Religion and Politics in Africa: The Future of “The Secular”

Jon Abbink


This essay discusses the continued importance that religion holds in African life, not only in terms of numbers of believers, but also regarding the varieties of religious experience and its links with politics and the “public sphere(s)”. Coinciding with the wave of democratization and economic liberalization efforts since about 1990, a notable growth of the public presence of religion and its political referents in Africa has been witnessed; alongside “development”, religion will remain a hot issue in the future political trajectory of the continent. Its renewed presence in public spheres has also led to new understandings of what religion means and how it figures into both “world-making” and identity politics. This will prolong the challenges associated with the role and status of religion in the “secular state model” found in most African countries. Can these states, while “besieged” by believers, maintain neutrality among diverse worldviews, and if so, how? The paper discusses these issues in a general manner with reference to African examples, some taken from fieldwork by the author, and makes a philosophical argument for the development of a new kind of “secular state” that can respect the religious commitments of African populations.

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