April 15, 2010

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

Chapter 3: Traditional African Religious Beliefs and Practices

Side by side with their high levels of commitment to Christianity and Islam, many people in the countries surveyed retain beliefs and rituals that are characteristic of traditional African religions. In four countries, for instance, half or more of the population believes that sacrifices to ancestors or spirits can protect them from harm. In addition, roughly a quarter or more of the population in 11 countries say they believe in the protective power of juju (charms or amulets), shrines and other sacred objects. Belief in the power of such objects is highest in Senegal (75%) and lowest in Rwanda (5%). (See the glossary for more information on juju.)

In addition to expressing high levels of belief in the protective power of sacrificial offerings and sacred objects, upwards of one-in-five people in every country say they believe in the evil eye, or the ability of certain people to cast malevolent curses or spells. In five countries (Tanzania, Cameroon, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Senegal and Mali) majorities express this belief. (See the glossary for more information on the evil eye.)

In most countries surveyed, at least three-in-ten people believe in reincarnation, which may be related to traditional beliefs in ancestral spirits. The conviction that people will be reborn in this world again and again tends to be more common among Christians than Muslims.

The continued influence of traditional African religion is also evident in some aspects of daily life. For example, in 14 of the 19 countries surveyed, more than three-in-ten people say they sometimes consult traditional healers when someone in their household is sick. This includes five countries (Cameroon, Chad, Guinea Bissau, Mali and Senegal) where more than half the population uses traditional healers. While the recourse to traditional healers may be motivated in part by economic reasons and an absence of health care alternatives, it may also be rooted in religious beliefs about the efficacy of this approach.

This chapter includes information on:

  • Traditional African religious beliefs, such as belief in the protective power of sacrifices to ancestors
  • Traditional African religious practices, such as owning sacred objects

Download chapter 3 in full (3-page PDF, <1MB)


Photo credit: Sebastien Desarmaux/GODONG/Godong/Corbis

Part of the Pew-Templeton Global Religious Futures Project