By Ebenezer Afolabi

Animism and monotheism seem to be two conflicting terms, and these terms have been misused, especially by non-African scholars in their attempts to interpret the African religions.

Animism is a term coined by the anthropologist E.B. Tylor, who defines it as the doctrine of souls and other spiritual beings.[1] In his use of animism, however, Tylor posits that animism is an attendant factor in any religion, in every culture, at any level of development. This is to say that as there are traces of animism in the African religion, so they are in all other religions. He also maintains that anthropomorphism is predominant in animism.[2] Therefore, animism as a theory of religion is not peculiar only to African religions.

There is no doubt that there are animistic elements in African religions, but it will be unfair and incorrect to describe the African religions as animistic. Africans believe that spirits inhabit some or all classes of natural objects or phenomena. In African belief, spirits are ubiquitous. In other words, there is no area or object which does not have spirits of its own. This belief has, to a large extent, influenced the way Africans interact with the natural and material world.

Christian leaders asking their congregation to speak to their offerings during church meetings did so from this background. These animistic elements in African religions have made many western scholars conclude that African religions cannot be monotheistic. The question is: can African religions be considered monotheistic since the belief in the existent of spirits or divinities is apparent?

It is essential to understand that Africans consider their religions to be monotheistic because of their belief in the One Supreme God, whom they regard as the Over-all God, the Creator of the universe, the possessor of all powers, and the only One who deserves all their worship. This One Supreme God is the unifying and transcending being who determines and controls the character of every other activity.

Africans have by themselves created sharp distinctions between the spirits or divinities and the Supreme God whom they believe is incomparable, unique, and deserving their ultimate worship. Divinities function as intermediaries between God and humanity. They are never seen by Africans as having an independent existence apart from the Supreme God. They are never in the same class with God; instead, they are believed to be the sons of the Supreme God, whom He delegated to see to the affairs of the world.

Mediation between God and humans is the chief religious roles of the minor deities. They share this role with the ancestors, the elders, and the various religious functionaries of African societies. The mediation of these multiple intermediaries achieves harmony in the world and all the conditions for health, prosperity, and abundant life. This conception of mediation is crucial for understanding the essence of African religions.[3]

Monotheism from the African context refers to the belief in one Supreme God who cannot be approached without the help of intermediaries. This shows that polytheism cannot be the right term to describe the type of religion practiced in Africa.

In conclusion, according to Tite Tienou, “Theism in Africa religions can be described as ontological monotheism with liturgical polytheism.” [4]

Disclaimer The views expressed in this article belong to the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the South African Theological Seminary.

Author Ebenezer Afolabi is a man of many parts: A Pastor, a sound teacher of God's word, a worship leader, songwriter and a passionate defender of the Christian faith. He earned a Bachelor of Theology degree in Christian education and Master of Theology degree in Biblical studies from LIFE Theological Seminary, Nigeria. He is a seasoned speaker in many Christian gatherings, a counselor, and a lover of Jesus. He is happily married to Kikelomo Afolabi, a faithful friend and colleague in the ministry.

Adewale, O. A, Introduction to African Traditional Religion (Nigeria: National Open University, 2008), 31-2
Horton David, ed., The Portable Seminary (Michigan: Bethany House Publishers, 2006), 405
Tienou, Tite “African Traditional Religions” in Evangelical Dictionary of World Missions (Grand Rapids: Baker, a division of Baker Publishing Group, 2000), 48.