According to all the major surveys, Christianity and Islam each represent approximately 40 percent of the African population. Christianity is more dominant in the south, while Islam is more dominant in the north. Indigenous African practices tend to be strongest in the central states of Africa, but some form of their practices and beliefs can be found almost anywhere in Africa.
African diaspora — mostly due to the slave trade starting in the 15th century — indigenous African religions have spread and taken root all over the world, including in the United States and Europe. Some of these African diaspora religions include Cuban Regla de Ocha, Haitian Vodou, and Brazilian Candomble.
The pluralistic nature of African-tradition religion is one of the reasons for its success in the diaspora. African spirituality has always been able to adapt to change and allow itself to absorb the wisdom and views of other religions, much more than, for example, Christianity and Islam. While Islam and Christianity tend to be overtly resistant to adopting traditional African religious ideas or practices, indigenous African religions have always accommodated other beliefs.
One of the basic reasons is that indigenous African spiritual beliefs are not bound by a written text, like Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Indigenous African religion is primarily an oral tradition and has never been fully codified; thus, it allows itself to more easily be amended and influenced by other religious ideas, religious wisdom, and by modern development. Holding or maintaining to a uniform doctrine is not the essence of indigenous African religions.
In lieu of these traditional African ways of defining oneself, Christianity and Islam are gradually creating a social identity in Africa that cuts across these indigenous African religious and social identities. They do this by having Africans increasingly identify themselves as either Muslim or Christian, thus denying their unique African worldview that has always viewed — as evidenced in their creation myths — everything as unified and connected to the land, the place were one’s clan, lineage, and people were cosmically birthed. Foreign religions simply don’t have that same connection to the African continent.
Jacob Olupona, professor of indigenous African religions at Harvard Divinity School and professor of African and African-American studies in Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, recently sat down for an interview with Anthony Chiorazzi about his lifelong research on indigenous African religions.