African Studies Quarterly

Religious Ethics in Africa. Peter Kasanene. Kampala: Fountain Publishers (distributed by ABC Ltd. Oxford, UK), 1998. Pp.110. paper $11.25.

For teachers eager to whet the appetite of undergraduates for religious ethics, this is a good text. The author presents the positions of African traditional religion (ATR) and three world proselytizing religions on moral issues for a largely African readership. The book provides a basic discussion of the teachings of ATR, Christianity, Islam and Baha'i Faith. It is an adequate elementary text for explaining each religion's position on moral issues such as sacredness of life, smoking, abortion, the use of contraceptives, euthanasia, fornication and adultery. Kasanene manages to distill the various sectarian or denominational views on these moral issues and presented a representative account of an otherwise cacaphonous plurality of positions. It informs the reader about the culture of Africa and the pressures exerted by Christianity, Islam and Baha'i Faith on African ethical systems. However, it does not engage any new theoretical discussion or contribute significantly to the literature on religion in Africa.

The book has nine chapters. Chapter One provides an overview of the value of morals to the individual and society. Chapter Two guides the reader through the fine distinctions between ethics and morality, and makes explicit the various internal and external guides to moral decision-making. Chapter Three opens with a discussion on the interconnectedness of religion and morality, and closes with the differences between African traditional religious ethics and those of the three imported religions. The next five chapters are concerned with specific moral issues and the position of each of the four religions on them. The final chapter makes a plea for the return of Africans to their original worldview if they want to maintain their identity in the face of modernization.

However, Kasanene provides no scholarly evaluation of each religion's position or even a comparative analysis of each of them. Merely listing each religion's position on issues is not what one expects from a book that purports to educate university students. Moreover, the book discusses smoking and alcoholism, but is surprisingly silent on dietary rules. Dietary theory is an important aspect of every religious system and its analysis is central to understanding, at least, the connections between ethics and classifications in any society. Mary Douglas (1966 &1992) has shown the relationship between systems of knowledge and the systems of society by examining dietary rules and projections from diet to health. Often the vast rules of food prohibitions in Africa are the projection or extension of rules from human life to animal life and are also a reflection of principles of social and political relationships. "Eating the right foods and abstaining from the wrong one publicly exemplifies the system of social categories" (Douglas 1992:265).

Kasanene's book would have yielded more benefits if the author had also discussed the conversion process, especially in light of his call for Africans to go back to their traditional worldview in the face of activities of foreign agents. An analysis of the conversion process would have provided historical context for his argument, and perhaps reveal whether the dominance of the universalistic concept of God over the indigenous African concept of localized spirits is concretely related to the whole process of economic development or is just a reversible fad. Indeed Robin Horton (1971) has explained the 'conversion' of African peoples to Christianity and Islam as a result of economic/societal development and increasing exposure to the outside world. He has suggested that "acceptance of Islam and Christianity [in Africa] is due as much to development of the traditional cosmology in response to other features of the modern situation as it is to the activities of the missionaries" (1971:103). What Horton argues is that the conversion to world religions does not represent a rejection of traditional African religious cosmology. Instead Islam and Christianity played the role of 'catalysts,' that is, stimulators and accelerators of religious changes and conversion which were 'in the air' anyway for purely indigenous reasons (p.104).

Horton's anthropological theory is affirmed years later by Nelson Goodman's philosophical analysis. Goodman (1978) has argued that the conditions for distinguishing right from wrong--the stuff of ethics--and the remaking of world version are not based on comparison with a "world undescribed, undepicted, unperceived." Goodman's (1978:138) idea that "rightness" and "wrongness" or "true" or "right" version is a matter of fit with practice; "that without the organization, the selection of relevant kinds, effected by evolving tradition, there is no rightness or wrongness of categorization, no validity or invalidity of inference..." is key in understanding why foreign pattern of moral order prevailed over the indigenous pattern. In the light of Horton and Goodman's ideas that worldmaking (whether through conversion or scientific paradigm) is from worlds already at hand, Kasanene's failure to examine how existing African worldview interacted with the foreign ethical systems and the kind of synthesis that ensued undermines the value of his book.

Nimi Wariboko
New York


Douglas, Mary. 1966. Purity and Danger. New York: Routledge and Kegan.

Douglas, Mary. 1992. "Rightness of Categories" in How Classification works in Mary Douglas and David Hull (ed.) Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. pp. 239-271.

Goodman, Nelson. 1978. Ways of Worldmaking. Indianapolis: Hackett Horton, Robin. 1971. "African Conversion," Africa, 41,2: 85-108.