Beyond Primitivism: Indigenous Religious Traditions and Modernity

By Jacob K. Olupona | Go to book overview

Introduction

Jacob K. Olupona

This book represents the collaborative work of international scholars who spoke at the 28-31 March 1996 conference, “Beyond ‘Primitivism’: Indigenous Religious Traditions and Modernity, ” held at the University of California, Davis. The African-American and African Studies Program, the Religious Studies Program, and the Davis Humanities Institute hosted the conference. Forty distinguished scholars attended from fourteen countries in Africa, Asia, the Americas, and Europe. They examined issues ranging from the relationship between indigenous religious traditions and modernity to the status of indigenous religions in particular fields of academic study. The Davis conference sought to extend a discussion to all areas in which indigenous religions maintain a strong presence, in an effort to enhance our understanding of indigenous traditions around the world and to make a compelling case to integrate indigenous religions into teaching and religious studies.

Scholars attending the conference explored the question of modernity and indigenous religious traditions through various theoretical and case-study approaches. Their diverse views indicate a lack of consensus, and this lack defines modernity. This lack prevails because there is no single modernity but, rather, there are numerous “modernities. ” Secularization, globalization, and the expansion of “dominant” world religions affect indigenous peoples throughout the world. In every case, indigenous peoples have developed their responses to the challenges of multi-faceted modernity.

Discourse on modernity reflects the presence of multiple “modernities” in multiple case studies. This pattern is also reflected in the theoretical realm, in which scholars debate the very definitions under scrutiny. Scholars scrutinize even the study of modernity itself, as some scholars now refer to a widespread condition known as postmodernity. To examine these approaches, we must first establish a working definition of modernity. Scholar Anthony Giddens, in The Consequences of Modernity, is one who has wrestled with the definition, describing modernity as the trend or modes of social life or organization that emerged in Europe from the seventeenth century onwards, subsequently attaining worldwide influence. 1 Modernity is associated with the secularization of Protestant Christianity, humanism, and the prominence of scientific thought in Western culture.

Additionally, modernity is associated with the phenomena of colonialism and neocolonialism. As Western nations began to explore and colonize the world, they severely affected the lives of indigenous peoples at all levels - socio-economic, political, cultural, and religious. Around the globe, entire cultures were affected in numerous ways, ranging from the occupation of indigenous lands, the destruction of ancient empires, and economic hegemony, to the sacrilege of a golf course constructed over sacred burial mounds or the discarded debris of the Second World War, interpreted by Pacific Islanders as signs of the Gods in “cargo cults. ”

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