Secularism in Africa
Introducing the Problem
are notoriously religious" (Mbiti, John S., African Religions
and Philosophy, London, Heinemann, 1969, p. 1). These opening words
of Professor Mbiti's classic work African Religions and Philosophy,
first published 30 years ago, are just as notorious as the African
religiosity they purport to describe and they still correspond to most
people's idea of the African reality. The picture is one of ancient
religious traditions still flourishing, of Islam dominating huge swathes
of the African continent, of Christians in their first fervour, of new
religious movements proliferating. In contrast to this religiously edifying
vision, EuroAmerica is deemed to be the home of a relentless and
inexorable secularism. Western Christians fantasise about a future in
which Africa will be among the last bastions of religion on earth,
and from where a reverse mission may one day arise, with Africans setting
forth to reevangelise the West.
spite of all this, Pope John Paul II, in his Post-Synodal Exhortation
after the African Synod, Ecclesia in Africa, pointed to the
growing threat of secularism in Africa. Although the subject scarcely
received a mention in the speeches, messages and propositions of the
Synod, the Pope wrote:
the rapid evolution of society has given rise to new challenges linked
to the phenomena notably of family uprooting, urbanisation, unemployment,
materialistic seductions of all kinds, a certain secularisation and
an intellectual upheaval caused by the avalanche of insufficiently critical
ideas spread by the media" (Ecclesia in Africa, 14 Sept.
1995, no. 76). Pope John Paul spoke in several other passages about
the intrusiveness of the media, and also about the "temptation
to individualism" so alien to Africa's best traditions (ibid.,
than 20 years ago, in 1972, the Vatican Secretariat for Non-Believers
held a colloquium in Uganda on secularism. The meeting took place at
Ggaba National Seminary, Kampala, and it produced a set of conclusions,
outlining common problems connected with the subject in Ethiopia, Ghana,
Kenya, Malawi, Nigeria, Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia), South Africa, Tanzania,
Uganda and Zambia. It also drew up a list of seven recommendations for
the ten countries concerned (Conclusions of the Gaba Colloquium on
Secularism, mineographed 1972 [copy in the author's possession]).
What is interesting in this report is that the whole emphasis is placed
on indifferentism and unbelief among the educated élite,
rather than on materialism and the unsettling influences of urbanisation.
Nothing whatever is said about the mass media. Consequently, the major
recommendations concern religious education at thirdlevel institutions.
It is interesting to compare the concerns of this Vatican colloquium
in 1972, with those of Pope John Paul II in 1995. The contrast is an
eloquent commentary on developments in Africa during the last 20 years.
So far from the African being inherently, if not "notoriously"
religious, secularism is rapidly becoming a more generalised phenomenon
in the African continent, spreading from a small circle of privileged
individuals to a whole society undergoing a spectacular evolution.
and secular represent two different ways of experiencing the same reality.
In themselves, they are not in competition or conflict. At the sacred
level, reality is experienced as being under the governance of God,
as the object of religious faith. The secular, on the other hand, is
the same reality construed as being accessible to humanity and under
its control. The secular has nothing to do with the concept of "uncleanness",
and is therefore not intrinsically opposed to the sacred.
human societies which are technologically unsophisticated are tempted
to allow the sacred to invade the secular sphere and to discourage human
initiative or innovation. This has given rise to a positive understanding
of secularisation or "secularity" in which a legitimate restoration
of the secular sphere is observed to take place. Such a restoration
was the preoccupation of the socalled "secular theologians"
of the 1960's, who proclaimed that humanity had now come of age, and
that religious faith had nothing to fear from the full realisation of
secular potential, and the ascendancy of the human.
secularisation possesses a momentum of its own, and very soon develops
into "secularism", the situation in which the secular is observed
to dominate or even replace the sacred. Secularism refers to a situation
in which religious faith, for one reason or another, is felt to be superfluous.
It is a state in which organised religion loses its hold both at the
level of social institutions and at the level of human consciousness.
