Sign In

Login to our social questions & Answers Engine to ask questions answer people’s questions & connect with other people.

Forgot Password

Lost your password? Please enter your email address. You will receive a link and will create a new password via email.

You must login to ask question.

Please briefly explain why you feel this question should be reported.

Please briefly explain why you feel this answer should be reported.

Please briefly explain why you feel this user should be reported.

Book Reviews Importance Paper

Chapter Six
Yoruba Religion
The Way of Connection
In my introduction to religion courses I ask my students to invent their
own religions. They form groups and dream up new religions. They then
pitch their religious creations online and in class. After every group has
had a chance to evangelize, everyone votes (with fake money in makeshift
collection plates) for the new religion they like the best. Over the years my
students have attacked this assignment with intelligence, humor, and
creativity. One group invented Sism, a religion inspired by the grooves of
rapper Tupac Shakur and the inscrutability of the artist formerly known as
The Artist Formerly Known as Prince, which promised a posthumous
“After-Party” for those who followed its injunction to “respect the
rhythm.” Another tried to convert us to The Congregation of Wisdom,
which honors Jeopardy! phenom Ken Jennings as its patron saint.
Meanwhile, Sertaism and ZZZ aimed not at salvation but at a good night’s
Many of my students’ religious inventions were quite profound,
however, and the one that moved me the most was Consectationism (from
the Latin for “pursuit”). The goal of this religion is to find and follow your
own purpose, or “Lex.” And its ethic is simplicity personified: pursue your
own Lex, and don’t hinder anyone else from pursuing theirs. In their class
presentation, modeled after evangelical Bible-camp skits, Consectationists
offered revival-style testimonies about “The Sign of the Covenant,” the
sky-opening moment when each found his or her own Lex. Much of our
sadness and suffering, the students observed, comes from trying to live a
life other than our own. So each of us should seek to discover our purpose
and pursue it with passion and resolve.
Consectationism is, of course, make-believe, while Yoruba religion of
West Africa and its diasporas is a venerable global tradition. But the heart
of Consectationism lies surprisingly close to the heart of the religion of the
Yoruba people. Here, too, each of us has a destiny we have somehow
forgotten. Before we are reborn (the Yoruba affirm reincarnation), one of
our souls (we have two or more, depending on who is doing the counting)
appears before the High God Olodumare to receive new breath.
Olodumare then allows us to choose our own destiny, which includes the
day we will return to heaven, our personality, our occupation, and our own
unique measure of good and bad luck. With birth comes forgetting,
however. So we wander through life veiled from our true purposes,
sidetracked by pursuits, in love and work, foisted on us by parents, friends,
coworkers, and spouses. The antidote to this forgetfulness is to remember
—to recover our destiny so we can do what we were created to do for
ourselves, our families, and the world.
Happily, we are not alone in this task. There is a vast pantheon of
superhuman beings, known as orishas (orixas in Brazil, orichas in Cuba),
able and willing to help us live in harmony with our destiny.2 There are a
variety of techniques of divination that can bring the wisdom of these
orishas to our ears. And there are specially trained priests and diviners,
known as babalawos (if men) or iyalawos (if women), who through Ifa,
the most venerable and venerated of these divination techniques, are able
to help us recover our destiny, protect it through sacrifice, and fulfill it
through action in the world. In fact, one of the first tasks of any parent is to
take one’s child to a diviner so that its destiny can be read and revealed.
Although babalawo means “father of secrets” and iyalawo “mother of
secrets,” diviners do not dispense any secret wisdom themselves. They
know how to cast the sixteen palm nuts or the eight-half-seed-shells
divining chain used to begin any consultation with a client. They have
memorized at least a thousand Ifa verses—four for each of the 256
possible signatures (16 x 16) that the random casting of the palm nuts or
divining chain produces. They chant a series of poems associated with
each signature, or odu, including verses that prescribe the required
sacrifice. But rather than oracles, these diviners are mediators between
clients and orishas. So while the simplest way to understand what is
happening when a client goes for a consultation is that the diviner is
channeling the wisdom of the orishas to a human being, that is not quite
right, since for the Yoruba, as for the ancient Greeks, wisdom is recalling
what we already know within.
To understand Ifa divination, it is important to note how active the
client is and how passive the babalawo. First, the client does not even tell
the babalawo why she has come. She might have boyfriend troubles, or
husband troubles, or both. She might be sick or be trying to decide whether
to take a new job or move to a new town. She may be seeking prosperity
or pregnancy or trying to fend off depression or loneliness. But her
presenting problem is a mystery to him. Second, it is the client, not the
babalawo, who decides which of the recited stories (typically at least four
per signature) is appropriate to her conflict. What the babalawo brings to
the table (or to the floor, actually, since this practice takes place with both
babalawo and client firmly rooted to the earth) is a prodigious memory for
the poems associated with each of the 256 signatures and an ability to
chant the verses chosen by his client. But it is the client who does the
It should also be emphasized that the Yoruba put huge stock in the
capacities of human beings. According to the Yoruba tradition, each
human being has a physical body called ara. Each person also has at least
two souls: one, called emi, associated with breath, and another, called ori,
associated with destiny. The term ori literally means head, but in this
context it refers to the spiritual center that chooses its destiny. This ori in
each of us is animated by the same sacred power that animates the orishas:
ashe (ache in Cuba and axe in Brazil). So whatever channeling is
happening in Ifa divination is happening between us and the orishas. It is
also happening between the part of us that remembers and the part of us
that forgets, which is to say between our more divine and our more human
selves. Far from demanding our subservience, therefore, the babalawo is
helping to call us back to our original selves, to recover the destinies we
chose for this life before it began.
At the beginning of a reading, the babalawo touches the palm nuts to
his client’s ori. “You know the mystery,” he says to the client. He then
touches the palm nuts to the divining tray, which carries the image of the
messenger orisha Eshu. “You know the mystery,” he says to Orunmila
(aka Ifa), the orisha of wisdom. And then he adds, “I know nothing.” Ifa
divination works not because the babalawo is superhuman but because the
ori is itself a god within. As a Yoruba proverb goes, “The head [ori] is the
greatest Òrìşà.”3
The Orishas
Yoruba religion varies widely across time and space—from the traditional
practices of West Africa to the contemporary Yoruba-derived adaptations
of Candomble in Brazil and Santeria in Cuba. And there are strong
arguments for treating these adaptations as separate religions of their own
—“rhizomes” of the Yoruba tradition that may be connected at the roots
but, by virtue of new soils and new climates, have become distinct plants.4
However, practitioners of these traditions are sufficiently closely
connected—far more closely, in fact, than Mormons, Protestants, and
Catholics—to be treated together here. And, together these Yoruba
practitioners share the view that the human problem is disconnection and
that the solution to this problem is to reconnect ourselves to our destinies,
to one another, and to sacred power. This can be accomplished through the
techniques of divination, sacrifice, and spirit/body possession, which in
combination allow us to truly flourish as individuals and societies.
The Yoruba cosmos is awash in sacred power. There are malevolent
spirits, called ajogun, who can make your life a living hell if you cross
them. There are ancestor spirits, known as egungun, who can get up and
dance at festivals and, like the ajogun, are endowed with ashe. But the
powerhouses of ashe are the orishas. In this tradition of communication
and exchange between human beings and the divine, devotees consult the
orishas through the technique of divination and feed the orishas through
the technique of sacrifice. The orishas respond by listening to their
devotees and making things happen for them.
Orishas come in at least three overlapping types, running from those
who are plainly divine to those who might be better described as
superhuman. First, there are orishas who were present with Olodumare at
creation: Obatala, Eshu, and Orunmila. Second, there are personifications
of natural forces—Yemoja as the sea and Oshun as the river—who flip the
script of Christian incarnation by becoming divine not by taking on a
human body but by disappearing into a river or hill. A third type comprises
deified ancestors who once walked the earth as mere mortals, such as the
ancient Yoruba king Oduduwa. These categories are not entirely separate,
however. Shango, the god of thunder and lightning, is also said to be a
former king of the great Yoruba kingdom of Oyo.
One of the most intriguing facets of the orishas is how inescapably
human they act. They have personalities and preferences, including their
own distinctive tastes in food, drink, and music. Like Hindu gods, they
marry. Unlike Hindu gods, they also divorce. And they are far more
passionate than the domesticated gods of the Western monotheisms, where
the divine temperament seems almost Scandinavian by comparison.
The gaps between sacred and profane, spirit and matter, the
supernatural and the everyday, are at best hairline cracks in Yoruba
culture. The distinction between divinity and humanity is equally fuzzy,
since human beings carry the awesome power of ashe inside them and
orishas are by no means above even the basest human emotions. Many
orishas are adept at both creation and destruction. The storm (and stormy)
deity Oya, for example, brings both the abundance of irrigation and the
devastation of floods. Orishas are sometimes compared to Greek gods for
their foibles and fallibility, but the comparison is not quite apt, because the
orishas suffer for their misdeeds, while it is quite common for Zeus and his
friends to get off scot-free. Moreover, most orishas live in the earth rather
than on mountains or in the sky (Shango and Olodumare are the notable
So Yoruba religion is reciprocal—a system of communication and
exchange between human beings and the divine mediated by a vast
pantheon of powers (many of them former human beings) with one foot in
the natural realm and the other in the supernatural. Here both sides speak
and both sides listen. As in Hinduism, both sides give and both sides
receive. Without the orishas to empower them, human beings would die.
But without human beings to feed them, the orishas would die too. As a
Yoruba proverb puts it, “If humanity were not, the gods would not be.”5
Since Yoruba culture is oral by tradition, you might think that there
would be an extensive iconography built up around the orishas. Not so.
