Tolerance and Tension: Islam and Christianity in Sub-Saharan AfricaThe Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life held a conference call with journalists to discuss the findings of a new 19-country survey, “Tolerance and Tension: Islam and Christianity in Sub-Saharan Africa.” The study finds that the vast majority of people in many sub-Saharan African nations are deeply committed to Christianity or Islam, and yet many also still believe in witchcraft, evil spirits, sacrifices to ancestors, reincarnation and other elements of traditional African religions. The report also reveals that while many Christians and Muslims describe members of the other faith as tolerant and honest, there are clear signs of tensions and divisions between the faiths.

Luis Lugo, Director, Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life
Alan Cooperman, Associate Director for Research, Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life
Greg A. Smith, Senior Researcher, Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life

Navigate this Transcript:
The Growth of Christianity and Islam
Deeply Observant Christians and Muslims
Adhering to African Religious Traditions
Signs of Tolerance Between Christians and Muslims
Tensions Below the Surface
Comparisons with the U.S.
What Caused the Spread of Christianity, Islam
Poverty and the Prosperity Gospel

LUIS LUGO: Good morning to all of you, and thank you for joining us today for the release of our new survey, “Tolerance and Tension: Islam and Christianity in Sub-Saharan Africa.” I’m Luis Lugo, director of the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life here in Washington, D.C. The survey is funded by a very generous grant from The Pew Charitable Trusts and the John Templeton Foundation as part of what we’re calling the Pew-Templeton Global Religious Futures Project.

The aim of that project is to provide objective information based on rigorous social science research on how religion is shaping societies around the world. This particular study is based on the findings of approximately 25,000 face-to-face interviews conducted in more than 60 languages and dialects in 19 countries that together represent three-quarters of the population of sub-Saharan Africa.

The survey was conducted from December of 2008 through April of 2009 and included more than 150 questions on people’s religious beliefs and practices, inter-religious relations, and attitudes on a wide range of social and political topics. With the help of Africa experts, we chose a set of countries that we believe reflect the rich variety of the sub-Saharan region. Our selection criteria included having a good regional distribution as well as countries of various sizes, colonial backgrounds and religious mix.

Over the past century, the religious landscape of sub-Saharan Africa has undergone a dramatic transformation. Consider this: The number of Muslims living between the Sahara Desert and the Cape of Good Hope has increased from an estimated 11 million in 1900 to approximately 234 million in 2010 – more than a 20-fold increase.

The number of Christians has grown even faster, from 7 million to 470 million during the same period of time. That’s almost a 70-fold increase. Not surprisingly, upwards of 85 percent of the people we interviewed in every country identify as either Christian or Muslim, and in half the countries just about everyone identified with one of those two faiths.

What can we say about the practice of Christianity and Islam in sub-Saharan Africa? Are African traditional religions a thing of the past or is their influence still being felt in significant ways? And how do the adherents of these two largest religious traditions in Africa – and not only in Africa but in the world – view each other? Is tolerance or tension the prevailing reality?

To discuss these and other questions, I am joined by Pew Forum Associate Director Alan Cooperman, who was the lead editor of this report, and Greg Smith, who is our senior survey researcher at the Forum. We also have with us Neha Saghal, who is a research associate here and who has worked very closely with Greg and the whole team for well over a year on this project.

Before I turn it over to Alan and Greg to present the key findings of this report, I want to encourage you to take a look at the resources on the Pew Forum’s website. There you will find the full pdf of the executive summary, also, incidentally, translated into French and Portuguese, the full report and an interactive database that allows you to explore questions from our survey on a country-by-country basis.

For those of you who are listening in to this conference call through the audio link on our website, if you have any questions about the survey, please e-mail them to Robbie Mills.

Alan, over to you.

ALAN COOPERMAN: Good morning, everybody. As Luis noted, one of the really breathtaking findings of this survey is the extent to which sub-Saharan Africa has been both Christianized and Islamicized. Of the 19 countries that we surveyed, there is only one – Liberia – where more than 10 percent of the people say they practice African traditional religions and not Islam or Christianity.

And by contrast with the United States or Western Europe, very few people in sub-Saharan Africa are unaffiliated with a religion. In most countries more than 90 percent of the people we surveyed identified either as Muslims or as Christians.

Moreover, they are, by numerous measures, very observant Muslims and Christians. Large majorities in every country said they believe in one god. Most said they take the Bible or the Koran literally, word for word. Most said they attend religious services at least once a week, pray every day, fast during Ramadan or Lent, and follow religious strictures on charitable giving, either tithing to their church, in the case of Christians, or giving zakat, in the case of Muslims.

