Africa Knows! It is time to decolonise minds

Blog 15

Studying Religion in and from Africa

By: Birgit Meyer
December 11, 2020

Birgit Meyer is professor of religious studies in the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Utrecht University. She directs the research program 'Religious Matters in an Entangled world'. This blog offers some ideas presented in my lecture 'What is 'Religion' in Africa? Relational Dynamics in an Entangled World' held at the conference 60 Years of Independence, African Studies Centre, Leiden University, Stadsgehoorzaal, 30 january 2020; for a video of the presentation see here). I am currently preparing a journal article based on that lecture.

Featured as the continent of religion par excellence, Africa is often situated in contrast to Europe, where religion – especially Christianity – is in decline. There certainly is some truth to such a view. Over and over again, when I touched ground again in Ghana in the course of my longstanding research since the late 1980s, I have been amazed by the strong public presence of preachers and prophets, loud religious soundscapes and colorful proliferation of visual signs, including posters, stickers, advertisements, motto's on shops and mini-buses, and so on. Gradually getting used to this situation during my stay, upon returning home in turn I would be rather surprised about the relative invisibility of religion over here.

And yet, the idea of Africa and Africans as deeply, or even 'incurably' religious, and of Europe and Europeans as increasingly secular, is problematic. Placing Africa in contrast to secular Europe, this view evokes a master narrative of modernization and secularization, according to which religion is bound to disappear and, if 'still' present, is taken to be a sign of backwardness. Over the past decade, scholars have pointed out that this master narrative offers a flawed understanding of both the religious and the secular. It privileges a historically situated understanding of religion grounded in post-Enlightenment, Protestant religiosity that became the normative and conceptual default of what religion is supposed to be: a domain of meaning-making that is largely confined to the private sphere. Scholars have deconstructed the 'Protestant bias' that informs public debates about and policies towards religion – especially with regard to Muslim (post)migrants and refugees – in European societies and challenged its universal applicability. This has repercussions for scholarship, making scholars wary to define and employ the term 'religion'– a move that has its own ironies, given that it occurs within a field circumscribed as the study of religion.

Positioned in the interface of anthropology, African studies, and religious studies, I think that it is time to move out of the – to some extent productive, yet ultimately limiting – limbo of deconstruction, so as to search for possibilities to rethink religion and its study from fresh angles. My starting point is the gap I notice between the field of the study of religion 'in general', in which expertise with regard to Africa and other areas in the Global South plays a rather marginal role in debates about theories and concepts, and the field of the study of religion in Africa, which tends to take its object of research as given (see Meyer 2020). The expression 'religion in Africa' normalizes what should be questioned: what do we mean by it? How could we, by posing this question, reconfigure the study of religion in Africa as the study of religion from Africa, and thus carry insights from this subfield into broader debates about religion? This is all the more important, as the term religion was introduced to Africa by European mission societies and colonial administrations.

The point is that what is framed as 'religion in Africa' is not at all confined to Africa, but thrives on – often overlooked and barely visible – colonial and postcolonial relations and entanglements. Acknowledging such entanglements does, of course, not imply a romanticist idea of mutual recognition and equality of actors from Africa and Europe. These entanglements are to be unpacked through a careful historical analysis of the power structures that shape how Africa and Europe were and are related to each other and that inform the production of knowledge about – religion in – Africa. This is the condition for gaining a deeper, and hopefully more adequate and realistic understanding of the world beyond a misconceived eurocentrism. As Elνsio Macamo puts it aptly: 'Africa is not what it is because of what it is like. Africa is what it is because of what the world is like, and vice versa. So we study Africa to understand the world' (Macamo 2018: 8) – and what religion might be all about.

I very much agree with the stated aims of the 'Africa Knows' initiative that the recognition of the contemporary world as being multi-polar requires a remapping of our scholarly mind-sets. While colonialism gave way to political Independence, coloniality still lingers on in the ways in which scholars, and a broader public, think about and represent Africa. There is still an urgent need to identify the resilience of what Valentine Mudimbe more that 30 years ago called 'epistemological ethnocentrism' (1988: 28) in the production of knowledge about Africa. As Eva Spies puts it poignantly: 'Epistemologies are not givens but decisions on how knowledge should be produced. To rethink them is one step in the endless loops between social exchanges through research, the realities they generate, and their theorization' (2019: 63). Africa, Europe and religion are epistemic objects that, rather than being 'found' in the world out there, always already streamline how we study it.

The challenge is to de-naturalize these epistemic objects and assess how they inform knowledge production. This is a necessary step that must be taken in order to be able to imagine alternative views and understandings grounded in the acknowledgement of multi-polarity. In so doing, my aim is neither a return to an idea of Africa as situated outside of the sphere of Europe (and vice versa) nor a rejection of the term religion. The concept of religion is to be opened up from the recognition of the relational dynamics that interweaves Europe and Africa, so as to 'clear a space – perhaps even a postcolonial, postimperial, postapartheid space – where something new in the study of religion might happen' (Chidester 1996:266).

