How important is religion and belief in the supernatural for family life, contraceptive use, fertility, and family size? Presumably many of our readers have considered the role played in high-fertility societies by the belief that “children are God’s will”. In this blog series based on a literature review1, we focus on Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) and summarize much evidence about the importance of religion and religiosity. SSA has the highest degree of religiosity and highest fertility rate in the world. In part 1 below, we give background on scientific research into religion – an active field with intriguing theories and findings.
By Frank Götmark and Nicola Turner
Religion is “concerned with the supernatural, everything else is secondary” but it also has two elements: a belief in powers higher than man, and an attempt to propitiate or please them2. For many years, researchers in the natural sciences, like Richard Dawkins3, have argued that religiosity is irrational. Back in the 60s and 70s, many predicted that religion would disappear. But secularity and rational science have not won the minds of most people; rather, religion has increased with the global population increase. The dominating religions Christianity and Islam have replaced many traditional religions in SSA. In addition, an old religion, Hinduism, has increased with the population of India.
Why do we have religion? Finding God or salvation seems to make many people happy, calm or secure. But such happiness and comfort may only be a proximate, not an ultimate explanation for why religion exists – in a way similar to romantic love, which is also controlled by hormone levels4. Can religion increase the survival prospects of individuals? Dawkins and others argue that religiosity is an accidental by-product of something else, “a misfiring of something useful”, as he states. He refers to how children grow up and are taught to believe what parents say, in this case about God and the supernatural, and stick to that. If individuals of a particular religion are successful, religion may persist as a strong cultural phenomenon. Cultures differ, and this is consistent with the global pattern of different religions dominating in different regions.
Ideas about religion and denominations
Sociologists Rodney Stark and Roger Finke, and the economist Laurence Iannaccone have developed a market model of competition between religious organizations (denominations, churches). They suggest that it makes sense to model religion as the behavior of rational, reasonably well-informed actors who choose to consume religious commodities just as actors weigh the costs and benefits of consuming secular commodities2. In some denominations, members donate much money and spend much time in church services, worship, prayer, and missionary activity. This can strongly influence parts of, and sometime whole societies, leading to so called religious economies.
The researchers have examined how religious denominations grow or decline, and what makes some competitive. If membership is costly, individuals expect and can obtain a high level of “tension” (commitment, excitement) in their faith through a demanding religious leadership. The idea is that the higher the cost, the higher the tension and the pay-off for members, and the denomination may increase in size if more people seek what they consider high-quality services. The high cost can get rid of free-riders, those not willing to pay, increasing social cohesion and commitment in the group. However, it would also mean high demands on the priests, who over time may be challenged by other denominations.
Other religious organizations, especially large ones like the Catholic church in many countries, or state religions with a monopoly as in some European countries, do not demand much for membership. The costs in terms of money and time for members are low, members experience low tension, and get little pay-off in return. This is partly due to priests being paid, implying low motivation to recruit new members. Over time, such organizations have lost members, and secularization has increased, such as in northern Europe. But this may change with competition from new, high-tension churches (e.g. Islam, African Christian churches).
Other research on religion stresses functionalism5: i.e., how religion is used. One classic example is Marx who stated that religion is the opiate of the masses (the ruling class pacifies the masses). There are many other potential functions, such as influencing e.g. morality and values, understanding and interpreting physical reality, legitimizing government, and direct oppression (see ref. 5). Another approach is to examine the teaching of religions. For instance, Stephen Prothero6 characterized Islam as “the problem is pride, the solution is submission”, Christianity as “the problem is sin, the solution is salvation”, and Buddhism as “the problem is suffering, the solution is awakening”.
The market and economy ideas have been criticized7, and they are mostly based on research from North America, where different churches were founded by immigrant groups. The denominations grew differentially, some increasing considerably (e.g. Evangelicals, and more recently Pentecostals). Two books by Carvalho et al8 and McCleary & Barro9 describe much research in the field. However, studies of religious markets and economies in SSA are lacking. This region seems excellent research ground; the religious landscape includes Islam, the Catholic Church, many Protestant denominations, and African traditional religions. Among Christians, new Charismatic and Pentecostal churches are increasing and competing, especially in urban areas where some are modern and active in media and on the Internet. Recent books on religion in Africa10,11 do not address the North America research, though there may be much to learn from linking these discourses.