Some of you may know one of the key cross-cultural measures that we use, a question the Pew Research Center asks all around the world: How important is religion in your life? Is it very important, somewhat important, not too important, or not at all important? Based on the percentage who answer “very important,” Americans are a lot more religious than Europeans. I’m sure you all know this. But, interestingly, even the lowest rate that we found in any African country is higher than in the United States.

While the overwhelming majority of sub-Saharan Africans in every country we surveyed are either Christians or Muslims, and very religious Muslims or Christians to boot, it would be a mistake to assume, therefore, that African traditional religions have faded away. On the contrary, we find that both Christians and Muslims in sub-Saharan Africa continue to engage in traditional African religious beliefs and practices.

For example, about one in five believe in the “evil eye,” and that is that certain people can cast spells or curses that cause harm. In most countries, more than a third believe in reincarnation, which may be tied to traditional notions about ancestral spirits.

In several countries, an absolute majority believe that sacrifices to ancestors or other spirits can protect them from harm. And in a dozen of the 19 countries, 20 percent or more of the respondents said they possess traditional sacred objects such as shrines to ancestors or skulls and skeletons and powders and so on.

Another fascinating religious finding is the penetration of Pentecostalism in Africa. Pentecostalism – and those of you who followed our work in the past may remember that we did an extensive international study of Pentecostals in 2006. Pentecostalism is a century-old movement in Christianity that emphasizes so-called gifts of the spirit, including speaking in tongues and divine healing, exorcising evil.

We find that about a quarter of all the Christians in Nigeria, Ethiopia, Ghana and Liberia belong to Pentecostal denominations, as do at least 10 percent of the Christians in eight other countries. We also find that experiences such as speaking in tongues and seeing evil spirits driven out of a person are quite common among Christians who do not belong to Pentecostal denominations in Africa.

Finally, I would like to say a word about religious switching, or conversion. Early on in the survey we asked, “What is your present religion, if any?” Then much later in the survey we asked, “Now, thinking about when you were a child, in what religion were you raised?” So by looking at the answers to these two questions, we can see whether people have switched religions without asking them directly: “Have you converted to another faith?”

And what we find – and you’ll see it summarized in a table on page 12 of the report – is that a few people have switched from Islam to Christianity and a few people have switched from Christianity to Islam, but it’s basically a wash. There’s no significant net gain in either direction, except in one country – Uganda – where there has been some movement from Islam to Christianity.

Now, of course, both religions have been growing through natural population growth, and because of differential fertility rates, one may grow faster than the other. But we find little or no evidence that either is growing at the expense of the other through conversion.

And that’s summarizing our findings specifically on religion, and now Greg Smith will talk a little bit about our findings on social and political issues.

GREG SMITH: Thank you. As Alan suggested, I’m going to focus particularly on the relationship between Christians and Muslims is sub-Saharan Africa. What our survey shows is that on a variety of measures, there are signs of tolerance and even harmony between Christians and Muslims. For instance, Muslims who participated in our survey generally describe Christians as honest, tolerant and respectful of women. Likewise, Christians tended to tell us they think of Muslims as honest, devout and also respectful of women.

Lots of people from a variety of different countries say they generally trust people who have different religious values than their own. And there are significant minorities in many countries who say that their mosque or church works across religious lines to solve community problems.

The survey also finds widespread support for democracy across the region. In fact, Muslims and Christians alike say that democracy is preferable to any other form of government, with far fewer expressing the view that in some cases non-democratic government is preferable.

And in every single country we surveyed, regardless of its religious makeup, roughly two-thirds or more of the people we spoke with said that people from religions different than their own are very free to practice their faith in their country, with most of them stipulating that this is a good thing. Consistent with this, relatively few people say that there is a lot of anti-Christian or anti-Muslim hostility in their countries, and most give their governments high marks for treating both religious groups fairly.

But these signs of tolerance are really only half the story. Our survey also uncovers a number of signs of tensions just below the surface. In 10 countries, for example, upwards of four in 10 Christians say they think of Muslims as violent. And, in general, Christians are much less positive in their views of Muslims than Muslims are in their views of Christians.

By their own reckoning, neither Christians nor Muslims know very much about the other faith, and large majorities in most countries think of the two faiths as very different, while far fewer say that Islam and Christianity have a lot in common.

The survey also shows that despite widespread support for democracy, large numbers of both Christians and Muslims say they favor making the Bible – in the case of Christians – or sharia – in the case of Muslims – the law of the land. In addition, while there is far less concern about religious conflict in the countries surveyed than about other problems, like unemployment and crime and corruption, sizable numbers in many places do see religious conflict as a very big problem in their country.

Substantial minorities in many countries say that the use of violence against civilians in defense of religion is often or sometimes justifiable. And in many places, large numbers think that many Muslims in their country support Islamic extremists like al-Qaeda.