As such, secularism is a datum of modern society. It is a world view
which, in theory and/or practice, denies the immanence of God.
may stem from explicit unbelief, the denial of the existence of God
or of any religious dimension to human life. Such unbelief is rarely
the product of a formal, atheistic, rational philosophy. More often,
it is an allegiance to a popular myth of science as the ultimate theory
of everything, a conviction that the only truths are those which are
accessible to scientific observation and experiment. Basically, it is
a faith in unlimited human progress, apparently confirmed by the spectacular
achievements of Western technology. This faith is, however already being
shaken by the current ecological crisis, and the realisation that the
maintenance of material standards in Europe and North America depends
on the collapse and possible elimination of vital resources. (Cf. Ludwig
Bertsch, "Inculturation in Europe's Societal Situation: An Introduction",
in Yearbook of Contextual Theologies, Missio Institute, Aachen,
1993/4, p. 104).
materialism is nowadays the most common cause of secularirsm. Rather
than formal unbelief, it is a religious indifferentism induced by the
preoccupation with material things. As Mary Douglas points out, it is
the product of a world of impersonal things, a world in which personal
relationships are at a minimum and in which symbolism and ritual are
discounted as forms of expression in the interpretation of reality.
(Mary Douglas, Natural Symbols: Explorations in Cosmology,
Barrie and Rockliff, London, 1970, p. 61). In a cosmos dominated
by objects, rather than persons, it is impossible to bring moral pressure
to bear on the human controllers, because there is so little persontoperson
Lesslie Newbigin, the missiologist, goes even further in his interpretation
of secularism. In his numerous writings on the subject he argues that
materialism not only leads to religious indifference, but that it constitutes
a real "paganism". (Cf. for example, Leslie Newbigin: Foolishness
to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture, WCC, Geneva, 1986
and The Open Secret, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Mich., 1981).
In practice, it is nothing other than the worship of what is not God.
It induces a pseudoreligious attitude towards the material and
towards a material understanding of reality. Secularism banishes religious
belief to the private sphere of subjective opinion and elevates popular
science alone to the level of public truth.
Popular Assumptions Concerning Secularism
important part of the secular scientific myth is the belief in human
progress. Technological advances over the last 150 years have convinced
many people that secularism is the inevitable and final condition of
the human race. It is popularly assumed that religion belongs to the
childhood of humanity and that primitive people are naively pious, credulous
and subject to the teaching of priests and magicians. With the progress
of science and technology since the enlightenment, it is supposed that
human beings have thrown off the shackles of religion. Such an assumption
is based on popular, evolutionist theories of society. Evolutionary
theories of secularism, however, must take account of a number of uncomfortable
most vigorous of these comes from the anthropologist, Mary Douglas,
who maintains that secularism is not the exclusive outcome of modernity,
but is "an ageold cosmological type ... a product of definable
social experience, which need have nothing to do with urban life or
modern science". (Mary Douglas, Natural Symbols: Explorations
in Cosmology, op.cit., p. ix). Douglas bases her critique on a hypothesis,
which is not without its own critics, that society is defined by a limited
number of basic, organisational criteria, a combination of which prompt
people to adopt a pragmatic attitude to life, to discount metaphysics
and to make no distinction between mind and matter - in other words,
to be secular. Mary Douglas believes she can identify secular cosmologies
among a number of tribal peoples, including the Pygmies of the Ituri
Douglas expressed these opinions more than 25 years ago, and she might
well be slightly less forthright in the last years of the 20th
century. The spread of secularism from the Western world to other parts
of the globe is difficult to deny. It is also difficult to deny that
religious certainty was a general characteristic of premodern
society, while religious doubt tends to characterise modern or postmodern
society. Until the aftermath of the Second World War, religious faith
was still interwoven with public life in the West, and it was only the
scientific community and workingclass milieu that tended to be
areligious. Mary Douglas was writing at about the same time as
the Vatican colloquium on secularism in Africa, and before the rapid
changes of the last two decades.
the fact remains that the phenomenon of secularism is not explained
by a simple, evolutionist scheme, and that there have been secular cosmologies
in premodern societies. This fact alone should make people less
certain of the final triumph of secularism for all time. In any case,
the protagonists of secularism, need to explain the persistence of organised
religion in the secular environment.
