Faith in Africa

A new Pew Forum survey on religion in Africa breaks ground on how far Abrahamic faiths have spread on the continent and how it has dramatically shaped societies there.


The Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life has just released a unique survey of religion on the African continent — unparalleled in its breadth of geographic and topical coverage. Perhaps its most important finding is that, after years of evangelization almost nine out of 10 Africans are either Christian or Muslim.

"Tolerance and Tension: Islam and Christianity in Sub-Saharan Africa" is the first comprehensive survey of its kind to assess how religion fits into the lives and the societies of countries in the region. It paints a picture of contemporary Africa as a dynamic religious center — the "final frontier" for Abrahamic faiths to add to their flocks — but also as a place where tradition and customs remain. Sub-Saharan Africa is a deeply pious region where a majority is conservative in its own beliefs yet tolerant of others’, favors religious law yet is also content with democracy, and worries about religious violence and extremism but is more concerned with the lack of jobs. To assess the state of Africa today, spiritually or otherwise, this survey serves as an invaluable guide.

The Pew survey is an impressive exercise in polling, the product of one-on-one interviews with some 25,000 people across 19 countries, representing three-quarters of the population of Africa.

A few findings stand out. First, a majority support democracy in all 19 countries surveyed across religious lines, and in five of those countries — Ghana, Rwanda, Botswana, Senegal, and Kenya — support is more than 80 percent. Africans are less concerned about religion than about bread-and-butter issues: unemployment, crime, and corruption. And presumably, they look to governance to solve and religion as salve. For a continent just 60 years independent from colonial rule, such faith in democracy will be seen by many as a hopeful sign.

Equally intriguing is the relationship between religions, one which is, today more than ever, often presented through current events as an antagonistic one. Analysts were appalled to watch the violence between Muslim and Christian communities in Nigeria last month that left hundreds upon hundreds dead. But as the Pew survey finds, tolerance is probably more prevalent than any religious animosity. Pluralities in all countries felt free to practice their faiths and thought it was a good thing that others were free to do the same.

Only a third of respondents from all countries saw religious violence as a problem. However, between the two faiths, some 43 percent of Christians believed their Muslim counterparts to be "violent," while 20 percent of Muslims felt that way about Christian peers. At a time when counterterrorism experts increasingly worry that West Africa, the Sahel, and the Horn of Africa will be breeding grounds for the next al Qaeda affiliates, minority of respondents expressed similar concerns. Interestingly however, they mostly worry about their own: "in almost all countries in which Muslims constitute at least 10% of the population, Muslims are more concerned about Muslim extremism than they are about Christian extremism, while in a few overwhelmingly Christian countries, including South Africa, Christians are more concerned about Christian extremism than about Muslim extremism." Only minorities in both faiths say violence is sometimes justified in the name of religion.

Religious conversion, another hot-button issue, is also addressed in the survey. Although missionaries are certainly nothing new in Africa, today as much as ever, evangelizers are spreading through the continent to look for converts, knowing that, as Europe’s and the West’s religiosity wanes, the strength of church and mosque will come from this southern continent. The survey finds little evidence that Muslims and Christians are switching to the others’ faiths, however. Among the sects, most African Muslims are Sunni; Christians are divided between Catholics and a range of Protestants, with a large number of Pentecostals among the latter group.

Still, this picture is a dynamic one. A century ago, 76 percent of Africans practiced traditional or animist religions, with only a small minority of Muslims and Christians. Today, that number has dropped to 13 percent. Of the remaining, 57 percent are Christians and 29 percent Muslim. The biggest changes took place between 1950 and 1970, but the numbers of both Abrahamic faiths have creeped up steadily since then. Perhaps one of the biggest changes, as Pew notes, is that the geographic lines between Islam and Christianity — with Islam prevalent predominantly north of the Sahara — are steadily blurring. Still, as associate director for research Alan Cooperman pointed out in an interview, "There is not much possibility going forward for adherents of traditional religions to convert to Islam or Christianity." With nearly 90 percent of the continent adhering to one of these two faiths, the conversion is pretty much done.

This is not to say, however, that Africa has lost all traditional religion; indeed, though vast majorities attend religious services and pray every day, and fast when doctrinally required, about a quarter of those surveyed still believe in some traditional practices — for example, amulets to ward off evil or sacrifices to appease a spirit. In Tanzania, Mali, Senegal, and Cameroon these beliefs are particularly prevalent. Also high are the frequency of deep religious experiences such as divine healing, both among Muslims and Christians. Among Christians such practices, which are often associated with Pentecostalism, were visible even among non-Pentecostal sects.

Perhaps the most interesting finding to the lay reader, however, is not about religious faiths, but about how religion fits into Africans’ daily lives. In no country did respondents cite religious conflict as their No. 1 source of concern. Unemployment, crime, and corruption are all higher priorities for survey respondents, and only in Rwanda, Nigeria, and Djibouti did a majority say that religious conflict ranked high among their concerns. They tend to be optimistic that life will improve — more so than any other region of the world. And finally, respondents reflected a social sensibility that is certainly conservative. Majorities in all countries worried about Western culture cheapening their countries’ own moralities.

Here is also where some of the most-interesting country specific findings come in. Religiosity overwhelmingly describes the continent, but as with other parts of the world, economic prosperity does seem to correlate with smaller proportions of religious people. South Africa and Botswana, two of the wealthiest countries in Africa, are also the least religious. This could of course be mere coincidence, but it is one of the many questions that will certainly arise as analysts delve further into the wealth of data. To read the entire survey, click here.

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