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Do Igbo People Have a Religion?

Updated: Oct 15, 2021

At a glance, asking whether a people have a religion might sound like a very simple question. But it is really not. We form questions like this with the assumption that “religion” is a thing. Well, maybe it is. But for those that study religion, it is such a scattered set of things for anyone to wrap their arms around. Religion is, kind of, like what you may encounter in web dating when people make statements like: “I can’t tell you what things I’m looking for in a mate but I recognize them when I see them.” We are all aware of beliefs and practices that we recognize as “religious.” But scholars who study “religion” have yet to find a working definition for their field of study because “religion” is too complex, just too convoluted to gather in one concise and all-encompassing definition. When we hear or think of “religion,” we imagine organized, hierarchical institutions, like the Catholic Church, for example. But that is because, “religion” as commonly conceived, comes from a Eurocentric Christian perspective. The word “religion” comes from the Latin word, “religio.” As ancient Romans used it, “religio” referred to cultural norms, such as the set of duties and obligations owed to the Emperor and to the gods (yes, Romans were polytheists). On the other hand, beliefs and practices that were foreign to them were designated as “pagan.” Funny enough, when the earliest Christian proselytes showed up in Rome, they were dubbed, “pagans.” By the fourth century, however, almost the entire Roman empire had been “Christianized” so that Christian beliefs and practices became normalized as “religio.” As Christianity spread across Europe and with a push from the Holy Roman Empire, its new status as the state religion of the Roman Empire absorbed the Roman word “religio” to define the movement. Subsequently, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and institutions in other cultures that looked and functioned like them were thus understood as “religions.”

When Europeans encountered our ancestors, they reported the absence of any religion because they did not find a system of structures that fit the mold of European ideas of what "religion" looks and feels like.

By the time when Europeans colonized much of the world, the idea of “religion” was well established. When they made contacts with cultures and found institutions with structures that seemed recognizable, such an institution was recognized as a religion. When they made contact with our ancestors, however, they did not find anything that looked like the “religions” in Europe. There were no large buildings or designated centers where people gathered for daily or weekly rituals; there were no written texts that codified and/or canonized designated beliefs and practices; there was not a separate class of "clergy" versus "laity" etc. When they documented their experience with our ancestors, they reported that Africans had no “religion.” That was because they did not find a system of structures that fit the mold of what Europeans called "religion." In a sense, they were right. Our ancestors had their own types of beliefs and practices, but nothing like the hierarchical systems of the Christian “religion.” But if you looked back and compared our ancestral practices to what the Romans originally called “religio,” you might conclude that the colonizers were wrong because there were shrines and sacred sites everywhere you looked. There were also numerous customs and traditions that would look and feel like the practices that ancient Romans called "religio." As facts can bear out even till date, some of these practices were/are rich with rituals -an essential feature of all religions. It could be argued that the colonizers were clearly playing double standards because they eventually recognized what our ancestors did as “pagan” practices even as they denied the existence of religion. It could also be viewed from the lens that the understanding of what qualifies as religion in the eyes of fifteenth-century Europeans had evolved from what second-century Romans termed "religio." Either way, our ancestors and the colonizers were worlds apart.

So, do Igbo people have a “religion” or “religions?” It might well depend on how you choose to interpret the term “religion.” Again, the modern conception of “religion” has a very Eurocentric undertone: If you have an organized and hierarchical system, and you have texts called “Scripture,” then we see a religion. If, on the other hand, the landscape is dotted with temples and shrines dedicated to deities that you give devotion to, the Romans would call that “religio.” So, I am careful to not give an answer to the leading question about whether or not Igbo people have always had a “religion.” It may still be a challenge to even agree on what qualifies as “religion,” to begin with. But at least, we know what the etymology and the history of the word, “religio/religion” tell us about how to formulate an answer -whether you approach it from the original Roman perspective or from the European Christian angle. We know that meanings and interpretations may have shifted over generations and across geographies.

Given what we have discussed, are you comfortable framing an answer to the leading question or do you have more questions of your own?


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