Every ethnic group in Africa has developed its own complex and distinctive set of religious beliefs and practices. These systems often have common features, which suggests that traditional faiths in Africa form a cohesive religious tradition. While the multiple deities and ancestral spirits in African traditional religions have been emphasized historically by non-Africans, there are other notable features. According to African cosmogony, there is a supreme being who created the universe and everything in it. In African myths, there are frequently numerous lesser deities assisting the supreme being, which have diverse functions in the created world.
Spirits may be divided into nature spirits and human spirits, each having a life force devoid of physical form. The human spirits are individuals who have died, typically ancestors in particular lineages. They play a role in community affairs, while also ensuring a link between each clan and the spirit world. The nature spirits are represented by natural objects, such as rivers, mountains, trees, the Sun, and forces including wind and rain. This religious worldview is integrated into every aspect of Africans' life.
African indigenous religions began with the origin of human civilization on the continent. These religions have evolved, spreading slowly for millennia, with stories about gods, spirits, and ancestors passing from one generation to another in oral mythology. Myth and oral history are integral elements of African peoples' culture and indigenous African peoples often understand history as accounts of events as narrated in stories, legends, myths and songs.
Outside cultures have been one of the biggest influences on African traditional religions. Christianity was the first world religion on the continent and spread across north Africa from the 1st century C.E. Islam supplanted Christianity in the region in the 7th century. As a result of the influence of Christian missionaries and western colonialism, Christianity became firmly entrenched in most of Africa by the 1900s.
By the end of the 20th century, a large proportion of Africa's population had converted to Christianity or Islam. However, Africans have assimilated these two world religions into their culture and many Christians and Muslims in Africa also maintain traditional spiritual beliefs. In addition, there are elements of indigenous religion in African cultural practices. As a result, Africans still feel a significant influence from traditional African cosmologies and beliefs.
At the end of the 20th century, Muslims worshiped throughout much of the continent. The success of Islam was partially due to its continued toleration of traditional practices and beliefs or at least because of its allowance of the adaptation of indigenous beliefs to a form compatible with Islam. At the beginning of the 21st century, African religion was mostly practiced in the southern two-thirds of Africa, where Christianity was statistically dominant, while it existed beneath the surface in the northern one-third, dominated by Islam.
The rapid spread of Pentecostal Christianity and fundamentalist Islam has had a great impact on the role of indigenous religion in Africa. African traditional religions' response to this has been to formulate new ways of survival, including developing literature, institutionalizing the traditions, establishing associations of priests, and creating schools for the training of priests. They have also extended outward and affected global culture, particularly in African diaspora communities.
There are no predominant doctrinal teachings in African traditional religions. Instead, they have certain vital elements functioning as core beliefs. These beliefs include origin myths, the presence of deities, ancestor veneration, and divination. In African traditional religions the sense of time is often described in cyclical rather than linear imagery. Because of the African religions' dependence on oral stories, doctrine tends to be more flexible, changing in accordance to the immediate needs of religious followers.
The core philosophy of African religions is formed by narratives about the creation of the universe (cosmogony) and the nature and structure of the world (cosmology). These narratives, often referred to as myths, are not fixed and vary from generation to generation or sometimes even among individuals. However, they retain similar structures and purposes - description of the way things were at the beginning of time and explanation of the cosmic order. In general, they involve superhuman entities, gods, demigods, spirits and ancestors.