Consistent with these findings, upwards of four in 10 people tell us that they are concerned about religious extremism in their country. Here, though, we find an interesting twist: In countries with the highest concentrations of Muslims, concern over Muslim extremism clearly outweighs concern over Christian extremism.

But in many of the predominantly Christian countries we surveyed where there are few Muslims, concerns about Christian extremism rival or even exceed concerns about Muslim extremism. And in many countries, sizable numbers express concern about both Muslim and Christian extremism. This indicates that many people throughout the region perceive and worry about extremist tendencies even within their own faith.

The survey has a lot of other interesting findings about Muslims’ and Christians’ views of each other and their general approaches to religion and public life, things like democracy and religious freedom, and I look forward to talking more about some of those things in our question and answer session, but with that I’ll turn it back over to Luis.

LUGO: Thank you, Alan and Greg. We’re ready for your questions.

JEFFREY WEISS, POLITICS DAILY: First of all, let me ask about some comparisons between the U.S. and this region on a couple of the more interesting results you have. The percentage of millennialists in the U.S. – do you have any figures about what percentage of Americans believe that either Jesus is coming back in this generation or, for the much smaller Muslim percentage, that the caliphate will be reestablished in this generation?

COOPERMAN: Let’s see, the questions are not exactly word for word the same, but, roughly speaking, it’s about 20 percent of Americans who say they expect Jesus to come back in their lifetime.

WEISS: And, similarly, do you have a U.S. figure on tithing or zakat?

LUGO: From the Muslim-American survey, I’m sure we asked the zakat question.

WEISS: How about tithing for Christians?

COOPERMAN: We don’t have a figure on tithing for Christians. Can we look and see about a figure for zakat among Muslims in the United States? We may have that. Let us look and see.

WEISS: All right, and the last comparison, the prosperity gospel. What percentage of American Christians follow that?

LUGO: Yeah, those are all major themes here, actually. While he’s looking it up, let me just emphasize that first point you made, Jeff, this sense of apocalyptic expectation. It seems to be a very, very important theme in African Christianity and in African Islam, this sense that people have that they are living at a time of momentous religious events. So you’re right, it’s not just believing that the caliphate will at some point be established or that Jesus will return at some point. It’s in their lifetime.

My take on this is that this is part and parcel of the practice of religion that is characterized by very intense personal experiences of the spiritual world, and I think we see it reflected both among Christian and Muslim publics. I think apocalyptic expectation is one of several things that we could point to along those lines, from divine healing to the high degrees of experience with exorcisms and so forth. This is what some people have called “hot” religion. Nothing lukewarm about the practice of religion in Africa, and these apocalyptic expectations I think are a good indication of that.

GREG SMITH: Just to follow up on a couple of your questions, we do have a question in the United States whereby we asked Muslims about zakat. Now, it’s a different question. We didn’t ask them, is this something that you do? Instead, we asked them, how important is giving charity or zakat to you personally?

What we find is that among Muslims in the United States, three-quarters say that that’s something that’s very important to them. So on that measure I would say that for Muslims in the United States, like Muslims in many of the African countries that we surveyed, this is something that’s important to them.

COOPERMAN: Let me throw in – and I’m sure you’re aware of this – it is one of the five pillars of Islam. So it’s not really surprising that Muslims around the world would agree on that.

GREG SMITH: And then I’d also just follow up in terms of the prosperity gospel. Again, this is another example of where we don’t have questions that are directly comparable. That is to say, we didn’t ask the exact same questions in the United States as we did on this Africa survey.

But to give you a sense, in 2006 we did ask Americans, do you agree or disagree that God will grant material prosperity to all believers who have enough faith? So this is the wealth part of the prosperity gospel. And we found that a little bit less than half of people who belong to a faith say that they do believe that, that God will provide material prosperity.

At the same time, we find slightly more than half of believers said in 2006 that they think God will grant good health and relief from sickness to believers who have enough faith. So this is the health part of the gospel of health and wealth.

Again, those aren’t directly comparable but they do suggest that among Muslims in the United States giving zakat is important, and there are many religious people, believers in the United States, who also subscribe to the tenets of the prosperity gospel.

LUGO: Yeah, which many consider part and parcel of a point Alan made regarding the spread of Pentecostalism. The prosperity gospel is often associated with Pentecostalism and indeed is quite prevalent among people who belong to Pentecostal churches, or people who don’t belong to Pentecostal churches but describe themselves as Pentecostal or charismatic.

But I think it goes even beyond that in the African context. So we’re speaking here of countries like Ghana and Nigeria, where upwards of three-quarters of the population subscribe to this, which is really quite remarkable. This is a population among Christians.

JULIA DUIN, THE WASHINGTON TIMES: Just a few questions. First of all, you talked about growth, but did you get from your survey what caused the growth? Are we talking missionary activity by the Brits in the 19th century? Are we talking about Muslim traders who have been active since the 15th century? Did you get that?

