© Copyright Irving Hexham 1992, 1999


Recognising bias is the first step towards critical thinking in academic work. Yet, by their very nature biases are so ingrained that most people do not see them when they are staring them in the face. The next time you read a book ask yourself "what is the author's bias?" You will be surprised how much this simple question will reveal.

To demonstrate how common unrecognised biases are in textbooks this chapter will examine the attitude towards Africa and Africans in Religious Studies textbooks. Despite the fact that most of the authors of the books we will examine are self proclaimed liberals, who would be horrified at the suggestion that their books are riddled with racism, there can be no doubt that African religions suffer from a racist heritage. But, until this is pointed out to students few people consciously recognise the fact, even though many have a subconscious feeling that something is wrong with what they are reading.

For example, Robert S. Ellwood, in Many Peoples, Many Faiths [1982], David S. Noss in Man's Religions, [1984] and Trevor Ling in A History of Religions East and West [1979] manage to avoid the discussion of African religions altogether. Ninian Smart in his popular The Religious Experience of Mankind, he devoted exactly 5 out of 576 pages to a consideration of African religion [1969:33-34, 37-39]. In his more recent text The World's Religions [1989:297-310 & 514-531] African religions are given 19 out of 576 pages with a few additional pages allowed for short discussions of Christianity and Islam in Africa. Examine any other popular Religious Studies textbook and you will find a similar situation. His theoretical text Worldviews, identifies a "worldview" Smart calls "Black Africa," about which he says precisely nothing in two pages [1983:46-47]. Similarly in his more comprehensive Beyond Ideology [1981:213 & 232] he has only two very short references to Africa, while his recent book of readings Sacred Texts of the World: A Universal Anthology, edited with Richard D. Hecht, devotes a mere 5 out of 408 pages to things African [1982:347-348 & 354-356].

Other writers are no better Theodore Ludwig in The Sacred Path, allows 4 pages [1989:51-52 & 55-56], Neilsen et.al., Religions of the World, has 9 pages [1983:24-32], Bush et.al., The Religious World [1988:32-51], and the Carmondy's, The Story of World Religions [1988:32-45] have 12 pages each. Similarly in the Lessa and Vogt Reader in Comparative Religion only 22 out of 488 pages are devoted to African religions [1979:243-258, 362-366 & 393-399]. The only minor exceptions to this almost total boycott of African religions by Western scholars is Whitfield Foy's selection of readings for the British Open University entitled Man's Religious Quest where 48 pages of readings are provided [1978:555-97]. But even there the attention given is limited and disproportionate to that devoted to other traditions such as Zoroastrianism which receives 60 pages [1978:599-661].

Similarly if one surveys academic journals in Religious Studies one finds a dearth of articles on African religions and few reviews of books about Africa. To the uninitiated this lack of attention might attribute this lack of attention to a lack of scholarship dealing with African religions. But, this is not the case.

When Hans-Jürgen Becken and Londa Shembe translated some of the famous Zulu religious leader, Isaiah Shembe's works into English, the book received very few reviews even though it was published by an established academic press. This is all the more surprising because the Shembe texts were the only source for the scriptures of a major contemporary African religious movement available in English at the time of their publication. But, instead of being welcomed as the major breakthrough that they were, they were ignored by journals. Even Religious Studies Review, which is devoted to reviewing books on religion, pays virtually no attention to books on African religion and acts as though many of them do not exist.


To further illustrate the unfavourable treatment received by African religions in popular textbooks those sections dealing with Africa in Ninian Smart's otherwise excellent The World's Religions [1989] will be examined in detail. The reason for choosing Smart's work is that he is politically liberal and certainly not a racist. Therefore, his work may be criticised without fear of suggesting his approach to African religions is motivated by racism. As a result if his approach is judged harshly it ought to provoke us to ask deeper questions about the study of African religion rather than criticise an individual who wrote a particular book.

To gain some idea of how biased Smart's approach actually is we will compare what he says about African religions with the religions of India. Here the aim is simply to draw attention to the relative neglect of African religions, not to suggest that anything said about India is, in the correct context, incorrect or inappropriate.

