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Philosophy Class Transforms Student’s Understanding of World Religions

I’m taking a philosophy class on African religion, which has altered my understanding of all religion.

It’s commonly believed that traditional African life (i.e. pre-European influence) was highly spiritual and religious. After reading the philosopher Kwasi Wiredu who used the traditional beliefs of his own people, the Akan of Ghana, as an example, it’s evident that the previous belief is untrue.

We learned about the “religion” of the Akan people of Ghana. When the Europeans arrived in Africa they wished to spread their faith among the “less civilized” peoples. But religious misunderstandings began when they started asking the Akan people whom they worshipped. The Akan people did not believe in any sort of spiritual/physical dichotomy. They had a “quasi-material” belief according to Wiredu. This meant that God or even their loved ones who had passed did not exist in some alternate realm; they were still around and actively influencing their lives on earth.

The language of the Akan people influenced their spirituality. There was no word for God in terms of an “all powerful being,” in fact the words that the Akan have now in their language for God are actually words manufactured by the Europeans who were attempting to make the Akan words fit their own beliefs. They made the term Anyesom for God by combining some Akan words together to fit their own perceptions of God.

To the Akan, gods could be subject to human emotion. For example, if a god was given offerings and did not deliver good fortune to the giver, that person could then ignore the god until it was weak and disappeared.

The way my professor explained it was you giving a clerk some money for candy and the clerk doesn’t give it to you. As a result you wouldn’t go to that clerk anymore and you would tell others not to go there and as a result, that clerk would go out of business! That’s just such a profound difference in how we traditionally view things and it blew my mind.

Furthermore, the Akan people did not believe in a Heaven or Hell, as I explained earlier, when someone passed, they still remained on earth it was just those still alive couldn’t see them.

As a result of this, the Akan weren’t nice upstanding people because of some guaranteed place in the afterlife; they were good because it was best for everyone. Although it shouldn’t be so big of a stretch, it seems to present a problem for many to understand being an upstanding citizen outside of fear of some wrathful end.
Studying this group of people was so eye opening and was such a rare look into a view that was not Western into a non-Western religion. This of course does not reflect all the diverse beliefs within Africa by any means but was a good reflection of beliefs profoundly different from my own.

I love that I’ve been able to gain more insight into these beliefs. This truth about how some views religions as opposed to the wild misconception I had from mislead lessons in the past was truly something special.

These are the lessons that make college so special. The lessons that change your worldview are those to be treasured and noted.

Nicole Robinson can be reached at nrobinson@ut.edu.

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