions on events will find himself without a following.40 The important moral role of the spirit medium is further in the requirements of moral integrity and probity imposed him.41 It is commonly believed that the spirits choose a the first place because of his moral integrity. To retain the esteem (and their power), the medium must avoid corruption must conduct himself properly. Thus, while a medium may payment or gifts for his services, the use of these for private advantage or for ostentation is frowned upon. groups, theory has it that gifts for successful mediumship the spirit not the medium. This means that payments are perly used for ritual paraphernalia or for supporting clients of the spirit’s cult.42 Similarly, the medium is discouraged from using his powers and resources to favour his close Even the gift of mediumship is not ordinarily regarded along to one’s offspring.43 Mediumship is a “charismatic” bestowed by spirits on a morally suitable human being, effort to benefit one’s kin by establishing hereditary claims position is viewed with disfavour. The spirit medium is in many ways a subordinate agency the larger retributive order. He is believed to derive wholly from the spirits and he cannot himself sway their force the dictates of justice. As an individual, he is regarded unimportant. But when he is possessed or otherwise spirit’s influence, he becomes a sacred and morally authoritative personality. His voice and actions connect the community those moral and spiritual entities who help shape human this sense the spirit medium is the physical embodiment religious retributive order in which Africans know themselves stand. MALICIOUS SPIRITS Earlier I said that when misfortune strikes, the African im- mediately seeks a spiritual and moral explanation. This may lead him to scrutinize his conduct to determine whether there are flawsThis content downloaded from on Sun, 17 Jun 2018 15:24:19 UTCAll use subject to
14 Ronald M. Green in his own or his kinsmen’s behaviour. wonder whether he is not the innocent victim of the ill-will or maliciousness of some other spiritually-empowered being: a witch or a sorcerer. If ancestor spirits represent the archetype of moral conduct in the African setting, witches and sorcerers represent the antitype. They are the quintessence of immorality and their ill-will serves to explain nearly all individual suffering that is not im- mediately understandable as morally deserved.” Since few persons are initially inclined to regard themselves as being in the wrong, however, witchcraft and sorcery are often also a first resort in the explanation of suffering. African traditional groups exhibit a wide variety of beliefs about witchcraft and sorcery. In some cases, these two are distinguished, witches being thought of as possessors of an inherent (and heritable) psycho-physical power to harm, sorcerers regarded as normal per- sons who employ magical techniques or bad “medicines” to injure others.45 In other groups this distinction is not made.”‘ In many groups, witches are regarded as keenly aware of their vicious powers, but among some peoples it is believed that a witch may be unconscious of his or her status.47 Despite this diversity, however, it is believed almost everywhere in Africa that the active, practising witch is a morally hateful and “inverted” human being. In every respect the witch is the opposite of the ideal or even normal human personality. He (or she) may engage in loathsome practices like cannibalism or incest. It is commonly believed that witches sacrifice or eat their children in order to magnify their own evil powers. They evidence inversion even in their physical characteristics and conduct: they vomit or defecate in public places, they are white or gray in colour, often physically blemished, they go about naked, are active at night, eat salt when thirsty and-carrying physical inver- sion to the extreme-in some cultures it is maintained that they walk or travel on their heads.”‘ The witch or sorcerer’s motivation is also the antitype or inver- sion of morality. Whatever specific term is used for this motiva- tion-inona among the Bakweri, Shanje among the Zezeru,50 or ole’ among the LugbaraS—it is thought to involve a combination of en- vy, jealousy and unjustified resentment. The witch inexplicably hates other people and resents their good fortune and happiness. He or she represents a truly demonic will. Often, without even a clearly selfish motive-of the kind that explains ordinary mortals’This content downloaded from on Sun, 17 Jun 2018 15:24:19 UTCAll use subject to