COOPERMAN: Really this report is not a historical report, and we included some of this historical data because we thought that the big-picture perspective was important, but we are not historians.

Having said that, I think it’s clear from what other studies have shown that Islam has spread from the north of Africa down into the middle and the south, and Christianity has spread from the south and from the coast inward through a combination, in the case of Christianity, of both missionary activity and independent African activity.

You’ll note that in some countries, African-initiated churches are quite active and essentially are independent of missionary activity, and have been for a long time. So I don’t think we can parse out exactly what percentage of this activity is attributable to missionaries, but clearly a lot of it is, historically. Christianity came to Africa and has expanded dramatically over the past century, and Islam obviously was strong in the north going back long before 1900 but has been spreading down into the middle and the south.

DUIN: I know there have been some Islamic governments that have invested heavily in expansion in Africa. Okay, you guys said at the beginning that you had a figure of 400 million and a figure of 500 million. Which one belongs to the Christians and which one belongs to the Muslims?

COOPERMAN: Are you talking about in sub-Saharan Africa or in Africa as a whole?

DUIN: It was in the first part of your report, and you just didn’t say which figure belonged – I think it was all of Africa. I think that’s what you were referring to. I just didn’t know which group belonged to what.

COOPERMAN: In all of Africa there are closer to 400 million Muslims and closer to 500 million Christians, as I recall, but we can get you those exact figures, which, again, are somewhat out of the parameters of this report.

DUIN: Okay, because you mentioned it. And, lastly, as far as extremism, did Nigeria and Rwanda show different findings, because those are places where there has been – especially Nigeria – religious conflict. I would have thought your numbers would have gone off the charts in that country.

GREG SMITH: Yes, there is significant concern about religious conflict in Nigeria. In fact, on that question, do you think of religious conflict as a serious problem in your country, Nigeria ranks right at the top. Fifty-eight percent of people in Nigeria told us that they think of religious conflict as a very big problem.

And, interestingly, Rwanda is the other country that ranks right up there at the top. They’re tied with Nigeria, so you’re right to point to those as two countries where there is serious concern about religiously based conflict.

I’d also just point out – and maybe Luis wants to speak to this a little bit more – that the survey confirms what many already know, which is to say that there is also an ethnic component to many of these concerns about extremism. Concerns about ethnic conflict tend to track quite closely with concerns about religious conflict.

LUGO: Let me just add a couple of words to Julia’s three very interesting questions. On the first one, to reinforce what Alan had to say, what we’ve taken here is a snapshot, not a movie. Consequently, the focus here is on what’s happening now on the ground. But it is fascinating to probe the question of why this expansion, what have been the forces behind it – clearly missionary movements on the Christian and Muslim side, etc.

But let me add one element that is in the survey and that is highly suggestive of why these two religions have grown such, and that is the high percentage of Christians and Muslims – strong majorities in every country – who tell us that they’re committed to spreading their faith, to winning converts over to their side. So there are religious leaders and other forces at work, but on a day-to-day basis, it is the commitment at the grassroots level by Christians and Muslims to spread the faith that may be the driving factor. We don’t know for sure, but it is certainly highly suggestive.

On the question of the numbers in Africa, let me just add a word on that because I’ve been asked a question, why to begin this large Pew-Templeton project are you focusing on Africa? There are many places, of course, where we could have started, and we hope to get to all of them before long. But Africa struck us as a very fruitful place to begin, exactly for the point that you’re alluding to, Julia, which is this is the only continent in the world where you have a roughly equal division of the two largest religions in the world – Christianity and Islam.

Those divisions, demographically, in some countries, as you know, cut right across the middle. in a place like Nigeria, for instance. So we thought, given our interest in exploring the theme of inter-religious relations and how various religions are negotiating their differences in an increasingly pluralistic world, there’s no better place to begin than in Africa, as we look at that relationship across a 4,000-mile meeting place or fault line, depending on your perspective, between these two great faiths.

The other thing I would mention on your last point: To be honest with you, Rwanda is a head-scratcher in terms of the number of people saying that religious conflict is a very big problem in their country. Nigeria is understandable. We read the headlines; we know it’s there. But we know, sadly, from the Rwanda genocide that that did not take place along religious lines since the vast majority of Rwandans are Christian.

So it was a bit of a head-scratcher. We’ve consulted with Rwandan experts on this. They do point to some historic tensions between Catholics and Protestants, but that’s hard to explain in terms of that high number.

They also point to disenchantment all the way around with religious institutions and their failure in the ethnically driven genocide to play a more positive role, and so maybe some of that is rubbing off. But it is, quite frankly, a bit of a puzzle in terms of why Rwanda ranks so high in terms of religious conflict. Of course, we know that they rank ethnic conflict even higher than that, but I just thought it was important to put that on the table.

