Does Africa Need God? December 27, 2008

Does Africa Need God?

Writer Matthew Parris has been to Africa many times. There’s also no doubt he’s an atheist.

He’s come to an interesting conclusion:

Now a confirmed atheist, I’ve become convinced of the enormous contribution that Christian evangelism makes in Africa: sharply distinct from the work of secular NGOs, government projects and international aid efforts. These alone will not do. Education and training alone will not do. In Africa Christianity changes people’s hearts. It brings a spiritual transformation. The rebirth is real. The change is good.

I have to agree with him on some level. At the various churches I’ve been over the past couple years, most of them were involved in some sort of missionary work — work that goes unmatched by the secular charities that are out there.

In the plenty of books I’ve read written by Christians, the authors have often gone on these trips themselves. They write about the difference they made in this village and that one. In one I just finished, the author worked side-by-side with Mother Teresa. I’ve seen my own high school students come back from trips transformed themselves after going to help people in impoverished places — they’re not just building churches; they’re saving lives.

I haven’t heard about or read books by atheists (or any non-Christians, for that matter) doing anything similar and on that scale.

Christians definitely have the money and the numbers to make a difference in places so many others have forgotten about.

The downside, of course, is the whole preaching superstition thing — not just religion, but also the dangerous belief that condom are evil:

It’s a pity, I would say, that salvation is part of the package, but Christians black and white, working in Africa, do heal the sick, do teach people to read and write; and only the severest kind of secularist could see a mission hospital or school and say the world would be better without it. I would allow that if faith was needed to motivate missionaries to help, then, fine: but what counted was the help, not the faith.

The help only goes so far, though. The faith takes them the rest of the way.

Parris reports that in his encounters with “missionized” Africans, the new Christians were different people:

… their faith appeared to have liberated and relaxed them. There was a liveliness, a curiosity, an engagement with the world — a directness in their dealings with others — that seemed to be missing in traditional African life. They stood tall.

None of this suggests the beliefs of Christians are true. Rather, it reinforces the idea that the Christian story is a powerful one.

I also don’t think that change has to come from Christianity — a powerful secular force could achieve something similar. But religious mythology gives the people hope for a better life even if there’s no reason to think it’s valid. That is one powerful placebo to argue against.

The article leads me to ask a few questions:

  • Is hope the thing that these missionized Africans need most? Or could their spirits be transformed by something else? Kindness from strangers? Basic food/water/medicine/education?
  • Are the teaching of Christianity and the sex miseducation the only reasons you (atheists) may not support these missionaries? Why else don’t you?
  • Is the Christian proselytization helping Africa or hurting it?
  • If you agree that Parris is correct in saying these mission trips are undeniably good, would you be willing to be a part of a trip as an atheist? Have you done this already?
  • Do you support or condemn Parris for writing the column?

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  • PrimeNumbers

    So Atheism is ok for me, the affluent, articulate westerner, but for those poor Africans they “need” a good dose of faith and religion. It’s strong medicine that makes them feel better. Sure there’s side effects, but it makes them feel better.

    Are we talking about religion or a drug?

  • Josh Spinks

    The hope missionaries are selling is for a better life after death. “Education and training”, which the author claims, “alone will not do”, can provide realistic hopes for the lives they will actually lead. Also, not everyone in Africa is and impoverished, dour individual. Moreover, Islam also changes a lot of Africans, we just don’t hear about that because it is not the dominant religion where we live. Every religion can produce these anecdotes – they are worth nothing.

  • stephanie

    I think any discussion of Christian Missionary work in Africa must also address the Catholic antipathy to condoms and how that has added to the AIDS pandemic.
    I don’t think I can believe much about how a religion is uplifting a population when it is also putting those people into mass graves.

  • Justin jm

    Is the Christian proselytization helping Africa or hurting it?

    I can accept that it is helping, but Matthew Parris seems to be saying that religion is necessary in Africa.

    I still say it isn’t, no matter how helpful it is.

  • Dan

    Something has got to be done. It remains to be seen whether the benefit will be long lasting or not, but dear FSM, Africa is the shittiest continent on Earth. If Christianity brings a real improvement to a person’s life, why should we sneer at it? Yes it’s a lie, but do you honestly want to say “No, leave all of those people wallowing in hopelessness, let them be miserable and despondent. It’s better that way.”?

    It would be better if change were being wrought by a secular movement, but let’s face it – when it comes to converting people to a cause, changing lives, getting people excited, etc. Christians have a lot more practice than we do.

    Edited to add – the condom issue is also a big one.

  • I think Parris seems to be suggesting that the good has come because of Christianity. The reformations have happened not because the people are Christian. As Josh Spinks commented, this could be achieved regardless of one’s faith, or lack of it. Therefore, good change can be brought about by secular means just as effectively. The difference is secular attempts tend to be a little more “macro” where you have organizations like Amnesty lobbying governments rather than focusing on helping small villages out individually. And even if secular organizations did build schools, they would likely not be referred to as “the secular organization that did such and such…” but in the case of religious organizations, their religion is mentioned first.