Religion and Morality 15 ill-will or misconduct-but simply out of spite, the innocent human beings. Morally desirable benevolence ty thus find their antitype here in gratituitous pound matters the witch will actively practise deception. he or she may appear to be an agreeable, concerned kinsman. Inwardly, however, the witch is filled designs. Dominique Zahan observes that silence widely admired as virtues throughout Africa: disparaged and self-mastery, displayed in the thoughts to oneself, is esteemed.52 But the witch highly regarded value by turning “closedness” aggression. In all respects, therefore, the witch tion of moral evil. Despite their loathsomeness, within the moral universe of African religious thought, witches play many morally important roles. Most obviously they help explain the suffering that defies clear moral explanation, and they spare ancestors, hero spirits or the high god blame for wrongdoing. To an extent, therefore, the very existence of witches presupposes and helps preserve intact the moral goodness of the higher spiritual order.” God or the ancestors may ultimately be responsible for innocent suffering, but if so it is by their failure to punish witches not by active involvement in wrongdoing. I am not familiar with any explicit African efforts to elaborate a “free will” theodicy in defence of the benevolent spirits, but surely belief in witchcraft makes such a theodicy altogether natural. Beyond helping to explain the morally inexplicable, witchcraft and sorcery play a direct role in upholding and enforcing the moral order. This is true in several different ways. First, as the conceptual antitype of morality, witchcraft highlights the meaning of morally good behaviour. As Evans-Pritchard observes, in Azande culture The notion of witchcraft is not only a function of misfortune and of personal relations, but also comprises moral judgment. Indeed, Zande morality is so closely related to these notions that it may be said to embrace them. The Zande phrase ‘It is witchcraft’ may often be translated simply as ‘It is bad.'”4 To the Azande, Evans-Pritchard continues, a good citizen is one who carries out his obligations, who abhors adultery, who lives charitably and cheerfully with neighbours, who is even-tempered, generous and just in his dealings with his fellow men, good natured and courteous.55 The witch is the very opposite of thisThis content downloaded from on Sun, 17 Jun 2018 15:24:19 UTCAll use subject to
16 Ronald M. Green A witch acts with malice aforethought. backbiting, slander and so forth go ahead In all respects, therefore, the definition of morality. Whether behave like witches, the concept furnishing a “symbolic representation” behaviour.57 In addition to this morally definitional and educative role, the presumed existence of witches also exerts a powerful restraining in- fluence on anti-social behaviour. Among the Azande, for example, glum, ill-tempered and unmannerly people invite the suspicion of being witches.s8 Gelfand observes that among the Shona “anyone who seems to take pleasure in another’s suffering or misfortune is also suspected of being a witch.” 59The mere prospect of an accusa- tion of witchcraft is greatly feared. As a result, says Gelfand …a belief in witchcraft encourages good social behaviour. If an individual harms another, breaks laws, or becomes anti-social he lays himself open to the suspicion of being a witch…The Shona child is indoctrinated with distaste for the terrible attributes of the witch and taught about the awful end liable to befall such persons…Having had this fear instilled in him, the average adult Shona chooses good in preference to evil, tries to behave well and endeavours to con- form to the ordinary social pattern of his community.60 Belief in witchcraft also serves in a very direct way to undergird the retributive order. Although their motives are entirely malicious, witches help to punish wrongdoing. On the model of ‘good issuing from evil’, witches’ malevolence helps to insure that retribution cat- ches up with wrongdoers. Africans are fearful of denying hospitality to a stranger or to a distant kinsmen, for example, because they fear the visitor may turn out to be a witch.61 Similarly, a man fears to display partiality to one of his wives because he thus invites witchcraft or sorcery from other jealous co-wives.62 