Classically, orishas are represented in shrines through natural rather than
artistic objects: stones and herbs rather than paintings and statues. In the
New World, the orishas were traditionally worshipped via images of the
Catholic saints with whom they were identified. Only in recent decades
have images of the orishas themselves started to circulate. This is because
the Yoruba approach the divine largely through stories. If, as Régis Debray
contends, “to lack a legend is also to lack dignity,” then the Yoruba are a
dignified people indeed.6
Yoruba stories can be found in the massive Ifa corpus memorized and
chanted by babalawos. Here the orishas seem to be “one of us” rather than
sacred in the sense of “set apart.” In addition to the full range of human
emotions, they exhibit a full complement of virtues and vices. Like the
Hindu gods, they do not present themselves as either wholly good or
wholly evil. They can be generous and petty, merciful and vengeful. They
can harm as well as heal. And so they challenge us not to eradicate evil but
to balance it with good, and not only “out there” in the world but also
inside ourselves (where good and evil coexist). This complexity has long
troubled Christians, Muslims, and scholars alike, who all too often fail to
see the lessons lurking underneath the orishas’ moral failings, as if they
have stumbled upon a double bill of King Lear and Othello and have
nothing more to say than that Edmund and Iago don’t seem to be proper
gentlemen. Of course, Yoruba practitioners have no trouble unearthing
these lessons, just as Shakespeare’s audiences saw the complexities of
human existence acted out on the Elizabethan stage. But the fact that the
gods stumble and stir is one of Yoruba religion’s glories. The Yoruba
corpus, writes art historian Robert Farris Thompson, provides a “limitless
horizon of vivid moral beings.”7
Ashe is the key concept in Yoruba thought, and its central meaning is
the awesome power to make things happen. But secreted inside this power
is the equally awesome power to make things change. So to observe that
the orishas change—to see that they are, to borrow from Karen McCarthy
Brown, “larger than life but not other than life”—is not to find fault.8 It is
to praise them for drawing near to the human condition, for refusing to
hold themselves above and beyond the rest of us. After all, the biblical
God is only said to be good. He does evil things, or permits them, which
for an omnipotent being is almost as bad, leaving believers scurrying to
justify God’s actions (or inactions). In Yoruba religion no such theological
gymnastics are necessary.
While traveling in Bali, I was struck at how much could be (and was)
made by Balinese Hindus of their vast system of correspondences of gods
to the cardinal directions, to colors, to parts of the body, and to foods. The
system of correspondences in orisha devotion is even more extensive. At
least in the New World, the orishas are most famously associated with
Catholic saints, but they are also associated with numbers, colors,
emblems, virtues, herbs, clothing, jewelry, temperaments, land formations,
bodies of water, parts of the body, days of the week, occupations, natural
forces, drum beats, songs, dance steps, foods they will not eat, and foods
they cannot do without. To take just one example, Cuban devotees of
Oshun associate her not only with Our Lady of Charity (the patron saint of
Cuba) but also with love, rivers, gold, fertility, the lower abdomen,
seduction, fans, seashells, brass, the color yellow, the number five, and
So Yoruba religion is not simply a system of communication and
exchange between the divine and human realms. It is also a map to every
mountain and valley of human experience, a system of signs and wonders
out of which one can make meaning from seemingly small and unrelated
things. One Candomble practitioner in Brazil refracted the television show
Gilligan’s Island through the prisms of two goddesses, Oxum (Oshun) and
Iansa (Oya). To Candomble devotees, these two goddesses embody very
different feminine forces—the “cool” coquette Oxum and the “hot”
bombshell Iansa. But to this practitioner (and TV aficionado) Oxum was
Ginger and Iansa, Mary Ann.9 The net effect of this net of
correspondences is to make everything, everyone, and everywhere
potentially sacred. Every moment presents a possibility to reconnect with
the orishas and, through them, with your destiny and the harmony that
pursuing it brings.
Devotees disagree about just how many orishas there are. One reason
the orishas are hard to count is that, like Hindu divinities, they answer to
different names in different places, so it is often unclear when you meet a
new orisha whether she really is a new acquaintance or someone you have
already met under another name. The accounting traditionally runs to
either 401 or 601—with the plus-one gesturing at the fact that in Yoruba
culture there is always room for one more at the table. But one text speaks
of 3,200, and some claim there is really only one divinity—that the
“lesser” divinities we call orishas are all manifestations of the High God
Keeping up with the orishas is easier in the New World than in West
Africa, because in the transatlantic passage many orishas went missing.
Most Brazilian and Cuban practitioners recognize only one or two dozen
orishas. Some whittle that pantheon down to the “Seven Powers”
(typically four men and three women), which sounds helpful until you
realize that, like the Ten Commandments, these siete potencias vary
depending on who is reciting them.11
Orishas can be classified into male and female, sky and earth, hot and
cool, forest and town. But Yoruba practitioners, in keeping with their
strong preference for action over belief, do not typically worry themselves
about such things. Neither do they fret about the afterlife. What really
matters is how to get the orishas to intervene on your behalf in thisworldly
matters of love, luck, and work. In order to do that, you need to get to
know them—what they eat, what they wear, and how they sing and dance.
The Supreme Being for orisha devotees is Olodumare, also known as Olorun
(“Owner of the Sky”), who rules the cosmos from on high. Like the God of
Deism, Olodumare is as remote, distant, and difficult to approach as your
steely great-grandfather. Unlike the God of Deism, he did not create the world,
choosing to delegate that job to others.
Though practitioners will occasionally send prayers in his direction,
they don’t worship Olodumare directly. He has no temples, no liturgy, and
no priests. He does not possess devotees in festivals. Although all
sacrifices in some sense run through him, no one sacrifices to him directly.
Like the abstract Hindu creator god Brahma, Olodumare is respected more
than he is revered. When it comes to the day-to-day concerns that stand at
the center of Yoruba religion, practitioners go to “lesser” agents for help.
So Yoruba devotion focuses on them.
There is some disagreement about whether Olodumare was present at
the creation of Yoruba religion or whether he is a relatively recent
invention—a nod to the same monotheistic imperative that pushed Hindu
intellectuals under British rule to shrink the Hindu pantheon to one. There
is also disagreement about whether the orishas are emanations of
Olodumare or whether he is an abstraction of them. A parallel
conversation concerns whether other orishas do the heavy lifting when it
comes to answering prayers or whether those boons come from Olodumare
himself (with the orishas acting merely as intercessors). Regardless of the
details of the relationship between this sky god and these “lesser deities,”
Yoruba practitioners today speak of Olodumare as the chief source of
power—“the supreme quintessence of àshe”—in a religious tradition that
is all about power.12
Of all the orishas, Eshu and Orunmila are the most important. In this religion
of communication and connection between orun and aiye (heaven and earth),
Orunmila the diviner delivers messages from above to humans, while Eshu the
messenger delivers (or refuses to deliver) sacrifices from below to orishas and
other spiritual beings. Without Eshu, interactions between heaven and earth
would cease and human existence would spin into chaos. Though there is no
priesthood devoted to him, images of Eshu can be found in almost every
Yoruba home, and all shrines make at least a small place for him. That is
because every sacrifice must include what gamblers call a rake for Eshu. If you
don’t feed him a little palm oil or tobacco (both personal favorites) at the
beginning of a sacrifice, he won’t have the energy, or the inclination, to do
your bidding. For this reason Eshu is also known as Elegbara (or Elegba or
Legba), which means “owner of the power” (of ashe).
Like Hinduism’s Ganesha, Eshu is associated with crossroads, because
as the holder of ashe he has the power to take almost any situation in
whatever direction he pleases. Crossroads are important in many religious
traditions. Jesus, of course, is remembered by the sign of the cross, and the
most popular Hindu divinity, Ganesha, is lord of the crossroads. The
crossroads is the meeting place of the natural and the supernatural, the
visible and the invisible, the known and the unknown. It is heads and tails,
left and right, where power lines cross and sparks fly. Here two roads
diverge, and we determine our destinies by choosing the road less (or
more) traveled.
As the guardian of crossroads, Eshu clears the way for those who
attend to him and puts up roadblocks for those who neglect him. He inserts
uncertainty and unpredictability into a world otherwise governed by fate,
and he then sits back and laughs at the chaos that follows. So Eshu is a
trickster, too, an ambiguous figure—both policeman and troublemaker—
whom Christians have long confused with the devil. The Yoruba divide
their pantheon into two halves, which my former colleague Wande
Abimbola refers to as “gods” and “anti-gods”—the orishas on the right,
who represent benevolence, and the ajogun on the left, who represent
malevolence. As someone who straddles the two, Eshu isn’t above getting
into a little mischief now and then. Or, as an Ifa verse puts it, “Death,
Disease, Loss, Paralysis, Big Trouble, Curse, Imprisonment, Affliction.
They are all errand boys of Esu.”13
One of his most popular tales tells of Eshu stirring up trouble yet again.
His colors are red and black, so he struts down the middle of the street
with a trendy cap (impossible not to notice) colored red on one side and
black on the other. People on one side of the street admire his fashionable
red cap, but people on the other side of the street insist that his cap is
black. The row that ensues (quite bloody in many versions) brings a wry
smile to Eshu’s lips, solidifying his role as a maker of mischief and
disturber of the peace.
Today this messenger orisha is associated with the Internet, and with
travel and transportation. If your car is hit at a crosswalk, or your hard
drive wipes out all your emails, you may have crossed Eshu. But perhaps
more than anything else, Eshu is associated with change. Every day we
stand at a crossroads of some sort. It is Eshu whose provocations jerk us
out of drift. He helps us find which way our destiny is calling us and gives
us the courage to move forward in that direction.
As the mastermind behind Ifa divination, Orunmila (aka Orula and Orunla) is,
according to some devotees, the “preeminent orisha” and “the cornerstone of
Yoruba religion, metaphysics, and spirituality.”14 There is some disagreement
about whether Orunmila, the orisha of wisdom, and Ifa, the orisha of destiny,
are different people, or whether the two are just different names for the same
ancient sage—the Yoda of orisha devotion.
Orunmila is the owner of the Ifa corpus, the great storehouse of
wisdom of Yoruba mythology, philosophy, ethics, and theology. Because
he was present at creation, Orunmila is said to know the destinies of
humans and orishas alike. Given his omniscience, which includes the
ability to predict the future, he is, according to many Yoruba, second only
to Olodumare, though partisans of Eshu will dispute this interpretation. For
some Yoruba practitioners, Orunmila, who is associated with harmony and
stability, and his friend Eshu, who is associated with chaos and change,
form, along with Olodumare, a sort of trinity. Although Orunmila is said to
be short and very dark—“black as Ifa” is a common Yoruba saying—he is
almost never represented in sculptures. That is because the spoken word is
his métier. Although he will occasionally possess his priests in West
Africa, he does not do so in the New World, where he is typically
associated with St. Francis.
Oshun, the “Ginger” of the Yoruba pantheon, is the orisha of rivers and sweet
water, particularly of Nigeria’s Osun River with which she is closely
associated. She was the only female present at creation and the first to perform
Ifa divination. In West Africa she is an orisha of fertility and childbearing, but
in the New World she becomes something of a goddess of love. A great
beauty, covered with brass bling and awash in husbands, lovers, and children,
Oshun is the “Yoruba Venus” and the Shakti of the New World.15
But Oshun, whose beverage of choice is maize beer, is not all
sweetness and light and grace on the dance floor. As with so many orishas,
her power cuts both ways. Yes, she helps women in childbirth, but she’s
also good with knives and deadly poisons. Oshun is even more ruthless in
love, however. She doesn’t just play the field, she tears it up. She dumped
Shango because he started to drink a beer she hated. She dumped
Orishanla because he started eating snails. In the end, she tired of all the
drama and got herself out of the love racket entirely by turning herself into
a river.
