Africa: The Devout Continent?

Published online May 1, 2012.

Between the Berlin Conference in 1884 and the beginning of the 21st century, something extraordinary happened. In the course of just over a hundred years, nearly the whole of sub-Saharan Africa adopted Christianity or Islam. The mapmakers who gave birth to today’s African states were mortal, but the legacy of religion they left behind would fundamentally alter people’s core beliefs about life and the afterlife.

In the year 1900 around 9% of the African population was Christian, and 14% Muslim. Today, nine out of every ten people identify either as Christian (57%) or Muslim (29%). Soon there will be more Christians living in Africa than in Europe. By 2030, there will be more Muslims living in Nigeria than in Egypt, and more Nigerian Muslims than Iraqi and Afghani Muslims combined. Much of the religious conversion occurred during the colonial period, but nearly half of the growth of Islam and Christianity took place after independence.

It is difficult to make many generalizations about the effect of new religious beliefs on politics and society over the past century because there is great diversity in the religious make-up of countries. Countries like Somalia and Mauritania are 99% Muslim while others, like Cape Verde and the Democratic Republic of Congo, are almost entirely Christian. Some countries are predominantly Muslim but have sizable Christian minorities, like Chad (56% Muslim, 35% Christian), while others are predominantly Christian with large Muslim minorities, like Ghana (64% Christian, 20% Muslim).

Even two countries with the same percentage of Christians are unlikely to look very similar. Countries like Rwanda are predominantly Catholic, while others, like Liberia, are largely Protestant. In Nigeria there is a strong Pentecostal following, in South Africa African Independent Churches are very common, and Uganda has a large percentage of Anglicans.

Despite these differences, there are broad trends to note. On the whole both Christians and Muslims in sub-Saharan Africa are very devout. In a survey of 19 African countries, a study by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, “Tolerance and Tension: Islam and Christianity in Sub-Saharan Africa”, found that 80% or more of the survey respondents of all faiths said that religion was “very important” in their lives. This is a much higher percentage than most populations living in Europe or even Latin America. Perhaps ironically, the importance of religion among Africa’s former colonizers (and from where most missionaries came) is quite low – only 24% of Italian respondents, 23% of Spanish respondents, 19% of British respondents and 13% of French respondents said that religion was a very important part of their lives.

Both Christians and Muslims also attend religious services very regularly. In most countries, 70% or more of Christian respondents and 80% or more of Muslim respondents said they attended services at least once a week. The vast majority of respondents across countries say they pray at least once a day. Most Christian respondents reported fasting during Lent, and almost all Muslim respondents (85-100%) reported fasting during Ramadan.

Perhaps most surprisingly, there is huge support among both Christians and Muslims for biblical or sharia law to be the “official law of the land”. More than half of all Christian respondents in countries as diverse as Ethiopia, Botswana, Liberia, and Guinea Bissau favored making the Bible the official law, while more than 50% of Muslim respondents from Mali to Mozambique favored making sharia law official. Most Christians and Muslims in countries surveyed also said the Bible and Koran, respectively, were the literal word of God.

Thus, while there are many differences in the make-up of religious organizations and practices across countries, there are also many similarities. Most notably, the importance of religion and the conception of religious texts as absolute and literal truth, truth that should guide the organization of politics and society, are widespread. While the spread of Christianity and Islam in Africa has occurred in a relatively short period of time, these faiths and their teachings have dramatically changed people’s everyday lives and beliefs.

To what extent have religious beliefs translated into government policy? In countries evenly split between Christians and Muslims, like Nigeria or Eritrea, or in countries with large Christian or Muslim minorities, can we expect to see religious conflict in the coming years?

There are not clear answers to these questions, but there is a paradox emerging in many countries – people favor politicians and policies of particular faiths while at the same time ascribing to freedom of religion. They believe that religious texts should inform if not dictate laws governing a country, but promote religious tolerance. The separation of the church and state is not usually written into formal laws, but faith nonetheless finds its way into political behavior and policymaking.

It is impossible to predict whether religious conflict will emerge, and often ethnicity is thought to be more divisive than religion, but there are some findings to warrant concern. Perhaps most disturbingly, a substantial percentage of respondents across countries agreed that violence could be justified in defense of one’s religion. For example, 55% of Christian respondents in Guinea Bissau and 37% in Botswana agreed with a statement saying, “using arms and violence against civilians in defense of their religion is justified”. 58% of Muslims in DRC and 37% of Muslims in Kenya also agreed with this statement.

People of all faiths also expressed concern over both Christian and Muslim extremist groups in their country. Many also cited religious conflict as a “very big” national problem.

Christianity and Islam are still growing and spreading in Africa, and the long-term effects of religious conversion and organization on politics and society are only beginning to become apparent. Resolving the devout-secular paradox will likely have implications for governance and conflict in the coming years.

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