It is perhaps not accidental that throughout Africa witches are frequently held to be female.63 Not only do women in these largely polygynous cultures tend to display a disproportionate amount of spite and jealousy (often to their own detriment), but they are also relatively powerless to punish wrongs committed against them.6′ Fear of witchcraft thus serves as a powerful incentive to maintaining good relations with all of one’s wives, kinswomen and other female acquaintances. Witchcraft fears also serves as a very special incentive to economic sharing and to the redistribution of wealth. From the van-This content downloaded from on Sun, 17 Jun 2018 15:24:19 UTCAll use subject to
Religion and Morality 17 tage of impartial moral reason, economic inequality requires justification (usually in terms of its contribution tivity).65 This is reflected in many cultures’ discomfort imbalances in wealth and their encouragement economic sharing. In traditional Africa, this moral be vigorously in force and it is upheld in part witchcraft and sorcery. Conspicuous prosperity, excess shared with kinsmen or neighbours is almost everywhere as an invitation to spiritual aggression. The Bakweri Cameroon provide a good illustration. They are witchcraft envy, inona, and to ward it off they redistribute wealth. Among the Bakweri, the accumulation perty-mainly in goats, pigs and dwarf cattle-has been a means of establishing status. Yet this wealth, observes, was collected mainly to be destroyed: At a potlach ceremony known as ngbaya, performed only hecacombs of goats, fowls and cows of a tsetse-free dwarf breed and distributed among those attending. To receive a great share mark of status, and also a severe blow for the recipients would ruin themselves even more splendidly…The envy of relatives stimulated and assuaged by making any riches in livestock man’s death the subject of another ngbaya-like ceremony.66 While the Bakweri are noteworthy for the passion accumulative and redistributive efforts, their basic ly shared in traditional Africa. Wealth and witchcraft ly thought to imply one another. And this is true wealthy, ungenerous persons invite spiritual agression conceive of themselves as living, to use Beattie’s words, peopled by “actual and potential murderers,””67 they are likely to be viewed as witches themselves.sometimes takes form in the African equivalent bargain: witches are believed to exchange the flesh other’s children to curry favour and to procure financial from the society of witches.69 In other cases an wealth may be attributed to a nocturnal force of slave labourers-zombies-at his disposal.’0 Whichever conception is involved, however, disproportionate prosperity is regarded as purchased at the price suffering. In the economic area as elsewhere, witchcraft double-edged sword. Immoral behaviour can be a sign content downloaded from on Sun, 17 Jun 2018 15:24:19 UTCAll use subject to
18 RonaldM. Green or it can stimulate the wrath and the net effect is a strong encouragement The sheer wickedness of witchcraft no bar to understanding its place religious universe: witches help duct, their existence explains able way and their wrath or the helps deter selfish and immoral these ideas and the conception mentioned earlier, I think at least that African traditional religion ‘deep structure’ I mentioned. governed by notions of selflessness, common good. And they clearly complex array of spiritual beings. What, then, of the third and the required sense of human need for a suspension or qualification tion? Here, I confess, matters tentative answers can be given. ing since this third major element the most subtle and most paradoxical. traditions tend not to address completely. African traditional same position. There is no doubt that Africans are alert to human moral failure. Witchcraft and sorcery themselves attest to the possible depths of human iniquity, and the fact that witches and sorcerers are believed to exist indicates that at least some persons are viewed as prone to evil. It is tempting to engage in amateur psychologizing here and to speculate that ideas of witches’ conduct represent a projection out- ward of the malign wishes and thoughts every person knows himself to harbour. But it is not necessary to speculate in this way since Africans themselves often make this connection between witchcraft and their own generally negative assessment of human nature. The evil conduct displayed by living persons, in contrast to that of ancestors, has a common explanation among the Lugbara: “all men have evil hearts,” they say. 7 Ganja women, when asked to ex- plain why it is that dangerous witches are female, unhesitatingly reply, “because we are evil” and they go on to explain how a familyThis content downloaded from on Sun, 17 Jun 2018 15:24:19 UTCAll use subject to
