Christianity and Igbo traditional religion

By September 13, 2023 September 14th, 2023 One Comment

Christianity has come to stay; in fact it should be adopted as the religion of the Igbo. This is the conclusion by people who think that Igbo traditional religion has long passed its usefulness. It served the past generations and should be utterly thrown out of the Igbo people’s lives. But, Igbo traditional religion locally known as Ọdịnanị is a religion filled with spirituality which takes its root in nature and anchored on the sanctity of Anị (earth).

I do not set out to discuss spirituality and mode of worship. In my previous article with the title: ‘Christianity in Igbo weakness’ I averred that though Christianity brought rapid development seen today, Ọdịnanị had the potential to evolve outside the colonial contact and Christianity.

What many have not considered is; even though Christianity got to Igbo land in 1857, it was not readily accepted. The British initiated about 21 military expeditions in order to conquer Igbo people, and seeing how hard it was to get the Igbo to submit to their rule, they utilised religion being that Igbo people are highly religious and spiritual. With religion, the conquest of the Igbo people became easier. As records would show, as pointed out by F.K. Ekechi, “it was the period following the extension of British political authority that missionary evangelism prospered. Prior to that, the Igbos treated missionary propaganda with respectful indifference.” Quoting John Christopher Taylor, Ekechi said that “those who embraced Christianity prior to 1900 were mainly people who, perhaps, were alienated from the traditional society, or suffered from certain social disabilities, or experienced certain natural misfortune.”

I want to acknowledge that while Christianity seems to have brought development to Igbo land, Igbo land existed with full functional systems prior to the contact with the colonialists and Christianity. What the British brought was Westernisation or Europeanisation of the Igbo people using religion.

A critical question should be asked, how did Christianity bring development? We may have that belief that development entered Igbo land at the coming of the Europeans with their religion but let us step back and rethink this assumption.

Igbo land existed long before the coming of the westerners. The excavations made in Igboukwu are a testament that Igbo land had greatly developed as early as the 9th century. Viewing the intricate carvings on the bronzes does not tell a society that needed the western religion and system to develop or trade. However, the world was growing at a pace, while others were faster, others were slow but it does not take out the fact that Igbo land through the excavations was a modern society of its time. Cities grow and fall.

Leaded bronze ceremonial object, thought to have been the head of a staff, decorated with coloured beads of glass and stone, 9th century, from Igbo Ukwu, Nigeria; in the Nigerian Museum, Lagos. 
Frank Willett

Igbo people traded, governed themselves, litigated issues and had their religious observances except for a few practices they did out of ignorance, like killing of twins. They had their art, education, technology and astrologers etc. in an obviously perfect system that served the need. Yet again, some schools of thought have it that the Igbo system and religion were not perfect which gave way for Christianity to be accepted as it was fashionable and to the extent that Igbo people are likely to totally abandon their Ọdịnanị. It will interest a reader to note that the introduction of Christianity and the language of its propagation – English, was borne out of a quest to trade with and colonise the Igbo people and to remodel them in the European image. This could be termed a selfish motive.

“In the interior of the continent most people continued to practise their own religions undisturbed until the 19th century. At that time, Christian missions to Africa increased, driven by an antislavery crusade and the interest of Europeans in colonising Africa…Christianity was an agent of great change in Africa. It destabilised the status quo, bringing new opportunities to some, and undermining the power of others. With the Christian missions came education, literacy and hope for the disadvantaged. However, the spread of Christianity paved the way for commercial speculators, and, in its original rigid European form, denied people pride in their culture and ceremonies.” as written in BBC.

As western education was introduced, English was made to seem a prestigious language and also the religion and as such became a somewhat compulsory attainment in order to have a better relationship.

 Read Also: Christianity in Igbo weakness

As S.I. Okoro wrote in ‘The Igbo and Educational Development in Nigeria, 1846 -2015’, “the proceedings of the Church Missionary Society in 1915, reported that: our religious instruction is tolerated and accepted because it is compulsory and is a means of acquiring English, the language of trade, the law court, and government administration.”

As Christianity made way into the heart of the Igbo, it seemed seamlessly to attain that, though a compulsory attainment or probably due to religious similarities in observance, efforts of freed slaves who became missionaries that helped bridge the gap, culturalisation or at best the religious inculturation adopted by the Catholic church. 

Religious inculturation as described in ‘Faith and Inculturation’ by the Vatican is, “the intimate transformation of authentic cultural values through their integration in Christianity in the various human cultures”.  It further reads, “…more urgent duties of Christians regarding culture: defense of the right of all to a culture, promotion of an integral culture and harmonization of the links between culture and Christianity.” This becomes an effort to subsume the Ọdịnanị and Igbo cultural identities into a Christian or Catholic identity.

The efforts in inculturation may also be likened to the efforts for ecumenism and interreligious dialogue. Pope Francis in his Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel) speaks about interreligious dialogue; he asserts that “Evangelization and interreligious dialogue, far from being opposed, mutually support and nourish one another” he believes that “Interreligious dialogue is a necessary condition for peace in the world, and so it is a duty for Christians as well as other religious communities.”

The coming together of religious groups is good for the peace and harmony in the world but the proliferation of religious identities causes disharmony in the life of the Igbo people.

Where then is the authentic Igbo religious identity? Igbo identity is being lost in the propagation of inculturation which the Catholic church adjudged to be the biggest church group in the area, tried to overshadow the culture and religious identity such that, Ọdịnanị would be lost forever. The Christian identity which in itself is the Jewish – a reason for some Igbo to believe they are descendants of Israel and adoption of Judaism, cum Western identities, and with the incursion of Pentecostalism, Christian identity is thus shifting from the traditional to neo-Pentecostalism.

In all these transformations, the Igbo should begin to redefine their identity in recognition of their cultural and religious life and practices. Religion operates within the context of culture. It is also the primary influence of culture and both are transmitted through language.

Since we can say that Igbo through Igboukwu bronzes, as an example, witnessed development centuries ago, Igbo development should not be solely attributed to Christianity and Westerners. Even as some Igbo believe that Ọdịnanị is filled with fetishism, Ọdịnanị is indeed filled with spirituality and in connection with nature and through it Igbo technology and science which should be redirected for good, became developed.

Ọdịnanị should thrive even in the face of inculturation and ecumenism. Igbo land needs harmony. Christians should stop demonising Ọdịnanị and Ọdịnanị believers should focus on positively improving the religious practices. Let the kite perch and let the eagle perch. 



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