First, we note that the diversity of religion in the Indian sub-continents is seen as something exciting and creative. But, African diversity is dismissed because African religion "has never been a single system" which, by implication is a bad thing compared with "historical world religions" [Smart 1989:42 & 310].

Second, Indians are said to direct their worship towards "a large number of gods" because "God is described ... as taking many forms ..." so that the numerous gods become "manifestations of the One Divine Being." Although similar practices may be observed in Africa, Africans are said to enjoy a "refracted theism" which Smart clearly considers an inferior form of religious consciousness [1989:45-47 & 300].

Third, Indians are said to possess a mythic system with "a thousand themes." On the other hand equally rich African mythologies are reduced to "myths of death and disorder" to which " trickster" myths are added as though these three themes exhaust African mythic consciousness [1989:47 & 300-310].

Fourth, when sacrifice is discussed in the Indian context we are told it is a "central ritual" which must be interpreted as part of a vast system of interrelated beliefs. But in the African context sacrifice and dismissed with the words that "as elsewhere in the world," it is " a gesture of communication with god" [1989:54 & 302]. Recognising that it is probably not Smart's intention, it is, nevertheless, true that his use of words is unfortunate because there can be no doubt that his words suggest that African ritual sacrifices are really not worth serious consideration because they simply duplicate things that happen more interestingly elsewhere.

Fifth, Indian expressions of anthropomorphism are said to represent a "splendid act of imagination." But, African societies are seen as possessing anthropomorphic religions, which in the context of his discussion appear as rather limited and simplistic [1989:299 & 54].

No doubt some people will object to these comparisons and attempt to dismiss them as trivial quibbles. Surely, they will argue, one cannot compare African and Indian religious traditions. African religions lack philosophic sophistication, but Indian religions share a rich philosophical tradition. Therefore, critical comments about Smart's text are inappropriate.

This argument has its merits, but can be questioned by comparing what Smart, or almost any other Religious Studies textbook writer, says about other religious traditions which lack philosophical refinement. For example Smart's comments favourably on Polynesian religion where one finds an appreciation entirely missing from his section on Africa. Polynesian myths, he argues, express "vast resources," but Africa myths simply "leave much to reflect on" [1989:166 & 531]. Further, Smart's judgement that African religions have a particular problem in terms of their relation to "modern science" and their potential to produce "the philosophical basis for religious pluralism" he gives a positive assessment of Australia Aborigine religion on these issues [Cf. 1989:529-531 & 494-495]. Thus, when writing about Australian Aboriginal society which is a fragmented society far smaller than almost any African society Smart comments:

no doubt the Aborigines are on the verge of [a new pan-Aboriginal religion] creating an ... all-embracing reaffirmation of values, helped too by the interpretation of Aborigine religion created by writers on them, such as Mircea Eliade ... [1989:495]

Yet, for some reason, he feels that African societies "are on the whole too small to be able to bear the full impact of modern social change." [1989:529]

Finally, while Smart acknowledges that Christianity had "a long history" in Africa and that "dynamic" Christian movements have developed on the African continent he gives no hint that such church fathers as St. Augustine of Hippo and Tertullian were African, and in all probability Black. As a result the encounter between Christianity and African religion is seen as essentially a one way transaction with Africans adapting Christianity to their needs but not really influencing the outside world.

Yet it can be argued that the impact of Africa on Christianity is as great as the impact of Christianity on Africa, and that without an appreciation of African culture one cannot really understand either classical or contemporary Christianity [1989: 297, 517-520, & 523-531]. Taking these considerations into account it seems clear that in Religious Studies texts, like that of Smart's, African religions get a very raw deal indeed.


To understand this general neglect and disparagement of African religion and religions in Religious Studies textbooks it is essential that we take a close look at the place of Africa and Africans in European thought generally. When European attitudes to Africa and Africans are examined one finds that prior to the Enlightenment Africans were regarded as people who had much in common with Europeans [1979]. Indeed in the eighteenth century one Ghanaian, Anton Wilhelm Amo actually gained a considerable reputation as a rationalist philosopher and in 1737 was appointed lecturer (Privatdozent) at the German University of Halle. He had graduated from Halle in 1727 and obtained his doctorate from the University of Wittenburg in 1734 [Debrunner 1979:107].

