Religious Trends in Sub-Saharan Africa

Past Century Sees Dramatic Changes

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By Father John Flynn, LC

ROME, MAY 2, 2010 ( A recently published report by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life points to a dramatic change in the religious affiliation of the population in the Sub-Saharan region of Africa.

At the beginning of the 20th century Muslims and Christians were only small minorities, accounting for a combined total of less than 25% of the population. The great majority practiced traditional African religions.

Over the last century the tables have turned and the number of Muslims has increased more than 20-fold, to about 234 million in 2010. Christians have seen an even bigger transformation, exploding almost 70-fold from about 7 million to 470 million. 

The report did point out that the preponderance of Christians in the sub-Saharan part of Africa is balanced out by the northern part of the continent, where the Islamic faith is predominant. As a result the African continent as a whole sees Christians and Muslims roughly equal, with each having from 400 to 500 million followers.

Overall, Sub-Saharan Africa accounts for no less than 21% of the total world Christian population. Muslims in the region have a 15% world share.

The Pew Forum’s statistics on Africa’s religious growth were backed up a few days ago when the Vatican published a summary of some of the data in the new edition of the Statistical Yearbook of the Church. According to an Apr. 27 press release by the Vatican Information Service, for the period 2000-2008 the number of Catholics in the world grew from 1.045 billion in 2000 to 1.166 billion in 2008, an increase of 11.54%

Underneath the global overall figures there was an enormous geographical diversity. At the extremes there was Africa, where the numbers in Africa grew by 33%, compared to Europe where there was a nominal 1.17% rise.


Nevertheless, in the Pew Forum report they also affirmed that the rapid growth of the past century may well not continue in coming years, and instead any increase will be mostly limited to what occurs as a result of natural population growth. 

This is so because already most people in the region have committed to Christianity or Islam, leaving few possibilities for conversions. Already in most countries, 90% or more describe themselves as either Christians or Muslims.

Moreover, there is little evidence showing that either Christianity or Islam is growing in sub-Saharan Africa at the expense of the other. With the exception of Uganda only a small percentage of Muslims have become Christians, and a smaller percentage of Christians have become Muslims.

In addition to the statistics on religious belief, a large part of the report by the Pew Forum consisted in the results of a public opinion survey involving more than 25,000 face-to-face interviews in more than 60 languages or dialects in 19 countries. This was done to determine how people in Sub-Saharan Africa view the role of religion in their societies.

The survey revealed how deeply religious the region is. People were asked to declare how important religion is in their lives: very important, somewhat important, not too important, not at all important.

The results for Sub-Saharan Africa revealed that in many countries, no less than 90% of people said religion is very important in their lives. 

The report compared this to surveys done in other continents in recent years. Even the least religiously inclined nations in the Sub-Sahara score higher than the United States, where 57% declared that religion is very important for them.

Other Western countries have much lower percentages of people declaring that religion is very important in their lives: Poland, 33%; Germany, 25%; Italy, 24%; Britain,19%. 

This contrasts with Asia and the Middle East, where, like Africa, a number of countries have scores of 90% or higher for those who declare religion to be very important. Among them are India, Bangladesh, Indonesia and Kuwait.


In spite of the rapid growth of both Christianity and Islam, traditional African religions remain a major force. In fact, they often coexist with Islam and Christianity in a sort of religious syncretism. Regardless of the theological inconsistencies this creates, the survey noted that this mixture of faiths is a daily reality in people’s lives. 

Many Africans continue to believe in witchcraft, evil spirits, sacrifices to ancestors, and traditional religious healers. 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. And sizable percentages of both Christians and Muslims — a quarter or more in many countries — say they believe in the protective power of charms or amulets.

In addition to expressing high levels of belief in the protective power of sacrificial offerings and sacred objects, upwards of one in five people in every country say they believe in the evil eye, or the ability of certain people to cast malevolent curses or spells.

According to the report there is no clear pattern among Christians or Muslims on levels of belief in African traditional religions. These traditional practices are common in predominantly Muslim countries, in countries with a more even mix of Christians and Muslims, and in predominantly Christian countries.


When it comes to relations between Christianity and Islam, the survey found that for many Christians and Muslims in sub-Saharan Africa there are no substantial problems and in general there is mutual tolerance. In fact, people generally held that unemployment, crime and corruption are bigger problems than religious conflict.

African Christians were more doubtful about Islam, with roughly 40% or more in a dozen nations saying they consider Muslims to be violent. Notably nearly six in 10 Nigerians and Rwandans said that religious conflict is a very big problem in their country. 

Muslims tended to be more positive in their assessment of Christians and many Muslims say they are more concerned about Muslim extremism than about Christian extremism.

When it comes to marriage, however, among both Muslims and Christians many express uneasiness about interfaith marriages. Half or more Christians in eight countries and upwards of half of Muslims in 12 countries said they would not be comfortable if a child of theirs were to marry someone from the opposite faith.

In general the bulk of believers said that violence against civilians in defense of one’s religion is rarely or never justified. Yet there was a substantial minority — 20% or more — in many countries who said that violence against civilians in defense of one’s religion is sometimes or often justified.

When it comes to the interaction between religion and society the report found that in nearly all the countries surveyed, large majorities believe it is necessary to believe in God in order to be moral and have good values. At least three in four people in nearly every country believe there are clear and absolute standards of right and wrong.

As well, clear majorities in almost every country also affirmed that Western music, movies and television have hurt moral standards. 

On issues such as abortion, prostitution, suicide and homosexual behavior, Christians and Muslims alike express very strong opposition with nine in 10 or more in many countries calling these practices morally wrong.

Large numbers of people throughout the region express strong support for democracy. At the same time there is substantial support among Muslims and Christians for basing civil laws on the Bible or Islamic Shariah law. 

According to the Pew Forum report, in virtually all the countries surveyed, a majority or a substantial minority of Christians favor making the Bible the official law of the land. Similarly large numbers of Muslims
say they would like to enshrine Shariah law. 

The findings of the report make it clear that Africa is going to be an interesting place to watch in coming years.

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