As Europe apparently abandons whatever Christian roots it had, Africa seems to embrace Christianity and Islam all the more. At least that's how it seems to outsiders and religious insiders alike. Scholars like historian Philip Jenkins and prelates, including Pope Benedict XVI, proclaim that the future of Christianity is African, while Saudi religious entrepreneurs build mosques from Cape to Cairo in the hope of making Africa an Islamic continent.
Meanwhile, the latest statistics are somewhat confusing. According to Encyclopaedia Brittannica (2003) there were over 375 million Christians and 330 million Muslims in mid-2002. The more recent Pew Forum survey (2011) indicates over 516 million Christians (62.7%) in sub-Saharan Africa and just under 13 million (3.8%) in North Africa and the Middle East. This would suggest still a numerical Christian majority on the continent itself, but the gap is narrowing.
Why has this happened? And more importantly, why does it continue to happen? The answer lies, I would suggest, as much with the complexity of African history as it does with the particular religious truth claims of Christianity and Islam.
The first thing we need to dispense with is the myth that Christianity is a colonial religion and Islam is not. Christianity was an 'African' religion when much of Europe still painted their backsides blue and worshipped trees. Whether or not the account of the Ethiopian eunuch in the New Testament Acts of the Apostles is legend, Christian belief had spread to East Africa by the second or third century. Similarly, Christian communities were a feature of life in North Africa from the first centuries onward, until the Muslim conquest of North Africa.
Indeed one might even, provocatively no doubt, assert that Islam was the first religious colonisation of Africa. With Arab expansion into North Africa, and even with the Quranic protections extended to 'peoples of the Book' (i.e. Jews and Christians), with the exception of Christians in Ethiopia and a significant minority in Egypt, Christians were absorbed into the dar al Islam, with many converting to the new faith.
But Islam did not extend itself southwards into sub-Saharan Africa outside of areas that today encompass states like Mali, Niger and northern Nigeria. Granted, Muslim traders established bases in East Africa, but there was no attempt at colonisation. What they did do was begin a slave trade, which the Europeans would later pick up upon and perfect. The 'Middle Passage', much spoken of by historians of slavery, was first the Indian Ocean between East Africa and the Arabian peninsula and the Sahara desert that separates West from North Africa long before it referred to the Atlantic routes from Africa to the Caribbean and Americas.
It was European colonialism in its many forms that brought Christianity to sub-Saharan Africa. Colonial Christianity was a two-edged sword: at once a rejection of African traditional religion and the political cultures associated with it and an assertion of the social equality of all people under God in Christ, even if Christianity did not assert such equality in Christian terms until well into the decolonisation process. Mission schools created cadres of Western-educated Africans who were both the colonial intermediary officials that bolstered European rule and the educated elite who created nationalist movements that ultimately expelled colonial overlords.
Even after colonialism, Christianity remained. Its great genius at evolving and adapting to circumstances — called by some scholars 'inculturation' — led to Christianity in various forms adapting to postcolonial society. Even churches previously associated with European colonial powers — including Catholicism, Anglicanism and Methodism — adapted to the new political environment. For the Church it was 'business as usual' — Sunday services, social work, education — whoever held office. For African people Christianity offered something they desired — an exuberant expression of faith in a creator God whom they had long believed in, and who resonated in the life and teachings of a first century Jewish prophet.
In areas where it was dominant Islam thrived, partly as a sign of a non-Western, non-colonial discourse that had survived the depredations of colonialism, and partly as an expression of deeply-held beliefs of African people. Islam had long embraced those aspects of 'modernity' that it considered compatible with faith, sometimes even in advance of Christian Europe (e.g. Aristotelianism and the scientific method), and tolerated aspects of African culture that did not overtly oppose Muslim faith.
The post-uhuru promise in Africa has not delivered for many Africans, however. The vision of social equality under God which is inherent to Christianity and Islam has not materialised. Instead what we have seen, what we see, is the inequality created and perpetuated by postcolonial elites. In many parts of Africa we see instead enclaves of elite power modelled on the West in brutal contrast with the poverty and deprivation of majorities.
At grassroots Christian Churches and Islam challenge this political hegemony. Faithful to their belief that all are equal under God, they provide education and social services that the new African elites do not. In many countries, Christian and Muslim social services are the only institutions that work, the official state organizations being nothing more than organs of corruption and self-interest that feather the nests of bureaucrats.
If Africans want to advance, they have to go through Christian and Muslim institutions. This confirms in them the sense that while secular state organs are phony, the religious are genuine. Religion delivers — the state doesn't. Combine this with an inherent sense of the transcendent and we can see why those who see Africa as a 'spiritual lung' for at least two of the great religious traditions aren't dreaming.
Anthony Egan SJ is a Catholic priest and member of the Jesuit Institute South Africa, based in Johannesburg. He lectures part-time at St Augustine College (Johannesburg), Witwatersrand Medical School Steve Biko Bioethics Centre and at University of Pretoria. He publishes regularly in academic and popular journals, is working on two books, and even writes the occasional book review for Mail & Guardian.