Ethnic religions may include officially sanctioned and organized civil religions with an organized clergy, but they are characterized in that adherents generally are defined by their ethnicity, and conversion essentially equates to cultural assimilation to the people in question. Contrasted to this are imperial cults that are defined by political influence detached from ethnicity.
In antiquity, religion was one defining factor of ethnicity, along with language, regional customs, national costume, etc. As Xenophanes famously comments:
Men make gods in their own image; those of the Ethiopians are black and snub-nosed, those of the Thracians have blue eyes and red hair. (Clement of Alexandria, Stromata 7.4)
With the rise of Christianity, Islam and Buddhism, ethnic religions came to be marginalized as “leftover” traditions in rural areas, referred to as paganism or shirk (idolatry).
The notion of gentiles (”nations”) in Judaism reflect this state of affairs, the implicit assumption that each nation will have its own religion. Historical examples include Germanic polytheism, Celtic polytheism, Slavic polytheism and pre-Hellenistic Greek religion.
Contemporary ethnic religions are Shinto of the Japanese people, Judaism of the Jewish people (see: Who is a Jew?), and Hinduism (except for some, comparatively small Hindu movements: see Hindutva: Who is a Hindu?).
Over time, even revealed religion will assume local traits and in a sense will revert to an ethnic religion. This has notably happened in the course of the History of Christianity, which saw the emergence of national churches with “ethnic flavours” such as Germanic, Ethiopian, Armenian, Greek, Russian and others.
African traditional religions
African traditional religions, also referred to as African indigenous religions or African tribal religions, is a term referring to a variety of religions indigenous to the continent of Africa. Like tribal religions from other parts of the world, African religious traditions are defined largely along community lines.
Traditional African religions involve teachings, practices, and rituals that lend structure to African native societies. These traditional African religions also play a large part in the cultural understanding and awareness of the people of their communities.
While each religion differs from the next in many ways, some main similarities exist, including:
* A distant “all god” with intermediaries acting between us and it
* Spirit or god possession
* The gift of offerings and sacrifices to the gods
* The use of altars
* Ancestor veneration/worship
* Community leadership by a divine or semi-divine king or queen
Classification and statistics
Adherents.com (as of 2007) lists “African Traditional & Diasporic” as a “major religious group”, estimating some 100 million adherents. They justify this combined listing of traditional African and African diasporic religions, and the separation from the generic “primal-indigenous” category by pointing out that
the “primal-indigenous” religions are primarily tribal and composed of pre-colonization peoples. While there is certainly overlap between this category and non-African primal-indigenous religious adherents, there are reasons for separating the two, best illustrated by focusing specifically on Yoruba, which is probably the largest African traditional religious/tribal complex. Yoruba was the religion of the vast Yoruba nation states which existed before European colonialism and its practitioners today; certainly those in the Caribbean, South America and the U.S.; are integrated into a technological, industrial society, yet still proclaim affiliation to this African-based religious system. Cohesive rituals, beliefs and organization were spread throughout the world of Yoruba (and other major African religious/tribal groups such as Fon), to an extent characteristic of nations and many organized religions, not simply tribes. (Major Religions Ranked by Size)
Practitioners of traditional religions in sub-Saharan Africa are distributed among 43 countries, and are estimated to number about 70 million, or 12% of African population, while the largest religions in Africa are Christianity and Islam, accounting for 45% and 40%, respectively. As everywhere, adherence to an organized religion does not preclude a residue of folk religion in which traditions predating Christianization or Islamisation survive.
Afro-American religions (also African diasporic religions) are a number of related religions that developed in the Americas among African slaves and their descendants in various countries of the Caribbean Islands and Latin America, as well as parts of the southern United States. They derive from African traditional religions, especially of West and Central Africa, showing similarities to the Yoruba religion in particular.
These religions usually involve ancestor veneration and/or a pantheon of divine spirits, such as the loas of Haitian Vodou, or the orishas of Santería. Similar divine spirits are also found in the Central and West African traditions from which they derive – the orishas of Yoruba cultures, the nkisi of Bantu (Kongo) traditions, and the vodou of Dahomey (Benin), Togo, southern Ghana, and Burkina Faso. In addition to mixing these various but related African traditions, many Afro-American religions incorporate elements of Christian, indigenous American, Kardecist, Spiritualist and even Islamic traditions. This mixing of traditions is known as religious syncretism.