The pervasiveness of religion in the everyday lives of Kenyans can strike you forcibly like a hurricane. The omnipresent manifestations of religion all around the city of Nairobi and other towns across the country are almost jarring.
Churches, mosques, synagogues, and temples dot every intersection and rural village. Even the public transportation system highlights the deeply religious nature of Kenyans. Winding around Nairobi’s roads, there is a constant presence of wildly painted matatus (commuter vans) that ferry thousands of city-goers throughout the city every day.
They often are emblazoned with large taglines such as ‘God never fails,’ ‘Got Jesus?’ ‘Spread gospel not virus,’ ‘Suffering is temporary,’ and my favorite ‘God is da best.’ Christian music plays at grocery stores, restaurants, and more often than not in people’s personal cars. Religion is truly everywhere. Or is it?
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Statistics are spotty but those that are available underscore the religiosity of Kenyans. – 97 percent of the population ascribe to religion. A recent Pew forum survey indicates that 82 percent of Kenyans consider religion important in their lives and 70 percent attend weekly religious services.
Since religion is such a crucial part of everyday life and cultural fabric of the Kenyan society, one would assume that the same social values and norms would be at the center on individual behavior and social action. Consequently, certain things would automatically attend such as law and order, low crime, stable, cohesive and inclusive societies, peaceful elections, mature politics, justice for all.
Instead, the opposite is the order of the day. Kenya is the hotbed of the bad and the ugly. Corruption, nay, theft of public resources is a national pass time, crimes have hit an all-time high and still growing, primary school going girls are impregnated with abandon and now, there is a gang of young men that specializes in raping grandmothers!
With the global headlines dominated by the Islamic State, Islamic immigration throughout Europe/Africa and recent religious freedom laws passed across the world, to the untrained eye it would appear that religion is as strong as ever – but you would be mistaken. In fact, just the opposite is occurring and the age-old paradigm of piety is quickly shifting.
Apparently, we are not alone. A recent global survey conducted by National Geographic shows that the world’s fastest growing religion is not Islam or Christianity, but no religion at all – atheism. The study comes in conjunction with Nat. Geo’s new television series “The Story of God” starring Morgan Freeman which travels the world chronicling religious beliefs practiced by different cultures.
The study refers to atheists as “religious nones” or people who do not follow or identify with any religion. According to the results, atheism is now the second largest religious affiliation in North America and the majority of Europe.
In the United States alone approximately 22.8 percent of the population now identifies as atheist, up 6.7 percent from 2007. Furthermore, U.S. atheists now represent a larger portion of the population than Catholics, Protestants, and all other followers of non-Christian faiths – such as Islam and Buddhism. This was not the case only a decade ago.
The study finds that France, New Zealand, and the Netherlands are world leaders in secularism (the belief that people should be free from religious teachings) and these countries will soon have a higher population of atheists than any other religious affiliation.
If the statistics continue to trend in the current direction, the study finds the United Kingdom and Australia will soon be joining these countries. As it stands presently, Australia and the UK are already on the brink of losing their Christian majorities. With the exception of Buddhism, China rounds out the list of world leaders hosting secular beliefs.
The survey reports that on the other side of the spectrum, nowhere on Earth is religion growing faster than it is in Sub-Sahara Africa. This portion of the world is simultaneously experiencing the highest levels birth rates and when you forecast the long term population boom expected from this region over the next 25 years, the research indicates the number of religious people coming out of this region may be enough to overtake the number of atheists produced around the world over the same period.
Now, religion is a very personal thing and Africans tend to be very polite people. Most people who claim one religious affiliation or another may not even have stepped in a church in the recent past.
My grandfather, Eshikerekenge, was buried by the Anglican Church with a Christian name to boot but had never stepped in anybody’s church.
Lastly, the study finds that the youth are leading the charge towards nonreligion, finding that the largest demographic of non-religious affiliated people on Earth is comprised of this generation. Extending the timeline outwards, approximately 11 percent of people are said to have been raised in secular, non-religious affiliated homes since 1970.
The study also notes that a higher percentage of black people identify as religious comparatively to white people by a large margin - approximately 78% of all non-religious are found to be white. As for gender, generally speaking, females tend to be much more religious than males – approximately 68 percent of non-religious are male.
The study also claims that there is a direct correlation between religion and poverty levels. Essentially the poorer a country or community, the higher the population of religious people we find there.
Those who come from wealth or privilege are statistically less likely to hold religious beliefs. Additionally, the study finds that there is a direct correlation between education and religion. The higher the level of educated someone obtains, the less likely they are to hold devout religious beliefs.
Truth be told: Religion is becoming rapidly less important than it has ever been, even to people who live in religious Societies. An ongoing spate of recent studies - looking at various countries around the world - all show the same thing: religion is in decline.
From Scandinavia to South America, and from Vancouver to Seoul, Nairobi and Johannesburg the world is experiencing an unprecedented wave of secularization. Indeed, the world’s newest religion is No Religion. What would Christmas be like in a world without religion?
-Edwin Wanjawa teaches sociology at Pwani University School of Social Sciences