One wonderful story about Oshun tells of Olodumare sending
seventeen gods to order the earth. Only one of these orishas, Oshun, was
female. So the male gods, who could count and thought that women were
weak anyway, refused to involve her. She retaliated by withholding water
from the earth. Without rain and rivers, crops could not grow, mothers
could not drink, and babies could not nurse. So everything went to hell,
and the old-boys’ network went to Olodumare to gripe. But Olodumare
would have nothing of it. He rebuked the male orishas for refusing to work
with Oshun. So they apologized to her, and she accepted their apology, but
only after they promised to respect her authority in the future.16
Obatala (“king of the white cloth”) or Orishanla (“great orisha”) is the god of
human creation who first fashioned clay into human form. Although Oshun is
sometimes credited with human conception, it is Obatala who molds the stuff
of the embryo into the shape of a human being. Obatala (Oxala in Brazil), the
oldest and wisest of the orishas, is the quintessence of “cool,” one of the
central values in Yoruba culture. A model of the sort of patience that makes
for peace, he has “the aesthetics of the saint.”17 As his name suggests, Obatala
is associated with whiteness. His devotees dress in white and wear lead
bangles. His temple walls are whitewashed, and he enjoys white fruits, white
yams, white birds (especially doves), and other white foods such as rice and
coconuts (though, for the record, he does not like salt, or for that matter
The most commonly told story about Obatala (who also has a serious
aversion to dogs) speaks of his getting drunk on palm wine while he was
supposed to be creating the world. As a result, that job had to be taken
over by Oduduwa, who used a five-toed chicken to spread sand over the
water in all directions, as far as the eye could see. When Obatala woke up
from his drunken stupor, he swore off palm wine not only for himself but
also for his followers. When it came to making human beings, however,
Obatala fell off the wagon. Botching this job, too, he created albinos,
dwarfs, hunchbacks, and other physically deformed people, who to this
day are sacred both to him and to the Yoruba—eni orisha, god’s people.
Obatala also played a role in legitimizing the Cuban Revolution of
1959. On January 8, 1959, just days after Castro and his guerrillas took
Havana, a white dove alit on his shoulder during his speech for national
unity. The white dove symbolizes Christianity’s Holy Spirit, but it also
symbolizes Obatala, so in his first public act as leader of this new nation,
Castro saw the support of both Catholicism and Santeria literally land on
his shoulder.18
Worlds apart from cool Obatala is hot Ogun, the orisha of iron. Ogun (Ogum
in Brazil and Ogou in Haiti) has classically been associated with tool making,
hunting, and war—the sword, the spear, and the soldier. Because he made the
first tool, he is also the god of creativity and technology. In a wonderful
example of the elasticity of Yoruba religion, Ogun came in the modern period
to be connected not just with iron but with metals of all sorts. Today he is the
orisha of both the locomotive and the speeding bullet, patronized by not only
blacksmiths and barbers but also train conductors, auto mechanics, truck
drivers, airline pilots, and astronauts. If you were injured in a car accident, you
may have offended this orisha of creation and destruction, who in the New
World is worshipped as St. Peter, St. Anthony, and St. George.
Although Ogun put in an occasional appearance in the 1980s television
series Miami Vice, his big moment in the Yoruba story came in primordial
time. Kabbalistic Judaism speaks of a lonely God who creates humans in
order to know and be known, love and be loved. In the Yoruba story
human beings have already been created, but the orishas are lonely
nonetheless because with the shattering of the original unity of the cosmos
their realm has been cordoned off from the realm of us mortals. Eventually
the orishas decide to reunite with human beings. But the abyss separating
orun (sky) from aiye (earth) has been choked by chaotic overgrowth of
cosmic proportions. So, try as they might, the orishas cannot make
passage. At this point brave Ogun comes to the rescue. He snatches iron
ore out of the primordial chaos and fires it into a tool powerful enough to
whack his way across the abyss; in so doing, he clears a path for the other
orishas to descend to earth behind him.
Ogun eventually made his way to Ire, in modern-day Nigeria, where he
was lauded as “he who goes forth where other gods have turned.” But soon
he made a huge mistake. He went into battle while under the influence of
palm wine, and in a drunken rage slew friends and foes alike. Although the
people of Ire still wanted him to serve them as king—who better to
administer justice than someone who was himself so intimate with
injustice?—he was not so quick to forgive and forget. Withdrawing to the
surrounding hills, he spent his time beating swords into plowshares as a
farmer (and/or a hunter). He did not give up alcohol, however, and neither
do his devotees. In another version of the story, Ogun turned his sword on
himself after he saw what he had done and then disappeared into the earth.
Either way, Ogun is one of the Yoruba’s great tragic figures. The
celebrated Nigerian Nobel laureate, poet, and playwright Wole Soyinka
sees him as an embodiment of “Dionysian, Apollonian and Promethean
virtues”—“the first actor . . . first suffering deity, first creative energy, the
first challenger, and conqueror of transition.”19
Ogun has been depicted largely as a god of violence and blood (his
color is red), but like the bellicose Hindu goddess Kali he is also a god of
justice who uses his pathbreaking abilities to uproot oppression. Praise
songs refer to him as a “protector of orphans” and a “roof over the
homeless,” and in courts traditional Yoruba swear to tell the truth not by
putting a hand on the Bible but by kissing iron.20 Ogun’s abilities in war,
commitments to justice, and capacities of creative transformation have
made him even more popular in the Americans than in Africa. He was a
major figure in the drives for Cuban independence in 1959 and Nigerian
independence in 1960. Some claim that in the Cuban Revolution Ogun
mattered more than Marx himself.
Shango, Oya, Shopona, Yemoja, and Osanyin
Other important orishas include: Shango (also Xango and Chango), god of
thunder and lightning—the “storm on the edge of a knife” according to one
praise song21—and, in modern times, electricity, who also embodies virility
and male sexuality; Oya (also Iansa), ruler of Ira, goddess of the Niger River,
guardian of cemeteries, and owner of the wind, who sends strong gusts in
advance of her husband Shango’s storms (“Without her,” it is said, “Shango
cannot fight”);22 Shopona (aka Babaluaye, “Father, Lord of the World,” and
Obaluaye), god of smallpox and other contagious diseases (but also of
healing), who walks with a limp but is so feared that many Yoruba treat him
like Voldemort of Harry Potter fame, refusing to utter his name; Yemoja (aka
Yemaja and Yemanja), goddess of the ocean and of motherhood, who while
dancing sways her hips like the tides; and Osanyin, one-legged, one-eyed, onearmed god of healing herbs who speaks in a squeaky Pee Wee Herman voice
and graces botanica signs from Havana to New York City.
What makes these orishas orishas is power, which in Yoruba religion goes
by the name of ashe. Ashe is often described in metaphors that yoke
science and religion—as sacred force or superhuman energy or spiritual
electricity. So ashe is akin to the life force that the Chinese call qi. The
closest rendering into English of this term, which literally means “So be
it,” or “May it happen,” is probably just “Amen.” But the best definition
comes from Robert Farris Thompson who calls it the “the power-to-makethings-happen.”23
Yoruba practitioners recognize Ile-Ife, where the orishas created
human beings and set the world in motion, as a center of ashe. Ashe also
accumulates in Candomble and Santeria centers (terreiros and casas,
respectively). But this same sacred power can be found as well in orishas,
priests, diviners, chiefs, family heads, and ordinary human beings. It
resides in “spoken words, secret names, thoughts, blood, beaded necklaces,
ritually prepared clothing, earth, leaves, herbs, flowers, trees, rain, rivers,
mountains, tornadoes, thunder, lightning, and other natural phenomena.”24
And it manifests in drumming and dance, poetry and song. Just as Hindus
have been criticized for worshipping statues, the Yoruba have been
criticized for worshipping rocks. But what the Yoruba approach with awe
is not the rock but the sacred power that animates it.
In whatever form, ashe directs itself toward change. Because Yoruba
religion is eminently practical, ashe is about having real effects in the real
world—“as luck, power, wealth, beauty, charisma, children, and love.”25
Thompson’s definition emphasizes the fact that ashe makes things happen.
But ashe also makes things stop. Every time the palm nuts are cast and an
odu is spoken, this tradition testifies to the possibility of growth, not least
the possibility of new ways to embody ancient wisdom. Like the orishas
themselves, however, ashe is not empowered only toward the good. Its
transformative power can be (and is) used toward both good ends and bad.
It connects and disconnects. And when it comes to matters of life and
death, ashe gives and ashe takes away.
A Global Religion
Books on the world’s religions often include a chapter on “primitive,”
“preliterate,” or “primal” religions, as if they were one and the same. All
these religions really share, however, is a stubborn refusal to be crammed
into the boxes constructed to fit more “advanced” religions. Stuffed into
these chapters (which often fall at the end of the book) are all sorts of
religious traditions that in many cases have far less in common with one
another than do the “advanced” religions. As a result, these chapters often
read like half-hearted apologies for the tendency of scholars (many of
whom are trained in translating and interpreting scriptures) to gravitate
toward religions that emphasize reading and writing over speaking and
hearing. But the tendency to lump Australian and Native American and
African religions with such lower-case religious phenomena as
shamanism, totemism, and animism is driven by another, equally
important bias. Just as considerations of black and white have dominated
conversations about race in the United States, and considerations of
Anglophone and Francophone have dominated conversations about culture
in Canada, conversations about the world’s religions have been dominated
by the East/West divide. In BU’s Department of Religion, our year-long
introduction to the world’s religions is split into Eastern and Western
semesters. Unfortunately, this approach obscures and often renders
invisible religions that do not fall easily along either side of the East/West
It should not be surprising, therefore, that while Yoruba language,
culture, and art have been studied with care for a century or so, Yoruba
religion has been either entirely neglected or dumped into that “primal”
religions chapter in standard treatments of the world’s religions. But the
religion of Yorubaland and its diasporas is its own thing, as distinct from
the religion of the Sioux as Buddhism is from Islam. And it, too, is one of
the great religions.27
Estimates of the number of Yoruba practitioners in West Africa vary
widely but doubtless run into the tens of millions. Nigeria, the homeland of
the Yoruba people, is Africa’s most populous country, and the Yoruba,
who can also be found in Benin, Togo, and Sierra Leone, are one of
Nigeria’s largest ethnic groups. According to Harvard professor Jacob
Olupona and Temple professor Terry Rey, the Yoruba number about 25
million in West Africa alone.28
Islam and Christianity are now the dominant religions in Nigeria (with
45 percent of the population each), so most of the Nigerian population
speaks reverently of either Muhammad or Jesus (or both), and there have
been coordinated efforts among both evangelicals and Pentecostals to
demonize Yoruba orishas. But even among the converted it is rare to find
someone who has entirely banished Yoruba religion from her repertoire.
