Field of Science

Christianity as a civilizing force? The case of Ghanaian women

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.


  1. Re: Christianity as a civilizing force in human society

    If the claim is, like I have heard e.g. Dinesh D'Souza state it, that Christianity is pivotal in the making of the western civilization, then I'd say that, yes, it probably had something to do with it, and I'd reference a mechanism like the one you outline here. However, that Christianity is necessary to make a civilization is obviously hogwash, since many civilizations have come before Christianity (Chinese dynasties is probably the best example, but there are of course many others).

  2. I can completely see the appeal of Christianity to those in certain religions seeking to use it as a springboard out of religiously-justified social marginalisation - as in Dheeraj's example of the Hindu caste system. This even seems to have given rise to a fear among Hindu fundamentalists that the Christian monority is a threat to the dream of the Hindu state.

    Despite Christianity being seemingly more conservative in Africa than in its other strongholds (I live in Africa), it has still benefited from evolving in response to European culture - where it was forced to acknowledge calls for social reform, or become irrelevant.

    Christianity in its early forms was little different to Islam in terms of social values. Many conservative Christians still stand against contraception, womens' rights, gay rights, acceptance of other creeds, etc..

    The difference in Christianity, from my knowledge, comes from the increasing industrialisation and rise of early capitalism in Europe in the middle ages - leading to a more powerful bourgeoisie that was capable of making demands on the state, finally shaking its alliance with the church.

    This forced the church into a cycle of reform to benefit the bourgeoisie, rather than being able to dictate to it, as it still can in some Islamic countries.

    So Christianity is appealing, imo, because it comes bearing the promise of European, bourgeois, capitalist secularism.

  3. It is one of my pet theories that all religions when thought of as social structures (or entities) are completely parasitic. I'm not referring to the 'meme mind virus' idea but more of this idea there are social needs and forces that religion (manifested in the form of a priesthood or church) then gloms on to in order to maintain its existence.

    1.) the knowledge of how to calculate when the Nile River would flood was vitally important to the people that farmed in the valley and delta. The ability to make this prediction was what became the power base of Egyptian religion.

    2.) there were powerful political, social and economic forces that motivated the Crusades - perhaps the Religious component was just a rationalization and propaganda

    3.) the Inquisition had a deal with the King of Spain that all the property confiscated was split between the Crown and the Church. The desire for religious purity was perhaps just a fig leaf for the avarice.

    4.) in reading over the research presented here at Epiphenon, it seems to me that one can always interpet the data as showing a strictly secular phenomenon that then acquires a religious cast to it.

  4. not *all* secularists are opposed to population growth....

  5. That was an interesting study.You therefore do agree that when education is lacking the religious institutions help in 'civilizing' communities.

    The interesting link between conversion and contraception use hints at these individuals having 'something' in them which makes them 'embrace change'.It is for scientists to discover that and this blog also attempts to figure that out :-)

    In India, the situation is slightly different.Christians lose their social status on conversion and so Christianity is not attractive in that sense though many speak of conversion by allurement it is more a myth.But still family size among Christians is smaller than Hindus and Muslims.

    In contrast to Robert Wright's idea I propose that the societies evolve fitting into their concept of God.For example head hunting tribes of Nagaland in India are no longer hunting for heads as trophies of valour because of the influence of Christianity.

    The role of education in removing differences in contraceptive use is great.It does call for promotion of education.I suspect that there are links between education and religious affiliation too.
    For example in India there is extremely high representation of Christians in professions of medicine,nursing and teaching compared to their percentage in general population.
    Of course these are a mesh where we can get lost with what causes which.

    It would be interesting to know if education affects contraceptive use when religion plays a too strong a role in countries like Saudi Arabia etc.

    I do not think there is a conflict in promoting religion or education for increasing contraceptive use.
    The Government should promote education and religious institutions promote their views. The Governments could liaise with religious institutions in spreading health education.

  6. Dheeraj, I think that Christianity can be associated with a positive influence but the question is why this is so. Is it something intrinsic to the religion, or has the religion been adapted over the years to suit the changing needs of it's adherents.

    Even today, different Christian sects have very different views on issues like contraception - which suggests that the difference of opinion is due to something extrinsic to the religion.

    And going back into history, views of what makes a true Christian have varied quite considerably over time.

    All this suggests to me that Christianity has been adapted to modern societies, and it is this association with modernity that means that it has a positive influence for these women.

  7. The other puzzle piece that is missing in order to characterize "Christianity as a civilizing force" is that it would need to show some advantages as a force. In other words, if you could show that Christianity and other monotheistic religions convinced people to modernize faster than spreading secular education, then you'd have a case.

    Until then, all you have is "Modern strains of Christianity suck slightly less than ancient strains of animist religions" which is not really anything worth writing home about.

    If I am a hardcore alcoholic and, as part of getting dry, I take up smoking, that may be a good thing depending on the severity of the alcoholism. But I would hardly say that "Nicotine is a force for combating substance abuse"!


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