WASHINGTON — Researchers say
they’ve found the most religious place on Earth — between the southern border
of the Sahara Desert and the tip of South Africa.
Religion is “very important”
to more than three-quarters of the population in 17 of 19 sub-Saharan nations,
according to a new survey.
In contrast, in the United
States, the world’s most religious industrialized nation, 57 percent of people
say religion is very important.
“On a continent-wide basis,
sub-Saharan Africa comes out as the most religious place on Earth,” said Luis
Lugo, director of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, which released the
study April 15.
According to the survey, 98
percent of respondents in Senegal say religion is very important, following by
93 percent in Mali. The lowest percentage was reported in Botswana, 69 percent,
which is still a healthy majority.
“That begins to paint a
picture of how religious sub-Saharan Africans are,” Lugo said.
The study is part of the
Pew-Templeton Global Religious Futures Project.
More than 25,000 sub-Saharan
Africans responded in face-to-face interviews in more than 60 languages.
While the study confirms
that Africans are, indeed, morally conservative and religiously pious,
researchers explored a variety of topics, including religious tolerance,
polygamy, the role of women in society, and political and economic
Islam and Christianity
dominate as the most popular religions in the region — a stark reversal from a
century ago when Muslims and Christians were outnumbered by followers of
traditional indigenous religions.
But for the past 100 years,
indigenous spirituality has been diluted as missionaries carried Islam and
Christianity throughout the African continent.
The study reports that the
number of Christians in sub-Saharan Africa grew faster than the number of
Muslims, from 7 million in 1900 to 470 million in 2010.
One in five of the
world’s Christians lives in sub-Saharan Africa.
While a majority of African
Muslims are from the northern region of the continent, nearly 234 million live
below the Sahara Desert.
Indigenous African beliefs
have not disappeared, but are often incorporated into Islam and Christianity,
the report found.
A number of sub-Saharan Africans believe in witchcraft, evil
spirits, reincarnation and other elements of African spirituality. More than
half of the people surveyed in Tanzania, Mali, Senegal and South Africa believe
sacrifices to ancestors or
spirits can protect them from harm.
Such syncretism of religions
is not uncommon in Africa.
Sulayman Nyang, a professor
at Howard University’s African Studies Department, said by honoring traditional
religious practices, sub-Saharan Africans are able to maintain their African
identity and strengthen ethnic unity.
However, Nyang said
indigenous religions are not practiced in a pure form because Africans want to
maintain their “dignity” and “want to be accepted into the new world of
According to the Pew survey,
most sub-Saharan African Muslims are Sunni.
Catholicism dominates in Guinea Bissau, Rwanda and Cameroon, while Liberia,
South Africa, Zambia, Kenya, Nigeria, and Botswana are predominantly
Pentecostalism is rapidly
spreading and deeply influential across the region, and also across Christian
“Casting out of the devil or
evil spirits, high degree of apocalyptic expectations, the health-and-wealth ‘prosperity
gospel’ is the new Christian phenomenon of the Pentecostalism in sub-Saharan Africa,”