Religion and Morality 19 situation with co-wives brings out jealousy and resentment everyone.7 The Azande are among the first to declare “an evil people.”73 They also give this idea virtually pression in their belief that an individual can unconsciously witchcraft substance. When misfortune occurs to others, is not surprised to be accused of witchcraft, and rather the charge he may blow out water to “cool his heart” his future good intentions.” Other African societies same highly ambiguous reading of human nature by every person has two spirits, one good, one evil.75 There is no lack of sensitivity to human sinfulness adequacy in Africa. But if this is so, is there a corresponding of the weighty problem this poses within an order of retribution? Have African traditional religions elaborated intentioned transmoral “safety valves” like those familiar the doctrines of divine grace or vicarious atonement (liberation from the world of moral causation (in the reply to this question is not altogether clear. Certainly provocative suggestions that African religious thought familiar with remedies for sin that take one beyond strict retribution. Like many other African peoples, the Nuer employ animal sacrifice as a means of propitiating made irate by human misconduct. But the Nuer seem regard these animals as substitutes for themselves. Placing the back of the beast before slaughtering it, the Nuer what they are doing is placing all the evil in their animal so that this evil may flow into the earth with blood.77 The fact that the animal’s death is regarded able substitute for their own testifies to an implicit Nuer the cosmic retributive order is flexible or “elastic” enough suspension of the human death penalty for sin. might say that the traditional African tendency to see the deserved result of sin and the corresponding hope can be halted through repentance and the propitiation spirits, points to a strong belief in the prevalence forgiveness in the moral order.78 It carries this logic a step farther to believe, as societies do, that even the more severe death penalty definitive punishment but one that has a positive, cleansing function. The Shona believe, for example, content downloaded from on Sun, 17 Jun 2018 15:24:19 UTCAll use subject to
20 RonaldM. Green
helps to pay the price for one’s the weightiest burden of sin and the revered and righteous ancestors. belief, the world is ideally constructed: exists-and in Africa few deaths severe as to preclude a destiny righteous. It is interesting to note may help explain why ancestors flaws in each individual’s personality. eschatological realm of punishment African context. The absence of may not reflect the fact that “amoral,” as Nadel or others suggest, the logic of moral and religious strict order of retribution cannot be tolerated if the dual human ambitions
of enduring moral virtue and well-being are to be realized.
On this very tentative note, I shall conclude. Clearly the correspondences
I have pointed out between African traditional
religion and the ‘deep structure’ of moral and religious reason are
only suggestive. They are meant not as fixed conclusions but as
guides for future research. I cannot over-estimate the importance of
continued investigation of the links between morality and religion
in this context. African religion has been exposed to many modes of
analysis, but rational moral inquiry has not usually been among
them. It is time we systematically explored the possibility that
African religious thought not only has sociological or anthropological
significance, but may also tell us something about the
structure of human moral reason. Beyond this, the fact that
elements of African religious life-ancestor cults, spirit mediumship
and witchcraft-are also present at the foundations of other
major world religious traditions, suggests to us that the moral
understanding of religion in Africa may aid us in the moral
understanding of religion generally.
1. Kant develops his views on religion in The critique of practical reason, Religion
within the limits of reason alone and The critique of teleological judgment.
2. New York: Oxford University Press 1978.
3. Kant develops the idea of this imperative in his Foundations of the metaphysics This content downloaded from on Sun, 17 Jun 2018 15:24:19 UTC
All use subject to
Religion and Morality 21 morals. For an amplification of this idea in terms of the concept Thomas E. Hill, ” The kingdom of ends,” in Proceedings of Kant Congress, Dordrecht, Holland: D. Reidel Publ. 1972, 4. I draw this estimate from Robert C. Mitchell, African primal linois: Argus Communications, 1977, 11. For a different estimate ‘tribal’ groups in sub-Sahara Africa see David B. Barrett, Africa Nairobi, Addis Ababa: Oxford University Press 1968, 5. For discussions of these deities, see Geoffrey Parrinder, New York: Barnes and Noble 1949, 1970, ch. 4. Also, Benjamin religions Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall 1976, ch. “Women in African traditional religions,” JOURNAL AFRICA. 8, 1976, 135 provides a convenient table indicating god and the status of its cult in various African groups. 6. John S. Mbiti, African religions and philosophy New York: 39ff., 46ff; E. E. Evans-Pritchard, Nuer religion Oxford: Clarendon 7. John Middleton, Lugbara religion London: Oxford University 8. E. E. Evans-Pritchard, Witchcraft among the Azande, Oxford: 1937, 110. 9. Godfrey Lienhardt, Divinity and experience, Oxford: Clarendon Press 1961, 53f. 10. Robin Horton, “Types of spirit possession in Kalabari Region,” in John Beattie et al., Spirit mediumship and society in Africa, New York: Africana Publishing Corporation 1969, 16. 11. Peter Fry, Spirits of protest, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1976, 19. 12. F. B. Welbourn, “Spirit initiation in Ankole and a Christian spirit move- ment in Western Kenya,” in Beattie et al., Spirit mediumship, 290. 13. “Introduction,” in Beattie et al., Spirit mediumship, xxi; Mbiti, African religions, 6, 270; Dominique Zahan, The religion, spirituality and thought of traditional Africa, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979, 16. As a generalization this statement about the non-retributive role of the high god is perhaps less true of West African than East African religions. See, for example, E. B. Idowu, Oludumare: God in Yoruba belief and Parrinder, West African religion. 14. Evans-Pritchard, Witchcraft, 489; Middleton, Lugbara religion, 114. 15. D. Campbell, In the heart of Bantuland London: Seeley, Service 1922, 1, 245. 16. Lienhardt, Divinity and experience, 54ff. 17. Evans-Pritchard, Nuer religion, 149. 18. Mbiti, African religions, 6, 210. 19. In some cultures, extreme immorality may lead an individual to be denied recognition as an ancestor after death, but this seems less an expression of any systematic view of eschatological punishment than one of the several social dis- qualification for esteemed status, on a par with childlessness. See Zahan, The religion, spirituality and thought of traditional Africa, 49f. 20. Nupe religion, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul 1954, 33, 64. 21. Mbiti, African religions, 73f. 22. I. M. Lewis, “A structural apporach to witchcraft and spirit possession,” in Mary Douglas (ed), Witchcraft confessions and accusations, London: Tavistock Publications 1970, 294. 23. Hugh A. Stayt, The Bavenda, London: Oxford University Press 1931, 259. 24. Spirits of protest, 21. 25. Middleton, Lugbara religion, 98; Evans-Pritchard, Nuer religion, 279. 26. Evans-Pritchard, Nuer religion, 148f., 159. 27. E. H. Winter, “The enemy within: Amba witchcraft,” in John MiddletonThis content downloaded from on Sun, 17 Jun 2018 15:24:19 UTCAll use subject to
