Criteria for a World Religion: Why African Religion Should Not Be Excluded

by: Kevin Murriel

It has often been my inquiry as to the elements that constitute a religion considering themselves a world religion. As a life-long Christian it was always my assumption that Christianity was a world religion because of the number of individuals around the world who claimed the identity of Christ and also because it is represented in most of the countries around the world. This understanding was what I perceived was correct about any religion in the world. It was not, however, until reading Laurenti Magesa’s argument regarding the criteria for being considered a world religion that I came to understand that certain religions–specifically African Religion–were considered by many to not be world religions.
Thus, for the sake of this paper, I intend to trace what Magesa notes are the criteria for one to be considered a world religion, the moral and ethical implications that accompany such a notion from a Western perspective, and my objections towards each. With this, I begin with a comprehensive description of the term religion given by Hans Kung. He notes that:
Religion is a believing view of life, approach to life, ways of life, and therefore a fundamental pattern embracing the individual and society, man and world, through which a person (though only partially conscious of this) sees and experiences, thinks and feels, acts and suffers, everything. It is a transcendentally grounded and immanently operative system of coordinates by which man orients himself intellectually, emotionally, and existentially.

The adequacy of this definition is paramount in that it names the definition of religion in terms of the experience of religion for a group of people. Consequently, this definition transcends the traditional criteria for making a practice(s) done by individuals a religion since it places the understanding on religion in general on a level plain regardless if such a religion is considered world or not.
In light of the criteria for a religion to be considered a world religion, Magesa notes three key criteria that Western scholars have historically used to exclude African religion from claiming this title. They are: (1) African Religion has no written text and since this is the case, Western scholars could neither conceive nor allow that a religion dependent on oral traditions, such as African Religion, could be regarded as an equal to Christianity, Judaism, etc ; (2) African religion places more emphasis on revelation by means of dreams, by ecstasy or trance, or possession, by prophets and divination, or through reincarnation or events such as calamities than they do on scripture ; and (3) African Religion is excluded from its consideration to be a world religion because its lack of aggressive proselytizing like that of Christianity and Islam.
It is my conviction that after reading these criteria to conclude that these, speaking personally from a Western Christian perspective, are not adequate grounds to not consider African Religion a world religion. Such a conviction is grounded in my understanding of the uniqueness of the African Religion from any other world religion and the way in which African persons celebrate such a rich heritage and revelation. Furthermore, my claim is evoked and inspired by Magesa’s words when she says:
For Africans, religion is far more than “a believing way of life” or “an approach to life” directed by a book. It is a “way of life” or life itself, where a distinction or separation is not made between religion and other areas of human existence. If one is to speak of “revelation” or “inspiration,” it is not to be found in a book, not even primarily in the people’s oral tradition, but in their lives.

The beauty of this explanation of the religious experience of Africans given by Magesa is that is speaks and relies primarily on just that–an experience. This experience, however, is not one that can be solely explained in a set of scriptures or even fully explained in a proselytizing manner; but rather this experience remains completely unique to each person individually and thus becomes even more meaningful to their life.
One of the main issues regarding Christianity specifically is its inference on text over experience. As a firm believer in the Bible and the power of the Holy Spirit I have worked and been intentional on making sure my theology and doctrine are met with my experience of these being lived and worked out in my every day life. Taking, in essence, a foundational principle from African Religion in that I seek to make my experience in Christianity more that just “a believing way of life,” but rather I look at Christianity as life itself. The problem, however, is that many Westerners in our mainline Christian traditions do not teach and emphasize this understanding of Christianity as a primary and reachable goal. Instead, many only emphasize our Biblical text as the primary means of religious experience for our faith. Whereas I understand the Bible to be a book containing the standards and principles on which we are to live out our Christian faith, I truly believe that many people experience God in many different and unique ways than those who wrote and compiled our Biblical texts. Therefore, to say that African Religion cannot be considered a world religion because they rely more on oral tradition (as Christianity and others also once did) and religious experience is to negate a foundational principle also found in other world religions. That is, the concept of and the need for the religious experience–which many affirm is at the core of their faith.
As a commentary on the second criteria that excludes African religion from being a world religion, my objections are two-fold. Firstly, as many Christians believe, the Bible was inspired by God who gave such inspiration to prophets, Apostles, and others who, in turn, wrote about such experiences and are now acclaimed as our authoritative Christian Scriptures. Secondly, although African Religion is more experience-based rather scripture-based, this does not mean that this religion has any less or more validity than that of Christianity or other religions in that at one point before all other religious texts were compiled, the writers were inspired to inspire others and to write about such events. Moreover, because these religions chose to compile such experiences into a text does not validate this as a criterion for being a world religion because its underlying theme is marked by that of religious experience. Simply because those who subscribe to African Religion do not have a compilation of texts that tell about their religious experiences or gives them a set of guidelines by which they are to live, does not negate there experience of religiosity on a daily basis nor does it take away their moral or ethical compass in living with conviction by way of their religious experience. Furthermore, I find it extremely ludicrous that such criteria would even attempt to overshadow the magnitude of religious experiences marked out by those who subscribe to any world religion. Especially considering what preachers, evangelists, rabbi’s, imams, or other religious leaders rely heavily on in their leadership and proclamation to their followers is grounded in religious experience.
As I have previously, I am inclined to disagree with the third criterion that excludes African Religion from being a world religion on the grounds that proselytizing can be understood differently depending on one’s religious practices and even one’s understanding of the term in general. Magesa notes that the reason Christianity and Islam are considered major world religions is because they are aggressive proselytizers. However, regarding this, Magesa writes:
“Historically these two religions have sought converts even by means of cunning and deceit, not to mention violence and outright war. However, this argument does not take into account that neither do other major religions, such as Hinduism and Confucianism, for example actively proselytize. Hinduism and Confucianism are “tribal” in the sense that they do not as a rule engage in activities designed to convert people of other religious orientations to their religious view of life.

In reading this, the noticeable argument against this criterion is that two religions that are considered world religions do not proselytize. However, in understanding the experience-driven nature of African Religion and its lack of aggressiveness in proselytizing, I have come to believe that human beings going out to attempt to convert other people simply to their religion is not always effective and in some ways, can be counterproductive. Using this as criteria to exclude African Religion from consideration as a world religion negates much of the understanding of religious experience that encompasses the totality of what religion is in Africa–a life experience. Therefore, because many African people come to know their religion through personal experience, they do not have a need to merely proselytize aggressively like many other religions have historically. But rather, they allow the individual to be drawn to such religiosity as they are led rather than being coerced or pressured.
In conclusion, I return to Hans Kung’s understanding of religion and note that religion and its evaluation of the self cannot merely be expressed by way of certain specific criteria and rules. Religion at its best is carried out among various cultures whose religious experiences are different and unique to them. I certainly believe that the criteria expressed that keeps African Religion from being considered a world religion is not only biased and inadequate, but also offensive and unfair. To negate anyone’s religious experience based on the perception of another culture or the practices of another religious institution or tradition, is to look at the total picture one-sided and from limited perspective. My hope, however, is that for the days ahead, the lens through which we evaluate another’s religious experience will be wiped thoroughly with humility and respect.