I recently purchased Irving Hexham’s Understanding World Religions after meeting the author at a conference. As I began to read, I was amazed to discover that “racism has clearly affected modern thinking about the nature of religious studies.” Hexham identifies a rarely discussed hidden bias against African religious traditions.
The Hidden Bias
He writes, “Even though most of the authors of the books we will examine are self-proclaimed liberals who would be horrified at the suggestion that their books are riddled with racism, there can be no doubt that textbooks dealing with African religions suffer from a racist heritage.” Hexham surveys several prominent religious studies textbooks published after 1960 and identifies “an almost total neglect of African religious traditions.”
This is quite surprising since African religious traditions constituted the fifth largest religious category in 1905 (157,000,000 members) and the sixth largest in 2005 (100,000,000 members). Why no air time?
Hexham suggests that modern racism, fostered during the Enlightenment, undercuts the credibility of African religious traditions. He quotes David Hume (1711—1776) as evidence of this. “I suspect that negroes … be naturally inferior to the whites. There was never a civilized nation of any other complexion than white.” Shocking words, but is Hume just a bad apple?
Examples of Enlightenment racism are easily multiplied. Hexham also points to Jean-Jaques Rosseau (1712—1778), Immanuel Kant (1724—1804), and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770—1831). The latter he quotes at length:
“The particularly African character is difficult to comprehend … In Negro life the characteristic point is the fact that consciousness has not yet attained to the realization of any substantial objective existence … The Negro, as already observed, exhibits the natural man in his completely wild and untamed state. We must lay aside all thought of reverence and morality. Among Negroes moral sentiments are quite weak, or more strictly speaking, non-existent … At this point, we leave Africa to mention it no more. For it is no historical part of the World.”
Hexham concludes that “the leading figures of the Enlightenment, and of the subsequent Romantic Movement, held a very low opinion of Africans. This explains not only their failure to study African religion and society but also the continuing neglect of such studies by their disciples and eventually by the founders of religious studies.” As a result, “Modern textbooks, which almost totally neglect African religion, are simply continuing a two-hundred-year tradition deeply rooted in European racism.”
What Have We Missed?
Once one recognizes this racist bias, the natural question is “what have we failed to learn as a result?” Hexham attempts to right this wrong by devoting the second of four sections in his textbook to African religious traditions. He recognizes that he can at best offer an overview since there is no single “African religion.” Hexham provides several insights.
He suggests that neglected African religious traditions “lack written scriptures and recorded histories and often share a belief in evil power identified with sorcery or witchcraft, specialized healers, psychic events, and the importance of ancestors.” These religions fundamentally involve supernatural experiences. Indeed, these religions involve “intense [primal] experiences [that] defy rational explanation.”
Hexham writes, “Before a person has a primal experience, he or she may view the traditional mythology … as unbelievable fairy tales which only uneducated traditionalists believe. Following a primal experience, the ‘old ways,’ or teachings, or a new religion become reality.”
What does the Westerner make of these alleged primal experiences? We have already chastised Hume et al for their bigoted dismissal of such religious experiences. Can we consistently claim that our superior education, culture, or philosophy rules out such experiences? Can we claim that “we now know better” without the condescending tone?
I think not. The only way to assess these claims fairly is to investigate them. Summary dismissal reveals an abhorrent (and patently unjustified) sense of superiority. We disrespect others by presuming them deluded.
Surprisingly, “primal experiences are remarkably common among humans.” Citing various social studies in the 1970s, Hexham suggests that 36.4 percent of Britons in a random sample group “reported having such experiences,” 45 percent of whom “had no real contact with churches or organized religions.” Furthermore, 30 percent of Americans and 60 percent of Canadians “responded positively to questions about primal experiences.”
Indeed, as a Christian I belong to a community of people who claim to have encountered God in a personal way. For some of my fellow believers, their experience may be best described as a primal encounter with the supernatural.
Not every supernatural encounter need be with a loving God. I have personally witnessed primal encounters of a more sinister nature, things that make little sense on atheism. Such experiences are not shocking to me since—as a Christian—I am a supernaturalist. In my personal experience there is more to reality than meets the eye.
I suspect that many people are simply in the closet regarding their personal encounters with the supernatural. This is quite understandable given the less than charitable assessment such experiences receive in the West. If one shares one’s experiences, one risks being shunned as foolish, gullible, unsophisticated, uneducated, or worse. The precedent set by Hume et al is still largely still in force.
I would challenge my naturalist readers to examine their reasons for dismissing supernature up front. Perhaps Shakespeare’s Hamlet is correct to suggest that “there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, / than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
 Irving Hexham, Understanding World Religions: An Interdisciplinary Approach (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), 31.
 Ibid., 31–32.
 Ibid., 33.
 Ibid., 34.
 Ibid., 39.
 David Hume, Essays (London: Routledge and Sons, 1906), 152 quoted in ibid., 39–40.
 Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, The Philosophy of History (New York: Willey Books Co., 1944) quoted in ibid., 40–41.
 Ibid., 41.
 Ibid., 43.
 Ibid., 49.
 Ibid., 51.
 Ibid., 52.
 Ibid., 52–53.