Christianity as a civilizing force? The case of Ghanaian women

Christianity as a civilizing force? The case of Ghanaian women August 16, 2009

In the comments, Dheeraj has been arguing for Christianity as a civilizing force in human society. Now that’s a big question with a lot of arguments on either side. But here’s a new study that gives an interesting angle.

The researchers studied women from the Kassena-Nankana of northern Ghana, going there first in 1995, and then back in 2003. What they found was that many of the people in this remote region are changing religions – they’re abandoning traditional beliefs in favour of Christianity.

They also found that women are more likely to change religions than are men – overall, 61% of women changed their religions in that time, mostly switching into Christianity although some also became Muslims. The pattern of switching, however, was complex:

  • Among Christians, 52% did not switch to other religions whereas 38% switched to traditional religion and 9% switched to Islam
  • Among traditionalists, 34% did not switch, 53% became Christians, and 13% became Muslims.
  • Among the Muslims, 11% did not switch whereas 42% and 48% switched to Christianity and traditional religions

What’s interesting was that those women who became Christians or Muslims were more likely to use contraception and they also had smaller families.

It seems likely that women are changing out of traditional religions and into the monotheist religions because these religions are associated with higher status for women. The particular brand of Christianity that is increasing in this region is the Pentecostal/Charismatic forms, which allows contraception – as does (broadly speaking) Islam.

Now this finding throws up some interesting questions. Is there something intrinsic to these two religions that makes them more socially advanced than older animist religions? That would fit with the hypothesis put forward by Robert Wright in his new book, The Evolution of God. He argues that societies are becoming more sophisticated and increasingly mutually beneficial, and their conception of God has evolved to keep pace with that.

However, the researchers also found that educated women and ethnic minorities are more likely to switch. And earlier research (Addai, 1999) has shown that, after controlling for demographic factors, there was no effect of religion on contraceptive use by Ghanaian women.

But the picture appears to be more complicated than that. In a paper presented last year at a conference on economic development in Africa, Niels-Hugo Blunch reported that there was a relationship between religion and contraception use, but only among uneducated women. Among educated women the effect disappears.

So perhaps it’s not the choice of religion that is the cause of the effect, but rather the halo effect in which foreign religions are linked to modern ideas. If this is the case, then the religions are not the direct cause of the increased use of contraception, but rather they piggy-back onto the adoption of western cultural practices in general. As Blunch puts it:

Traditional/Animist religion promotes relatively greater family sizes, so that any religion in Ghana other than Animist/Traditional religion can be expected to be more open to the use of contraceptives, since they implicitly bring with them “modern” (at least relatively speaking) underpinnings from the outside world.

It’s an important distinction. If (as secularists and many religious people believe) limiting population growth is a good thing, then it’s an open question whether to promote literacy or Christianity/Islam.

Certainly, my preference would be to concentrate resources on improving education, especial given the many other benefits that brings with it.


ResearchBlogging.orgDoctor, H., Phillips, J., & Sakeah, E. (2009). The Influence of Changes in Women’s Religious Affiliation on Contraceptive Use and Fertility Among the Kassena-Nankana of Northern Ghana Studies in Family Planning, 40 (2), 113-122 DOI: 10.1111/j.1728-4465.2009.00194.x

Addai, I. (1999). Does Religion Matter in Contraceptive Use among Ghanaian Women? Review of Religious Research, 40 (3) DOI: 10.2307/3512371

Creative Commons LicenseThis work by Tom Rees is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

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