In my view, such opening up of the concept of religion requires two moves. One concerns a critical reflexion on the expression religion in Africa. A casual use of the expression 'religion in Africa' can easily make us brush over the fact that religion was brought to Africa as a concept from Europe. The point is to explore how 'religion' was introduced in and spread across Africa as a term to refer to certain practices with regard to humans and spirits, through a complex process of translation and vernacularization of originally Western missionary and scholarly terms in African languages. Translation is not simply a process in which terms are transmitted, however imperfectly, from source language into target language. Translation involves the pairing of previously unrelated terms from two or more languages. The analysis of the co-existence of these terms makes it possible to highlight cleavages and alternative understandings and possibilities.

Michael Lambek's (2008) exploration of the translation of Kwoth among the Nuer as God showed how tracking translation allows to 'provincialize God', as understood from an Abrahamic angle. This 'provincializing' recognizes the influence of missionary Christianity on Nuer understandings of God, but questions its ultimate success and spots alternative meanings. As translation is a key feature of colonial encounters and the entanglements that ensue from them, a careful tracing of past translations can spotlight alternative possibilities and break open the concept of religion as narrowly understood from a European, Christian angle. Delving into translation will also put in perspective the idea of Africans as being deeply religious, as it remains to be seen what their religiosity is all about. Tracking how religion was translated to Africa, means to study how it was made operational in colonial rule, missionary activities and scholarship, and was appropriated by African converts to Christianity, African Muslims, so-called traditionalists as well as policy makers and scholars, and eventually even adopted as key characteristic of Africans. Spotlighting European colonial influences and their appropriation is an important step in the study of religion in Africa towards developing a de-colonial perspective on global religious history that grasps global entanglements.

Second, having established that the study of religion in Africa requires to take into account its provenance in colonialism and mission activities from Europe, we can pose the question what it means to study religion from Africa. How does taking Africa as a vantage point allow to see a presumably familiar thing as 'religion' in different ways? Posing this question, my concern is to contribute to reconfigure religion as an open concept that has at its core the relations that humans deploy with an unseen otherworld. It is a concept that is not yet fixed and filled, but still to be developed through research from Africa (and other areas). There are many important themes and foci. For instance, in my own work, I have taken conflicts between German missionaries and indigenous Ewe over the latter's allegedly material orientation as a starting point for reconceptualizing religion as material (e.g. Meyer 2012). Africa was seen as abode of 'idols' and 'fetishes' by missionaries and as site of primitive religiosity by scholars. Their de-materialized concept of religion in terms of belief served as the yardstick to classify and hierarchize other religions. By analyzing the ideological use of such a concept of religion, its limits become evident.

Conversely, turning to Africa (and other parts of the Global South) opens up possibilities to see religion in a different light in which materiality appears as a basic dimension. Next to conducting detailed research about clashes between missionaries and local people about power objects and sacred matters in colonial settings in Africa, it is also important to study the objects that were discarded by converts and burnt or taken into the collections of colonial museums. European museums contain a great deal of 'colonial objects' which are 'pressing matter' (Modest 2017; see also the Pressing Matter research program that just received funding from the Netherlands Organization of Scientific Research) that enshrine colonial entanglements and ask to be unpacked, by a collaborative effort that involves African and European scholars, curators and priests.

Of course, such a process of re-imagining the study of religion from Africa can only open up new vistas and insights for future research if the infrastructures for knowledge production are de-centred in line with the de-centring of Eurocentric epistemologies. We are to restructure the ways in which knowledge production and distribution occurs by engaging in fair collaborations – on eye level – of scholars from Africa, Europe and elsewhere offering their specific expertise and their grounded views, as for example envisioned by the Program Point Sud funded by the German Science Foundation (DFG). Only in this way will it be possible to trace and chart the complex entanglements through which Africa and Europe are related so as to work on and think about religion, and many other matters, otherwise.


Chidester, David. 1996. Savage Systems: Colonialism and Comparative Religion in Southern Africa. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia.

Lambek, Michael. 2008. 'Provincializing God? Provocations from an Anthropology of Religion'. In Hent de Vries (ed.), Religion beyond a Concept. New York: Fordham University Press, 120-138, 856-857.

Macamo, Elνsio. 2018. 'Urbane scholarship: studying Africa, understanding the world'. Africa 88.1, 1–10.

Meyer, Birgit. 2012. Mediation and the Genesis of Presence. Inaugural Lecture, Utrecht University, 19 October 2012.

Meyer, Birgit. 2020. 'Remapping Our Mindset: Towards a Transregional and Pluralistic Outlook'. Religion 50.1, 113-121.

Modest, Wayne. 2017. Pressing Matter: Reckoning with Colonial Heritage. Inaigural Lecture. Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.

Mudimbe, V. Y. 1988. Invention of Africa: Gnosis, Philosophy, and the Order of Knowledge. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Spies, Eva. 2019. 'Being in Relation: A Critical Appraisal of Religious Diversity and Mission Encounter in Madagascar'. Journal of Africana Religions 7, 62–83.

* This conference took place from December 2020 to February 2021 *
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