Africans take the lead on religion


The least religious country in Sub-Saharan Africa values faith more than the most religious industrialized nation does, according to a new study by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. In the survey of 19 African countries and 25,000 interviews, the Pew Forum found that roughly 90% of respondents affirmed that religion is "very important" to them, making Africa the most religious zone in the world. Botswana reported Africa's lowest religiosity score at 68%. Previous Pew studies showed that 59% of the United States population, by contrast, would say that religion is "very important". In Poland, one of Europe's most religious nations, that number is 33%. And in Japan, just 14% would say religion matters to their lives.

The survey, which included nations with different colonial histories and varied religious and linguistic compositions, paints a complex picture of overlapping and conflicting beliefs and practices.

For example, the survey found that Africans overwhelmingly practice either Christianity or Islam, and that Africans are very likely to believe that the Bible or Koran is literally true. Despite the commitment to their sacred texts, Africans are not inclined to be exclusive to one religion.

"Many of those who indicate they are deeply committed to the practice of Christianity or Islam also incorporate elements of African traditional religions into their daily lives," Pew reported. "For example, in four countries (Tanzania, Mali, Senegal and South Africa) more than half the people surveyed believe that sacrifices to ancestors or spirits can protect them from harm."

The concern among international observers is whether the high levels of religiosity mean high levels of violence, too. International news reports often focus on the localized clashes among religious groups, such as last month's violence in Jos, Nigeria, but a majority of those surveyed said that relations among religious groups are healthy overall.

"In most countries, relatively few see evidence of widespread anti-Muslim or anti-Christian hostility, and on the whole they give their governments high marks for treating both religious groups fairly" the report said.

While religious conflict was an important concern in all countries in the survey, adherents of all religions ranked crime, unemployment and corruption as bigger problems than religious conflict. Where religious conflict is a big concern, respondents linked the tensions to ethnic conflict. Deciphering where ethnic tensions stop and religious ones begin remains to be teased out in future studies.

What is not in doubt is Africans' support for democratic principles. Pew found similarly strong levels of support for democracy and religious liberties among both Christians and Muslims. All countries surveyed preferred democracy to all other forms of government.

But the democracy that Africans imagine for themselves is not a secular one.

Large numbers of Christians and Muslims would like to establish their own religion in some official capacity, such as permitting leaders to use religion as a grounds for public policy and legal decisions. Majorities of Muslims, for example, support applying Koranic penalties, such as stoning or cutting off hands, for crimes. And in a third of African nations, Muslims show strong support for the death penalty for those who leave Islam.

"This may simply reflect the importance of religion in Africa," the report explained. "But it is nonetheless striking that in virtually all the countries surveyed, a majority or substantial minority (a third or more) of Christians favor making the Bible the official law of the land, while similarly large numbers of Muslims say they would like to enshrine sharia, or Islamic law."

Given that picture of public life, it might be surprising that Muslims and Christians generally view one another as tolerant, honest and respectful. The picture becomes more complex when individual countries are broken out from the survey, however. In Chad, for example, 70% of Christians view Muslims as violent, and Djibouti, 40% of Muslims view Christians as violent.

All those surveyed expressed concern about violent extremism in their own religions. In a very worrisome trend, substantial minorities among all religions, up to 20%, said that violence in defense of one's religions is sometimes justifiable.

Though religion is clearly important to daily life in Africa, most in the survey admitted to knowing very little about the beliefs of other religions. What they do know about other religions leads them to believe that the religions have very little in common in their understanding of God.

What the religions do share is a concern about the moral decay of their societies, a trend all religions blame on the influence of Western movies, music and television. Likewise, all religions in Africa share a strong aversion to homosexuality, abortion, and sex outside of marriage.

As religious as Africa is now, the continent might have reached its saturation point. The religions are not growing as fast as they once did, and they are not gaining ground against each other. With 90% of the population already affiliated with a religion, the report says the pool of converts has just about run dry.

Though the numerical growth of religion in Africa might stall, the influence of religions most certainly will not. The Pew Forum study reveals that not only is religion not going away, it is strengthening its role as a determining factor in the lives and aspirations of millions of Africans.

Africa, ReligionRichard Potts