voices are not lacking which proclaim that the secular society contains
within itself the seeds of its own decline and dissolution. Both Peter
Berger, the American sociologist of religion, and Lamin Sanneh, the
African missiologist, believe that secularism should not be seen as
a more formidable opponent than it is. (Peter Berger, The Heretical
Imperative, Contemporary Possibilities of Religious Affirmation,
London, 1980, p. 184; Lamin Sanneh, Encountering the West,
Christianity and the Global Cultural Process: The African Dimension,
Marshall Pickering, London, 1993, p. 225). Sanneh, in particular, sees
the Western cultural project as afflicted by a moral relativism that
renders it deeply flawed (Sanneh, op.cit., pp. 71, 235). Scepticism
about the perennial character of modern secularism seems to be growing,
and the future of secular culture may be less certain than its supporters
Vatican colloquium of August 1972, already alluded to, identified a
secularism in Africa which largely took the form of unbelief among intellectuals
and élites in universities and higher educational institutions.
It arose, so the meeting concluded, from a dissatisfaction with organised
religion and was imported from abroad, being disseminated through the
education system and the encounter with Western technology. Unbelief
tended to arise in the minds of the educated and, increasingly, the
semi-educated, because religious education had not kept pace with secular
and academic education. Church leaders saw the universities and other
institutes of thirdlevel education as places that posed a danger
to the faith of young élites.
analysis of unbelief among the academic community is certainly not far
from the truth. African universities are part of a secular tradition
of higher learning that stems from the Enlightenment and from parent
universities in Europe. Religious authority was seen as repressive and
opposed to true academic freedom. Such freedom demanded an open mind,
an agnosticism or methodological doubt. In matters of religious belief
honesty was thought to consist in coming to no conclusion. This was
conceived to be "rational" and "objective", since
religion was deemed to be subjective and scientifically untrustworthy.
first generation of African university students were taught to scoff
at organised religion and at religious authority. In the history of
human thought the "ages of faith" were ignored or dismissed,
as being hopelessly flawed. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that
African academics prided themselves on their unbelief, and that African
undergraduates hastened to disprove the existence of God as soon as
they arrived on campus.
situation was aggravated by the Church's contestation with secular modernity.
For a long time this was the principal agenda of Christian theology
in the West. (Cf. Berger op.cit., pp. 183189; Bertsch, op.cit.,
pp. 103104). Then, as secularist unbelief showed no signs
of weakening under the onslaught, but rather of exerting increasing
pressure on the religious consciousness itself, the attempt was made
to bargain with it and to strike a compromise. The attempt was made,
through reductionism and accommodation, to make Christianity
palatable to the secular consciousness. The end result of these theological
gymnastics was to give academics the impression that Christian teachings
were not worth fighting against. Theology was banished from the curriculum
and the word became a synonym for irrelevance.
Vatican colloquium of 1972 recommended a restructuring of the
Catholic Church, to make it relevant to African life. Was this already
an adumbration of the small Christian communities which came into prominence
at the AMECEA study conference of the following year? It also called
for the spiritual guidance of university students and those in other
institutions of higher learning, through the creation of chaplaincies.
Finally, it requested a competent adult catechesis of the élites
that made greater use of Scripture (cf. Gaba Colloquium, Op.cit.,
the time of the colloquium, there were already chaplaincies in most
universities of Englishspeaking Africa. There were also departments
of Religious Studies, at an early stage of development, in several of
them. In some universities, however, as was the case with Dar-es-Salaam,
the prejudice against theology was too strong to allow such a department
to come into existence, and it was asked whether religious studies could
add anything to what the departments of history, literature and social
science were already doing. In general, however, the last quarter of
a century has witnessed a stronger religious presence at universities
and institutions of higher learning, and with it, a certain erosion
of academic unbelief.
accordance with the recommendations of the Vatican colloquium, efforts
have been made to bring religious education at the universities up to
the level of secular education. This is done, not only through conferences
and instructions at the various chaplaincies, but also through graduate
and undergraduate associations, such as the Newman Association, Pax
Christi, Young Christian Students, the Student Christian Movement and
Student Christian Unions. It is also done very effectively through the
departments of Religious Studies, the specialised degree courses they
offer and the religious options they provide in joint degree programmes.