Practitioners of Yoruba religion challenge cherished notions of what
religion is and how it functions by refusing to choose between the orishas
and Jesus or the orishas and Allah. Who says religion has to be a zero-sum
game? Not the Yoruba, who feel quite comfortable seeing the priest on
Sunday and the diviner on Monday. Instead of greeting foreign religions
with the either/or of Aristotle, they greet them with the both/and of Eshu.
As a result, Yoruba beliefs and practices survive not just on their own,
among those who have rebuffed the advances of Islamic and Christian
missionaries, but also inside Islam and Christianity, which Yoruba
Muslims and Christians have stealthily transformed into distribution
channels for Yoruba religious culture. Despite efforts by Muslim and
Christian purists alike to root out the bugaboo of “syncretism,” Muslims
and Christians in Yorubaland (including ministers and imams) continue to
go to Yoruba diviners and participate in Yoruba festivals. This creolization
is particularly plain in Aladura Christianity, a Yoruba/Christian hybrid that
trafficks in the thisworldly powers of fervent and frequent prayer. In fact,
the term Aladura itself attests to even wider religious mixing among the
Yoruba, since the word adura derives from the Arabic for intercessory
Yoruba religion is by no means confined to its African homeland,
however. Yoruba-derived religions are also scattered across the African
diaspora created by the transatlantic slave trade—in Brazil and Cuba,
Colombia and Puerto Rico, Jamaica and Grenada, St. Kitts and St.
Vincent, the Dominican Republic and Venezuela, Uruguay and Trinidad
and Tobago. Yoruba slaves arrived by the millions in South America, the
Caribbean, and the United States, as civil wars beset Yorubaland during
the nineteenth century and victors sold off their spoils into slavery. These
slaves had a huge impact on economic, cultural, and religious life in the
Americas. “No African group,” writes the pioneering Yoruba scholar
William Bascom, “has had greater influence on New World culture than
the Yoruba.”29
In the New World, traditional African religions were denounced as
“heathen” and often outlawed. Even drumming was prohibited in the
seventeenth century in Haiti and severely restricted in later centuries in
Brazil and Cuba. So Yoruba practitioners did what the Yoruba have been
doing ever since their orisha of iron, Ogun, forged a path for the gods from
heaven to earth: they adapted to difficult circumstances with courage and
creativity. This was hard going in the United States, where the ratio of
slaves to whites was low, the ratio of American-born to African-born
slaves was high, and Protestant slave masters ruthlessly prohibited slave
gatherings of any sort. But in Brazil and Cuba, which saw large numbers
of Yoruba high priests, frequent arrivals of new slaves from the Old
World, a high ratio of slaves to whites, a lingering slave trade (until the
1850s in Brazil and the 1860s in Cuba), and less slave owner opposition to
dancing and drumming, Yoruba practitioners kept their religious traditions
alive by marrying them to Catholicism. When ordered to cease and desist
from the beliefs and practices of their ancestors, Yoruba slaves took their
orishas underground and then resurrected them in the guise of the saints:
Ogun as St. Peter; Yemoja as Our Lady of Regla; and Oya as St. Theresa.
So things changed, and remained the same. Praise songs to these orishas
continued to be sung in the Yoruba language and to Yoruba rhythms, but
for the most part devotion now went forward in the idioms of Catholicism
and the grammars of Spanish, French, and Portuguese. The overall tale,
however, is one of continuity. The list of elements of Yoruba religion that
survived the horrors of the Middle Passage and slavery runs to divination,
spirit/body possession, drumming, dance, initiation, reincarnation, spiritual
healing, sacrifice, and, of course, orisha devotion itself.
Were slaves self-consciously conning religious and political authorities
by cross-dressing the orishas as Catholic saints and then celebrating their
exploits on these saints’ feast days? Yes, says Soyinka. Their strategy was
to “co-opt the roman catholic deities into the service of Yorùbá deities;
then genuflect before them.”30 Some slaves may have been just that
strategic, pretending to worship St. Peter when they were actually
worshipping Ogun. But it is also possible that Santeria, Candomble, and
their Yoruba-derived kin evolved in fits and starts, a marriage more of
convenience than of cunning and camouflage. Though many practitioners
today see the saints as masks put on the faces of orishas, others see orisha
and saint alike as manifestations of the divinity that underlies and infuses
100 Million?
Today descendants of these slaves continue to preserve and practice the
ways of their forebears under a variety of (dis)guises, including Santeria
(literally “the way of the saints,” also known as Lukumi and La Regla De
Ocha) in Cuba; Candomble, Umbanda, and Macumba in Brazil; the Orisha
Movement (aka Shango) in Trinidad and Tobago; Kele in St. Lucia; and,
to a lesser extent, Vodun in Haiti.31 Many whites and Hispanics without
any blood ties to Yorubaland also participate in these traditions, and orisha
devotees, who were once almost entirely poor, can now be found among
the middle classes. What these traditions share is a marriage to
Catholicism plus fidelity to core techniques of orisha devotion such as
divination, spirit/body possession, and sacrifice. This marriage has lasted
because of the striking similarities between Roman Catholicism and
Yoruba religion. Both operate in a cosmos with a Supreme Being at the
top, human beings at the bottom, and a host of specialized intermediaries
in between facilitating communication and exchange across the
divine/human divide. And while intellectuals in both speculate about the
afterlife, each is heavily invested at the popular level in everyday life. It is
not beneath the orishas (or the saints) to care about our toothaches, our
children, our promotions, or our lovers.
Because there are no central organizations of any sort for Candomble,
Santeria, or their kin, there are no official numbers for adherents to
Yoruba-derived religious traditions in the diaspora. The Yoruba penchant
for secrecy makes even unofficial numbers elusive, and the stigma that
these traditions are “primitive” and even “Satanic” keeps many
practitioners under cover. Further complicating matters (and challenging
deeply ingrained notions of how religion is supposed to work) is the fact
that New World orisha devotees do not feel the need to choose between an
identity as a Catholic and an identity as a practitioner of Candomble or
Umbanda or Macumba or Santeria.
And then there is that small matter of what exactly we are trying to
count. Those who have undergone initiations and had an orisha placed in
their ori? If so, the numbers are admittedly quite small. Or those who have
gone to diviners on matters of health, work, and love? If so, the numbers
are quite large. Joseph Murphy, a professor in Georgetown’s Department
of Theology, writes that he has “yet to meet a Cuban of any social class or
racial category who has not at least once consulted (or, more
circumspectly, ‘been taken to consult’) an orisha priest/ess about some
This distinction may help make sense of the huge gap between census
numbers for orisha devotion in Brazil and estimates thrown around by
scholars. Yoruba religious traditions are particularly strong in Brazil,
which saw the largest slave migrations of anywhere in the New World
(about four million between the 1530s and the 1850s) and some of the
largest ratios of slaves to free people. As the slave trade ended in the
middle of the nineteenth century, slaves accounted for more than a third of
Brazil’s total population and enjoyed majorities in cities such as Rio de
Janeiro and Salvador da Bahia. So orisha devotion in Brazil is “very
pervasive”—“part of the popular culture, and the Brazilian way of life.”33
Yet Brazil’s 2000 census found only 128,000 people who selfidentified as practitioners of Candomble and 397,000 who self-identified
as practitioners of Umbanda.34 How to reconcile these modest numbers
with books that speak routinely of tens of millions of adherents each for
Candomble and Umbanda? Perhaps the census figures reflect those who
practice Afro-Brazilian traditions quite apart from any Catholic identity,
while the more generous estimates account for people with multiple
religious identities—those who, while still on the Catholic rolls,
nonetheless attend orisha festivals, consult orisha diviners, and “make
ebo” (sacrifice).
Happily, there is some good data about the institutional dimension of
Candomble, which is the earliest, most resolutely African, and (census
figures notwithstanding) most popular of the Yoruba-derived religions of
Brazil. This data is particularly helpful in the northeastern state of Bahia,
where orisha devotion is at least the equal of Catholic faith and probably
its superior. Salvador da Bahia, this state’s capital, has been called the
“Black Rome” because of its Afro-Brazilian population and its Catholic
piety. It is said that there are 365 churches in the city, one for every day of
the year. Though this makes a good story, the figure is likely exaggerated.
Either way, Candomble terreiros far outnumber Catholic churches.
Statewide, total terreiros skyrocketed from 67 in the 1940s to 480 in the
1960s to 1854 in 1989.35 Today there are well over two thousand, and not
all of them of the storefront variety. In fact, some resemble evangelical
megachurches. Ile Axe Opo Afonja, a terreiro founded in 1910 and run in
the early twenty-first century by the charismatic Mãe Stella de Oxóssi,
includes “a school, a daycare center, craft workshops, a clinic, and a
museum spread across a multi-acre campus.”36 It attracts not just the
down-and-out often associated with Afro-Brazilian religions but also
prominent and well-to-do leaders in politics, business, education, and the
One hundred million is the most commonly printed estimate for
Yoruba practitioners worldwide, but total adherents—people who seek
help from the orishas in some manner—probably top out at eight figures
rather than nine. If Olupona and Rey are right, there are 25 million
adherents in West Africa, making Yoruba religion the most widely
practiced religious tradition on that continent after Islam and Christianity.
Brazil, whose total population was 187 million in 2009, is home to at least
another 10 to 25 million; Cuba (population 11 million) is home to at least
two or three million more; and the United States has a few hundred
thousand. Even by these conservative estimates, there are more adherents
to Yoruba religion than there are Jews, Sikhs, Jains, or Zoroastrians,
placing this tradition, on numbers alone, securely among the world’s top
six religions.37
Yoruba religion is not only great in terms of numbers and geographic
reach, however. It is also great in the sense of ancient and monumental. In
ancient Africa, the Yoruba, who organized themselves in towns run by a
ruler (oba) who also served as a religious head, were among the most
urbanized of peoples. By the ninth century C.E., their sacred capital of IleIfe was a thriving metropolis, and over the next few centuries Yoruba
artists were creating objects of beauty out of terracotta and bronze that,
according to Thompson, were the wonder of the West. Yoruba culture
suffered through the rise of modernity under a combination of internal and
external pressures, including foreign missions, colonialism, and civil war.
