Religion and religiosity pose challenges for fertility decline in Sub-Saharan Africa

Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) is the only world region projected to continue population growth in the second half of this century, and even beyond 2100. In SSA, religion and religiosity are major factors contributing to the persistent high birth rates. A new publication by TOP co-workers is reviewing the relationship between human fertility and religions in Sub-Saharan Africa.

By Nicola Turner and Frank Götmark

Previously on TOP, we posted a six-parts series (see below for links to the series) on religion, fertility and contraceptive use in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), based on a literature review1. Now part of this work has been published in the article “Human Fertility and Religions in Sub-Saharan Africa: A Comprehensive Review of Publications and Data, 2010-2020”2 in the African Journal of Reproductive Health.

In developed Western countries, fertility decreased from about 1870 up to present while in developing countries, this trend began from about 1965 and onwards3,4. However, this process is especially slow in SSA where total fertility rate (TFR) was estimated at 4.6 children per woman in 2021, compared to 1.5-2.8 in other global regions5. Strong population growth in SSA is expected also due to a large young population that eventually will form families in the future. The UN projected in 2022 that the population growth in SSA will continue from 1.2 billion today to 3.4 billion in 21005, based on assumptions of no increase in mortality level, and reduced TFR to approximately 2.1 by 2100. TFR depends on many factors, such as economy, education, female empowerment, family planning programs, social norms, and religion and religiosity.

Maja and Ayano6 recently explored how population growth affects natural resources and farmers’ capacity to adapt to climate change in SSA and other low-income countries. The authors state that studies “recognise the link between population growth, natural resources and climate change, but… sometimes side-step tactfully due to the sensitive nature of discussing population regulation”. Fortunately, researchers like Maja and Ayano are not alone among African scientists. A recent study by Kabir et al.7 conclude that population growth in Niger is a strong driver of undernourishment, and the authors call for reduction in fertility rates on the “demand side”. Despite sensitivity around the topic of population growth and religion, in the last decade the scientific literature on fertility, contraception and religion increased markedly.

A Christian church in Maiduguri, Nigeria. Photo: AFP

Our new publication reviews how fertility is related to religion and denominations in SSA, based on recent scientific literature. The religions dealt with are African Indigenous Religions (AIR), Christianity and Islam. The publication also examines Christian denominations: Catholicism, Protestantism and Apostolicism.

Which religions exhibit the highest average fertility in SSA, and among the countries there? Our review suggests that followers of AIR on average have highest fertility in SSA, followed by Islam, and then Christianity. The result for AIR is new, as far as we know. The result that Muslims have higher fertility than Christians was expected, and is quite strong, with two exceptions (Uganda and Zimbabwe, with only a small difference between these two religions). The high fertility of Muslims can partly be attributed to the practice of polygyny and gender roles where men are traditionally seen as the decision-makers of the household, including decisions on child-bearing and contraceptive use8,9,10.

In polygynous relationships, husbands often had higher fertility preferences than wives, as men with many children are seen as powerful, proud and rich8,10,11. Furthermore, competition between co-wives for a larger share of the husband’s wealth and attention meant that Muslim women often exceeded their desired fertility12,13. On the other hand, Christians in many SSA countries tend to start families later, are less likely to be in formal marriages and polygynous unions, are more likely to get divorced or separated, and are more likely to use contraception than Muslims and those affiliated with AIR, thus contributing to lower fertility among Christians than followers of Islam and AIR14,15,16.

We also reviewed fertility differences among religions within countries where studies were available. For instance, AIR followers had the highest fertility in Western Nigeria, followed by Christians and then Muslims, but in certain rural and urban areas, Muslims had the highest fertility, next came Christians and lastly AIR followers17.

Among Christian denominations, Catholics and Protestants hardly differed in fertility. However, some early studies suggested fertility differences in various directions across and within some countries17,18. In Eswatini and Mozambique, Apostolicism, practiced in about 40% and 15% of the populations, respectively, showed highest fertility among the Christian denominations. The Apostolic Church strongly promotes fertility and early marriage, and contraception is believed to be against God’s will. Gender inequality is prominent (even celebrated), and polygyny justified20. More studies of Christian denominations are desirable, for instance of the growing Pentecostal and Charismatic churches in SSA.

How strongly does religion influence fertility compared to factors such as economic costs, patriarchy, and availability of modern contraception? Our review of focus-group discussions and in-depth interviews indicate that many followers of Christianity and Islam believe contraceptive use contradicts religious beliefs, and that children are a gift from God that should not be declined21. This view was especially strong in Northern Nigeria, Northern Ghana, and Somalia where religiosity is reportedly strong22. Still, some felt that religion did not influence their decision while others felt conflicted on the issue. Some participants stated that economic constraints influence contraceptive use regardless of religion, others stated that having fewer children allowed their current children an education and improved quality of life (for details, see Figures 6 and 7 in our paper).