COOPERMAN: I just wanted to throw in, if you’re interested in the influence of missionaries today, either Christian missionaries or Muslim missionaries, we do have some data on that in the survey. On Muslim preachers and missionaries, it’s Question 60 in our topline, and on Christians, it’s Question 62 in our topline.

What you will see there is that in a number of countries, the percentage of people who say that Christian preachers and missionaries from outside the country have a great deal of influence is quite high in a number particularly of Christian countries. So for example, it’s 42 percent in South Africa. It’s 61 percent of Christians in Botswana who say that Christian preachers and missionaries from outside the country have a lot of influence.

On the Muslim side of the coin, the numbers are generally a little bit lower – the percentages who think that Muslim preachers and missionaries from outside the country have a lot of influence. But there are some significant issues here.

For example, in Nigeria about half of all the Muslims think that Muslim preachers and missionaries from outside the country have a lot of influence. The number of Christians in Nigeria who think that is much lower. And in some other countries as well – you get, for example, in Guinea-Bissau, 71 percent of Muslims think that Muslim preachers and missionaries from outside the country have a lot of influence. So take a look at those numbers.

LUGO: You may also want to take a look on the Muslim side. There is a question in there about the percentage of people who identify with certain movements such as Wahhabi or Salafi or Tablighi Jama’at. That also draws considerable – in several countries over 20 percent of the population.

So if you’re looking at not only the spread of Islam but perhaps movements within Islam, that’s a very interesting set of facts. We also have, of course, information on the number of Muslims who identify with various Sufi sects, which is also an important consideration as we’re looking at the dynamics within Islam itself.

SARATU ABIOLA, ALLAFRICA GLOBAL MEDIA: Thank you. One of the key differences between the United States and African countries, obviously, is the huge social problems that come along with poverty. And I was wondering – perhaps this is more like a rhetorical question because you’re just gathering facts here, but just how different is the effect of poverty, especially when you’re dealing with things like the prosperity gospel. The health and wealth section of the survey – I was wondering if you could speak to that a little bit.

LUGO: Yes. In a continent where health services are not available and there is a high degree of illness, mortality, etc., and folks are poor, isn’t there a natural attraction, I think the question is, to the prosperity gospel? I mean, where is your health going to come from, as it were?

COOPERMAN: Yeah, I’ll throw in one other thing. We do have some measures of economic satisfaction in the survey. To me, it was startling and not entirely surprising, but nonetheless quite striking, that at least 30 percent of the people that we surveyed, in every country we surveyed, said there have been times in the last year when they did not have enough money to buy food for their families.

And of course, when we asked people about the largest problems, unemployment was very high –

LUGO: The highest.

COOPERMAN: – the highest in most countries. And yet, Africans are not gloomy about either the economic progress they’ve made or their prospects in the future. So let me mention to you that we ask a kind of a question that, if you haven’t encountered it before, may seem a little funky to you. It’s the ladder-of-life question. And it goes something like this:

We say to people, imagine a ladder of life in front of you, and imagine that the best possible life for you is at the top of the ladder, the 10th step, and the worst possible life for you is at the bottom of the ladder, the first step. And we say to them, where are you on that ladder of life today? And Africans tend to clump in the middle. Relatively few say they’re very, very high on the ladder. And by no means is it true that they’re all at the bottom either. They tend to clump – to say today they’re somewhere between the second step and the sixth step.

Then we asked them, where were you on that ladder of life five years ago? And we find that Africans say that they were lower on the ladder of life five years ago and that they’ve seen real progress in the last five years. Then we asked, where do you expect to be five years from now on this ladder of life, and you see that they’re very optimistic that in the next five years there will be improvement in their lives.

What’s great about this question is it is a kind of cross-cultural question, and we asked it – or our sister project here, the Pew Global Attitudes Project, has asked this question in countries around the world. We’ve put some charts in the report that I think are among the most interesting things in the report.

On page 16 we have the chart that shows you the medians for various regions around the world on improvement, that is, where people were five years ago and where they are today, and you see that sub-Saharan Africans see more improvement in their lives than people in most other regions – the same or more.

In terms of optimism, they are much more optimistic than people in many other regions of the world. So it’s really striking to me that despite this backdrop of clear poverty, unemployment, economic dissatisfaction, etc., they nonetheless see a lot of progress and they nonetheless think they’re going to have more progress in the future.

LUGO: It is interesting. Someone has described Africans as from-the-cradle religious. And it seems like optimism may be part of that. I think the term they use is “incurably religious.” Africans may also be incurably optimistic here, if you look at these figures.