22 Ronald M. Green and E. H. Winter, (eds), Witchcraft and Kegan Paul, 1963, 278ff. 28. Lugbara religion, 20. 29. Ibid., 34ff. 30. Mbiti, African religions, 276. 31. Fry, Spirits of protest, 34; Beattie et 32. Middleton, Lugbara religion, 119; Lienhardt, 33. Middleton, Lugbara religion, 92. 34. Lienhardt, Divinity and experience, among the Nupe despite his characterization universe-Nupe religion, 77.) 35. Evans-Pritchard, Witchcraft, 267, Old Calabar, London Oxford University 36. Much of what I say here about spirit witch doctors, although these practitioners authority and make resort to morally neutral suffering. See Evans-Pritchard, Witchcraft, “Divination in Bunyoro, Uganda,” and social contexts,” in John Middleton (ed), N.Y.: Natural History Press 1967, 211-37. See Irving Zaretsky and Cynthia mediumship in Africa and Afro-America. An Publishing Company, 1978. 38. G. Kingsley Garbett, “Spirit mediums tie et al., Spirit mediumship, 120. 39. M. J. Field, “Spirit possession in religions, 74. 40. Robin Horton, “Types of spirit possession 41. Fry, Spirits of protest, 27; Beattie et 42. Fry, Spirits ofprotest, 37. Also, Michael vill Press, 1964, 46, 93 reports that witch pecuniary rectitude. 43. S. G. Lee, “Spirit possession among ship, 136. 44. In some African societies, a distinction is also made between group misfor- tunes like famine or epidemic, which are attributed to the ancestors’ wrath, and some individual misfortunes which defy clear moral explanation and are attributed to witchcraft. Apparently group misfortunes are usually seen as deserved. See T. O. Beidelman, “Witchcraft in Ukaguru,” in Middleton and Winter, Witchcraft and sorcery, 63. 45. Evans-Pritchard, Witchcraft, 247; Middleton and Winter, Witchcraft and sorcery, 2ff. 46. M. G. Marwick reports that among the Ce.rva, in contradistinction to the Azande, all mystical evil-doers employ material magical substances, Sorcery in its social setting, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1965, 81f. 47. Evans-Pritchard, Witchcraft, 97, 121; Stayt, The Bavenda, 274f. 48. E. H. Winter, “Amba witchcraft,” 292; Middleton, Lugbara religion, 248. 49. Edwin Ardener, “Witchcraft, economics, and the continuity of belief,” in Douglas (ed), Witchcraft confessions, 145. 50. Fry, Spirits of protest, 25. 51. Middleton, Lugbara religion, 38f. 52. Zahan, The religion, spirituality and thought of traditional Africa, 112f. 53. It is worth noting that the active presence of witchcraft beliefs poses someThis content downloaded from on Sun, 17 Jun 2018 15:24:19 UTCAll use subject to
Religion and Morality 23
problems for Nadel in his claims that the Nupe live in an acknowledges that witchcraft spares other spiritual entities his effort to wrestle with this apparent contradiction-Nupe 54. Witchcraft, 107.
55. Ibid., 109.
56. Ibid., 107.
57. Jean La Fontaine, “Witchcraft in Bugisu,” in Winter Witchcraft and sorcery, 215.
58. Evans-Pritchard, Witchcraft, 112.
59. Witch doctor, 48.
60. Ibid., 51.
61. Middleton, Lugbara religion, 240f.
62. Evans-Pritchard, Witchcraft, 117; Marwick, Sorcery, 63. Esther Goody, “Legitimate and illegitimate aggression state,” and G. I. Jones, “A boundary to accusations,” in Douglas confessions, 211, 236, 240. Also, Elizabeth Colson, “Spirit Beattie et al., Spirit mediumship, 81, Nadel, Nupe religion, Winter, (eds), Witchcraft, 14ff.
64. This retributive role of witchcraft in social situations retributive instrumentalities (law, defensive violence) cannot by Marwick’s conclusion that most Cewra sorcery accusations matrilineage, that social group where judicial means of settling available, Sorcery, 3, 95.
65. For a clarification of this point seeJohn Rawls, A theory Mass.: Harvard University Press 1971.
66. “Witchcraft, Economic..” in Douglas, (ed), Witchcraft 67. “Sorcery in Bunyoro,” in Middleton and Winter (eds), 68. David Tait, “Konkomba sorcery,” in John Middleton witchcraft and curing, 169f.
69. G. I. Jones, “A Boundary..” in Douglas, (ed), Witchcraft 70. Beidelman, “Witchcraft in Ukaguru,” in Middleton Witchcraft, p. 93.
71. Middleton, Lugbara religion, 17, 20.
72. Esther Goody, “Legitimate and illegitimate aggression…”, (ed), Witchcraft confessions, 240.
73. Evans-Pritchard, Witchcraft, 101.
74. Ibid., 95f.
75. Mbiti, African religions, 114.
76. For a full discussion of this element of reason see Religious 77. Evans-Pritchard, Nuer religion, 280ff.
78. This theme of appeal to God or to the ancestors’ mercy morally deserved misfortune is a common one in African Shorter, Prayer in the religious traditions of Africa, New York University Press, 1975, 84-100.
79. Gelfand, Witch doctor, 35.
This content downloaded from on Sun, 17 Jun 2018 15:24:19 UTC
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