Yet the Yoruba remain, according to Thompson, “creators of one of the
premier cultures of the world.”38 And, I would add, of one of its premier
religions. Just as the Bible has inspired the art of Bach, El Greco, and Toni
Morrison, stories of the orishas have for centuries moved the hands and
hearts of dancers, singers, novelists, painters, and poets in West Africa and
beyond, including Morrison herself, whose 1998 novel Paradise features a
Candomble priestess and a goddess reminiscent of the Candomble water
orisha Yemanja (Yemoja in Yorubaland).
Mãe Stella, Oyotunji, and Africanization
Not everyone is happy with this diffusion of the Yoruba religious impulse
across the New World, of course. Many evangelicals and Pentecostals
denounce orisha devotion as witchcraft, sorcery, and demon worship.
Many Catholic priests see Santeria and Candomble as bastardizations of
the true faith. A lawyer who tried to shut down a Santeria center in Miami
called Santeria “a cannibalistic, voodoo-like sect which attracts the worst
elements of society.”39
Some Yoruba practitioners themselves see Santeria and Candomble as
bastardizations. But rather than trying to purify their tradition of African
superstitions, they are trying to decatholicize it. Like the Puritans of
seventeenth-century England and New England, these reformers are intent
on divorcing themselves from Catholic influences. But rather than looking
to the Bible and the early Christian movement for models, they seek to
restore the pristine traditions of the ancient Yoruba kingdoms.
In Brazil, the popular and powerful Bahian priestess Mãe Stella has
challenged all Candomble practitioners to take off the fig leaf of the
Catholic saints and worship African orishas in the open, without apology,
guilt, or fear. Catholicism is no longer required, and Candomble is no
longer outlawed, Stella reasons, so “the saints should be dumped, like a
mask after Carnaval.”40
Another effort to take orisha devotion “back to Africa” is Oyotunji
African Village, which aims to re-create what it imagines to be a
precolonial Yoruba kingdom in the contemporary American South.
Located near Sheldon in rural Beaufort County, South Carolina, Oyotunji
(the name means “Oyo Rises Again”) was founded in 1970, but its roots
go back to New York and the 1950s. Its founder, His Royal Highness
Efuntola Oseijeman Adelabu Adefunmi (aka Walter King, 1928–2005),
established the Order of Damballah Hwedo Ancestor Priests in 1956 and
the Shango Temple (later renamed the Yoruba Temple) in 1959, both as
refuges for African Americans interested in wearing African clothes,
taking African names, and living an African lifestyle.
Adefunmi, who was raised on the teachings and institutions of the
pioneering black nationalist Marcus Garvey, encountered various forms of
African religion on trips he took as a young man to Egypt and Haiti. In
1959 in Cuba he was initiated into the Santeria priesthood of Obatala. But
in keeping with his “back to Africa” commitments, his community aimed
to purify itself of New World influences. To that end, Adefunmi was
initiated into the Ifa priesthood in Nigeria in 1972. On a later trip to
Nigeria he was coronated an oba in Ile-Ife in 1981. Despite efforts to strip
Catholic (and Protestant) masks off New World Yoruba practice, many
influences from Santeria remain at Oyotunji. However, life at this twentyseven-acre community has diverted from Cuban practice on the gender
front, where since the 1990s women had access to the Ifa priesthood, a
responsibility out of reach for them in Havana and its environs.
Life at Oyotunji has proved financially and culturally difficult for
many, and the population has fluctuated as a result. The number of
residents likely peaked at two hundred or so in the early 1970s and stood at
a few dozen in the first decade of the twenty-first century.41 Village
residents, who rely heavily on Ifa divination to pursue their individual and
collective destinies, have been led since Adefunmi’s death in 2005 by his
son, now known as Oba Adefunmi II.
The Africanization efforts of Stella and the Adefunmis have prompted
an intriguing debate. Flipping the script on those who would decatholicize
Santeria, some santeros and santeras (as practitioners are called) believe
that Yoruba religion is actually purer today in Cuba than it is in West
Africa, given how thoroughly Islam has penetrated Yoruba culture in its
Desi Arnaz and DC Comics
Though most Europeans and Americans know almost nothing about this
great religion, over the last generation or so Yoruba religious traditions
have come increasingly to international attention. In the 1950s, CubanAmerican actor and musician Desi Arnaz sang repeatedly to the Yoruba
orisha Babaluaye on the sitcom I Love Lucy, and in the wake of the Cuban
Revolution of 1959 hundreds of thousands of Cuban refugees, many of
them Santeria practitioners, flooded into the United States. Beginning in
the late 1960s, Nigerian Afrobeat musicians such as Fela Amkulapo Kuti
and King Sunny Ade toured the West, creatively translating the Yoruba
aesthetic into idioms that lovers of rock and pop could understand. The
popular Brazilian film Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands (1976) brought
awareness of Candomble (the orishas come to the assistance of a grieving
wife played by Sonia Braga) both to the Portuguese-speaking world and to
millions who viewed it in subtitles in Europe and the United States. Black
nationalism triggered a search for African roots buoyed by the Alex Haley
book Roots (1976) and the twelve-hour television miniseries that followed.
The Mariel boatlift of 1980, which brought over a hundred thousand
Cubans to the United States, increased both the vitality and visibility of
Santeria in the United States. A DC Comics series called Orishas debuted
in 1990. Finally, a pathmaking U.S. Supreme Court case, The Church of
Lukumi Babalu Aye v. City of Hialeah (1993), legitimated Santeria by
ruling that efforts by local authorities in Hialeah, Florida, to outlaw animal
sacrifice violated First Amendment guarantees of religious liberty. Since
the 1990s, Yoruba religion has also taken to the World Wide Web, where
sites such as do what other religions do online—educate,
aggregate, debate, and in some cases confuse. It is now possible to consult
with a diviner through cyberspace.
For centuries Muslims and Christians have denounced Yoruba religion
as superstition. In the 1970s and 1980s, this tradition was further tarnished
by a series of cult scares, epitomized by the 1987 Hollywood thriller The
Believers, which equated Santeria with human sacrifice. More recently, a
Newsweek story called Santeria practitioners “poultricidal zealots.”42 But
this is an ancient religious tradition, nearly as old as Islam, which offers a
profound diagnosis of the human problem, a practical solution, and a series
of techniques (divination, sacrifice, and spirit/body possession) to reach its
goal. Though it puts more truck in the oral than the written (“bookish” is
pejorative here), Yoruba religion boasts a vast and sophisticated corpus of
sacred stories, historical accounts, morality tales, poems, and proverbs that
remind us of our individual and shared destinies, and promise to connect
us with one another, with creation, and with the divine.
It should be noted that, while Yoruba culture is ancient, Yoruba
identity is modern. Like the term Hinduism, which was a by-product of the
arrival of the British in India, the term Yoruba is relatively recent, dating
only to the early nineteenth century.43 Before that time, Yoruba peoples
identified not as Yoruba but with particular city-states or royal lineages,
just as Hindus before the British identified not as Hindu but as speakers of
particular languages, residents of particular regions, and worshippers of
particular gods. While initially used by outsiders to refer to “Yoruba
country” or “the Yoruba people,” this term was eventually taken on as a
badge of honor by the Yoruba themselves, first in the New World and then
in West Africa, as former slaves began in the last half of the nineteenth
century to return to their homelands with allegiances to a new, pan-Yoruba
religion and culture rather than to particular city-states and royal lineages.
Like Hinduism, Yoruba religion rests on practice more than faith. In
Yoruba the word believer (igbagbo) points to a Christian.44 That is
because Yoruba religion, more than a rigid belief system, is a pragmatic
way of life. Practitioners care far more about telling good stories and
performing effective rituals than about thinking right thoughts. They greet
religion’s doctrinal dimension with indifference and demonstrate almost
no interest in patrolling orthodoxy, or even in defining its borders. This is
a tradition of stories, their interpretation, and their application in rituals
and in everyday life—a “religion of the hand” rather than the head, in the
words of a Candomble priestess from Brazil.45
Again like Hinduism, Yoruba religion is almost endlessly elastic,
greeting foreign religious impulses with a yes rather than a no, adopting,
adapting, and absorbing these impulses and reinventing itself along the
way. As Christianity came to Yorubaland in the 1840s, and Islam centuries
earlier, Yoruba religious traditions mixed with both. And as these
reinvented Yoruba traditions sailed across the Atlantic to the Americas,
practitioners reinvented them again, picking up not only Catholic
influences but also the influences of religions indigenous to the Americas.
Soyinka describes this “accommodative spirit of the Yorùbá gods” as
an “eternal bequest to a world that is riven by the spirit of intolerance, of
xenophobia and suspicion.” 46 Though in possession of a massive,
multigenre oral corpus of sacred literature, Yoruba practitioners have
resisted freezing it into dogma or revelation. Perhaps that is because this
corpus consists largely of stories rather than Western-style theological
argumentation. Or perhaps this corpus is as narrative and nondoctrinaire as
it is because Yoruba practitioners couldn’t be bothered to memorize dry
theology. For whatever reason, the Yoruba exhibit the same flexibility in
adapting their religious practices to new places and times that they exhibit
in approaching their oral texts, which include—alongside the all-important
divination poems—praise songs, prayers, proverbs, myths, incantations,
folktales, and recipes for herbal remedies. “Ifa’s abiding virtue,” writes
Soyinka, is “the perpetual elasticity of knowledge.”47
The Yoruba see the complex realities of the cosmos not as revealed
from on high once and for all but as forever coming into sight through an
equally complex dance between humans and orishas. As a result, Yoruba
practitioners are able to see these orishas as exemplars who abide inside
the difficulties of human existence rather than lording over and above
them, and to see their sacred texts “as no more than signposts, as parables
that may lead the mind toward deeper quarrying into the human condition,
its contradictions and bouts of illumination.” 48
Perhaps because it recognizes the contradictions and complications of
life on earth, Yoruba religion does not evangelize or anathematize. It has
no pope, and its leaders have never gathered to squeeze Yoruba beliefs
into a creed. “No excommunication is pronounced,” Soyinka writes, “a
fatwa is unheard of.” 49
Given all this freedom, what is shared across the elusive and elastic
manifestations of Yoruba religion? In a word, practice. From Nigeria to
New York, orisha devotees are practitioners more than believers. Their
practice consists of various techniques for communication and exchange
between human beings and orishas. These techniques aim at connection—
narrowing the gap between the earthly and heavenly realms by calling on a
series of mediators. The head of a family mediates between that family and
its ancestors. The chief of a town or city mediates between the
townspeople and the orishas. The orishas mediate between human beings
and Olodumare. The babalawo mediates between a client and the orishas.