Let me just add something to this since you broached the U.S. comparison, and that is that we ask questions about the extent to which people look to their church or to their mosque for material support in a variety of areas, and indeed we get a significant number, higher than we get in the United States. That’s not surprising, given the number of failed states and social welfare systems that are quite stressed.

We find that 50 percent, majorities in most countries, tell us that they have received food or clothing from their church or their mosque, but also majorities who have received literacy training, significant numbers who say they look to their church or their mosque to help in finding a job, in finding housing. Can you locate that question? If you could look at Question 43 on our topline, A through F, you will see a variety of these things for which both Muslims and Christians look to their religious institutions for material support. I think that’s an important piece of the answer.

FRED SMITH, AFRICAN CONNECTION: Good morning. I’m very much impressed with what I’ve heard. Specifically, we have always been given the notion that Christianity was brought to Africa, but in your survey you came across 10 percent that practice African religion.

To what extent do you explore that opportunity because we do not hear much of that in the media, that religion was already in Africa, no matter whether you agree with how it was practiced. To what extent has your survey brought some positive light to what kind of religions Africans practiced before they engaged with missionaries coming to Africa?

COOPERMAN: Thank you for that question. There is absolutely no doubt about it that religion existed in Africa before the arrival of Christianity and Islam. And those traditional African beliefs and practices persist in Africa and have spread from Africa. So an interesting point, for example, is that such religions as voodoo in Haiti and Santeria in Cuba clearly evolved from African traditional religions.

In the United States, when we did a survey last year and we asked about belief in the evil eye, we found that nearly a third – 32 percent – of black Protestants in the United States believe in the evil eye. The most likely explanation for that is that it is a belief that has persisted from the centuries and from the black exodus – forced exodus – to the United States.

When you ask about African traditional religions, we’re very acutely aware that this is an area in which anthropologists and sociologists in Africa and elsewhere have been working for a long time. There are a lot of debates in this field, changing views and understandings, and nonetheless we tried in a fairly simple way to explain what are some of the commonalities across Africa in terms of these traditional beliefs and practices.

We have a little, quick definition of it in the report, and I think one thing that’s important to note is that belief in ancestral spirits is a commonality. As I indicated in my initial statement, I think that this may be part of why we’re also finding throughout sub-Saharan Africa a high percentage of the people who say they believe in reincarnation. I think if we were able to go deeper, it would not be a kind of Eastern notion of reincarnation but more of an African notion.

I hope that helps a little bit.

FRED SMITH: But the 10 percent that you talk about, were you referring to Liberia?

COOPERMAN: The 10 percent is the percentage of those who say they adhere to African traditional beliefs and practices and not Islam or Christianity. The big point here is that very sizable percentages of people who are Muslims or Christians – and, in fact, very religious Muslims or Christians – also are retaining and participating in African traditional beliefs and practices.

So it’s not an either/or. It’s not that people are either Muslim or participate in African traditional beliefs, or that they’re either Christian or retain African traditional beliefs. Sizable percentages in every country are doing both. But the percentage of people who say they are not Christian and not Muslim and only adhere to African traditional beliefs or practices is very small. In a number of countries it’s essentially zero. In most of the countries we surveyed, it’s less than 10 percent, and in only one country, Liberia, is it more than 10 percent. It’s 12 percent.

The percentage of people who are unaffiliated – that is, who say they have no religion – is very low in most countries. In most countries it’s under 10 percent, and there are only a couple of countries in the south – South Africa and Zambia, as I recall off the top of my head – where it’s more than 10 percent.

LUGO: So another way to say that – and we welcome your follow-up – is to say that African traditional beliefs and practices live on, but they’re living on primarily by being incorporated by Christians and Muslims into their daily lives. How they square that with their primary allegiance to Christianity or Islam is a separate question, but that’s where we mostly find these traditional African beliefs and practices. They’re being practiced by Muslims and Christians, for whom that’s their primary identification religiously.

But do you have a follow-up?

FRED SMITH: Yeah, my follow-up would be how these governments who recognize Christianity and Islam are treating African religions. Are they giving African religions the same opportunity to operate freely like they do Christianity and Islam?

LUGO: We certainly asked the general population in each of these countries, and not only whether they personally feel free to practice their own religion, but whether others are free to practice their own religion and whether that’s a good thing, if they are free. And the vast majority across countries affirm religious liberty.

One of the problems with getting at your question more specifically – that is, for those who primarily identify with African traditional religions, whether they feel free – one of the issues, as the pollsters are going to tell you, is there is just not enough in many of these countries for us to say anything that’s statistically valid. But I wonder if in a place like Liberia we can come close. I don’t know so I’ll kick it over to the survey experts here.

