The unusual relationship between religion and modernity in Africa

Two things are growing faster in Africa than anywhere else – religion and the economy.

Africa is the most devout continent in the world with 89 percent of participants in a 2012 WIN Gallup survey saying that they were religious, compared to 59 percent in the world at large. In Ghana, the country with the highest number of religious people in the world the total was 96 percent, with Nigeria following closely at 93 percent.

Simultaneously, African economies are growing at unprecedented rates and although fragmented, modernisation across Africa is experiencing a boost. Foreign investors are pumping African economies and international retailers and factories are setting up on the continent: Guinness, Zara, Smirnoff, Nestlé, Wal-Mart and many more. The mobile phone industry has exploded and it is pushing innovation in technology. Wired Magazine reports that “Africa’s hackers are today’s world class innovators” and according to an article (Britain’s Surprise Shopaholics: Nigerians) in Bloomberg Businessweek, Nigerian shoppers are the fourth-biggest contributors to overseas tax-free shopping in the UK (behind only China, Russia, and the Middle East).

The combination of economic growth and modernization on one hand and the rise of religion on the other is a uniquely complex nuance of African existence. In most parts of the world, modernisation and economic growth have tended to go hand in hand with secularisation but in African societies the trends suggest otherwise. On one end modernity and technological innovation are growing but so is religious commitment.

Increased religiosity is bad news for gender equality. From FGM to anti-abortion legislation to controlling what women wearto homophobia to accusations of witchcraft, many issues that cause feminist and humanist concern are rooted in religion. Yet, while we we must strive towards a society where miraculous mythology, however spiritual, is independent from decision making bodies, solutions to problems of injustice that have to do with religion must be situated in the reality that religion is important to most Africans.

In other words, truly progressive discussions need to oppose the misuse of religious doctrine to support injustice in African societies without closing space for dialogue with the many variations of religious life.




  • Kay

    Interesting post. I actually think that as Africa modernises, we are seeing more of a discussion around issues of separation of church and state, precisely because of issues around human rights etc. However, I do think it’s a bit sweeping to say that religion is effectively the root of all the evil that humanists and feminists are battling against. Homophobia is grave problem, however it still exists in post-religious, largely secular Europe for example. You can be religious and feminist, religious and a fighter for human rights – in fact in a lot of countries you find religious people fighting for the poor, the disenfranchised – and it’s the heart of their doctrine. When it comes to homophobia, admittedly that’s a greater failing (of doctrine as well as practice) however in Malawi, where I’m from there is a coalition of Christian and Muslim leaders pushing in support of LGBT rights. FGM is practised by a large number of Muslims but it is a custom rather than a religious obligation – many do not do it, many battle against it. Being feminist, humanist or in any way anti-religion (though you can be religious and both of those) doesn’t make you any more rational, secular or mindful of human rights. Crazed zealots want power – theocracies where their brand of whatever religion they espouse is the one that rules the day. In Nigeria, for example, Boko Haram target not only Christians but moderate Muslims, the army, state agencies – it’s beyond religion – that may be their vehicle but make no mistake, there is no room for anyone else at the top of their crazy pyramid but a select few who espouse their bloody ideology. Humans are flawed; this isn’t the preserve of the religious. Feminists are still working on intersectionality, atheists are tackling misogyny (in some groups) – basically wherever humans gather together our prejudices come up. No grouping is perfect. That said; religious groups could do *so* much more to practice what they preach.
    Full disclosure: I should say that I’m a Christian – and also a feminist, a human rights campaigner, and a fervent believer in secular government as good for both the church and the state. I am wary of dogma or religosity in place of a living faith and tolerance of all peoples. I don’t check my common sense, human decency or compassion at the door of my church. Many do, that’s true. But so many do not.

    • MsAfropolitan

      Hi Kay, thanks for your engaging comment!

      I didn’t say that “that religion is effectively the root of all the evil that humanists and feminists are battling against”, but rather that the listed injustices are *rooted* in religion. Even if they have later merged with custom and tradition. Nor did I say that these issues remain in Africa alone and even though Europe/US will not admit to its homophobia, for instance, (also in Ireland abortion is illegal) even there much of it is rooted in religious ideology. I am with you on the fact that feminists can be religious and that some of the world’s most compassionate people are in fact religious (many of whom I see as inspirations) but I do see a tension between rational thinking and organised religion.

      What I’m interested in exploring though – and I appreciate this was only a brief initial exploration – is the unique (to Africa) combination of economic growth/modernity and widespreading religiosity. Policy and discourse needs to be positioned along that tandem, that’s my central argument basically. If we are talking change in African societies we must talk about the real situations and not some fantasy where religion is absent.

      I’m not an atheist, I am just someone who both appreciates and is critical of many of the myths & teachings in various religions.At the risk of sounding like a hippie, I believe in love, and I think many who are religious too believe in love and find that their religion teaches them to live (in) love. The issues arise when organised religion has tried to dictate what love is defeating the very point.

      I hope you are right about increasing separation between church and state.