And Eshu mediates between human beings and the orishas.
Most succinctly, Yoruba religion sees the human problem as
disconnection. To be human is to be connected, but all too often we are
disconnected from one another, from nature, from the orishas, and from
the High God Olodumare. We are even disconnected from our destinies,
alienated from our truest selves. Yoruba practices seek to reconnect us
across all these divides.
An African American sculptor named Lonnie Holley once lived in a
modest home bumping up against the airport in Birmingham, Alabama,
and throughout his property—on the ground, inside abandoned cars, and
up in trees—he connected found-object sculptures with one another via a
crazy patchwork of string, rope, fishing line, and telephone cords that
turned the entire landscape and everything in it into one interconnected
and awe-inspiring piece of art. Yoruba religion also testifies profoundly to
the power of connectivity. To our seemingly insatiable capacity to pretend
that we are somehow independent atoms, Yoruba religion responds that
human beings are connected to the divine, to animals, to plants, to
inanimate objects, and to other human beings (both dead and alive).
As Christian missionaries flooded into West Africa in the nineteenth
century, they taunted the Yoruba by insisting that “the dead do not
speak.”50 This idea that society is for the living is entirely foreign to
China, where the dead are very much alive—enshrined in ancestral tablets
in the home and consulted on all sorts of important matters of business and
the heart. But it is just as foreign to Yoruba culture, where the quick and
the dead are connected through all sorts of stories and rituals.
It is difficult to summarize the key practices of any religion,
particularly one as elastic as orisha devotion. But this task is even more
difficult because of the penchant of Yoruba practitioners for secrecy. The
key religious elite in this tradition in West Africa is the guardian of secrets,
the babalawo. And, as Yoruba religion migrated to the New World,
secrecy became only more important. Slaves were often prohibited from
practicing African religions, so those committed to walking in the ways of
their ancestors had no choice other than to sacrifice on the sly. Even today
New World practitioners of Yoruba religions unveil their esoteric truths
through a series of ascending initiations. Adherents play a game of reveal
and conceal as seductive as eros itself, flirting with boundaries, resisting
closure, and otherwise frustrating the desires of anyone wishing to package
up its treasures in paper and bow.
While it is impossible to know everything that goes on inside a
Candomble terreiro or Santeria casa, it is possible to generalize about the
techniques Yoruba practitioners use to reconnect themselves with other
human beings, with their ancestors, with the orishas, with their own
destinies, and with the natural world. These techniques include initiation,
when you receive an orisha into your ori and in the process take on his or
her ashe. But the most foundational practices in this “religion of the hand”
are divination and spirit/body possession.
Ifa Divination
Ifa divination, which has been compared to China’s Yijing (I Ching), is a
consultation between a devotee and the orisha of wisdom and destiny
Orunmila (aka Ifa). Orunmila is consulted via Ifa divination on important
occasions such as births, marriages, and deaths, and whenever an orisha
devotee is struggling with a conflict he or she wants to see resolved.
Nothing like eternal salvation is at issue here. Yoruba practitioners do
speak of a “good heaven” (orun rere) and a “bad heaven” (orun apadi).
They also hope for reincarnation, which in this tradition is a good thing.
(Cruel people and suicides are not reborn.) But the focus, as with Israelite
religion, seems to be living long and well on earth rather than attaining
immortality elsewhere. The presenting problems in Ifa divination are
unapologetically thisworldly: sickness or lovesickness, bad fortune or bad
blood. A daughter may be performing poorly in school. A grandfather may
be dying. A mother may have trouble finding a job. It is also possible for
entire communities to consult with babalawos, particularly in times of
crisis. If the United States were a Yoruba nation, its leaders would have
gone to Orunmila about the financial meltdown of 2008. From the Yoruba
perspective, no difficulty is entirely secular. Each has its origin in an
orisha who has been neglected, or perhaps in a witch or sorcerer, so each
can be addressed by spiritual means.
Ifa divination begins literally in the hand, with a babalawo (or iyalawo)
holding sixteen palm nuts or a divining chain vibrating with the power of
ashe. The divining chain is quicker and more portable than the traditional
palm nut method, and, for some, it doesn’t carry the power or authority of
the original. In the original technique, the babalawo holds the palm nuts up
to the ori of the client. He then shakes these nuts randomly from hand to
hand until either one or two is remaining in the left. He does this sixteen
times, in each case noting the results in the sand of his divining tray. He
then repeats it another sixteen times, which enables him to arrive at one
odu (signature) out of 256 (16 x 16) possible combinations. At this point,
the babalawo, who has gone through rigorous multiyear training that
includes memorizing in excess of a thousand Ifa poems, recites at least
four stories for this odu, beginning with “Ifa says.” The client decides
which of these poems best fits his situation. The babalawo goes on to chant
all the verses he knows for that story—the actions of the orishas, the
consequences of those actions. The client then tries his best to apply these
verses to his circumstances.
The consultation ends with a recommendation of a sacrifice of some
sort. Generosity is a key virtue—the epitome of “cool”—in Yoruba
culture, and to sacrifice is to show generosity to the orishas. Any given
sacrifice is offered to a particular orisha, but a portion goes first to Eshu,
who can be entrusted to deliver it only if he is cut in on the action from the
start. Sometimes this offering is a blood sacrifice—a chicken, for example,
which in almost all cases is then cooked and eaten. And animal blood is
believed in this tradition to be particularly rich in ashe. But “making ebo”
can also take the form of an act of charity or renunciation. Often what is
sacrificed is a fruit or vegetable, or a drink of some sort. Yemoja, for
example, enjoys duck, but she is also quite happy with watermelon. So like
Yoruba religion writ large, Ifa divination is reciprocal. It begins with the
orishas offering words of wisdom to a practitioner and ends with this
practitioner offering a gift of some sort to the orishas: “May the offerings
be carried, may the offerings be accepted,” says the babalawo in salutation,
“may the offerings bring about change.”51
In the New World, Ifa continues to be practiced, but its nuances and
complexities have given way in many locales to simpler and blunter
oracular techniques. Priestesses are also fully integrated into the divining
ranks. In fact, the majority of the two thousand-plus Candomble terreiros
in Bahia are run by women. Purists (and even elastic Yoruba religion has a
few) deride these innovations as unwarranted, and the simpler techniques
as baby stuff. But even in the New World divination continues to be
regarded as the “essence of Yoruba philosophy and worship.”52
Spirit (and Body) Possession
All religions make use of a wide variety of the senses, shaping the body in
this direction or that for the purposes of prayer or penitence. It isn’t just
that we learn things through our bodies (though of course we do) but that
we become and remain Muslims by prostrating in prayer, or Zen Buddhists
by sitting in meditation. The Yoruba are particularly adept at putting
religion in motion, however. Here spirit and matter dance cheek to cheek.
Wisdom is embodied. There is no disembodied self that thinks beyond the
confines of bone and breath. In traditional Catholicism, the saint is
satisfied with the prayers of the faithful and an occasional candle lit in his
name. But in Candomble and Santeria words and intentions are not
enough; the orishas must eat and drink. So it should not be surprising that
drumming and dance are religious practices. In this tradition, orishas enter
into human life by possessing human bodies.
The orishas are associated with particular parts of the body, and
therefore with particular illnesses. So it is possible in this tradition to trace
illnesses not only to certain organs but also to the orishas who have
afflicted those organs and therefore have the power to make them well. If
you have come down with herpes in Cuba, it is likely Oshun who has
stricken you. But the body is variously mapped across the Yoruba world.
In Cuba, the warrior Ogun is associated with the legs, fiery Chango with
the penis, and Elegba (aka Eshu) with the feet. In Brazil, Xango (aka
Shango) is located in the chest, and whereas Ogun does get the left leg, the
right leg (and the penis) belong to Exu (the Brazilian analog to Eshu and
But the orishas are also recognizable in drumming patterns (slow for
ancient Orunmila, fast for fiery Ogun) and dancing steps—Shango’s kicks,
leaps, high steps, and tumbles; Obatala’s slow, cool walking; Babaluaye’s
erratic jerking (low and cramped, like a sick man). In fact, dance is so
central to this religious tradition that some have referred to it as a “dancing
religion.” Some orishas never possess anyone. For example, Orunmila
comes to earth solely through divination. But Ogun, god of war, dances in
the sharp steps and aggressive postures of a warrior, his hands slicing the
air on a sharp diagonal like a sword. Ochoosi the hunter pulls an arrow
from his imaginary quiver, places it in his imaginary bow, and “reacts in a
jerking undulation” from the force of the arrow’s release. Shango “pulls
energy from the skies toward his genitals,” playing with his crotch,
Michael Jackson–style. Oshun’s movements are more lyrical and less
staccato, flowing like the river she represents, sensuous and potent as sex
Yoruba trance dancing is often referred to as spirit possession, but that
is not quite right, since the orisha possess both the body and the spirit of
the devotee. Every word, gesture, and movement of someone who has
“made the god” manifests the possessor rather than the possessed. Wande
Abimbola has suggested that the appropriate metaphor here is to “climb,”
since most orishas (Shango is a notable exception) live inside the earth and
come up through the ground to enter those they possess (feet and lower
legs first).55 The possessed also speak of being caught or grabbed. The
most common analogy, however, is to a rider “mounting” a horse—an
image that carries with it sexual connotations of a dominant male
“mounting” a submissive female. In festivals and initiation rites the orishas
“mount” and then “ride” devotees, possessing their bodies in dance and
their spirits in trance.