Secularity, religion, and population growth
Whether the world is becoming more secular, or more religious, has been debated much over the last 30 years. Jonathan Fox5 concisely summarized this debate as follows: (1) Secularization theory identifies real processes that threaten traditional religion, but neglects the potential of religion to evolve. (2) Secular modernity failed, especially in the Third World. (3) Secularization ideas were elite-based, never fully accepted by the masses. (4) The Cold War helped “release religion”, and so (5) Religion, a potent political and social force, never went away. In a new book, Ronald Inglehart uses data from the World Value Survey (WVS) and finds recent decline in religiosity12. However, the WVS contains few countries from SSA, the most religious subcontinent.
Population growth, fertility and contraception are largely neglected subjects in books about religious markets and economies, and in books about religion in SSA (but see the recent Fertility and Faith13 with a section on Africa). In a concise and interesting overview Guigui Yao and Robert Wyman14 emphasize that the teachings of the world’s religions will be a major influence on the future of the global population. They also write that the Bible does not require an unlimited pro-natal interpretation. For instance, the same command, ‘Be fruitful and multiply’, is given to humanity (Gen 1:28, 9:1) and to animals (Gen 1:22, 8:17, 9:1-7). With overpopulation presently displacing God’s creation, there is reason to question whether humanity is properly interpreting God’s command. For more review along this line, see John McKeown’s useful book15 on the subject here.
The Abrahamic traditions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) have generally chosen a pro-natal interpretation of scriptures, which probably contributed to their growth and survival. In the words of Yao & Wyman, only those religions that demanded, and achieved, a sufficiently high birth rate have survived. But as these authors point out, what the religious establishment allows and what people actually do are often two different things. Infanticide by abandonment was common a few hundred years ago, for instance in England. This applies historically to Buddhist countries as well. In Islamic Bangladesh, abortion is illegal, but ‘menstrual regulation’ – the removal of the contents of the uterus before a positive pregnancy test – is sanctioned 14.
Sub-Saharan Africa is special: links between religion, political leaders, and power
Before the introduction and expansion of Islam (first) and Christianity (later) in SSA, only African traditional religions were practiced, which allude to a belief in a Supreme Being. The Supreme Being is thought of as being remote and is therefore not directly worshipped, but rather worshipped through smaller Gods. These Gods take up residency in streams, rivers, trees and mountains16,17. African traditional religions now only exist in pockets across SSA, with a stronger occurrence in Western Africa11. Like Christianity and Islam, the practice of these religions has a pro-natal attitude and is embedded in lineage and descent systems, as lineage is believed to have mystical significance between the living and departed ancestors18.
For SSA in 2004, Ellis & Ter Haar describe in their book Worlds of Power19 the strong links between religiosity, spiritual practice and power. The authors define religion as “a belief in the existence of an invisible world, often thought to be inhabited by spirits that are believed to affect people’s lives in the material world”. This includes magic and superstition. The spirits can be both good and evil and the authors suggest that in people’s everyday life, evil spirits have recently increased, making it important to combat them in times of hardship (e.g. by prayer, healing). Oral sources, like stories and rumours, are important in Africa by spreading news about various spirits, including accusations about witchcraft in women, common in many countries.
African politicians and dictators are as devoted to the invisible world and its spirits as the general public, and communication with the spirit world is a key concern for politicians, according to Ellis & Ter Haar. When such communication is common, it easily becomes subject to control by organizations, priests, and particularly politicians. Throughout Africa, politicians have special religious mentors (sometimes secret), in Muslim countries called ‘marabouts’. Mentors are often strongly trusted, and Ellis & Ter Haar describe remarkable – sometimes almost unbelievable – events on how politicians follow the advice of mentors to control population, get rid of competitors, and stay in power.
For instance, Kenneth Kaunda in Zambia secretly hired two Indian gurus, one of which “recognized Kaunda from his shamanistic travels in the spirit world”. They became an influential part of the country’s leadership. The novelist Ahmadou Kourouma, with experience from several African countries, stated that “there is not a single head of state who doesn’t have his magician or his marabout; magic and political power are virtually one and the same thing”. In Liberia, few people have any doubts that leading politicians use a range of bloody rituals to stay in power. And so on, there are many more examples.
