Religion in Africa

Africa is a massive continent with diverse religious traditions, to the extent that within the same tradition there have been variations. The three main religious traditions—African traditional religion, Christianity, and Islam—constitute the triple religious heritage of the African continent.

Religion in Africa is multifaceted and has been a major influence on art, culture and philosophy. Today, the continent’s various populations and individuals are mostly adherents of Christianity, Islam, and to a lesser extent several traditional African religions. In Christian or Islamic communities, religious beliefs are also sometimes characterized with syncretism with the beliefs and practices of traditional religions

When addressing religion in Africa, scholars often speak of a “triple heritage,” that is the triple legacy of indigenous religion, Islam, and Christianity that are often found side by side in many African societies.

While those who identify as practitioners of traditional African religions are often in the minority, many who identify as Muslims or Christians are involved in traditional religions to one degree or another. Which in a sense would make you think that there would be more Africans who practice African Traditions but yet still belong either to Christianity or Islam, taking the African traditional religion numbers higher, but that would be a great speculation.

Though many Africans have converted to Islam and Christianity, these religions still inform the social, economic, and political life in African societies.

Christianity and Islam

Christianity came first to the continent of Africa in the 1st or early 2nd century AD. Oral tradition says the first Muslims appeared while the prophet Mohammed was still alive (he died in 632).

Thus both religions have been on the continent of Africa for over 1,300 years. Some would argue that both Islam and Christianity are indigenous African religions. Not everyone shares this view.
Read more about Christianity

Certainly the first Muslim teachers and Christian missionaries had little respect for the traditional religions they came across. Both Islam and Christianity are religions of the book; their doctrinal authority lies in their scriptures.

African traditional religions produced no written works, but derived their authority from oral history, custom and practice, and the power of priests, kings and others gifted in dealing with spiritual issues. This lack of scriptures led to the assumption that people in Africa were not capable of ‘proper’ religious observance. But some European missionaries and explorers were struck by the intense spirituality of Africans.

Islam sits more comfortably with some aspects of traditional religion than Christianity. A key area is marriage. Christianity demands monogamy, that is, not more than one wife. Islam, by contrast, allows a man to take several wives. So Islam had a better chance of being accepted in the polygamous societies of Africa. If a man converted to Christianity, he was obliged to dismiss all but one of his wives; this was the cause of much resentment and bitterness.
Read more about Islam

Indigenous African religions

Indigenous African religions are not based on conversion like Islam and Christianity. They tend to propagate peaceful coexistence, and they promote good relations with members of other religious traditions that surround them.

Today as a minority tradition, it has suffered immensely from human rights abuses. This is based on misconceptions that these religions are antithetical to modernity. Indeed indigenous African religions have provided the blueprint for robust conversations and thinking about community relations, interfaith dialogue, civil society, and civil religion.

Women play a key role in the practice of these traditions, and the internal gender relations and dynamics are very profound. There are many female goddesses along with their male counterparts. There are female priestesses, diviners, and other figures, and many feminist scholars have drawn from these traditions to advocate for women’s rights and the place of the feminine in African societies. The traditional approach of indigenous African religions to gender is one of complementarity in which a confluence of male and female forces must operate in harmony.]

Projected Religion Growth in Sub-Saharan Africa

The total population in sub-Saharan Africa is expected to grow at a faster pace than in any other region in the decades ahead, more than doubling from 823 million in 2010 to 1.9 billion in 2050. As a result, the two dominant religions in the region – Christianity and Islam – both are expected to have more than twice as many adherents in 2050 as in 2010.71

Christians are projected to remain the region’s largest religious group, growing from 517 million in 2010 to more than 1.1 billion in 2050. But the Muslim population is expected to grow at a faster rate than the Christian population (170% vs. 115%), rising from 248 million to 670 million. Most of the smaller religious groups in sub-Saharan Africa, including adherents of folk religions and the religiously unaffiliated, are expected to experience at least modest growth in the decades ahead, although the small Jewish population is projected to shrink.

While the absolute number of Christians in sub-Saharan Africa is expected to double in size by 2050, the Christian share of the region’s population is expected to decline, dropping from 63% in 2010 to 59% in 2050. Meanwhile, the Muslim share is projected to increase from 30% to 35%.

Religion in the world

The religious profile of the world is rapidly changing, driven primarily by differences in fertility rates and the size of youth populations among the world’s major religions, as well as by people switching faiths. Over the next four decades, Christians will remain the largest religious group, but Islam will grow faster than any other major religion. If current trends continue, by 2050 …

  • The number of Muslims will nearly equal the number of Christians around the world.
  • Atheists, agnostics and other people who do not affiliate with any religion – though increasing in countries such as the United States and France – will make up a declining share of the world’s total population.
  • The global Buddhist population will be about the same size it was in 2010, while the Hindu and Jewish populations will be larger than they are today.
  • In Europe, Muslims will make up 10% of the overall population.
  • India will retain a Hindu majority but also will have the largest Muslim population of any country in the world, surpassing Indonesia.
  • In the United States, Christians will decline from more than three-quarters of the population in 2010 to two-thirds in 2050, and Judaism will no longer be the largest non-Christian religion. Muslims will be more numerous in the U.S. than people who identify as Jewish on the basis of religion.
  • Four out of every 10 Christians in the world will live in sub-Saharan Africa.

These are among the global religious trends highlighted in new demographic projections by the Pew Research Center. The projections take into account the current size and geographic distribution of the world’s major religions, age differences, fertility and mortality rates, international migration and patterns in conversion.

More Stories
How Chad came to have its name
Hadithi Africa