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.