Tolerance and Tension: Islam and Christianity in Sub-Saharan Africa

Apr 15, 2010

The vast majority of people in many sub-Saharan African nations are deeply committed to the practices and major tenets of one or the other of the world's two largest religions, Christianity and Islam. Large majorities say they belong to one of these faiths, and, in sharp contrast with Europe and the United States, very few people are religiously unaffiliated. Despite the dominance of Christianity and Islam, traditional African religious beliefs and practices have not disappeared. Rather, they coexist with Islam and Christianity. Whether or not this entails some theological tension, it is a reality in people's lives: Large numbers of Africans actively participate in Christianity or Islam yet also believe in witchcraft, evil spirits, sacrifices to ancestors, traditional religious healers, reincarnation and other elements of traditional African religions.

Christianity and Islam also coexist with each other. Many Christians and Muslims in sub-Saharan Africa describe members of the other faith as tolerant and honest. In most countries, relatively few see evidence of widespread anti-Muslim or anti-Christian hostility, and on the whole they give their governments high marks for treating both religious groups fairly. But they acknowledge that they know relatively little about each other's faith, and substantial numbers of African Christians (roughly 40% or more in a dozen nations) say they consider Muslims to be violent. Muslims are significantly more positive in their assessment of Christians than Christians are in their assessment of Muslims.

There are few significant gaps, however, in the degree of support among Christians and Muslims for democracy. Regardless of their faith, most sub-Saharan Africans say they favor democracy and think it is a good thing that people from other religions are able to practice their faith freely. At the same time, there is substantial backing among Muslims and Christians alike for government based on either the Bible or sharia law, and considerable support among Muslims for the imposition of severe punishments such as stoning people who commit adultery.

These are among the key findings from more than 25,000 face-to-face interviews conducted on behalf of the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life in more than 60 languages or dialects in 19 sub-Saharan African nations from December 2008 to April 2009.

The countries were selected to span this vast geographical region and to reflect different colonial histories, linguistic backgrounds and religious compositions. In total, the countries surveyed contain three-quarters of the total population of sub-Saharan Africa.

Read the full report Tolerance and Tension: Islam and Christianity in Sub-Saharan Africa on the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life's Web site.

You may also view a PDF map of the 19 countries surveyed. 

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