Amo is but one example of a number of Blacks who were well received and respected in Europe prior to the Enlightenment. There is also some evidence that Africans were regarded as a religious people with a deep spirituality [Debrunner 1979: 35-36; Irwin 1977:34-35]. All of this changed with the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century.


While it is usual to regard the Enlightenment as a period of reform and progress it was anything but progressive for Blacks. A good case can be made that modern racism originates in the Enlightenment [Mosse 1978: 1-7 & 19-20].

The French philosopher Voltaire set the general tone of Enlightenment attitudes to Africans. Although derogatory remarks may be found throughout his work his short essay The Negro sums up his position. He tells his readers:

The NEGRO race is a species of men as different from ours as the breed of spaniels is from that of greyhounds ... if their understanding is not of a different nature from ours, it is at least greatly inferior. They are not capable of any great application or association of ideas, and seem formed neither of the advantages nor abuses or our philosophy.

[Voltaire 1901: XXIX-240-242].

In another place he talks about "uncultivated coasts where Pelsart and his companions, in 1630, found black men who walked on their hands as upon feet ... and ... a race of negros who had no fore teeth in their upper jaws ..." [Voltaire 1901: XXIX-268] More importantly Voltair advocated polygenesis, or the separate creation of different human races, saying:

You may, if you please, reduce all mankind to one single species, because they have the same organs of life, sense and motion; but this species is evidently divided into several others, whether we consider it in a physical or moral light ...

[Voltaire 1901: XXIX-270]

David Hume expressed similar views when he wrote:

I suspect that negroes ... be naturally inferior to the whites. There never was a civilized nation of any other complexion than white ...

[Hume 1906:152-152]

Similarly while Rousseau is remembered for his attack on slavery it is forgotten that he also spoke quite freely of "negroes and savages" [Rousseau 1966:165; Cf. Cook 1936]. In fact when Rousseau's views are examined in detail his assessment of the "noble savage" mirrors modern racism. In his essay Inequality Among Men, and is it Authroized by Natural Law? he wrote:

We should beware, therefore, of confounding the savage man with the men we have daily before our eyes. Nature treats all the animals left to her care with a predilection ... By becoming domesticate they loose half these advantages ... there is still a greater difference between savage and civilised man than between wild and tame beasts ... [Rousseau 1966:1968]

These comments lead on to the view that:

they go naked, have no dwellings, and lack all superfluities which we think so necessary ... Their children are slowly and with difficulty taught to walk ... [Rousseau 1966:168]

Such a racist comment is followed by the observation that:

Solitary, indolent, and perpetually accompanied by danger, the savage cannot but be fond of sleep; his sleep too must be light, like that of the animals ... Such in general is the animal condition, and such, according to travellers, is that of most savage nations [Rousseau 1966:169]

And again:

Savage man must accordingly begin with purely animal functions ... being destitute of every species of intelligence his desires never go beyond his physical wants food, a female, and sleep

[Rousseau 1966:171]

Moving from "the savage" in general to people in particular Rousseau says:

... everything seems removed from savage man he is so far from having the knowledge which is needful to make him want more, that he can have neither foresight nor curiosity ... he has not understanding enough to wonder at the great miracles; nor is it in his mind that we can expect to find that philosophy man needs ... [Roussaue 1966:172]

After all of this Rousseau makes it quite clear that his "savage" is no abstract entity but can be identified with Africans in particular:

Such, even at present, is the extent of the native Caribbean's foresight

[Rousseau 1966:172].

Later he makes the same derogatory identification when he writes:

The imagination, which causes such ravages among us, never speaks to the heart of savages, who quietly await the impulses of nature, yield to them involuntarily, with more pleasure and ardour, and, their wants once satisfied, loose the desire ... the Caribbeans, who have at yet least of all deviated from the state of nature

[Rousseau 1966:186-187]

The philosopher Kant was more cautious in his essay "On the different Races of Mankind" (Von den Verschiedenen Rassen der Menschen), nevertheless he did appear to think that racial mixture was to be discouraged and laid a highly theoretical basis for segregation [Kant 1922:445-460, first published 1775]. With such biased philosophical judgements behind him, Hegel had no hesitation in saying:

The peculiarly African character is difficult to comprehend ... In Negro life the characteristic point is the fact that consciousness has not yet attained to the realisation of any substantial objective existence ... The Negro, as already observed, exhibits the natural man in his completely wild and untamed state. We must lay aside all thought of reverence and morality. Among Negroes moral sentiments are quite weak, or more strictly speaking, non-existent ... At this point we leave Africa to mention it no more. For it is no historical part of the World ... [Hegel 1944:93 & 99]

From these examples it is clear that the leading figures of the Enlightenment and subsequent Romantic Movement held a very low opinion of Africans. It not only explains their failure to study African religion and society but also the continuing neglect of such studies by their disciples and eventually the founders of Religious Studies such as Max Muller. But, is this the whole story?


In light of the reaction of Enlightenment thinkers to Africa and Africans it might be expected that similar attitudes would have influenced European scholarly views of India. And, during the early years of the nineteenth century there was considerable anti-Indian propaganda. Popular accounts of Africa and India, written by traders and missionaries [Ingham 1973:1-54], painted equally bleak pictures of both continents and their peoples.

John Mill, Lord Macaulay, and a host of other "experts" considered Indian civilisation degenerate and described it in terms very similar to contemporary descriptions of African life [Mill 1975:137-189; Iyer 1965:211]. Similarly, philosophers such as Hegel had little use for India or Indian religions. For example the following extended extract from Hegel's Philosophy of History is worse in its attack on Hindu society and religion than any similar contemporary account of Africa. Hegel writes:

Absolute Being is presented here in the ecstatic state of a dreaming condition ... The Character of Spirit in a state of Dream, is the generic principle of the Hindoo Nature ... which involves a monstrous bewilderment in regard to all phenomena and relations, we have already recognised as the principle of the Hindoo Spirit. The Hindoo Mythology is therefore only a wild extravagance of Fancy ... their whole life and ideas are one unbroken superstition, because among them all is revere and consequent enslavement." [Hegel 1944:139-141, 155, 157-158, 167]

Yet by the mid-nineteenth century the outlook of many Europeans had changed and India began to benefit from a growing appreciation of its religious and cultural heritage. Clearly the similarity between Kantian philosophy, Hegelian dialectics and other forms of idealism affected western scholarly views of Indian religions. Hegel was hostile to Indian religions [Hegel 1944:139-181], but his disciples [Deppert 1983:221-235] and other thinkers, such as Schopenhauer, who detested Hegel, were enthusiastic about Indian thought [Schopenhauer 1969; Jackson 1981:45-62].


But no parallel appreciation of African values developed. In fact, if anything the descriptions given by European writers of Africa and Africans sank lower and lower on the scale of humanity [Bolt 1971:109-156; Curtin 1964:377-386]. Once again it would be easy to explain this devaluation of African life in terms of its "primitive" state as compared to the "richness" of Indian culture, especially Indian philosophy. Such an explanation overlooks the fact that the American Indian and similar groups did not suffer the same negative reactions as Africans [Washington 1984:24 & 349; Bolt and Drescher 1980:234-243]. Therefore it is increasingly difficult not to see an element of racism in the neglect of African religions [P'Bitek 1970] The truth is that the more one probes the treatment of Blacks, and Black religions, by western scholars the more grounds for grievance emerge [Jordan 1905; Sharpe 1975; Müller 1898:286-290].

If the study of African religions is neglected by modern scholars this is not a new phenomenon. A quick survey of Religious Studies texts from an earlier era will show a similar disregard for African traditions. In 1813 John Belamy devoted 15 pages of his The History of all Religions [1813] to the religions of India and 2 pages to African religions which he describes as "paganism".