Finally, the Christian Churches and Islam have begun to sponsor their
own faculties of theology and even their own private universities, where
these are permitted by the State.
if the concept of the national university is still secular, religious
affiliation and religious opinion occupy a more prominent position on
these campuses than they did two decades ago. Some people would argue
that it is a much healthier situation for religion to strive openly
for the allegiance of the élites in a secular environment,
than to face little or no challenge on its own home ground. All things
considered, the Churches are probably now in a stronger position than
they were, with regard to secular unbelief in academic circles. However,
the emphasis of secularism has now shifted from unbelief to a religious
indifferentism caused by consumer materialism, as we shall show in the
as Consumer Materialism
materialism is the form of secularism most prevalent in the contemporary
world, and the form which is rapidly appearing in Africa. It is the
outcome of rapid technological change and is also strongly linked to
wealth and the creation of wealth, since the affluent are the principal
consumers. It is promoted by the electronic media, and it is associated
with what has been called the global culture of "economism".
This is another way of referring to the neoliberal, EuroAmerican
technocracy. The indigenous cultures of the NonWestern world are
powerless against the economic forces of Western capitalism. Economism
has its roots in a Western culture that is intrinsically divisive and
imperialist, based on the manipulation of technological power and inequality.
It is a system which proclaims the overriding importance of the economic
factor. It generates its own rituals and symbols and creates its own
cultural myths of power, success, growth and prosperity. Economic issues
prevail everywhere, especially in the media. Economic factors are assumed
to be the main source of meaning and value, and virtue is defined
by economic success, profitability, costeffectiveness and growth.
popular scientific myth views economics as a science, an explanation
that is strictly and objectively true, a science that can change the
world. The fact remains that economics deals with human motives and
behaviour which are far from predictable.
rootsymbol of economism is the market, and the world is conceived
as a series of interlinked markets. "Market" (like science
itself) is a theory of ev-erything. Markets are characteristically held
and just, if left to operate according to their own impersonal laws.
The truth is that markets are never free or just. They do nothing by
themselves, but are static, until manipulated by human beings. This
neoliberal market ideology is, in fact, rooted in individualism
or the logic of selfinterest, popularly equated with rationality
itself. Success is calculated in terms of economic growth, not in the
equitable sharing of wealth. While countries grow richer, their poorer
citizens become more numerous.
claims universal legitimacy as a world culture. In reality, however,
it is a movement of "anticulture" which has no substance
as a genuine cultural system at all. It results in cultural homogenisation
and impoverishment. Paradoxically, the status of Christianity today
as a world religion is largely due to the influence of Western economist
culture. The Church has become the mirror and agent of economism and
a vehicle of globalisation. Her missionaries unconsciously introduced
secularism, by promoting a privatised, departmentalised religion, that
does not effectively challenge the myths of economism (cf. Elizabeth
Isichei, A History of Christianity in Africa, S.P.C.K., London,
1995, pp. 262263).
late Fr Pedro Arrupe, S.J., told the 1977 Synod of Bishops in Rome, that
the Church must make "a fair and sober assessment of modern culture,
however materialistic, irreligious and atheistic it may seem", otherwise
the faith will continue to be separated from real life (Pedro Arrupe,
"Catechesis and Inculturation", AFER, vol.20, no. 1,
1978, p. 32). The extreme reactions of restorationism and reductionism
are fatal to religious belief. Christianity must not merely collaborate
with modernity, but must surpass it or transcend it (cf. Berstch, op.cit.,
pp. 106, 109). The new evangelisation has to bring about a social transformation,
in which social responsibility and solidarity replace economic rationalism
as the dominant motivation. This, in turn, depends on an internal transformation
within Christianity itself.
African Christian Studies, Vol.
13, No. 1, March 1997.