GREG SMITH: I don’t think so. I don’t think that we have enough even in Liberia, where they’re large, to be able to talk about them as a group with a lot of confidence.

Just to follow up, though, I do think that the best indicator that we probably have in this survey in terms of how members of these traditional African faiths are treated is that question about religious freedom. We did ask people in the survey how often they think Muslims are treated unfairly by the government in their country and how often they think Christians are treated unfairly by the government in their country. And most people in most countries give their governments high marks for treating both of those faiths fairly.

Unfortunately, however, due to constrictions and restrictions of space, we didn’t ask a parallel question about government treatment of members of these traditional African faiths. And part of that does have to do with what we find in the survey, which is to say that traditional African faiths don’t seem to be an identity in quite the same way as Islam or Christianity.

In other words, as Alan and Luis have said, when we asked people, what’s your religion, what are you – are you Christian, are you Muslim, are you part of an African traditional faith, or Hindu or Buddhist or something else – very few people tell us that what they are in terms of their religion is a member of a traditional African faith. Instead, these are beliefs and practices that they incorporate rather than identities that they associate with.

That’s part of the reason it’s hard to ask questions like, how do you think the government treats members of that group? It’s less of a group and more of a set of beliefs and practices.

FRED SMITH: Did you ask another question, whether Christianity and Islam have contributed to the problems of Africa? Did you ask that question, and what was your response?

LUGO: Whether Christianity and Islam have contributed to the problems of Africa? I guess indirectly we get at that though the missionary activity and so forth, but – anything else?

COOPERMAN: We asked to what extent people see religious conflict as a problem, and we asked about the extent that they see other things as problems so we could get a kind of relative scale of what people think are the biggest problems in their country. One way you could think about that question is essentially it’s asking, do you think religion is a bigger cause of conflict in your country than ethnicity, or a bigger problem than the economy or than corruption?

And what we find in general is that the biggest problems that people see are the economy, corruption –

LUGO: And crime.

COOPERMAN: – and crime. And ethnic conflict and religious conflict come next, and they tend to track closely together. In countries where concern about ethnic conflict is high, concern about religious conflict is high, and vice versa.

So it seems that in the minds of many Africans these two things may well be associated, and trying to disentangle them is very difficult, certainly in a survey like this. We can’t really say what’s the primary cause. Is religion the primary cause of conflict and of problems or is something else? We only know that religion is an overlay; it’s part of the issue.

LUGO: Yeah, and it often gets implicated in conflicts in a variety of ways. It may not be the immediate cause of conflicts, but it ends up being implicated somehow in conflicts.

I heard earlier this week the acting president of Nigeria, Goodluck Jonathan, address this very question. He was asked point blank about religion and violence and conflict in Nigeria. And his point was that generally there are other causes – economic, political, tribal, etc. – that cause the fire, as it were. But as he put it, religion often fans the flame of the fire, so it gets somehow drawn into the conflict, even though religion as such was not the precipitating cause.

Let me make a larger point about Africa and religion because I think we are. in fact, seeing a shift in Africa from being what economists might call a price-taker. That is to say, it’s at the mercy of others who are setting the prices. Africa may be reversing that role, both for Christianity and Islam.

On the Christian side, we know that the demographic center of gravity for global Christianity has shifted toward Africa, and that’s being felt globally in a variety of ways. So African Christianity is making its impact felt around the world.

There is what people call the reverse missionary movement of missionaries from Ghana and Nigeria and elsewhere going to Europe, coming to North America. It’s really quite remarkable. That’s sort of the re-evangelizing, from their point of view, of those societies that historically helped to evangelize them. We see it played out in controversies and denominations within the United States – the Episcopal Church, a great example, where African bishops have had a significant influence in how that debate is being carried out.

So I think because of its strength numerically, both African Christianity and African Islam will be heard from increasingly on a broader global stage.

COOPERMAN: I’m trying to find the closest we can come to answering your question as to whether Christianity and Islam have caused problems in Africa. Again, in our topline, if you look at Question 60 and Questions 63 and 62, where we asked, how much influence do Christian missionaries from outside your country have in your country? We also asked the follow-up question, do you think this is a good thing or a bad thing? And we asked the same with Muslims.

So this gets at, do people think that the activity of missionaries in their country is a good thing or a bad thing? And what we find is that overall, the percentages who think it’s a good thing are higher in almost all cases. There may be one or two countries where there is a higher percentage who say it’s a bad thing. But in most cases, more people are saying missionary activity is a good thing than they’re saying it’s a bad thing. And that’s true for both Christian missionary activity and Muslim missionary activity.

WEISS: Yeah, I’m back. I want to ask you about two apparent paradoxes that you’ve discussed a little bit but that I would like you to take a closer look at. On the one hand, you’ve got substantial – huge – majorities who say that they take the Bible and/or the Koran literally and yet find ways to incorporate indigenous practices that, frankly, would be hard to find in those texts.