  • Kay

    Thanks for engaging with me BTL :) I wouldn’t go so far as to say there is increasing separation between church and state (yet!) but definitely there is a mushrooming of secular/humanist societies, which I would say is a definite opening up of the discussion. I think Ghana hosted a large conference on secularism recently, which I wouldn’t go so far as to say is new, but definitely more high profile than it would have been before.

    I think the issue you’re probing here is an interesting one. But I think issues around religosity can be deceiving eg there’s a growth in Christian prosperity gospel in many places which many Christians find objectionable and dishonest and manipulative. I guess to me there is a subtle difference between religion and faith. And certain ideologies take hold where there is great poverty – there are many issues around that.

    On homosexuality, an issue I’m very angry about is the proxy war being fought in Africa by the Christian right and other groups. That’s not to let us off the hook at as Africans though.

    The use of religion as a political tool – be it violent or through rhetoric aimed at “othering” gays or any other group – that is something that I place at the feet of people, not the religion itself. The heart of many religions is peace and love. I don’t want to get into defending religion and dogma here – but I would just say that perhaps I’m a bit more cynical than most about what we as humans do to other humans under the cloak of religion, or atheism – the Marxist guerillas in Colombia are just one example; the North Korean government – probably the worst abuser of human rights across the board and which will hopefully be subject to a UN Commission of Inquiry into Crimes Against Humanity when the Human Rights Council votes in the next fortnight – their regimes is founded on a cult of one family, which they demand are worshipped as gods: What I’m trying to say is, the problem here is *people*

    What saddens me is the growing discourse that rational thought and religion are in tension – I would say that common sense is not that common and that anyone who chooses to be blinkered will justify their irrationality any which way they can. There is no neutral ground. We all believe in something, even if that belief is that we are sure there is nothing, so I find it frustrating that so many people think that the religious are somehow “compromised”. Islam contributed so much to art, music, mathematics in the world – but the flipside is the Islamist ideology, which is a perversion of that religion. JudeoChristian traditions formed (some) of the foundations for scientific exploration, human rights….and then you have the Crusades, the current right wing madness in America – what I’m trying to say is, the arc of history is long. African countries (post colonial anyway) are young, but our trajectory is part of a larger human arc. Our problems are human ones, and our own. I don’t feel we get to lay them at the feet of religion (we’ve always had some sort of beliefs on the continent – even before Islam or Christianity reached us) – but the use of religion as reactionary and controlling tool, or a weapon against minorities – women, gays, etc – that’s an issue that wouldn’t be solved by eradicating religion, but I think more by an honest discussion about what and who we value, what society we agree to build – it’s a political discussion.

    Sorry to go on. I do think this is a great start and I think this issue would be great fleshed out over a series, particularly looking more in detail at a few sample countries for example. And I would interrogate some of the normative assumptions around the word “religion” and matters of faith (and “rational thinking” for that matter)

    But, I don’t mean to troll your blog. I love your work, and the whole site. Please keep it up and take care. :)

    • MsAfropolitan

      Hi Kay,

      Trolling and discussion are not the same at all, I appreciate the discussion and thanks for the bloglovin!

      From my perspective, religion is both a weird and wonderful phenomenon and indeed an important product of human history and society.
      However, I question if all the art, science, knowledge etc. that religious life has contributed is in balance with the wars, murdered witches, crusades, misogyny, terrorism, hostility to sexuality that is part and parcel of it.

      Ultimately we are all seeking answers, but wherever we find them, on many levels they can only be ours alone, our own personal moral codes. I wish religions placed more responsibility on the individual to discover such moral codes, it’s a prerequisite for freedom, but too often it instead numbs that exporation by providing answers on morality and virtue. That’s where there’s a collusion with rational thinking but I appreciate there are exceptions and yes, there are nuances of faith rather than religion.

      More to follow on this theme no doubt.
      Take care too
      – Minna

  • Nana Darkoa

    Ei, I’m from Ghana and I know we are a very ‘religious’ country but didn’t know we were the highest in the world. Aba! is that why we have decided to send 200 pastors to Israel to pray for us? *Sigh*

    Kay, I also really appreciated your insights and comments. Its rare to meet a Christian like you, one who is also feminist and committed to human rights. I wish more Christians were like you. Some of us would be much less cynical about organised religion if there were more of you in our lives. One love.

  • Toja Okoh

    Thank you for writing on this issue. I’ve been ruminating on it for some time now, and had an interesting discussion with my African students here on campus…a conversation I hope will continue. Most important is creating a forum for engaged and nuanced dialogue about the role of religion and spirituality in public and civil discourse in Africa and in the diaspora.

    • MsAfropolitan

      Thanks Toja! It’s a specific and complex ‘problem’ in African societies. I say problem because so much of modern life and religious life clashes. Your conversations with your students sound intriguing!

    • MsAfropolitan

      Thanks Toja! It’s a specific and complex ‘problem’ in African societies. I say problem because so much of modern life and religious life clashes. Your conversations with your students sound intriguing!