The Spirit Level: Religious beliefs in South Africa

The nature of religious belief and practices and how they are changing in contemporary society continues to be the focus of much debate worldwide. In South Africa, there is a surprising lack of data on the dynamics of religious attitudes and behaviour in the country. In this article, Dr Ben Roberts, Dr Steven Gordon, Jarè Struwig, Samela Mtyingizane, Thobeka Zondi and Ngapheli Mchunu examine national survey data on attitudes towards select religious beliefs in the country, and how these have altered in the decade between 2008 and 2018/19.

Despite considerable international attention being devoted to the subject of religion in contemporary society and whether or not there are unequivocal signs of religious decline, the beliefs and preferences of average South Africans have to a large extent been missing from the debate.

Addressing this, an in-depth module on religion was fielded by the HSRC as part of the 2018/19 annual round of the South African Social Attitudes Survey (SASAS). This nationally representative data was collected as the local contribution to a broader International Social Survey Programme (ISSP) study that is examining religious beliefs and behaviour in approximately 40 countries. This represents a replication of the ISSP 2008 religion module. Comprising 2 736 respondents older than 15 years, the results suggest that South Africans remain deeply religious, but not uncritically so.

Religious belonging

In each annual round of interviewing since 2003, SASAS respondents have been asked whether or not they belong to a religion. Figure 1 displays the trends based on the measure for the period between 2003 and 2018/19.

Only a minority reported not belonging to a religion, while the share identifying with a religion fluctuated in a narrow range of between 80% and 87% over the 16 survey rounds. No distinctive pattern of change is apparent over time.

South Africa remains a largely Christian nation. Of those identifying with a religion in 2018, the vast majority said they were some form of Protestant Christian. No particular Protestant denomination emerged as dominant, although notable minorities included the Zionist Christian Church (to which 9% of the adult population belonged in 2018/19). Roman Catholics accounted for one in 20, and 5% of the general public identified with a non-Christian religion.

Beliefs about God

One important aspect of religious change internationally is the belief in God. Three ISSP questions included in SASAS addressed this, and the results for both 2008 and 2018 are summarised in Table 1.

In 2018, approximately three-quarters (74%) of South Africans were strong believers in God, stating that I know God really exists and I have no doubts about it. This figure is equivalent to what was recorded in 2008. A further 7% were weak believers in God, decreasing from 13% in 2008 (results not shown). By comparison, only 5% presented as atheists in both survey rounds, indicating that they dont believe in God.

In terms of changes in belief in God over the life course, 83% of South Africans presented as consistent believers in 2018, reporting that they believe in God and always have, while only 3% were consistent atheists, stating that they dont believe in God and I never have. Again, these figures remain virtually unaltered relative to 2008. The final question asks respondents to express their level of support for a belief in a personal God (i.e. a God who concerns himself with every human being personally). In 2018, three-quarters of adults (76%) agreed with the statement, which represents a decline of 8 percentage points relative to 2008.

When one examines beliefs about God by birth cohort (Figure 2), we find that there is not a particularly distinctive difference across generations. There is a slight dip in belief among those born in 2000 and after, though not to the extent that it constitutes signs of a change in the norm.

It is important to note that we should not equate a belief in God with belonging to a specific religious denomination. Among those who reported that they did not identify with a religious denomination, 59% expressed a strong belief in God. Only around a 10th of this group were atheists and a further 5% were agnostics. Furthermore, nearly three-quarters (70%) of those without a denomination said that they believed in God then and always had, while only 7% of this group stated that they didnt believe in God then and never had.

Attitudes towards formal organised religion

Taken together, the aforementioned findings point to a strong and fairly stable belief in God among South Africans. Yet, what about attendance and views on formal organised religion? In 2018, 17% indicated that they attended a religious service at least weekly, compared with 23% in 2008. This may be related to a strong belief in religious individualism, with around two-thirds of the adult public (66% in 2018, 68% in 2008) maintaining that they had their own way of connecting with God without churches or religious services. Religious individualism was found to be just as common among non-denominationalists as denominationalists.

Other key findings on religion in South Africa

The perceived benefits and drawbacks of religion. The South African public continues to view religion favourably as a means of networking and providing solace in difficult times. In 2018, 71% agreed that practising a religion helped people to make friends, while 72% felt that it helped provide comfort in times of trouble or sorrow. While convincingly positive, this conviction decreased between 2008 and 2018. On a more critical note, sizable shares of the population also believed that religions bring more conflict than peace (41% agreed) and served as a barrier to gender equality (43% agreed), while people with strongly religious convictions were seen by many as intolerant (51% agreed). (Table 2).            

Religious tolerance. The general population was, on the whole, more tolerant of atheists or non-believers than what may have been expected for such a religious country. Only a minority (29%) felt negatively towards atheists, while 15% saw this group as threatening. Similarly, fairly tolerant views were evident in relation to allowing religious extremists to convene meetings to express their views (58% would definitely/probably favour this).


While international literature has theorised that a decline in religion can be expected in societies over time, the disappearance of the sacred and the rise of the secular has not occurred in line with expectations. Indeed, the idea of secularisation has come to be increasingly contested as various indicators point to an enduring religiousness around the world. From the evidence presented in this article, South Africa is no exception. Religious identity is as strong as it was a decade ago, there continues to exist a resolute belief in God; and young South Africans are not displaying fundamentally different religious tendencies to older generations.

In terms of formal organised religion, regular weekly attendance of religious services is not widespread; and there is a robust belief in ones own independent way of connecting with God. The overarching message however remains, and religion remains an important element in the lives of South Africans and for society as a whole.


Dr Ben Roberts and Jarè Struwig, coordinators of SASAS; and Dr Steven Gordon, senior research specialist, and Samela Mtyingizane, Thobeka Zondi and Ngqapheli Mchunu, doctoral researchers, in the HSRCs Democracy, Governance and Service Delivery research programme.