Has Christianity and Islam ever not exploited Africa?

Leo Igwe writes about the contribution of Christianity and Islam to modernizing Africa. Against the background of African superstitions, does adding European and Middle Eastern superstitions help?

You will be shocked to learn that no, it does not.

These two religions do not, in any way, constitute ‘modernising forces’ in Africa. They render it increasing difficult to question and challenge supernatural and paranormal claims. Christianity and Islam only add to the existing superstitions, substituting or rebranding magical narratives that already apply in African societies. The skeptics’ movement should make it part of its program to subject Christian and Islamic faith claims to critical evaluation, even at the risk of being accused of racism or islamophobia.

I don’t think bringing in Scientology or Buddhism would counter irrationality either. Let’s criticize all religions.


  1. cartomancer says

    I think we need to be careful when talking about “Christianity” and “Islam” in Africa, particularly in terms of their relationship with colonialism. There are many strands of both religions on the continent, some colonial imports, some native traditions going back thousands of years. The north of Africa, in particular, was the setting for much of the development of both Christianity and Islam during late antiquity and the early Middle Ages. The sub-saharan south has more of the 19th century colonial sort.

    Not that the Coptic Church or Mahgrebi Islam are necessarily any more rational and progressive than missionary evangelicalism or Wahabism of course. But it is a mistake to see all Christianity or all Islam in Africa as a colonial imposition – some if it IS African religion in any sense of the term.

  2. jrkrideau says

    @ cartomancer
    Hang on a second! You are not implying Saint Augustine was African, are you?

    That is as silly as claiming that there were Africans in Roman Britain.

  3. thirdmill says

    Years ago I was in South Africa and took an overnight train from Johannesburg to Cape Town. My bunk mate told me he was an aboriginal witch doctor (sorry, I’m sure that’s not the politically correct term but I don’t know what the PC expression for it is.) He told me he was also a Muslim. When I asked him how he could be both a Muslim and a witch doctor, he told me that polytheistic native Africans see no reason to abandon polytheism just because monotheistic missionaries show up. So, as far as he was concerned, Allah and Jesus were just two more gods (small g) to add to his collection.

    I’ve thought about that conversation often, and concluded that the real problem is not religion per se, but monotheism. People can live together in peace with lots of different gods; it’s only when someone makes the claim that my God is the true one and yours is the evil false one that problems arise. Except for the monotheistic component, neither Christianity nor Islam would likely be any more toxic that all the Americans who believe in astrology, palm reading and mediums who talk to the dead. Just harmless stupidity, that’s all.

  4. lotharloo says

    That’s exactly the wrong way of looking at it. There is no Islamic tradition that goes back thousands of years back, not in Africa not anywhere. Also, what’s the difference between “colonial religious import” and “traditional religions”? Easy. The date by which they were imported because they were both imported by force.

  5. cartomancer says

    lotharloo, #4

    Well, okay, the Islamic traditions in North Africa are slightly over one millennium old. But that’s still quite a long time. More to the point, a lot of native North African traditions from the pre-Islamic era were incorporated into and found homes as part of North African forms of Islam. Ultimately all traditions come from somewhere else, but grow and change and adapt to local mores. After a thousand years as a key part of North African culture I think we can safely call Mahgrebi forms of Islam distinctively African. Doubly so for African forms of Christianity – as jrkrideau points out, perhaps the most influential of all Christian theologians was of African birth and lived and worked most of his life in North Africa.

    My point was that the original article PZ links to assumes that Christianity and Islam are comparatively recent cultural imports, brought by colonial powers from Europe and the Middle East, which are distinct from “African religion” and the distinctive kinds of supernatural explanations that “African religion” gives for things. Leo Igwe criticises the notion that the forms of religion inherent in these colonially imported religions are somehow more rational and progressive, but I would dispute that they are, in many cases, colonial and distinct types of religion at all. I would say that African Christianity and African Islam are, in large part, informed by just the same world views and outlooks as less organised African religious traditions – because they have grown up and developed among African people with culturally African ideals and outlooks.

    I mean, yes, you might call Christianity in England a middle-eastern import (or an Italian import, or a Germanic import, or an Irish import, or a Greek import depending on who you focus on as having brought it here), and say that Celtic Druidry is a more traditional and authentically English form of religion, but that would be somewhat perverse given the history.

    Furthermore the “Christianity and Islam are more progressive than traditional African religions” line is part of a dialogue about colonialism in Africa. It is the sort of thing espoused by those who support colonialism in Africa and would like to see more of it. I am uncomfortable confronting such people by conceding their premises – in this case that their religions have nothing African about them and operate in a more rational way unconnected to cultural prejudices. They’re not a different sort of religion that just happens, unconnectedly, to be just as irrational – they’re the same sort of irrationality and for the same reasons.