A few years later, in 1835, Charles A. Goodrich, in Religious Ceremonies and Customs, or the Forms of Worship Practices by Several Nations of the Known World, From the Earliest Records to the Present Time [1835], allowed 10 pages of his book to "the Hindoos" and 3 pages to "African Tribes". James Gardner's popular The Faiths of the World: An Account of all Religions and Religious Sects, Doctrines, Rites, Ceremonies and Customs, Compiled from the Latest and Best Authors [N.D.], has many references to India and Indian deities but avoids African religions altogether. Later still, James Clarke's Ten Great Religions [1883], is typical in his disrespect for African religions. Unlike modern writers Clarke does not hesitate to tell his readers:

The negroes of Africa have been charged with all sorts of vices and crimes...But it must be remembered that the negroes of whom we have usually heard have been for centuries corrupted by the slave-traders ... travellers who have penetrated the interior...have met with warm hospitality ... They have, in short, found the rudimentary forms of the kingly and queenly virtues of truth and love, justice and mercy, united in the hearts of these benighted heathens ... Such are the virtues which already appear in primitive man, rudimentary virtues, indeed ...[Clarke 1883:293-294]

No wonder that by the time of the World Congress of Religions in 1893, African religions had completely disappeared from the vision of progressive scholars. As a result the proceedings of the Congress give no attention whatsoever to African religions.

Early twentieth century descriptions of African religions are equally prejudiced. A good example of this approach is found in Edwin W. Smith in his tellingly entitled book The Religion of Lower Races: As Illustrated by the African Bantu [1923]. Here Smith describes African religion as "elementary" and "a religion of fear" [Smith 1923:2-3 & 66].

Clearly, the neglect of African religion and religions has a long history. Modern textbooks that almost totally neglect African religion are simply continuing a long tradition that is over two hundred years old and deeply rooted in European racism. Consequently, when students read popular textbook accounts of African religion or encounter its almost total neglect they quickly form the opinion that African religions are unworthy of serious study. Thus existing textbooks confirm old prejudices and lead to the further neglect of Africa by anyone interested in the serious study of religion.


One reason why an appreciation of African religion did not develop in the nineteenth century is clearly the unavailability of religious texts and the reliance of most scholars on text for their interpretation of religion. Although Indian texts, often directly based upon oral traditions, were translated into first Latin and then German and English during the early part of the nineteenth century no similar translations were made of African traditions. Indeed, often all that western scholars knew about African religions were sensational accounts of "primitive" practices by traders and missionaries.

That Africa could have its own epics that might rival the Mahabarata, or that apparently irrational behaviour, such as witchcraft, could have a logical basis simply did not occur to nineteenth century scholars [Evans-Prichard 1937]. In making this point there is no need to argue that African epics are better or worse than Indian epics. All that needs to be recognised is that in the nineteenth century very few people, in Europe at least, took African oral traditions seriously [Okpewho 1979; Gunner 1976:71-89; Rycroft & Ngcobo 1988].

The result seems to have been that while John Mill could see Indian rituals as essentially expressions of barbaric superstitions, scholars studying Indian beliefs slowly began to recognise an underlying order behind the rituals. Indologists therefore began to attribute meaning to apparently meaningless acts thus weakening Mill's arguments [Chaimberlain 1974:68]. Later intellectual movements like Vedanta and, at a more popular level, Theosophy allowed even the crudest ritual acts to be re-interpreted in sophisticated ways. These interpretations gave Indian religions a respectability never achieved by African faiths [O'Malley 1941:338-353; Campbell 1980].

But this is not all. The very fact of interpretation led to further refinement and produced schools of apologists who saw in Indian religions a spiritual alternative to the bankrupt West [Jackson 1981]. That the Buddhism of Mrs. Rees-Davids is far removed from Buddhism as actually practised by traditional Buddhists is unimportant [Conze 1957:27]. To rephrase Karl Barth's well known comment on the famous German liberal theologian Adolf von Harnack, in the nineteenth century western orientalists looked deep and long into the well of Indian spirituality and saw their own reflection. One result was the development of what we now know as Religious Studies that highly prizes India while almost totally disregarding Africa.


The examples presented in this chapter are so gross that it seems unbelievable that Black Americans are not protesting loud and clear about the prejudice found in Religious Studies texts. Yet, they are not. This is probably because these prejudices are so deep, and appear so scholarly, then no one really notices them. Instead they lie on the edge of the readers consciousness.

Once the example of the way African religions are treated n textbooks is realised you can begin to look out for similar biases. Textbooks are full of bias and prejudice. We all notice these things as a subliminal level. But few of us really trust our own judgement enough to point out the biased nature of textbooks text. Yet this is what we all must learn to do if scholarship is to advance.