Since tribe formation is the earliest form of human organization, tribal religions can said to be the earliest expression of organized religion. Since human tribes lived in a state of nature and their survival depended on benign natural conditions and events, they recognized the power of natural elements. These elements included fire, water, air, earth and sky. All these elements had the potential to destroy an ecosystem or tribal inhabitation, inducing in tribes a sense of fear mixed with reverence. Being the most intelligent species on the planet, early human beings tried to ascertain cause-effect relationships between their actions and natural events. When some sort of a pattern emerged as a result of this analysis, then primitive religious rituals were seen to have causative powers. For example, the practice of sacrificing lives (human and animal) started as a way of placating the Gods of nature. With the tools of statistical analysis at the disposal of modern man, it is easy to say that there is no correlation between sacrificing lives and benign natural occurrences. But to the tribal mindset, this kind of rationale was not accessible and apparent. In a world ridden with several dangers – from predators, floods, droughts, epidemics and storms – any kind of hope was clung onto. And early tribal religious practices were a manifestation of this hope.
Such being the basic world view of tribal religions, they saw natural elements were seen as Gods. Hence there came into existence the notion of Sun God, Wind God, Water God, etc. In recognition and honor of the immense power wielded by these natural forces, tribal people started developing a reverential attitude toward them. Since tribal religions were passed down from one generation to another through oral communication, there are no documented records of the religious codes – although cave inscriptions provide samples of this code. But what was once considered as divine by primitive tribal people would be brushed off as mere superstition by modern theologists. Nevertheless, the remnants of tribal religions survive today in the form of folk art and culture and also in mythologies. A core part of tribal religion is the idea of tribe unity and solidarity. Hence desertions, betrayals and other forms of treasonous behavior are severely condemned, at times even by death. It is fair to say that there is a strong in-group bias in tribal religious codes, which usually leads to hostile encounters with other tribes and clans.
Today, we can seen the continuation of tribal religious practices in remote human habitations. This includes regions in Sub-Saharan Africa, Amazonian rain forests of South America, tropical jungles of South-East Asia, etc. People who live in these places continue their religious traditions that date back thousands of years. Voodoo or black magic is an essential part of their religious code. The absurdity of some of the practices and beliefs is clear to the educated modern man, but for these people they are of paramount importance. Paganism, Shamanism, Totemism and Rastafarian belief system are all good examples of religions that have a tribal basis. While these are the well-known tribal religions, there are thousands of other smaller ones which are peculiar to a particular tribe. But tribal religions such as these have lost followers as well as relevance since the emergence of Judeo-Christian religions. In the case of the Orient, tribal religions were gradually superseded by major systems of philosophy such as Hinduism and Buddhism.
Indigenous religion — Britannica Online Encyclopedia, retrieved from <www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/…/indigenous-religion> on 15th December, 2010
Hinnells, John R. (2005). The Routledge companion to the study of religion. Routledge.