How does the world work? What forces guide the everyday events we see? How you answer depends on your worldview. A worldview is a set of assumptions about the fundamental workings and realities of the world. Everyone has one whether they know it or not. A worldview answers questions like: what is the purpose of life? what is good? what governs the world? and what is real?.
Different regions of the world have different worldviews. Africa is no different. While not uniform, there is a shared basic worldview in much sub-Sahara Africa, if not all of Africa.
What happens when an owl hoots in a tree at night? Is it just a hoot or is something more happening? In much of Uganda, it is believed that this is a signal of bad things including death. So, they chase owls away. Owls are viewed as evil and harbingers of death. They are not a symbol of wisdom as in the West. They are not painted on walls nor are backpacks made to look like owls.
I was with a group touring an orphanage in Uganda. We got the part of the new building where the babies are housed. There were several cribs lined up along the walls in a fairly big room with high ceilings. The walls had a nice paint job with a mural. The mural was a bunch of those cute owls with pointy ears. I speculate that it was painted by someone from somewhere other than Africa.
Basics of Spirits in Uganda
Many of the Ugandans hearing about an owl hooting in a tree assume the work of spirits. Westerners hearing the story assume it is just a bird with no spiritual significance. Africans assume the spirits are active. Westerners assume atoms, molecules, and instinct are doing their thing. Your worldview will determine your thoughts on this matter.
In Uganda like much of Africa, it is the spirits who guide and direct everything. They are behind many of the objects and events in everyday life. Hence the term animism, as the spirits animate things. African Traditional Religion (ATR) is how people relate to these spirits. The spirits are everywhere. Belief in them is ubiquitous. There is a spirit of the lake. Trees, animals, and earthquakes have different spirit influences and/or causes. The owl has a spirit that announces bad tidings.
I had a student tell me that many in his village leave some matooke behind in the field when harvesting. This is to appease the spirit that governs such things. Another student told me, in order to have a successful gathering, you must put food for the spirits out the back door with your right hand with your back to the door.
On a side note, this African animism informs my working theory about African/Ugandan art. Most if not all of the art I have seen in Uganda is not what would be called realism. It is not postmodern make of it what you will. You can tell it is a giraffe, elephant, or a person but there is something stretched or just out of place for it to be a more realistic image. This is neither good nor bad, but just the way art is done by most in Uganda.
Most in Uganda believe in spirits. Spirits are ubiquitous. The question is not about whether there are spirits. The question is how to deal with them. A Ugandan Christian asked, in a cultural training class I was a part of when first arriving in Uganda, how to handle the spirits and new cars. He said that he knew it was wrong to take a new car to the witchdoctor so he could bless the car so it would be protected from attack by spirits on the road. This blessing usually involves sprinkling the car with blood from a chicken. His proposal was that the elders of the church should lay hands on the car and pray for protection from the spirits. Some people even have bumper stickers that read: “This car is covered by the blood of Jesus.”
Notice how he assumes the spirits are an issue. He assumes the spirits have control over cars and roads. There are many spots on various roads that many think there are spirits that can bring an accident.
But how can you get these spirits to help you instead of hurt you? Enter the witchdoctors. They have a special ability to communicate with the spirits. They can tell you what the spirit(s) want in order to be appeased. In return, they give you some request. They ply their trade at shrines. This is a large part of ATR.
When people go to the shrine, the witchdoctor asks for some sacrifice. They ask for money, chickens, or many other things . . . including humans (and while it may be uncommon, humans are still sacrificed today). The bigger the request from the spirits, the bigger the sacrifice. The witchdoctor knows the proper sacrifice because he alone can communicate with the spirits. Some come to the witchdoctor to ask the spirits to curse another person. This is done for jealousy, revenge, or a host of other reasons.
The spirits are seen as capricious. They do as they please and sometimes bless and sometimes curse. This is why you need the witchdoctor to help secure the blessing. All events are interpreted through this lens of the spirits acting. Did someone die unexpectedly? Then was it spirits? Hooting owls, earthquakes, and many other events have a spirit acting giving some message. The spirits have the power and authority to act as they please upon the earth. Many realize this and try to get the spirits to work on their behalf.
Because of the prevalence of the belief in spirits, it should not come as a surprise that many consult witchdoctors. Yet it does surprise me. Many attend church on Sunday and visit a shrine during the week. Articles discussing this can be found here, here, and here. Apparently, voting season is the time for politicians to pray to God and visit shrines in hopes of getting a favorable outcome.
Biblical Analysis of Spirits
What should we make of spirits? How does the Bible treat them? Is it ok to visit the shrine? It is important to understand the culture and evaluate it in light of Scripture.
If the spirits are as Ugandans/Africans believe, then they are made by God. They would have some authority to bring blessing and curse. They would need to be appeased to bring the desired result. It would mean that prosperous living is simply a matter of the spirits acting in your favor. We will deal with these claims below.
If we assume the Ugandan/African view of spirits then spirits are different from demons. Demons are evil forces of Satan (Matthew 12:24-29). They are only acting for evil against God and his people. Demons are always portrayed negatively and are dealt with by casting them out. Spirits, on the other hand, are capricious and, as far as I know, answer to no higher authority (though some believe in a distant creator god). They may be appeased to bring a blessing for the supplicant or a curse on someone else. They act for random reasons. I will argue that where spirits are acting, they are in fact demons. But more on that below.
