Optimism may be waning in many parts of the world, but a report based on a recent global survey shows that high numbers of Africans believe that brighter days are ahead. Indeed, when asked about the state of the economy and prospects for their children, Africans come across as more positive than respondents in Europe and the Middle East. It seems they are even more sanguine than notoriously optimistic Americans. That optimism persists even while many Africans report difficulties affording food and deep concerns about the disparity between the rich and the poor in their countries.
The report draws on findings from a 39-nation survey conducted by the Pew Research Global Attitudes Project in 2013, and many of the details are fascinating. When those surveyed in Africa—from the eight countries of South Africa, Kenya, Senegal, Uganda, Ghana, Nigeria, Egypt, and Tunisia—were asked about the economic situation of their countries, a median of 41 percent reported that they were in good shape compared with 15 percent of those surveyed in Europe and 27 percent in the Middle East. (These compare with 52 percent in the surveyed Asian countries and 44 percent in Latin American ones. In the United States, just 33 percent surveyed viewed the economic conditions as "good.")
Furthermore, when asked about the future of their children, a median of 50 percent of those in the surveyed African countries predicted that their children will be better off. That contrasts with 31 percent in the Middle East and 26 percent in Europe. Those surveyed in Nigeria and Ghana were particularly optimistic, with about two-thirds reporting that they believe their children will be better off, even as half or more of those surveyed in these and other African countries noted that they have been unable to afford food for their families at times in the past year.
The rosy outlook of many Asians may seem somewhat unsurprising, given their countries' rapid economic growth. But what are we to make of the optimism shown by those in Africa?
One potential explanation can be found in one of Pew's own past surveys.
In Spirit and Power: A 10-Country Survey of Pentecostals, a study conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2006, researchers found that the fastest growing form of Christianity in the world is Prosperity Gospel Pentecostalism. They examined 10 countries with sizable representations of Pentecostals and other renewalists: the United States; Brazil, Chile, and Guatemala in Latin America; Kenya, Nigeria, and South Africa in Africa; and India, the Philippines, and South Korea in Asia.
This form of Christianity teaches that God desires every believer who has enough faith to prosper in every way. The percentage of those who reported believing that "God grants material prosperity to all believers who have enough faith" was highest in Africa (83 percent in Kenya, 96 percent in Nigeria, and 80 percent in South Africa).
During my last research project, I spent two years going to services with Spanish-speaking immigrants in Prosperity Gospel Pentecostal churches across the United States. One of the core doctrines of Prosperity Gospel Pentecostalism is that God can miraculously bring wealth to individuals if they have enough faith.
I encountered entire communities who, despite their social and economic challenges, remained optimistic about their future primarily because having doubts is interpreted as a lack of faith, thereby displeasing God, who would, in turn, withhold prosperity. Even in seemingly hopeless situations, these Prosperity Gospel Pentecostals were confident that things would eventually turn out in their favor. I call this attitude relentless optimism, and I have seen it spread beyond spiritual matters. (I elaborated on "The Gospel of the American Dream" in the Hedgehog summer 2013 issue.) Prosperity Gospel Pentecostals are relentlessly optimistic about the outcomes of marital troubles, disobedient children, employment difficulties, even mechanical problems with their cars. When faced with each of these challenges, Pentecostals responded with their core belief: with enough faith, things would work out in their favor.
Thus, it is not surprising that continents with high percentages of Pentecostals are more likely to be optimistic about their economic future and the future of their children, regardless of their present difficulties.
This is not to suggest that prosperity gospel is the only reason for optimism in Africa. Yet the spread and prevalence of Prosperity Gospel ideology cannot be easily dismissed. It is an established global presence shaping cultures around the world. Given its vast reach and growing following, Prosperity Gospel Pentecostalism must be taken into consideration by anyone who is seeking to understand and explain global attitudes.
Tony Tian-Ren Lin is a research scholar specializing in the sociology of religion and culture at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture.