Tribal Religions

The term ‘tribal religion’ is applied today to religion previously called animism. While ‘animism’ is rightly felt to be pejorative (for reasons outlined in the article on that subject), to call this complex cultural and religious phenomenon ‘tribal’ is to reduce it to one aspect only, and other names for it (for example ‘culture of non-literate peoples’ or ‘religions of nature’) can be equally partial and misleading. It is difficult to see, for example, why the worship of the millions of Yoruba in Nigeria and the diaspora should be classified as ‘tribal’ when they outnumber the adherents of Sikhism, classified as a world religion. Use of the word ‘tribal’ refers to the fact that all such religions began as the practice of small groups, extended families, clans or tribes, and were originally confined to the ancestral lands of these groups. The religion becomes an identifying feature of members of the group, so that even when exogamy is practised, they remain bound together by symbols and practices as well as by blood relationships.

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