Some theorists in the nineteenth century felt that primal religions were lower (i. e., inferior) forms of spiritual expression than the religions that came later in human history. Why did they believe this then, and why are such theories not as common among scholars today as they once were?

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Those living in their concept of civilization, especially urban areas, generally have the feeling that anyone not from these places is a bit beneath their level of sophistication. This has always been an inclination of human nature regardless of how much we may want to believe that everyone is equal and of the same value. Consequently, it was not necessarily unusual for the early European visitors to Africa to classify African religions as primitive, pagan or animistic (Bush, et al., 1994). These visitors to various African countries distorted the religious practices as a result of their own prejudices and value systems and thought that such stories of creation as the one by the Gikuyu of Kenya were superstitious and fanciful (Bush, et al., 1994).

The story speaks of a terrible storm that caused darkness on earth around Kerinyaga, which caused all the animals that God had put there to be afraid. However, a tree grew at the foot of Kerinyaga, which sent forth a rich warmness; it was God’s Tree, a holy tree. Then a man and woman were put down by the tree and the storm ceased and light, sunlight, shone around the earth and the fear left the animals and the two people there (Bush, et al., 1994). To a “sophisticated” European, this story of creation might seem over the top.

However, the African religions were not the only ones to be thought of as primitive. As European settlers moved their way west and encountered Native American’s and their religious practices, the reaction was somewhat the same as it was in Africa. For example, the Vision Quest of several Native American religions has a counterpart in Christian religions, but way it was described by Black Elk, a Sioux medicine man, could have easily drawn out pagan and primitive associations for the more conservative European settlers (Bush, et al., 1994). Black Elk suggests the young man on a vision quest sets up a center pole and then sets up four other poles to the east, south, west and north of the center pole. The one seeking a vision begins by praying at the center pole, then prays the prayer at each of the directional poles. After each prayer at a directional pole, the man goes back to the center pole before going to the next directional pole so that the center pole is always the point of reference for the man and the divine. Finally, the man seeking the vision does all of this naked and continues until the vision arrives or the time set at the beginning has expired (Bush, et. al., 1994).

Comparison of African religions and Native American religions to the rather staid European religious practices would probably elicit thoughts of paganism and primitive worship practices in those religions. However, such an understanding really arises from a lack of knowledge about these religions and what they really had in common with other religious practices. In evaluating the creation stories of African religions, seven things that were held in common among the stories emerged, and these are also true of Native American religions (Bush, et. al., 1994). These commonalities are: The concept of a spiritual cosmos; earth and material life created; notion of other gods and lesser spirits; ancestors; a belief in sacred spaces and places; the concept of persons as a part of the cosmos; and, the idea of a society organized around values and traditions taken from these stories (Bush, et. al., 1994).

It is, perhaps, these commonalities that have made it less likely that modern day theorists will label Native American and African religions as pagan or primitive. This is especially true when one begins to notice that these commonalities are also found in the religions of the world today (Smith, ?). The creation stories of the Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism all bear these commonalities. It seems that the line between primitive and sophisticated is a fine one, and it would behoove us to not lay such a charge to any religion today.

  • Bush, R. C., Byrnes, J. F., Converse, H. S., Dollarhide, K., Nanji, A., Weir, R. F., &
    Yates, K. M. (1994). African Religions. In The Religious World: Communities
    Of Faith, second edition. New York, NY: Macmillan Publishing Company.
  • Bush, R. C., Byrnes, J. F., Converse, H. S., Dollarhide, K., Nanji, A., Weir, R. F., &
    Yates, K. M. (1994). Native American Religions. In The Religious World:
    Communities Of Faith, second edition. New York, NY: Macmillan Publishing
  • Smith, H. (Date). Point of Departure. (Book Title). (City, State: Publisher).