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What does it mean to be a ‘person’? Different cultures have different answers.

Opponents and proponents of abortion rights often frame their positions in terms of two core values: “life” or “choice.”

However, many advocates of “life” are comfortable taking human lives in situations such as war or capital punishment. Many on the “choice” side advocate government regulation of guns or mandates on masking and vaccinations.

As I see it, “life” and “choice” are not, in and of themselves, really the problem. The central question is what or who constitutes a person.

This question has long preoccupied anthropologists, particularly those like me who specialize in the study of non-European religions. Some ideas that are generally taken for granted in the United States and Europe about what it means to be a person are simply not shared with followers of other religious traditions and cultures.

Ideas about personality in American culture are largely a product of Christianity, in which personality is inextricably linked to the notion of the soul. Only a being that has a soul is a person, and personality is treated as a black and white matter: either a being has a soul or it doesn’t.

A carving on the side of a church shows many small human figures with Jesus sitting in the middle.
A detail from the facade of a church in Conques, France, illustrates Christian teachings on salvation.
Photo by JARRY/TRIPELON/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

As a specialist in religion in Africa, I have become aware of religious traditions that treat personality in very different and more nuanced ways. Most people in Africa identify as either Muslim or Christian, but indigenous religions remain widespread and many see personhood as a process rather than a once-and-for-all phenomenon.

graded personality

This is well illustrated by the beliefs about babies in the Beng culture of Côte d’Ivoire, which anthropologist Alma Gottlieb details in her remarkable 2004 ethnography, “The Afterlife Is Where We Come From.”

For Beng, all babies are reincarnations of people who recently died. They emerge from a place called “wrugbe”, which is both the afterlife and a kind of previous life.

The idea that babies are reincarnations, especially of ancestors, is not specific to the Beng, or African religions, for that matter. In fact, a newborn hasn’t really left “wrugbe” until its severed umbilical cord has dried up and fallen off. Only then is the infant considered in some sense a person. If he dies before then, he doesn’t get any kind of funeral. Even later, until the children are several years old, people believe that they remain halfway between the “wrugbe” and the world of ordinary humans.

For Beng and many other peoples, rituals mark the development of the personality. Some cultures believe that children do not have a complete gender until they have undergone initiation. The initiation process itself is a symbolic death and rebirth, as if the initiate became a new person. In some societies, for example the Tallensi of northern Ghana, if an individual ever attains full personality, it is only after death that he becomes an ancestor, fully involved in the lives of his descendants.

A young man in sunglasses sings and holds a baton.
Friends and family welcome initiates to an initiation school in Orange Farm, South Africa.
Images by Lucky Maibi/Daily Sun/Gallo via Getty Images

not only humans

“People” aren’t even necessarily human. In the Mande cultures of West Africa, like the Dyula communities I have researched, each clan is associated with an “ntana,” a large and dangerous species of wild animal: lions, leopards, elephants, crocodiles, or pythons, for example. Members of the species are considered people, but only to individuals of the associated clan.

Each has a story about the origins of their relationship with their ntana, typically of how the ancestor of the species rescued the ancestor of the clan, pulling it out of a pit into which it had fallen. Members of the clan must not kill or eat their ntana, and contact with or even sight of the remains of the dead animal is considered dangerous.

Two aspects of personality stand out in particular when we compare how paradigms vary from culture to culture.

First, personality is sometimes viewed as a process, not a stable state, and it is not something that each individual automatically possesses. Second, personality is not a purely individual phenomenon, but is intrinsically linked to social relationships, especially between parents, siblings and children; between spouses and in-laws; and between the living and the dead. Christianity, on the other hand, emphasizes the soul and individual salvation: a being either has a soul or does not, and the salvation or damnation of this soul is the responsibility of the individual.

In Christian-majority societies, it may not always be apparent to what extent our taken-for-granted notions of personhood are derived from a Christian foundation, until compared with other religious traditions. From my perspective, to embed these ideas in law, particularly by banning abortion or even allowing it to be banned, is to embed theology in legal principle.

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