And the second paradox is between the very high support of democracy and yet the – surprising to me – surprisingly high support for either biblical or sharia law.

LUGO: Excellent question. As the editors here will tell you, that word “paradox” was in an original draft of this report and we took it out, Jeff. Because you’re absolutely right; I think for most readers here in the United States and in the West, these are unquestionably apparent paradoxes. We just didn’t feel comfortable calling them a paradox because we didn’t know how exactly people in Africa itself sorted these things out.

We know that in African traditional religions, sort of multiple religious identities are something that is quite acceptable. That’s less so, however, as you point out, with Christianity and Islam, which tend to take fairly exclusive views on these matters.

WEISS: Well particularly because they say that they take the texts literally.

LUGO: Yeah, you’re absolutely right. So I will ask Alan to address the Bible literacy together with this indigenous practice. Maybe he can shed more light. And perhaps, Greg, on the democracy and sharia law.

COOPERMAN: Sure. Thanks, Jeff. I really can’t, at an individual level, give you an answer to that. I don’t know how people reconcile these things or even if they see them as a problem to be reconciled in Africa. I will note that Africa is by no means the only place in the world where we find something similar. We did a survey last year in the United States – you can find it on our website and we have a link to it in the report – on how Americans mix and match religious beliefs and practices from various traditions.

What’s so interesting in the study in the United States is that we found sizable percentages of people who say they attend worship services every week and yet who believe in things that, well, it would be a stretch to call them “mainstream” within their traditions. So for example, we find something like one in five Roman Catholics who say they go to Mass every week who also tell us that they believe in reincarnation. And we define reincarnation in that survey as the belief that people will be reborn again and again in this world.

We find substantial percentages of people who – mainline Protestants – who say they go to church every week and yet who believe in things like astrology, or in the case of black Protestants, things like the evil eye.

So Africa is not an exception in that regard. How it is that people hold different views that are in tension in their mind, it’s a common conundrum for pollsters. It’s also not limited to religion. We find in the United States lots of people want lower taxes and also want higher government spending on things, and so on and so forth.

WEISS: My only follow-up on that, though, is that what struck me here in particular is that you’ve got absolutist beliefs. If somebody says, look, I go to Mass every week but I believe something that’s not necessarily in the dogma, that’s easier for me to reconcile than somebody who says, I believe that the Bible is literally true and yet I believe in reincarnation or something like that.

COOPERMAN: Yes, Jeff, you’re absolutely right. We see it too.

GREG SMITH: Let me just point out the one thing to keep in mind – and this is something that we don’t have direct questions on but we certainly know from our experience in the United States – that to say that one believes in the Bible as literally true, word for word, is not the same thing as actually knowing what’s in the Bible literally, word for word, every page, every chapter.

So we certainly find in the United States where there are people who may quite literally and in good faith, so to speak, hold a literal view of the Bible and also hold beliefs that are in contradiction with what’s in the Bible. And it may be that there is not even a realization that these things are in tension. So I think that’s part of it.

To follow up on your question about democracy as opposed to sharia law, quickly, I would just say that I think you’ve pointed at one of the key examples from which the title of this survey is drawn. On the one hand, there’s tolerance. I think part of the evidence for that is the widespread support we see for democracy and for key tenets of democratic systems, like religions freedom.

So you’re right, there’s a lot of support for democracy. At the same time, there are signs of tension, which is to say that despite support for democracy in the abstract, so to speak, lots of people also say that they support making the Bible or sharia the law of the land. We find lots of people expressing support for corporal punishments like whipping and cutting off of hands of people accused of theft and robbery.

We also see substantial support among Muslims in many countries for capital punishment for people who leave Islam. Now, we shouldn’t overstate this. It’s not majorities in most countries. Nevertheless, there is considerable support for this, which is in tension with ideas and the notion of religious freedom.

So I hope that’s not too much of a cop out, but I do think that what we’ve hit upon here is that there are tensions between support for things like democracy and support for religiously based civil law. And I think part of what you’re seeing is the fact that lots of people – not just in Africa but all around the world – have competing considerations in their minds. They see things to like and admire about different kinds of systems, different ideas, and I think you see that reflected in these survey results.

WEISS: Thank you.

LUGO: Well, thank you, all of you. It’s time for us to wind down this press conference, but I want to assure you that we’re here for you if you have any other questions. Please contact Robbie Mills, and he will make sure to set up an interview with our staff for you. So we want to continue to serve you well beyond this official press release. Again, thanks so much for your time.

Photo credit: Sebastien Desarmaux/GODONG/Godong/Corbis

This written transcript has been edited by Amy Stern for clarity, grammar and accuracy.