This book does not discuss population growth and fertility, but shows the importance of religion in politics in Africa (and SSA). The region is certainly special in the extent to which pro-natalism is due to religiosity and the spirit world.
Fertility and religion worldwide, and in Sub-Saharan Africa
Religious denomination per se is not tightly linked with birth rate. The first country going through the demographic transition was Catholic France, around 1800. About 70 years later, Protestant countries in Europe followed France14, despite the disapproval of contraceptive use among all churches prior to the Twentieth Century20. In Muslim countries such as Iran, Bangladesh, Tunisia and Indonesia, birth rates fell markedly in the late Twentieth Century under family planning programs and international aid. However, countries in SSA have not seen large falls in birth rates among their predominantly Christian and Muslim populations. This suggests that religion is one of several influences that can affect population change (other factors like patriarchy, education, family planning and social norms are well known to most TOP readers, and can easily be explored by searching our website).
For Sub-Saharan Africa, type of religion is relevant for fertility as we will describe in part 2 of this blog series. However, the degree of religiosity is even more relevant. In 2005, Gallup began surveys of religiosity in many countries, producing data that allows broad comparative analyses of global regions as well as countries within these regions. We recently found that 31 countries in SSA, as well as countries classified as Arab States, had the highest religiosity in the world, and also the highest total fertility rates (TFR). This suggests that religion and religiosity may be important determinants of fertility and contraceptive use, particularly in SSA, motivating this review of scientific literature1. Many interesting studies, not least by African scientists, have been published especially during the last decade. We will also see that progressive religious leaders argue for the importance of family planning and smaller families in SSA, bringing some hope for the future.
- Turner N. 2021. Influence of Religion and Religiosity on Fertility and Contraceptive Use in Continental Sub-Saharan Africa: A Comprehensive Review. University of Gothenburg, 195 pages.
- Stark R & Finke R. 2000. Acts of Faith. Explaining the human side of religion. University of California Press.
- Dawkins R. 2008. The God delusion. Mariner Books.
- Fisher H. 2005. Why we love. Henry Holt & Co.
- Fox J. 2018. An introduction to religion and politics, 2nd ed. Routledge.
- Prothero S. 2010. God is not one. HarperOne.
- Olson, DVA et al. 2020. Sacred canopies or religious markets? The effect of county-level religious diversity on later changes in religious Involvement. Journal for the scientific study of religion 59: 227-246.
- Carvalho J-P, Iyer S & Rubin J. 2019. Advances in the economics of religion. Palgrave Macmillan.
- McCleary RM & Barry RJ. 2019. The wealth of religion. The political economy of believing and belonging. Princeton University Press.
- Ross KR, Asamoah-Gyadu JK & Johnson TM. 2017. Christianity in Sub-Saharan Africa. Edinburgh University Press.
- Grillo LS, van Klinken A & Ndzovu HJ. 2019. Religions in contemporary Africa. An introduction. Routledge.
- Inglehart R. 2021. Religion’s Sudden Decline: What’s Causing it, and What Comes Next? Oxford University Press.
- Jenkins P. 2020. Fertility and faith. The demographic revolution and the transformation of world religions. Baylor University Press.
- Yao G & Wyman RJ. 2017. Population. In: Jenkins W et al (Eds), Routledge handbook of religion and ecology, pp 304-315. Routledge.
- McKeown J. 2014. God’s Babies: Natalism and Bible Interpretation in Modern America. OpenBook Publishers.
- Berry LB. 1994. Ghana: A Country Study. (GPO for the Library of Congress).
- Beyers J. 2010. What is religion? An African understanding. Theological Studies 66.
- Adongo PB, Phillips JF & Binka FN. 1998. The influence of traditional religion on fertility regulation among the Kassena-Nankana of Northern Ghana. Studies in Family Planning 29: 23-40.
- Ellis, S. & Ter Haar, G. 2004. Worlds of Power. Religious Thought and Political Practice in Africa. Hurst & Company.
- Goodson P. 1997. Protestants and Family Planning. Journal of Religion and Health 36: 353-366.