  • Oh and answers to your questions, Hemant:

    1. Hope is very important for any impoverished peoples. Without hope, little is accomplished. But hope is not characterized exclusively by faith. And yes, basic education et al. will definitely serve a greater purpose than pure faith. Teach a man to fish, feed him for a lifetime. Teach him to pray instead, and he’ll die praying for a fish.

    2. No. The main reason I do not support missionaries is simply the fact that they believe that these people need to be “saved”, except that their definition of “saving” them is warped. And the good that is done in the name of religion, is good that can be done without religion, so I find resources spent in surviving faith resources lost to a largely useless cost.

    3.Proselytism in Africa (really, the world) does more harm than good in the long term. The short term benefits brought by faith, belief in afterlife and all that good stuff really contribute to the long term desire to protect one’s faith through war with another.

    4.No I do not agree, so no I would not be a part of such a trip.

    5.Well, I definitely support his writing endeavours. I don’t think we should condemn anyone for writing anything, really. It’s part of free speech whether it is delusional, hateful, downright stupid or just a plain irrational non sequitur (like good ol’ Parris).

  • The Unbrainwashed

    Related question: Does anyone know if there’s a consensus regarding why Africa is in such a crappy situation? Why is Africa (quality of life, warfare, disease, education, government, etc.) so worse than Europe, North America, and Asia? I mean and it’s not even close, that’s just a bad continent. The only bright spot is South Africa I guess.

    What’s the reasoning behind it? I have no idea so I’m not leading anywhere, I’m just curious what people think.

  • I can hardly complain about Parris expressing his opinion in an op-ed column, can I? My basic problem with the situation is: I grew up in South Africa, and while I have thought similar things about Africa in the past, it was not in a positive sense – that is, I was thinking “Africa needs gods” in the sense that a one-legged man needs crutches. Which sounds rather patronising of me, I know, but I am not one of those “cultural relativists” who thinks that all cultures are “different but equal”. Some are more mature than others, and much of Africa still looks like a toddler throwing tantrums.

    Call me a colonial imperialist if you must, but I still think that giving up superstition is a crucial step in the growth of people and societies alike. The difficulty comes with trying to preserve what was good about the past, in the form of history & lore, yet allow room for real progress, and many regard religion as one of those good things from the past that must be preserved as-is.

    It’s hard to keep an open mind about Africa when its people repeatedly demonstrate, through their actions, how unprepared they are for the grown-up world. Again, I know this sounds like patronising arrogance on my part, but while Malawi may be a success story, is Zimbabwe? The Rwandan genocide was over a decade ago, but remember what happened in Kenya in 2007?

  • The Unbrainwashed

    @ Brian T:

    Be ready for the liberal multiculturalists to start slinging mud at your post.

    I agree with basically everything you stated, but the reasoning is still a muddy issue. Can we blame it entirely on religion and superstition? I think that’s way too easy an answer.

  • mikespeir

    When I was with the Assemblies of God, our missionaries were primarily concerned with saving souls. Other help, though provided, was secondary. Later, when I joined the United Methodists things seemed to go the other way around. Feeding, housing, clothing, educating–those were most important. So I don’t think we can lump all missionary work together.

    Now, as an atheist, I’d much rather the good works be done, but not in the name of religion. Still, we have to be honest with ourselves. Who is actually doing the work? By and large, it’s not atheists. It’s religionists. And, while indeed Islam does some, it’s really Christianity that has assumed most of the burden. That’s to their credit. To deny it is to delude ourselves just as badly as they do with their superstitions.

    What does this mean? It’s not enough to suggest that irreligion could accomplish that kind of good. The question is, Why doesn’t it? Superstition or not, Christianity provides the motivation. Why aren’t we so motivated? (And, yes, our numbers are fewer, so that supplies part of the answer. But not all of it.)

  • I love Matthew Parris. Atheist, gay, conservative, clever.

    But I think he has missed the mark with this article.

    First I think he takes the attitude that atheism is great for us intelligensia, but poor thick Africans had better start with Christianity. Baby steps.

    Second he fails to address how in many, many cases in Africa the mixture of Christianity with traditional beliefs creates an unholy mixture that can result in the knid of child abuse we see in Nigeria with its witch-hunting.

    Third, I din’t see why Christianity shoul have a monopoly on ideas of self worth and individualism. Is there no form of humanism that can take the place of Christianity? Do we have to teach people to reach for the sky only in order to surrender? (to paraphrase Leonard Cohen)

  • Ron in Houston

    I think people need a way to deal with the suffering in the world. I’d wager the degree of suffering in Africa is higher than many other areas of the world. I’m not saying Christianity is the right placebo, but people simply need to work out things for themselves.

    It’s easy to say that Africa needs atheism and not Christianity when you’re sitting in your nice place behind your nice computer screen.

  • Call me a colonial imperialist if you must, but I still think that giving up superstition is a crucial step in the growth of people and societies alike.