There is a vibrant debate about how much (if at all) gender mattered in
traditional Yoruba religion, but there is no debating how slippery and
permeable the categories of male and female are for Yoruba practitioners
today.56 While worshipping the orishas of their towns, the rulers of Idanre
and nearby Owo cross-dress as women. In a festival to the goddess
Oronsen, crowds praise their king as Oronsen’s husband Olowo. Pointing
to his fat belly, they also praise him for being pregnant—“the prolific
banana tree which bears much fruit.”57 On feast days, men can dance as
female orishas, and women can dance as male orishas. But even this
distinction between “female” and “male” orishas is problematic, since the
macho Shango is revered in Cuba as Saint Barbara, the goddess Oya is
said to have been male at some point in the past, and the relatively obscure
Brazilian orisha Logunede is said to spend half the year as a male hunter in
the forest and the other half as a female enchantress in the river. It is also
common for practitioners to switch genders when they reincarnate. Many
Yoruba girls are called Babatunde (“Father Returns”), and many Yoruba
boys are called Yetunde (“Mother Returns). Orishas also switch genders as
they move from place to place. Like Buddhism’s bodhisattva of
compassion, who is male in India as Avalokiteshvara and female in East
Asia as Guanyin, Oduduwa (aka Odua and Odudua), the divine progenitor
of all Yoruba kings, takes female form in northeastern Yorubaland and
male form in its southwestern cities and towns. Perhaps because of this
gender flexibility, many straight men in Brazil and Cuba refuse to become
possession priests. They see being “mounted” as akin to playing the
submissive role in a sexual encounter, so the possession priesthood in
these countries is often filled by women and gay men.
New World Transformations
Many more changes came over Yoruba religion as it migrated to the New
World. But these changes were only possible because the Yoruba religious
impulse survived. One key to this survival is elasticity. If Yoruba religion
had not bent under the unimaginable pressures of capture, passage,
slavery, and emancipation, it would undoubtedly have broken to pieces.
But another source of the success of Yoruba religion is orality.
Judaism was born when Jews began to shift their sights, after the
destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 586 B.C.E., from temple rituals to
textual interpretations. This historic transformation didn’t just make
Judaism as we know it, it made Judaism more mobile. Whereas temple
rituals could only be performed by priests at the Jerusalem Temple, the
Hebrew Bible could be interpreted anywhere by anyone who could read.
Yoruba religion is similarly transportable and its authority similarly
decentralized. In this case, however, authority lies in the oral corpus of Ifa
divination rather than in the written text of the Hebrew Bible. “Book
knowledge,” writes UNESCO leader and Yoruba Studies professor Olabiyi
Babalola Yai, “is devoid of às|e|.”58 So Yoruba religion was able to travel,
first, inside West Africa and, later, across the oceans in the heads of
diviners and the feet and hips of the god-possessed.
Some of the changes that came over Yoruba religion in the New World
have already been mentioned. The orishas were whittled down from
hundreds or thousands to dozens, and Ifa has largely (though not entirely)
given way to simpler forms of divination. But there are other important
differences between traditional Yoruba religion and the Yoruba-derived
traditions of the Americas. Many orishas lost their associations with
particular places and peoples in West Africa after they migrated to the
New World. In West Africa only a chosen few, such as Ogun, Eshu, and
Obatala, were truly pan-Yoruba deities. In the New World, however,
almost all orishas serve devotees regardless of location. Some relatively
unimportant West African orishas were promoted after transatlantic
passage. The bow-and-arrow hunter Ochoosi is little known in his
homeland but quite popular in Brazil, where in the Rio region he is
identified with Saint Sebastian, whose iconography depicts him as shot full
of arrows. Meanwhile, many orishas died in the Middle Passage, and many
others withered away as slavery wore on. Agricultural orishas largely fell
away in urbanized Brazil, though they continued to live and breathe (and
eat) in Haiti. Another victim of the transatlantic passage was ancestor
worship. Slavery so thoroughly destroyed extended family networks that
traditional ancestor devotion became next to impossible.
Another important transformation was the emergence of houses of
worship for all orishas. One key difference between Indian and American
Hinduism is that in India temples typically house just one god, whereas in
the United States temples typically house many. Something similar
happened as Yoruba religion crossed the Atlantic. In West Africa, shrines
were typically associated with one particular orisha, who was in turn
associated with one region or dynastic line. But in the New World, where
resources were scarcer and devotees more widely scattered, Brazilian
terreiros and Cuban casas typically housed all the orishas, or at least all the
orishas with enough ashe to be remembered.
These and other efforts to preserve Yoruba religion by changing it can
and should be seen as transformations. But in these transformations there
is continuity too. Yoruba culture has traditionally been both elastic and
accommodating. While Christians have long concerned themselves with
keeping their faith pure by inoculating their doctrines against impurity, the
Yoruba tradition has been happily mixing with “outside” influences for
millennia. So the so-called syncretism of the New World was, and is, just
more of the same.
There is an intriguing debate about the niche religion occupies in human
psychology and society. Is religion’s primary purpose to ward off the chill
of death? Many believe this is the case—that religions rise and fall largely
on how well they address the problem of mortality. But perhaps death and
the afterlife are largely male concerns. After all, it is men who have done
most of the killing in human history. Might it be that religion’s primary
purpose is to make sense not of death but of birth, not of destruction but of
creation? After all, the Jewish and Christian Bibles begin not with the
deaths of Abraham or Jesus but with the creation of the world. Perhaps
where religions really compete is on the question of how to flourish.59
In this debate, Yoruba religion comes down squarely on the side of
human flourishing. There is discussion, of course, about reincarnation and
about a good and a bad heaven. But the goal is not to be reborn or occupy
some otherworldly paradise but to flourish here and now. Today Yoruba
religion in both Africa and the Americas attempts to repair our lives and
our world by reconnecting earth and heaven, human beings and orishas,
and each of us with our own particular destinies and natural environments.
This world can never be a paradise, because conflict is endemic to the
human condition. Gods and “antigods” are forever at war, and we humans
seem forever to be forgetting our destinies. But happily we can consult the
orishas through divination, call them to our sides through sacrifice, and
dance with them in our own bodies. Such resolutions of our conflicts are
temporary, to be sure, and must be repeated. But with proper devotion to
the orishas, say the Yoruba, we, our children, and our grandchildren can
live long, healthy, wise, and prosperous lives.
God Is
Not One
The Eight Rival Religions
That Run the World—and Why
Their Differences Matter
Stephen Prothero
To my students
Human goals are many, not all of them commensurable, and in
perpetual rivalry with one another.
—Isaiah Berlin
Title Page
A Note on Dates and Diacriticals
Chapter One – Islam
Chapter Two – Christianity
Chapter Three – Confucianism
Chapter Four – Hinduism
Chapter Five – Buddhism
Chapter Six – Yoruba Religion
Chapter Seven – Judaism
Chapter Eight – Daoism
Chapter Nine – A Brief Coda on Atheism
About the Author
About the Publisher
A Note on Dates and Diacriticals
Scholarly books on religion often use diacritical marks to indicate how a word
is pronounced in Sanskrit or other sacred languages. In fact, use of diacriticals
is a key way to signal one’s scholarly bona fides. But diacritical marks are
gibberish to most readers—is that a breve (˘) or a cedilla (¸)?—so I avoid them
here except in direct quotations, proper names, and citations. If an “s” with a
mark underneath or atop it is pronounced like “sh,” then it appears here as
“sh”: the Hindu god Shiva instead of S´iva, the Hindu goal of moksha instead
of mokşa. Diacritical marks also present a barrier to the integration of nonChristian religious terms into English—a barrier that is better torn down than
built up. One reason the Sanskrit term nirva-n.a made it into English
dictionaries was its willingness to drop the macron over the a and the underdot
accompanying the n. And Hindu scriptures such as the Mahâbhârata and the
Râmâyana are already finding wide acceptance among English speakers
without their respective circumflexes.
Religious Studies scholars also typically date events either as C.E. (Common
Era) or B.C.E. (before the Common Era), in an effort to avoid the Christian bias
inherent in A.D. (Anno Domini, “in the year of our Lord”) and B.C. (“before
Christ”). This is sleight of hand since these dates continue to mark events in
relation to the life of Jesus whether or not those events are said to have
occurred in C.E. or A.D. However, since the use of A.D. and B.C. indirectly
imply belief in Jesus as both “Lord” and “Christ,” I use C.E. and B.C.E. here.
Muslims have their own calendar, which begins with the hijra (“flight” or
“emigration”) of Muhammad from Mecca to Medina in 622 C.E. So while this
book appears in 2010 C.E., it is also being published in A.H. 1431.
At least since the first petals of the counterculture bloomed across Europe
and the United States in the 1960s, it has been fashionable to affirm that all
religions are beautiful and all are true. This claim, which reaches back to
All Religions Are One (1795) by the English poet, printmaker, and prophet
William Blake, is as odd as it is intriguing.1 No one argues that different
economic systems or political regimes are one and the same. Capitalism
and socialism are so obviously at odds that their differences hardly bear
mentioning. The same goes for democracy and monarchy. Yet scholars
continue to claim that religious rivals such as Hinduism and Islam,
Judaism and Christianity are, by some miracle of the imagination,
essentially the same, and this view resounds in the echo chamber of
popular culture, not least in Dan Brown’s multi-million-dollar Da Vinci
Code franchise.
The most popular metaphor for this view portrays the great religions as
different paths up the same mountain. “It is possible to climb life’s
mountain from any side, but when the top is reached the trails converge,”
writes philosopher of religion Huston Smith. “At base, in the foothills of
theology, ritual, and organizational structure, the religions are distinct.
Differences in culture, history, geography, and collective temperament all
make for diverse starting points. . . . But beyond these differences, the
same goal beckons.”2 This is a comforting notion in a world in which
religious violence often seems more present and potent than God. But is it
true? If so, what might be waiting for us at the summit?
According to Mohandas Gandhi, “Belief in one God is the cornerstone
of all religions,” so it is toward this one God that all religious people are
climbing. When it comes to divinity, however, one is not the religions’
only number. Many Buddhists believe in no god, and many Hindus believe
in thousands. Moreover, the characters of these gods differ wildly. Is God
a warrior like Hinduism’s Kali or a mild-mannered wanderer like
Christianity’s Jesus? Is God personal, or impersonal? Male, or female (or
both)? Or beyond description altogether?
Like Gandhi, the Dalai Lama affirms that “the essential message of all
religions is very much the same.”3 In his view, however, what the world’s
religions share is not so much God as the Good—the sweet harmony of
peace, love, and understanding that religion writer Karen Armstrong also
finds at the heart of every religion. To be sure, the world’s religious
traditions do share many ethical precepts. No religion tells you it is okay to
have sex with your mother or to murder your brother. The Golden Rule
can be found not only in the Christian Bible and the Jewish Talmud but
also in Confucian and Hindu books. No religion, however, sees ethics
alone as its reason for being. Jews understand halakha (“law” or “way”) to
include ritual too, and the Ten Commandments begin with how to worship
To be fair, those who claim that the world’s religions are one and the
same do not deny the undeniable fact that they differ in some particulars.
