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African Culture and Religion: Distinct Not Separable


How do we define culture? One cannot define just culture as "way(s) of doing things”. This exclusive definition even fall short of the fairly simple fashion like "the way of life of a given society or the universe of values and artifacts in which a given people live”. Tylor's inclusive definition of culture states that "culture is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, law, art, morals, customs, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of a society". Culture is that which consists of integrated patterns of behaviours and artifacts (including ancient traditions and selected ideas and their attached values) which distinguish one human group from another. Culture is thus a universe or package or aggregate of innumerable independent variables constituting human life and existence. Being the totality of human life/existence, culture is not only about "the way we do things", but also about what we do, why we do it, where and when we do it. Culture is the totality of all these.

The foregoing suggests that culture can be illustrated with a mathematical model thus Culture = A +B+C+D +E +F+……+Z (where Z is infinity). It means several independent variables (like religion. language, arts, literature, philosophy, systems of government, science and values, and a host of others) constitute the universe or package called culture (dependent variable). The characteristics of each of the independent variables are attributable or communicable to culture (dependent variable). The corollary is also true. The characteristics of culture (dependent variable) is determined as well as bequeathed by each of the independent variables (A+B+C+D+E+F+…… +Z) where A+B+C+D+E+F and so on, represents anthropocentric variables like religion, language, arts, literature, philosophy, systems of government, science and values, symbols, norms and a host of others.

On the other hand, religion is an abstract set of idea, values, or experiences developed as part of a cultural matrix. Religion is distinguishable from culture but inseparable from it. Religion and culture are distinct but closely related. Examining African Traditional religion and African Culture, we find a close relation which is defined by the term “Anthropocentricism”.

The term 'anthropocentricism' implies that man is the architect and centre of these cultural variables, and that man is essentially religious by nature and cultural by nurture. African religion is anthropocentric (man's centred). This is why it is described as this worldly-religion. By implication, all anthropocentric variables have religious coloration and thus cannot easily be divorced from religion.


Moreover, and logically too, culture (dependent variable) is subject to the law of universality and relativity because each of the anthropocentric variables is universal as well as relative. Similarly, it is because each of these anthropocentric variables has material and non-material aspects that make culture (dependent variable) to be classified in terms of material and non-material culture. The plus (+) sign indicates an intermingling, interdependence and interpenetration of anthropocentric variables to form the culture of a given people. Each of these anthropocentric variables not only drives culture but also helps in transmitting it. If any of these anthropocentric variables is removed, then it is difficult to have a (complete or viable) culture. For instance, if African religion (the most important anthropocentric variable) is removed from culture, then it is not possible to have a (complete or viable) African culture. Backing this assertion. Umejesi and Igboin (2010) stated that "there is hardly anything done, both public and private, that excludes religion. This attests to the incurability and notoriety of Africans, in matters of life and religion". Thus, religion (though distinct from culture) cannot be divorced from culture.

Another illustration that can help to clarify religion-culture relationship is the biological/system model, which conceives of culture as a living organism (system) made of tissues, organs, and cells (sub-systems); or as a cell consisting of parts including the nucleus (the store-house of genes as well as Deoxyribonucleic acid, DNA). Of course, tissues, organs and cells are living things coming together to form a psychosomatic unity of species like mankind. This analogy helps us to liken culture to a human being with various body parts. Of course, each of the parts is a sub-system with life and force of its own.

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The afore-mentioned anthropocentric variables constitute culture just as these body parts form human being. The man without a leg, or eye, or hand is still a living human being but a physically challenged person. In raw term, the man is disabled or handicap. But a man without a head (brain) or heart is a dead person. Like brain in human body, or central processing unit (CPU) in computer, or engine in a car or seed in a fruit, so is religion in culture. Religion is the seed of culture; while culture is the fruit of religion. Though distinct from culture, religion (the most important aspect of African culture) cannot be separated from African culture as such separation would lead to the death of African culture. African culture is lifeless without religion. Likewise, just as no cell is complete without a nucleus (character determinant of cell life), so African culture is incomplete without its religion. African religion is the most binding aspect of African culture.

On the basis of the foregoing analyses, any discourse or thought that presents religion-culture dichotomous view is damaging to African Traditional Religion. Damage can be done by those who ought to know but have been misinformed. Ignorance may be bliss but not misinformation. There are arguments that the differences between religion and culture should be established on the fact that religion is just a subset of culture: that religion is the inner phenomenon of life while culture is the outer phenomenon of life (of course the former provides impetus for the latter), that religion operates at the infrastructural sphere of existence (personal) while culture operates at super-structural sphere of existence (societal); that religion exercises internal locus of control on the individual whereas culture exercises external locus of control; and that religion drives culture whereas culture expresses as well as celebrates religion. These arguments do not enhance and present the true picture and relationship between culture and religion.

More disheartening is the fact that some argue that culture is meant strictly for human earthly survival whereas religion is meant strictly for re-union with the Creator or eternal bliss in heaven. Here, culture is seen as a survival relationship, while religion is about spiritual fulfilment. This is half-truth; this submission is unacceptable in that it is based merely on the functional definition of culture. A robust definition of culture speaks to the Topical, historical, behavioural, normative, functional, mental, structural and symbolic definitions of culture. One of such is given by the popular English Poet and Culture critic, Matthew Arnold.

According to Arnold, Topically, culture consists of everything on a list of topic, or categories, such as social organization, religion or economy. Historically, culture is a social heritage, or tradition, that is passed on to future generations. Behaviourally, culture is shared, learned human behaviour, a way of life. Normatively, culture is the ideals, values or rules of living. Functionally, culture is the way human solve problems, adapts to the environment and live together. Mentally, culture is a complex of ideas, or learned habits that inhibits impulses and distinguish people from animals. Structurally, culture costs of patterned and inter-related ideas, symbols or behaviours. Symbolically, culture is based on arbitrarily assigned meanings that are shared by a society

Neglecting the topical, historical, behaviorative, functional, mental, and symbolic dimensions of culture, these thought projectors select the functional dimension of the definition of culture only and present it to their readers as if that is the full or complete dimensions of culture.

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