Why so many Africans are religious: Leo Igwe

A new study conducted by the Washington-based Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life says that Africans are among the most religious people on Earth. The study, titled “Tension and Tolerance: Islam and Christianity in Sub-Saharan Africa,” was based on more than 25,000 interviews conducted in more than 60 languages in 19 countries.

According to the study, at least half of all Christians in sub-Saharan Africa believe Jesus will return in their lifetime. One in three Muslims in the region expects to see the reestablishment of the caliphate — the Islamic 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 have received a direct revelation from God.

About 25% believe that sacrifices to their ancestors can protect them from bad things. Sizeable percentages believe in charms and amulets. Many consult traditional religious healers, and sizable minorities keep animal skins and skulls in their homes. The study found that in many countries across the continent, about 90% say religion is very important in their lives.

Do these findings surprise anyone? Surely they shouldn’t for anyone familiar with the situation in Africa. These findings do not surprise me at all. 

I am an African. I was born in Africa. I live and work in Africa. I am nonreligious, although I was born into a religious home. I attended religious schools. I had a typical African religious upbringing. I do not believe that Jesus will return again. I do not think that the biblical Jesus existed, and even if he did, I think he’s gone, and gone forever.

I can’t see the world coming under an Islamic caliphate beyond what we have been experiencing since Sept. 11, 2001. I have never experienced divine healing, and I don’t think those who claim to have experienced it are honest with themselves. I have not seen a devil being driven out of any person, but have seen self-induced hysteria by some Pentecostal con artists.

I have not received any revelation from God, unless one day some godly people claim that their god revealed this piece to me. I don’t believe that sacrifice to the ancestors will protect people from harm — otherwise, their ancestors would be alive today. I think charms and amulets are useless and consulting traditional healers and clerics is a waste of time.

Why Africans are the most religious people in the world is not difficult to see. Africans go through religious indoctrination from cradle to grave. Africans are not allowed by family, society or the state to think, reason or live outside the religious box. In Africa, religion is by force, not by choice, by compulsion and not according to one’s conscience. Africans are brought up to believe that there is NO alternative to religion, when in fact there is.

Early brainwashing

In Africa, either you are religious or you are nobody. There is too much social and political pressure to be religious and to remain religious. The social, political and sometimes economic price of leaving religion, renouncing religion or criticizing religion is so high. Africans are obliged to profess all sorts of religious nonsense even when they know it’s nonsense.

Religious indoctrination at home is the first form of orientation an African child receives. At a very early and impressionable age, infants are taught to recite meaningless syllables called prayers. Children are brainwashed by parents with various religious and spiritual myths. Children are taught to believe and to follow and not to question religious teachings, even when there is every reason to do so.

The brainwashing continues in schools. Most African colleges are centers of religious indoctrination. Western missionaries and Arab jihadists brought formal education (the model widely used today) to the continent. They established schools to win converts and recruit new members, not to really educate Africans. Schools are covert churches and mosques. Education is faith based.

Pupils at one Islamic primary school near my house in Ibadan sing this song daily as part of their compulsory morning devotion:

We are soldiers. We are soldiers.
Fighting for Islam. Fighting for Islam
In the name of Allah, we shall conquer, we shall conquer.

What can we expect from these children as adults after going through this religious drilling? Will they ever grow to say that religion — in this case, Islam — is not important in their lives?

Children are induced at home and school to have some encounter with God or to have some spiritual experience as a manifestation of faith or piety.  Young people are made to believe that professing their faith is the mark of a good student, and that education is not complete without religion or belief in God.

State-enforced piety

State power is used to endorse, promote and give privilege to religion across Africa. Prayer, piety and politics go together. There is immense political pressure on individuals to be religious. Many nations have adopted official religions. In Morocco, King Mohammed VI is both the secular political leader and “Commander of the Faithful” as a direct descendant of the Prophet Mohammed. Every Moroccan is under political pressure to be a faithful — Islamic faithful, particularly Sunni Islamic faithful.

The president of Gambia, Yahya Jammeh, some years ago added praying for citizens to the list of his presidential duties, as well as trying to heal the sick — including those who have HIV/AIDS — by reciting verses from the Koran.

In the self-styled Islamic republics, only Muslims can be president. What special value does being a Muslim add to the post of the president? None. In Gambia, the government erected magnificent mosques in all public schools. Meanwhile, schools lack good classrooms, libraries and laboratories.

African politicians have made it appear that theocracy, not democracy, is the best form of government, and the bible and the Koran are the best constitutions. Politicians strive to ensure that laws are based on these “holy books,” and that any policy, program or proposal not in line with the sacred texts is thrown out.

Another reason for the high level of piety: Most Africans do not think for themselves. They allow clerics to think for them. Africans consult their priests, bishops, sheiks, marabous and traditional medicine men and women whenever they have problems or want to embark on a major project. They accept whatever they are given, such as charms like holy water and olive oil. They do whatever they are told to do, including carrying out ritual killings and sacrifices.

Lastly, Africans are deeply religious because of the lack of human rights and particularly religious freedom. This may sound like a contradiction, and some might argue that the high level of religiosity in Africa is due to too much religious freedom, but this is far from the case.

There is no guarantee of religious freedom and no protection for freedom of conscience. Africans are denied this basic human right by both state and nonstate actors. They are forced to be religious and to remain religious. Mechanisms to protect and defend the human rights of those who change their religion, who renounce or criticize religious beliefs, or who do not profess any religion at all, are weak or nonexistent.

Believers and nonbelievers are not equal before the law. Many Africans are religious because they don’t want to be in the minority. They don’t want to renounce what the majority upholds. They don’t want to denounce what the state or society reveres. They just want to play along.

Africans are among the most religious people on earth because of the failure of family upbringing, the failure of human rights and the rule of law, failure of the educational system, social and political pressure and bad governance.
Africans are religious because for them, there is no alternative.

Leo Igwe is executive secretary of the Nigerian Humanist Movement and is the West Africa director for the International Humanist and Ethical Union.

Freedom From Religion Foundation