I have taught the book of Genesis to theology students in Uganda several times. It is foundational for a worldview. It is the book of beginnings. In Genesis 1 we see many of the things God created. He created light, stars, land, sky, plants, animals, and humans. The spirits are not named as something God created and thus have no authority. I like to ask the students where are the spirits mentioned as being created. To be fair, angels are not mentioned as being created in Genesis 1. But they are mentioned elsewhere and mentioned as created beings. Spirits are nowhere mentioned in the Bible, at least in the form of African spirits.
As a matter of fact, it is humans that are given dominion on earth (Genesis 1:26-30). All things God created, save for the sun, moon, and stars, were put under the dominion of man. Therefore, it is not the spirits who have dominion/authority on earth. It is mankind.
In Genesis 1, God gave His blessing to humanity. Mankind was to take the blessing of Eden and extend it to the whole world. After blessing mankind, God commanded them to “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it” (Genesis 1:28). We see here that the dominion and blessing of God given to mankind has a global application.
Also in Genesis, Abraham is given the blessing of God (Genesis 12:1-3, 7; 22:18). There God says that all will find blessing in him and his seed. Ultimately we know this seed is Jesus Christ and blessing comes through Him (Galatians 3:14-16). So blessing is found nowhere else save in and through Christ. It cannot be found in spirits or any other entity.
So the spirits, as offered in Ugandan/African animism, are not in the Bible. Though unclean spirits are mentioned, these are the same thing as demons as Matthew 8:16, Luke 4:33, and Luke 8:29 show. What is interesting to note is the similarities between spirits and the other idols/gods in the Bible. The idols/gods are capricious, there are many of them, and you need to bring a sacrifice to the priest who is the mediator between the god and the supplicant. The other gods were an alluring draw to Israel. One of the most often repeated sins of Israel in the Old Testament is chasing after these gods.
We know these other gods are no gods at all (1 Corinthians 8:4). Yet they held sway over many. Certainly, they held some sort of power. It is my contention that their power was from demons. A couple of verses show that sacrifices to these so-called gods were sacrifices to demons:
Deuteronomy 32:17 – “They sacrificed to demons that were no gods, to gods they had never known, to new gods that had come recently, whom your fathers had never dreaded.”
1 Corinthians 10:20 – “No, I imply that what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be participants with demons.”
So as many flock to witchdoctors to entreat the spirits to act on their behalf, they are actually flocking to demons. They are flocking to sworn enemies of God. Spirits are not neutral nor benign. In fact, they are evil and we should fight against them.
So what shall we do about this? “But what if someone curses me?” This is a real question from a real student. We need to know some biblical truth in order to deal with this issue and bring comfort to our souls.
1. We have to know God is sovereign over everything, including spirits. They cannot act independently of God. God is not powerless to stop them. God governs any power they may have. Satan himself must ask God’s permission to sift Peter like wheat (Luke 22:31). So there is nothing spirits/demons can do that
is outside of God’s control.
2. We must know no believer can be possessed by spirits/demons. Also, the demons in the Bible come out with a word from Christ and even His apostles. There is spiritual warfare but God gives us the armor to deal with it (Ephesians 6:10-20).
3. We need to know God is working for the believer’s good (Romans 8:28). Can bad circumstances befall a believer? Most certainly, yes. Is that the work of a spirit? You just cannot know. But God is bringing good out of it.
4. You should pray for protection. You should, like Jesus did for Peter, pray that your faith not fail.
Many seek witchdoctors and the spirits in order to gain something. Mostly they seek financial or health-related gains. Christians pray for these very things from God, and they should. But the Bible makes clear that God’s ordinary working is through ‘normal’ events. That is why Paul instructs people to work so they can provide for their families and others (Ephesians 4:28). It is also why Paul tells Timothy to take wine for his stomach (1 Timothy 5:23). He recognizes that God uses ordinary means. If we think the only way we can get rich or well is through the spirits then we have missed plain biblical teaching.
What about the Ugandan Christian mentioned previously? He was wondering if he should take a new car to the elders for them to lay hands and pray for it in order to gain protection from spirits. Is that something that should be done? Since the spirits in the Ugandan sense are not real, then I would say no. But they should pray for it that the passengers be kept safe and that it would be used for God’s glory.
I say all this not because I don’t believe in spiritual realities we don’t see. I do, in fact, believe in them. Analyzing a big part of African society from a biblical worldview is my goal. Is there room for the spirits? Are they as ATR says they are? What is really going on?
Spirits, in the Ugandan sense, are not real entities from a biblical worldview. There are demons, however. These spiritual entities use the belief in the spirits to gain a powerful stronghold. We must seek God’s Word for guidance in dealing with demons/unclean spirits.
We need not be beholden to an ATR worldview. Instead, we need to seek a biblical worldview. We see the Bible does not discuss or acknowledge the spirits as presented in ATR. Instead, the Bible presents an ordered world with one God who is sovereign and has given mankind, not spirits, dominion and blessing. We must seek this God and live in light of His truth.