Skip to main content

Africans among world's most religious people, study finds

By Richard Allen Greene, CNN
A man performs the Stations of the Cross during the Good Friday procession earlier this month in Abidjan, Ivory Coast.
A man performs the Stations of the Cross during the Good Friday procession earlier this month in Abidjan, Ivory Coast.
  • Half of all Christians in sub-Saharan Africa believe Jesus will return in their lifetime
  • Huge new study of religion indicates Africa among world's most religious places
  • Three out of 10 people in Africa say they have experienced divine healing
  • Even least religious countries in region are ahead of United States
  • Christianity
  • Africa
  • Islam
  • Religion

(CNN) -- At least half of all Christians in sub-Saharan Africa believe Jesus will return to Earth in their lifetime -- part of a pattern that indicates the region is among the most religious places in the world, according to a huge new study.

It's not only Christians in Africa who experience their religion passionately, either. Nearly one in three Muslims in the region expect to see the re-establishment of the caliphate -- Islam's golden age -- before they die.

At least three out of 10 people across much of Africa said they have experienced divine healing, seen the devil being driven out of a person or received a direct revelation from God, according to the study by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life in Washington.

"In many countries across the continent, roughly nine in 10 people say religion is very important in their lives," the study found.

That puts even the least religious countries in the region ahead of the United States, which is among the most religious of advanced industrial countries, the study's authors wrote.

For example, only one in five American Christians said they expected to see Jesus return to Earth in their lifetime -- far lower than the African result of more than half -- according to a 2006 Pew survey, which asked a slightly different question.

The Pew Forum also studied how Christians and Muslims feel about each other in a region that has seen religious violence between the two communities, as well as the first spectacular al Qaeda attacks on American targets, the bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998.

Muslims have a significantly more positive view of Christians than Christians do of Muslims, the survey suggested.

Some 43 percent of Christians across the region see Muslims as violent, while 20 percent of Muslims see Christians as violent, the study found.

Hundreds of people from both faiths have died in violence between Christians and Muslims in Nigeria in the past decade.

The country is almost evenly split between the two communities, and some experts see it as the fault line between largely Christian Southern Africa and predominantly Muslim North Africa.

Nigeria is the most populous country in the region. It has the sixth largest Muslim population in the world, according to an October 2009 Pew Forum report.

There is some dispute about whether the violence in Nigeria is truly caused by religious differences or stems from struggles over land, resources or tribal or ethnic identity.

Across the 19 countries in the survey, Christians and Muslims both associated positive traits with the other religion.

Muslims see Christians as tolerant, honest and respectful of women; Christians say Muslims are honest, devout and respectful of women.

Many people also said they were more worried by extremists of their own religion than by the other.

Muslims said they were more concerned about Muslim extremism than Christian extremism, and Christians in four countries said they were more concerned about Christian extremism than about Muslim extremism, the report said.

People who said violence against civilians in defense of one's religion is rarely or never justified vastly outnumber those who said it is sometimes or often justified.

But substantial minorities in many countries said it is sometimes or often justified, the Pew Forum found. It does not have comparable data for other parts of the world, spokesman Robert Mills said.

Most people across the subcontinent said they do not know much about the other religion.

Both religions have grown exponentially in Africa in the last century.

There are approximately 234 million Muslims in sub-Saharan Africa today, up from 11 million in 1900.

There are about 470 million Christians, up from 7 million in 1900.

Including predominantly Muslim North Africa, there about 400 to 500 million members of each religion on the continent as a whole, the report said.

The growth of the two religions leaves only about one in 10 people in sub-Saharan African who are neither Muslim nor Christian, the study found. That implies growth cannot continue at the same rate, because there is little evidence of people switching from one faith to the other.

Sub-Saharan Africa is about 30 percent Muslim, according to the October 2009 Pew report; the comparable study for Christians is not yet complete.

The growth of monotheism has not stamped out older practices, the new study found.

"Many people incorporate elements of African traditional religions into their daily lives," the survey authors said.

"About a quarter believe sacrifices to spirits or ancestors can protect them from bad things happening. Sizable percentages believe in charms or amulets, many consult traditional religious healers and sizable minorities keep sacred objects such as animal skins and skills in their homes," they said.

Mixing elements of older religions with Christianity doesn't happen only in Africa, said Pew researcher Gregory Smith.

In the United States, 29 percent of Catholics and 21 percent of Protestants believe in astrology, and similar numbers believe in reincarnation, a Pew study published in December found.

Many Africans also managed to hold two conflicting beliefs on another subject as well: Majorities in both religions support democracy, but at least one in three people in both religions also support making the Bible or Islamic Sharia law the law of the land.

The study, "Tolerance and Tension: Islam and Christianity in Sub-Saharan Africa," is based on more than 25,000 face-to-face interviews in more than 60 languages in 19 countries.

The countries in the survey are collectively home to 75 percent of the total population of sub-Saharan Africa, which is about 820 million people.