Obviously, Christians do not go on pilgrimage to Mecca, and Muslims do
not practice baptism. Religious paths do diverge, Huston Smith admits, in
the “foothills” of dogma, rites, and institutions.4 To claim that all religions
are the same, therefore, is not to deny the differences among a Buddhist
who believes in no god, a Jew who believes in one God, and a Hindu who
believes in many gods. It is simply to claim that the mathematics of
divinity is a matter of the foothills. Debates over whether God has a body
(yes, say Mormons; no, say Muslims) or whether human beings have souls
(yes, say Hindus; no, say Buddhists) do not matter, because, as Hindu
teacher Swami Sivananda writes, “The fundamentals or essentials of all
religions are the same. There is difference only in the non-essentials.”5
This is a lovely sentiment but it is dangerous, disrespectful, and untrue.
For more than a generation we have followed scholars and sages down the
rabbit hole into a fantasy world in which all gods are one. This wishful
thinking is motivated in part by an understandable rejection of the
exclusivist missionary view that only you and your kind will make it to
heaven or Paradise. For most of world history, human beings have seen
religious rivals as inferior to themselves—practitioners of empty rituals,
perpetrators of bogus miracles, purveyors of fanciful myths. The Age of
Enlightenment in the eighteenth century popularized the ideal of religious
tolerance, and we are doubtless better for it. But the idea of religious unity
is wishful thinking nonetheless, and it has not made the world a safer
place. In fact, this naive theological groupthink—call it Godthink—has
made the world more dangerous by blinding us to the clashes of religions
that threaten us worldwide. It is time we climbed out of the rabbit hole and
back to reality.
The world’s religious rivals do converge when it comes to ethics, but
they diverge sharply on doctrine, ritual, mythology, experience, and law.
These differences may not matter to mystics or philosophers of religion,
but they matter to ordinary religious people. Muslims do not think that the
pilgrimage to Mecca they call the hajj is inessential. In fact, they include it
among the Five Pillars of Islam. Catholics do not think that baptism is
inessential. In fact, they include it among their seven sacraments. But
religious differences do not just matter to religious practitioners. They
have real effects in the real world. People refuse to marry this Muslim or
that Hindu because of them. And in some cases religious differences move
adherents to fight and to kill.
One purpose of the “all religions are one” mantra is to stop this
fighting and this killing. And it is comforting to pretend that the great
religions make up one big, happy family. But this sentiment, however
well-intentioned, is neither accurate nor ethically responsible. God is not
one. Faith in the unity of religions is just that—faith (perhaps even a kind
of fundamentalism). And the leap that gets us there is an act of the
hyperactive imagination.
Allergic to Argument
One reason we are willing to follow our fantasies down the rabbit hole of
religious unity is that we have become uncomfortable with argument.
Especially when it comes to religion, we desperately want everyone to get
along. In my Boston University courses, I work hard to foster respectful
arguments. My students are good with “respectful,” but they are allergic to
“argument.” They see arguing as ill-mannered, and even among friends
they avoid it at almost any cost. Though they will debate the merits of the
latest Coen brothers movie or U2 CD, they agree not to disagree about
almost everything else. Especially when it comes to religion, young
Americans at least are far more likely to say “I feel” than “I think” or (God
forbid) “I believe.”
The Jewish tradition distinguishes between arguing for the sake of
victory (which it does not value) and “arguing for the sake of God” (which
it does).6 Today the West is awash in arguments on radio, television, and
the Internet, but these arguments are almost always advanced not in
service of the truth but for the purpose of ratings or self-aggrandizement or
both. So we won’t argue for anyone’s sake and, when others do, we don’t
see anything godly in it. The ideal of religious tolerance has morphed into
the straitjacket of religious agreement.
Yet we know in our bones that the world’s religions are different from
one another. As my colleague Adam Seligman has argued, the notion of
religious tolerance assumes differences, since there is no need to tolerate a
religion that is essentially the same as your own.7 We pretend these
differences are trivial because it makes us feel safer, or more moral. But
pretending that the world’s religions are the same does not make our world
safer. Like all forms of ignorance, it makes our world more dangerous.
What we need on this furiously religious planet is a realistic view of where
religious rivals clash and where they can cooperate. Approaching this
volatile topic from this new angle may be scary. But the world is what it is.
And both tolerance and respect are empty virtues until we actually know
something about whomever it is we are supposed to be tolerating or
Pretend Pluralism
Huston Smith’s The World’s Religions has sold over two million copies
since it first appeared in 1958 as The Religions of Man. One source of its
success is Smith’s earnest and heartfelt proclamation of the essential unity
of the world’s religions. Focusing on the timeless ideals of what he calls
“our wisdom traditions,” Smith emphasizes spiritual experience, keeping
the historical facts, institutional realities, and ritual observances to a
minimum. His exemplars are extraordinary rather than ordinary
practitioners—mystics such as Islam’s al-Ghazali, Christianity’s St. John
of the Cross, and Daoism’s Zhuangzi. By his own admission, Smith writes
about “religions at their best,” showcasing their “cleaner side” rather than
airing their dirty laundry, emphasizing their “inspired” philosophies and
theologies over wars and rumors thereof. He writes sympathetically and in
the American idioms of optimism and hope. When it comes to religion,
Smith writes, things are “better than they seem.”8
When Smith wrote these words over a half century ago, they struck
just the right chord. In the wake of World War II and the Holocaust,
partisans of what was coming to be known as the Judeo-Christian tradition
were coming to see Protestantism, Catholicism, and Judaism as three equal
expressions of one common faith. Meanwhile, fans of Aldous Huxley’s
The Perennial Philosophy (1945) and Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a
Thousand Faces (1949) were denouncing the longstanding human
tendency to divide the world’s religions into two categories: the false ones
and your own. The world’s religions, they argued, are different paths up
the same mountain. Or, as Swami Sivananda put it, “The Koran or the
Zend-Avesta or the Bible is as much a sacred book as the Bhagavad-Gita.
. . . Ahuramazda, Isvara, Allah, Jehovah are different names for one
God.”9 Today this approach is the new orthodoxy, enshrined in bestselling
books by Karen Armstrong and in Bill Moyers’ television interviews with
Joseph Campbell, Huston Smith, and other leading advocates of the
“perennial philosophy.”
This perennialism may seem to be quite pluralistic, but only at first
glance. Catholic theologian Karl Rahner has been rightly criticized for his
theory that many Buddhists, Hindus, and Jews are actually “anonymous
Christians” who will make it to heaven in the world to come. Conservative
Catholics see this theory as a violation of their longstanding conviction
that “outside the church there is no salvation.” But liberals also condemn
Rahner’s theology, in their case as condescending. “It would be impossible
to find anywhere in the world,” writes Catholic theologian Hans Küng, “a
sincere Jew, Muslim or atheist who would not regard the assertion that he
is an ‘anonymous Christian’ as presumptuous.”10
The perennial philosophers, however, are no less presumptuous. They,
too, conscript outsiders into their tradition quite against their will. When
Huxley’s guru Swami Prabhavananda says that all religions lead to God,
the God he is imagining is Hindu. And when my Hindu students quote
their god Krishna in their scripture the Bhagavad Gita (4:11)—“In
whatsoever way any come to Me, in that same way I grant them favor”—
the truth they are imagining is a Hindu truth. Just a few blocks away from
my office stands the Ramakrishna Vedanta Society. Its chapel looks
conspicuously like a mainline Protestant church, yet at the front of this
worship space sit images of various Hindu deities, and around the room
hang symbols of the world’s religions—a star and crescent for Islam, a
dharma wheel for Buddhism, a cross for Christianity, a Star of David for
Judaism. When my friend Swami Tyagananda, who runs this Society, says
that all religions are one, he is speaking as a person of faith and hope.
When Huston Smith says that all religions are one, he is speaking in the
same idiom.
I understand what these men are doing. They are not describing the
world but reimagining it. They are hoping that their hope will call up in us
feelings of brotherhood and sisterhood. In the face of religious bigotry and
bloodshed, past and present, we cannot help but be drawn to such vision,
and such hope. Yet, we must see both for what they are, not mistaking
either for clear-eyed analysis. And we must admit that there are situations
where a lack of understanding about the differences between, say, Sunni
and Shia Islam produces more rather than less violence. Unfortunately, we
live in a world where religion seems as likely to detonate a bomb as to
defuse one. So while we need idealism, we need realism even more. We
need to understand religious people as they are—not just at their best but
also their worst. We need to look at not only their awe-inspiring
architecture and gentle mystics but also their bigots and suicide bombers.
Religion Matters
Whether the world’s religions are more alike than different is one of the
crucial questions of our time. Until recently, most sociologists were sure
that religion was fading away, that as countries industrialized and
modernized, they would become more secular. And religion is receding
today in many Western European countries. But more than nine out of
every ten Americans believe in God, and, with the notable exception of
Western Europe, the rest of the world is furiously religious. Across Latin
America and Africa and Asia, religion matters to Christians who praise
Jesus after the birth of a child, to Muslims who turn to Allah for comfort as
they are facing cancer, and to Hindus who appeal to the goddess Lakshmi
to bring them health, wealth, and wisdom. And it still matters in Western
Europe, too, where Catholic attitudes toward women and the body, for
example, continue to inform everyday life in Spain and Italy, and where
the call to prayer goes up five times a day in mosques from Amsterdam to
Paris to Berlin.
But religion is not merely a private affair. It matters socially,
economically, politically, and militarily. Religion may or may not move
mountains, but it is one of the prime movers in politics worldwide. It
moves elections in the United States, where roughly half of all Americans
say they would not vote for an atheist, and in India, which has in the
Hindutva (Hinduness) movement its own version of America’s Religious
Right. Religion moves economies too. Pilgrims to Mecca and Jerusalem
pump billions of dollars per year into the economies of Saudi Arabia and
Israel. Sales of the Bible in the United States alone run roughly $500
million annually, and Islamic banking approaches $1 trillion.11
All too often world history is told as if religion did not matter. The
Spanish conquered New Spain for gold, and the British came to New
England to catch fish. The French Revolution had nothing to do with
Catholicism, and the U.S. civil rights movement was a purely
humanitarian endeavor. But even if religion makes no sense to you, you
need to make sense of religion to make sense of the world.
In the twenty-first century alone, religion has toppled the Bamiyan
statues of the Buddha in Afghanistan and the Twin Towers in New York
City. It has stirred up civil war in Sri Lanka and Darfur. And it has resisted
coalition troops in Iraq. In many countries, religion has a powerful say in
determining what people will eat and under what circumstances they can
be married or divorced. Religious rivalries are either simmering or boiling
over in Myanmar, Uganda, Sudan, and Kurdistan. The contes…
Purchase answer to see full


Leave a comment