How religious is South Africa?

Scarlet A from the Out Campaign (source: Wikimedia Commons)

I was hoping to give some good news for the weekend, good news from my point of view anyway, that the level of religiosity in South Africa was dropping as is currently being reported. Unfortunately the situation is not as clear as the article makes it out to be.

An international survey released results that show South Africa’s population breaks down to 64% religious, 28% not religious, 4% atheist and 5% either not knowing or refusing to answer. Globally those claiming to be religious dropped 9% since 2005 and those claiming to be atheist rose by 3%. In South Africa the number of people claiming to be religious dropped 19% and number claiming to be atheist rose 3%. Just by claiming to be non-religious doesn’t mean that people are not members of a religion. It’s quite possible to follow a religion but not be religious, globally 22% identified as members of a religion but did not consider themselves to be religious.

The problem is the numbers for South Africa are just not reliable as only 200 people were surveyed for a country with almost 49 million inhabitants. We also had the lowest number of people surveyed out of all the countries. The next lowest survey size was 400 for Ecuador which has a population around 15 million. There is other useful information in the results, such as the correlation between education and lack of religiosity, but I don’t think the information on South Africa can be relied on at all.

When my family still got the Reader’s Digest they published a larger survey with markedly different results. In their April 2007 issue they ran a story called What South Africans Believe based on a survey of 2 456 people aged 16 and over. That survey found that 97% of South Africans believe in god, 65,9% believe in an afterlife, 76,4% believe we need religion to tell right from wrong and 75% believe religion is a force for good in the world. Of course in that case they weren’t measuring religiosity so it’s possible that even those that believe in god are not particularly religious. Again though the survey is just a subset of the population. To get the best figures we would want to look at the census data.

There was a census in 2011 which would be ideal to use but at current I can’t access Statistics South Africa’s website to see if they have released any information. The Wikipedia article on religion in South Africa compares religious identification from both 2001 and 2007. According to those figures, in 2001 census data indicated that 15,1% of South Africans identified as non-religious. Although the figure dropped to 8,08% in 2007 it is still higher than either of the above surveys suggested and makes non-religious one of the largest ‘religious’ groups.

The results that are now being published are just not reliable because they used a very small sample size for our country. The best idea of our countries religious breakdown will come from the results of the 2011 census which will be based on far more than 200 replies.

Not directly related to religion there are two other observations I’ve made here. A lot of news is recycled. The same article is on a number of websites and I’ve seen articles in print newspapers that I’ve already read on-line. That’s quite disappointing. Also there’s a disturbing lack of referencing in on-line articles. It took me a bit of work to track down the survey results when every on-line article ought to have linked straight to it.


6 thoughts on “How religious is South Africa?

  1. I just checked the stats, and a sample size of 200 in a population of 49 million at a confidence level of 95% yields a confidence interval of 7, which means the number may in fact only be out by 7% in either direction. What I would be interested in is how they selected that sample of 200. If they’re all hooked up to the net, for example, or all come from a specific province, I think the results are likely to be skewed.

  2. 7% in either direction means it’s somewhere in a 14% range which seems quite large. Although I’m actually surprised it’s not bigger. The data was collected face-to-face but there wasn’t much detail given as to how it was collected per country.

  3. Thanks for the link. It’s quite scary that of the three contacts listed only one was reachable and then referred you to Pakistan! I wonder if that has any bearing on the other quality of data of the other countries. It’s sad that such a bad survey was getting so much uncritical publicity, of course that might be because everyone just copy-pastes the same thing.

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