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The African Case

Emmanuel Kofi Mensah

Generally, the African's relationship to the family, clan, tribe, and everything that sustains - or weakens - the African life, has its taproot embedded deeply in the soil of religion. This includes law, war, peace, politics, economics, celebrations, and so forth.

The African is deeply religious. The African continent has been a very fertile ground for hordes of evangelists and a dumping ground for Bibles and other religious literature. The Africans therefore have traditional religious beliefs as well as the highly influential religions of Christianity and Islam. The latter two religions are predominant. The method by which they made converts, however, leaves much to be desired.

Socially, the Africans were treated as nonentities. These religions destroyed the Africans' culture and social life, and regarded the Africans as barbaric. The African converts were forced to view their traditions and customs as primitive and deserving of destruction. Such a view destroyed the meaning of life and the Africans' identity. Africans thus became easy to dominate. Africans lost their pride, confidence and originality. The idol-smashing Islamic religion, which swept the continent with its fanaticism and feudal patriarchy, and Christianity, which has no patience for "heathen" practices, have done more to oppress, brainwash, and harm the psyche than they have done to motivate, unite, and uplift the Black consciousness of the African.

The Arab and European missionaries are guilty of cultural arrogance. They assume a self-centered approach toward the Africans and consider them to be doomed pagans. This attitude makes the African feel scorned and inferior. Though these religions have good and bad influences, their best has never been good enough. As Norm Allen, the executive director of African Americans for Humanism, has correctly noted: "Christianity has helped to bring much positive change to Blacks, but it has failed to advance them to their much beloved 'promised land' - for the bottom line is not positive change but real progress."1 (emphasis mine)

The African has the opportunity to be exposed to the many foreign religions and cultures that flood the continent. This has created a new consciousness. Dr. Kwame Nkrumah asserted that the African consciousness has three distinct threads of moral thought: 1) the traditional indigenous heritage, 2) the impact of Islam, and 3) the Euro-Christian influence. The African must not only find a synthesis of the three, but an ideal that aims to bring about liberation and outstanding character.

Robert Smith, in his book Religion of the Semite, stated that no positive idea that has moved humanity has been able to start with a tabula rasa, and express itself as if that idea were beginning for the first time. In form, if not in substance, the new system must be in contact all along the line with the older ideas and practices. The past must be a case study that will guide the present into evolving an appropriate ethics that can usher the new idea into predominance.

Today it is our common task to restore the dignity of Africans and make them proud of their role in the making of history. It is the perfect time to shed religion. Humanity - not a transcendental God - must be the first consideration.

The foreign religions have failed - if not in practice, in essence - in the African context, because they could not fit into the scheme of things on the African continent. These words are not an attempt to revitalize the past. This is not a call for a return to the jungle. The continued observance of certain customary practices that are visibly outmoded and therefore unacceptable on the eve of the 21st century has been a source of concern to many well-meaning Africans. No one disputes the value of cultural practices in the life of a human community, especially their role in unifying a people and giving them a sense of identity and togetherness. We must remember, however, that society is dynamic, and socio-cultural practices that had great value in the past cannot be relied upon to perform the same functions today. Hence the need for a change - a change that will rationally revitalize the African tradition.

Arab and European missionaries have left us Africans blind to our potential greatness. Today, however, we must widely open our eyes to reason, critical intelligence, and rationality. We need not close our eyes again after the tragedies of slavery and prolonged servitude by those who doubled as slave traders and missionaries. (In Elizabethan England, a devoutly pious slaver, Sir John Hawkins, named his slave ships Jesus, Angel, and Grace of God!2) Rather, we must loosen the stranglehold of theism.

Religion has failed us. If God has any blessings for religious people, Africans would have had a surplus. The African should not be afraid to shed the straitjacket of religion. The old sacred world needs to die and a new secular world must be born. This is long overdue.

The religions have given the Africans two alternatives - only two. This gives Africans no room for movement or exploration. Embrace Christianity or go to Hell. Embrace Islam or go to Hell. Hell with a capital "H" awaits all those who are unchurched, do not belong to any religion, or who want to go "back to the jungle" (cultural revivalists). This is restrictive and intolerant. It stifles development in areas of material progress - technology, science, and above all, the power to assert sovereignty.

The true African is determined to blaze a new path that will create a new and better understanding that will reveal the wonder and possibility of the African personality, just as exploration in early days opened up the possibilities of the physical world. I sincerely believe that this period of history will witness the beginning of a new phase in the development of the African, without overturning the present structures of the world or the system of values of the African nations and peoples. I sincerely believe that the final destiny of the Africans will depend principally upon the nature of involvement and the extent of responsibilities that they will take in the building of a new Africa.

I appeal to Africans and all the people who are ready to participate in the building of a new Africa based upon critical intelligence and human values.


1. Norm R. Allen Jr., "Humanism in the Black Community," Free Inquiry, Volume 9, Number 3 (Summer 1989), p. 40.
2. James Haught, Holy Horrors (Buffalo: Prometheus Books, 1990).

Emmanuel Kofi Mensah is the founder of Action for Humanism in Nigeria.


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