A large majority of the people still adhere to the traditional tribal religions. About 23 percent of the population, mostly in the north, have been Islamized to varying degrees. The first wave of Islamization came to the north in the thirteenth century; the second in the nine- teenth. In the twentieth century it has been spread to the south by traders. Christianity can claim about 12 percent of the population, mainly in the south, as its nominal adherents. With the exception of scattered and insignificant efforts beginning in the sixteenth century, Christianity was spread by European missionaries arriving in the late nineteenth century and has attracted much of the educated elite. Both Christianity and Islam have been, for the most part, urban religions.
This picture is essentially similar to that found among the coastal neighbors of the Ivory Coast; Liberia, Ghana, Togo, Dahomey and Nigeria. These countries and the Ivory Coast are at once the most pagan and the most Christianized countries of West Africa, in contrast to their neighbors to the north and northwest, who are heavily Islamized and where Christianity plays a far smaller role.
The religious picture is still more complex in that both Christianity and Islam are known in many different versions in the Ivory Coast, some of which are particular inventions of West Africa. Each traditional religion is limited to a specific ethnic group, and even though the religions of culturally related groups may share a number of basic elements, the elements are differently organized and emphasized within each group.
The people of the Ivory Coast may be said to be religious in that most of them attend religious ceremonies, observe religious practices, and tend to resort to religious aid in times of personal crisis. Both Islam and Christianity are often said to be "thin" in the Ivory Coast because their adherents will, under sufficient tension or pressure, often resort to "pagan" practices, at least as supplementary assurances, despite prohibitions of their faith. Furthermore, it is often suggested that even the more orthodox versions of Islam and Christianity are somewhat "watered down" in the Ivory Coast. On the other hand, it can as truly be contended that adherents of these faiths take them more seriously and literally than do many people in more sophisticated, older centers of these religions. Atheism, agnosticism or free thinking is extremely rare, confined to a few university graduates.