Religion in Contemporary Africa and its Diaspora

Professor Rijk van Dijk

The study of religious transformations has been an intrinsic part of the research agenda of the African Studies Centre Leiden, and has emerged as one of its renowned fields of expertise in recent decades. This applies to the domains of Christianity and the rise of African Independent churches, Islam and its local variations in parts of western and northern Africa, and African historical religious traditions in various regions.  

Religion, values and moralities
While this Chair on Religion in Contemporary Africa and its Diaspora is squarely placed at the heart of this key theme in the ASCL’s research profile, it also aspires to develop this interest by providing a sophisticated understanding of current major developments. It should be underscored, firstly, that contrary to modernist expectations, which predict a retreat of religion from modern societies under the impact of globalization and secularization, in Africa a different development can be noticed. Religion remains an important force in the transmission of values and moralities. It continues to mobilize people, and provides for a context of continuing innovation as a driver of change. Modern religious movements have emerged in large numbers, place themselves at the core of political centres of power, and have become dominant in public domains through the establishment of a wide range of Faith Based Organizations.

These socio-religious dynamics appear important for three processes that will be explored in research:

  1. The significance of religious identity and the circumstances and conditions under which religious identifications  become marked. Increasingly,  individuals and communities appear to become the object and subject of a new phase of how religious formations in Africa simultaneously mobilize and block certain sentiments. This is often expressed in specific religious polemics that are prevalent on social media and spark intense public debates. This aspect of public religious sentiment will be studied as part of a new Collective Research Group on ‘Collaboration and Contestations through the written and spoken word’.
  2. The significance of public and private moralities and the religious (re-)formulation of relationships. Increasingly, these modern religious movements are not only deeply concerned with individual identities, but seem interested in promoting techniques of the self, concerning sexual and gender relations. This can be called a new phase of the ‘religious engineering’ of society (Van Dijk 2013). The manner in which religious ideologies and practices can increasingly be seen to play a public role in structuring gender, sexuality and relationships leads to new contestations in- and outside of the religious domain. The sharpest of these have emerged in religious opposition to the liberalization of the rights of sexual minorities.
  3. The manner in which these relatively new movements develop civic initiatives of social work and support. Through these social initiatives, these groupings also seem to become influential in reaching out to a larger general public. However, in considering their social impact, this aspect of their activities has received much less attention. This research therefore aims to identify those areas of social support that Pentecostal groupings engage with and to understand what they hope to achieve. The assumption of this research is that, because of the increasing importance of Pentecostalism as a whole, their engagement with social work & support is growing in importance as well, and that this is not ‘neutral’, but becomes political as it is highly informed by the specific Pentecostal moral and spiritual imperatives and convictions.

Read the full text of the research intentions of this Chair.