POPE Francis leaves Africa Monday, after a six-day tour that took him to Kenya, Uganda and Central African Republic. The pope addressed issues of poverty, corruption, social justice, peace and reconciliation, a message that undoubtedly found resonance in the three countries he visited.
But there’s a quiet trend that is shaping Africa today, whose implications might reform Christianity, and Islam, as we know them: demographic change.
The region will experience the fastest overall growth globally, rising from 12% of the world’s population in 2010 to about 20% in 2050.
That means that the next seventy years – a mere two or so generations away – the majority (50%+) of the world’s Christians will live in Africa, as the continent’s population surges while the rest of the world has fewer children and is rapidly ageing, projections from Pew Research shows.
As of 2010, Christianity was the world’s largest religion, with an estimated 2.2 billion adherents, nearly a third of the world’s population. Islam came in second, with 1.6 billion adherents, or 23% of the global population.
But Islam is growing faster than Christianity globally, and Christianity is losing adherents through religious switching, mostly to the ranks of the unaffiliated.
By 2050 there will be near parity between Muslims (2.8 billion, or 30% of the population) and Christians (2.9 billion, or 31%), possibly for the first time in history.
And holding all factors constant, globally, Muslim numbers will surpass Christians after 2070.
Epicentre of Christianity
At that point, Africa will be the world’s epicentre of Christianity, being home to a majority of the world’s Christians.
It’s part of a shifting trend that has been happening since Christianity first began in Palestine 2,000 years ago. By the year 300, the centre of Christianity – the demographically central point of the faith – moved from Jerusalem to Armenia.
Two hundred years later, with the conversion of the Roman Emperor Constantine and the institutionalisation of Christianity as the state religion, the centre of the faith had moved to Rome.
Over the next half-century, the epicentre of the church moved near Budapest, where it became the default expression of culture and art. In the next 1,000 years, with European migration into the Americas, the centre of Christianity moved further west, to Madrid by 1900.
But in the past four deades or so, world Christianity’s center of gravity has moved relentlessly south and is now located around Timbuktu in Mali. By the end of the century, it could be located in Nigeria.
Christianity’s 21st century challenge will be in bridging this divide: The centre of religious power, money, and theological capital remain entrenched in the global, secularised North while the energy and growth of the church will be in the global South, particularly Africa.
It’s the same case for Islam in Africa. The Muslim population in sub-Saharan Africa is projected to grow by nearly 60% in the next 20 years, from 242.5 million in 2010 to 385.9 million in 2030.
Muslims in sub-Saharan Africa will account for a growing share of the global Muslim population. By 2030, 17.6% of the world’s Muslims are expected to be living in sub-Saharan Africa, up from 15% in 2010.
It’s mostly as a result of higher fertility rates in Muslim-majority countries in Africa. Although fertility rates are falling across the board, by 2030, women in Muslim-majority countries in Africa will still be having an average of 3.8 children – some of the highest in the world.
What would an “African” Christianity, or Islam, look like?
Obviously, it would mean the first black pope in the modern era isn’t too far off – possibly by 2030. Though there have been at least three popes who hailed from North Africa - Pope St. Victor I (189-199), Pope St. Miltiades (311-314), and Pope St. Gelasius I (492-496), it would be the first time an African would have ascended the papacy in nearly 1,500 years.
Africa, defender of the faith
This would possibly mean a return to a more conservative theological position in some issues; Africa is already seeing itself as the defender of traditional values, particularly as churches in the global north have more accommodative positions when it comes to gay rights.
Married with children
Married priests are also a possibility when Africa sets the tone, considering the strong emphasis on children and descendants in African culture. The church “will not have a good reason to keep saying no,” writes journalist and deacon Greg Kandra, based in the diocese of Brooklyn, NY.
“Celibacy is discipline, not dogma… it’s not set in stone. And even the most steadfast traditionalists understand that—as Blessed John XIII so beautifully put it—we are tending a garden, not a museum,” argues Kandra.
Basilica of Yamoussoukro
When Christianity becomes majority African – and demographically, the centre of gravity of the Christian church is already in Africa – will Rome still be the seat of the church? Already, churches are being decommissioned by the day in Europe, being turned into social halls and even nightclubs.
Might the pope sit somewhere in Africa – perhaps the Basilica of Our Lady of Peace in Yamoussoukro, Cote d’Ivoire, the largest church in the world, that was built as a replica of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome? Will the Archbishop of Canterbury still be the head of the Anglican church, or will it be the Archbishop of Lagos, for example?
And will Muslims still pray facing Mecca?
History and tradition are difficult to change when it comes to holy sites, so probably Europe and Saudi Arabia will continue to be the physical centres of their respective faiths. But what is certain is that Europe itself will become “browner” through migrations from Asia, the Middle East and Africa. So perhaps it will be more of a case of Africans moving north and re-making Europe from within.
The end of the religious demographic dividend
Even as fertility continues to the main factor driving growth in the ranks of the religious, as societies get richer, the ranks of the unaffiliated grow. As these former-churchgoers have families, they are unlikely to pass on the traditions of the faith to their children, or at least less intensely.
It means that at that time, religion “will no longer win simply by cranking out a surplus of indoctrinated babies and will have to compete on an intellectual footing,” writes blogger and cultural critic Bob Seidensticker.
A return to ‘paganism’ and Nature
Which religion then, is likely to win out in this intellectual race to win hearts and minds in the 21st century?
The greatest challenge of the coming decades is climate change. The worst case scenario is the world might face a major ecological catastrophe in just a few decades. The creed that can present a more nuanced relationship with the earth might win out in the end.
Pope Francis has already cut himself out to be a climate change crusader, and protecting the planet is increasingly being framed as a moral concern.
But possibly, neither Christianity nor Islam – with their theological focus of man at the centre of creation – will win out in the end. It might be a “pagan” return to Nature.