How Environmental is African Traditional Religion?

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Abstract

This article examines some of the beliefs and practices underlying traditional African religion's attitudes to nature with reference to Shona religion of Zimbabwe. At the theoretical level, assuming a romantic view of Shona attitudes to nature, it is possible to conclude that Shona traditional religion is necessarily environmentally friendly. The strong beliefs in ancestral spirits (midzimu), pan-vitalism, kinship, taboo and totems have the potential to bear testimony to this. The aim of this article is to critically examine the extent of the claims that Shona traditional religion is environmentally friendly. It shows that Shona attitudes to nature are in fact discriminative and ambivalent. I argue that the ecological attitude of traditional African religion is more based on fear or respect of ancestral spirits than on respect for nature itself. As a result we need to re-examine Shona attitudes to nature if Shona traditional religion is to re-emerge as a stronger environmental force in the global village. After introductory remarks the article gives an overview background about the Shona focusing on their socio-political organization, world-view and religion. An examination of Shona attitudes to nature focusing on the land, animals, and plant life and water bodies follows. After this there is a reflection on the ethical consequences of Shona attitudes to nature. The last part considers the limits of the romantic view of Shona attitudes to nature.

How Environmental is African Traditional Religion?

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