Finally, we examined whether TFR, for SSA countries, is associated with type of denomination and religiosity (Figures 8-13). Although weak, the regressions for TFR versus religion suggest that countries more strongly dominated by Islam tend to have higher TFR, while the reverse was the case for Christianity. Countries with a higher Catholic population had a higher TFR (albeit weakly), while the opposite is true for Protestants. TFR was most negatively associated with larger (albeit small) non-religious population in the countries.

In an earlier paper about fertility and its relationship to religiosity in global regions and countries23, we found that TFR in SSA increases quite strongly with degree of religiosity among the countries, despite small variation in religiosity. In that study, we used Gallup surveys where respondents in each country answered the question, “Is religion an important part of your daily life?”. The Figure below shows that TFR (in 2015) was highest in countries where more than 95% of the respondents answered “yes”. Botswana and South Africa, two countries with small Muslim population proportions (and high Christian proportions) had lowest fertility, which is consistent with our results from the present study of religions in SSA.

Figure: Fertility in Sub-Saharan countries in relation to degree of religiosity. Religiosity from Gallup survey and response to question, “Is religion an important part of your daily life?”. The graph shows proportion of respondents in each country saying yes to this question (“yes” or “no” were the options), the linear least square regression line, and the coefficient of determination, r2, for the relationship. From Götmark, F. & Andersson, M. 2020. Human fertility in relation to education, economy, religion, contraception, and family planning programs. BMC Public Health 20, 265. For religiosity data, see this paper. TFR data from UN, 2015.

The results of the present and earlier studies have significant implications for long-term changes in the relative size of religious groups in SSA. Higher fertility of Muslims relative to Christians can lead to a stronger population growth among the former which could potentially increase the challenge of improving educational opportunities and family planning. Religious leaders need to be approached and educated about family planning services and their benefits24, which they can then spread to their followers, thereby reducing the devastating impacts of population increase on the environment and people25.

We are happy that our new paper is published in a good African journal, the African Journal of Reproductive Health. This journal recently also published a paper showing how family planning programs increase contraceptive use in Sub-Saharan Africa.


Read the entire series on religion and fertility in Sub-Saharan Africa:

Part 1 – Introduction to Studies of Religion

Part 2 – Differences Among Denominations

Part 3 – A Study of Christian Denominations in Mozambique

Part 4 – African Research and Policy in Nigeria

Part 5 – Views and Opinions of the Local People

Part 6 – Progressive Religious Organisations



  1. Turner, N. Influence of Religion and Religiosity on Fertility and Contraceptive Use in Continental Sub-Saharan Africa: A Comprehensive Review. University of Gothenburg, 195 pages. (2021).
  2. Turner, N. & Götmark, F. Human Fertility and Religions in Sub-Saharan Africa: A Comprehensive Review of Publications and Data, 2010-2020. African Journal of Reproductive Health 27(1), 119-171 (2023).
  3. Chesnais, J. C. The Demographic Transition. (Oxford University Press, 2001).
  4. Coale, A. J. & Watkins, S. C. The Decline of Fertility in Europe. (Princeton University Press, 1986).
  5. United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division. World Population Prospects. (United Nations, 2022).
  6. Maja, M. M. & Ayano, S. F. The Impact of Population Growth on Natural Resources and Farmers’ Capacity to Adapt to Climate Change in Low‐Income Countries. Earth Systems and Environment 5, 271-283 (2021).
  7. Kabir, K., Baldos, U. L. C. & Hertel, T. W. The New Malthusian Challenge in the Sahel: Prospects for Improving Food Security in Niger. Food Security (2022).
  8. Oyediran, K. A. Fertility Desires of Yoruba Couples of Southwestern Nigeria. Journal of Biosocial Science 38(5), 605-624 (2006).
  9. Bankole, A. & Singh, S. Couples’ Fertility and Contraceptive Decision-Making in Developing Countries: Hearing the Man’s Voice. International Family Planning Perspectives 24(1), 15-24 (1998).
  10. Ezeh, A. C. Polygyny and Reproductive Behaviour in Sub-Saharan Africa: A Contextual Analysis. Demography 34(3), 355-368 (1997).
  11. Pallangyo, E. S. Msoka, A. C., Brownie, S. & Holroyd, E. Religious Beliefs, Social Pressure and Stigma: Rural Women’s Perceptions and Beliefs about Vasectomy in Pwani, Tanzania. PLoS ONE 15(3) (2020).
  12. Odusina, E. K., Ayotunde, T., Kunnuji, M., Ononokpono, D. N., Bishwajit, G. & Yaya, S. Fertility Preferences Among Couples in Nigeria: A Cross-Sectional Study. Reproductive Health 17(92) (2020).
  13. Turnwait, M. & Alfred, S. E. The Polygyny-Fertility Hypothesis: New Evidence from Nigeria. Nigerian Journal of Sociology and Anthropology 16(1), 166-181 (2018).
  14. Blackstone, S. R., Nwaozuru, U. & Iwelunmor, J. Factors Influencing Contraceptive Use in Sub-Saharan Africa: A Systematic Review. International Quarterly of Community Health Education 37(2), 79-91 (2017).
  15. Heaton, T. B. & Darkwah, A. Religious Differences in Modernization of the Family: Family Demographics Trends in Ghana. Journal of Family Issues 32(12), 1576-1596 (2011).
  16. Machiyama, K. & Cleland, J. Insights into Unmet Need in Ghana. (London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, 2013).
  17. Adedokun, L. A. National Survey of Fertility and Family Planning, Phase 1, Southwest Nigeria. Demographic Statistical Survey (DSS) Monograph No. 1 [1973-1975], 40-41 (1979).
  18. Arowolo, O. O. Determination of Fertility Among Yorubas of Nigeria: An Empirical Finding on Fertility in Korea, Nigeria, Tunisia, Venezuela and the Philippines. Occasional Monograph Series No. 7 (1973).
  19. United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division. World Population Prospects 2019: Highlights. (United Nations, 2020).
  20. Dodzo, M. K., Mhloyi, M., Moyo, S. & Dodzo-Masawi, M. Praying Until Death: Apostolicism, Delays and Maternal Mortality in Zimbabwe. PLoS ONE 11(8) (2016).
  21. Sinai, I., Omoluabi, E., Jimoh, A. & Jurczynska, K. Unmet Need for Family Planning and Barriers to Contraceptive Use in Kaduna, Nigeria: Culture, Myths and Perceptions. Culture, Health & Sexuality 22(11), 1253-1268 (2019).
  22. Akinyemi, O. O., Harris, B. & Kawonga, M. “Our Culture Prohibits Some Things”: Qualitative Inquiry into How Sociocultural Context Influences the Scale-Up of Community-Based Injectable Contraceptives in Nigeria. BMJ Open 10 (2020).
  23. Götmark, F. & Andersson, M. Human Fertility in Relation to Education, Economy, Religion, Contraception, and Family Planning Programs. BMC Public Health 20(265) (2020).
  24. Adedini, S. A. et al. Role of Religious Leaders in Promoting Contraceptive Use in Nigeria: Evidence from the Nigerian Urban Reproductive Health Initiative. Global Health: Science and Practice 6, 500-514 (2018).
  25. Cafaro, P. J., Hansson, P. & Götmark, F. Overpopulation is a Major Cause of Biodiversity Loss and Smaller Human Populations are Necessary to Preserve what is Left. Biological Conservation 272 (2022).
Print Friendly, PDF & Email

6 thoughts on “Religion and religiosity pose challenges for fertility decline in Sub-Saharan Africa

  1. For the UN, and for world religions, and for African nations, it works to focus on the “climate emergency”, and not at all the population emergency.

  2. Very interesting paper. Personally, I wonder how religious people can justify the fact of having children. All religions say that very few of us will go to heaven after their death, and that the vast majority will burn (or freeze) in hell for eternity. Under these conditions, the act of giving life puts the children at a very high risk!

    1. That’s not what “all religions” say!
      Also, the Bible says “be fruitful and multiply”, and is the basis for three of the main religions of the world today.
      And numbers are power, so in mixed areas having many children born into one religious group is a way of competing wit the other.

  3. “In polygynous relationships, husbands often had higher fertility preferences than wives”
    Isn’t that true in monogamous (heterosexual) relationships as well? That’s my impression at least, and it makes total sense given how much more it demands of the woman.

  4. Hi Gaia, interesting question you pose. In my TOP-blog (review) of Skirbekk’s book “Decline and Prosper” (6 Sept), I summarized what he wrote: “Women in Europe want more children than men do, while in poor countries the opposite is the case, according to surveys.”

    1. Thanks, I missed it. That’s a bit surprising since it doesn’t align with my experience (but I have a very small sample of people I’ve asked). It could be because birth numbers are on average so low anyway, and the burden especially in Northern Europe is more evenly shared, whereas I imagine African women must be exhausted.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.