Faith CoLab: Tapestry of Faith: Building Bridges: A World Religions Program for 8th-9th Grades

Leader Resource 2: Indigenous Religions Background

The earliest human beings developed the four aspects of human societies: language, music, a social order, and religion. For more than three million years, human beings have practiced religion.

Some of the earliest places we know human beings have lived are the southernmost tip of Africa (South Africa today), the northeastern "horn" of Africa (Ethiopia today), Southeast Asia, Japan, China, and Australia. In these places, a locally born religion has been practiced for over three million years. Today large numbers of people still follow a form of an indigenous faith.

As humans spread across the earth, indigenous religions did, too. Native Americans were in North America as early as 15,000 BCE. The Mayans can be traced to Mexico and Central America as early as 2,000 BCE. Historical records place the Druids in western Europe by the first century CE, the same time frame when Greeks and Romans worshipped the gods known from stories we often call "mythology." Remember. these "mythologies" were very real religions for the people of the time.

These are just the indigenous faiths that have been documented. Some religions surely died, taking all their history with them. Often indigenous religions mixed with other, more modern religions to form people's core beliefs and common practices. For example, many African people today practice Islam or Christianity. Yet, they may still hold beliefs and practice rituals of an indigenous religion. They meld the two religions into a belief system that makes sense to them.

All indigenous faiths are:

  • Orally transmitted
  • Embedded in the specific places where the adherents live
  • Tied to natural events and rhythms
  • Bound to a strong sense of the interrelationship of living things.

Indigenous faiths do not have the preoccupation with the distant future that later religions developed (heaven or hell, reincarnation, enlightenment). The present is the time that is important.

The earliest-born faiths celebrate the female as the source of life. They often consider the earth itself as female since it gives life to us all. Early societies greatly valued women because of their childbearing capabilities and the primal, creative energy which these societies recognized as female. Patriarchal societies came later, essentially as a luxury afforded by stability and prosperity.

Taken together, indigenous religions rank fifth worldwide in terms of number of adherents. Some religions that have been considered indigenous include Native American religions, the religion of the Aztec, Shinto, Sumerian Babylonian and Sumerian, Greek and Roman, Egyptian, and the religions of the Zulu, Ibo, and Yoruba people of West Africa.