African Religions

Anthropocentrism and Animal Protection

Authored by: Kai Horsthemke

The Routledge Handbook of Religion and Animal Ethics

Print publication date:  October  2018
Online publication date:  September  2018

Print ISBN: 9781138592728
eBook ISBN: 9780429489846
Adobe ISBN:


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This chapter investigates a few core aspects of African religions and explores how they impact positively and/or negatively on the treatment of animals. African religions have, until recently, existed in fairly isolated parts of the world. They do not belong to the major ‘families’ of religions such as those that originated in the Near East or to the so-called Eastern religions. While they are diverse and distinct from one another, there are some interesting commonalities between African religions. One of these parallels is the hierarchy of beings, with God (Nguni/Zulu: uMveliqangi – ‘the One who emerged first’) at the apex, and then at different levels below, the ancestors (amadlozi) or ‘living-dead’ (abaphansi), then human beings (bantu), and finally the rest of animate and inanimate creation, including animals (isilwane). A further aspect shared by African religions is the emphasis on harmony and the sanctity of a unified community, by way of relationality and relationships. This concern is expressed in the ideas of ubuntu (from Nguni/Zulu: Muntu umuntu ngabantu, literally ‘A person is a person through other persons’, or ‘I am because we are’) and ukama (a Shona word for relationality). African religious morality is essentially anthropocentric. Because evil originates with human beings and not with God, morality is seen to be a matter of human relationships. Moreover, while the idea of ubuntu characterises a fundamentally human-centred concern, ukama on the other hand involves the assumption that animals (as an important part of creation) are also part of the community and relationality that bind humans together. Apart from emphasizing mutual dependence and a sense of ‘unity’, commentators have invoked the moral imperative of respect. An important reason for respecting animals may be that they actually ‘embody’ deceased human beings. One of the important pillars of traditional African religions is a belief in reincarnation and transmigration of souls, the belief that when someone dies, s/he is reincarnated immediately after death as that type of animal which her/his people regard as her/his totem. Other reasons for respecting animals have more to do with human survival. The central issue to be investigated concerns the protection African religions provide to animals, and whether animals are ever seen as also mattering in and for themselves.

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