    It couldn’t have been more apt.

    … it’s really Christianity that has assumed most of the burden. That’s to their credit. To deny it is to delude ourselves just as badly as they do with their superstitions.

    It would be presumptuous to deny that Christians have taken on most of the burden. That, however, is not to their credit. Do motives not matter? In Christian orphanages run in parts of Africa we know that the children are forced to attend Christian prayer gatherings, say Christian prayers and in some cases adopt a Christian name regardless of the child’s faith or lack thereof.

    The motives in question are precisely those that motivate the religious and the deluded to embark upon the conversion crusade that happens to entail humanitarian work as you have already suggested. If it is this motivation that you see lacking in atheists, isn’t it a good thing?

    I do not believe, however, that an organization labeled as being atheistic would ever find success to the point that religious ones have. The reason is simply a reiteration of what brian t has already said a few comments ago. A significant section of Africa has yet to grow up from its superstitious infancy (as do many other parts of the world, even the US).

    I know of atheists that have gone on volunteer trips or are currently engaged in humanitarian work in countries in Africa and have had to go with a religious organization of some sort because religion seems to be the only thing that appeals to the African people in those areas. Think about it: in the face of atrocities it is not unnatural to look towards the divine for solace, and begin to have faith in some sort of a greater plan, a greater purpose. The impoverished and victimized do just that.

    It is unfortunate that connotations of atheism aren’t always flowery.

    And just because we don’t see organizations that proclaim exclusively atheistic service in Africa, it really has nothing to do with whether there are any atheists doing humanitarian work there or not.

  • @ Ron

    Africa needs hope, not faith.

  • mikespeir

    Moves are important, Magmystio. But, for whatever reason, Christians seem to be more motivated in this direction than we are. I know we’d all like to attribute exclusively selfish motives to them, but that, too, would be delusion. Christians are humans, with the same human empathy. Of course, it would be silly to suggest that their hearts are all in the right place. Still, they do the work. (When you place a piece of bread in a starving kid’s hand, he doesn’t much care why you did it.) And, yes, some atheists help out as well. But I suspect we do so not only in smaller numbers, but in smaller percentages. Whether motivated by fear, love, or selfishness, Christians do the work that we don’t. Rather than make excuses for why we don’t, wouldn’t it be better to get busy doing? Frankly, this kind of thing shames me.

    And, yes, people need hope rather than faith. The uncomfortable reality, though, is that faith tends to give people hope. Maybe it’s a misplaced hope, at least if that faith is in the supernatural. I’d argue that we need to give them faith in their fellow man. What they’re being shown, however, is that it’s the people who believe in what we’re convinced is delusion who are doing most to give them hope.

  • * Is hope the thing that these missionized Africans need most? Or could their spirits be transformed by something else? Kindness from strangers? Basic food/water/medicine/education?

    I would say the two things are related. What they need most is the basics of food/water/medicine/education and also something missing; ORDER. What religion is giving is an order to life that is missing in that chaotic world, rules and regulations that give people a path, a way of conducting themselves. You don’t need religion to have order and rule of law, but you sure as better provide it somehow.

    * Are the teaching of Christianity and the sex miseducation the only reasons you (atheists) may not support these missionaries? Why else don’t you?

    Teaching Christianity doesn’t actually bother me per se. If you’re really saving lives and helping people in such horrific places then I think you’re entitled to talk about your god if you want, even if I’d prefer it if you did it with no pre-condition. No, what I find objectionable is the Pentacostals, who have mixed their beliefs in demons with the animistic beliefs of the people, resulting in scores of children being condemned as witches and often disfigured and killed as a result (don’t watch the video if you want to maintain any semblance of a good mood).

    * Is the Christian proselytization helping Africa or hurting it?

    I don’t know, I guess it depends. I’m sure there are well-intentioned missionaries that merely try to inject kindness, mercy and charity into the land, but I’m sure there are also those who inject fire and brimstone, and the evils of condom use into their missionary work.

    * If you agree that Parris is correct in saying these mission trips are undeniably good, would you be willing to be a part of a trip as an atheist? Have you done this already?

    I would be willing to participate in a religious missionary group who’s primary goal would be to provide basic necessities or basic education to those in need. I’d rather not do it if I had to proselytize myself and in any event I’d try first to find a secular alternative (like Doctors without Borders).

    * Do you support or condemn Parris for writing the column?

    I believe his intentions are sincere and I wouldn’t condemn him for writing it at all. I do think that the effect of missionary work in Africa is more of a mixed bag than he makes it out to be and I strongly disagree that the concept of god is necessary for Africa (clean water, abundant food, medicine and security are what they need), but I wouldn’t condemn him for his position. It’s absolutely true that secular charities are minuscule compared to religious ones (in part because secular communities are by nature less tightly knit) so until we atheists are putting our time and our money where our mouths are and offering true secular alternatives, I don’t think we are in a position to condemn those who give help in one hand and god in the other.

  • andyinsdca

    I immediately quit reading your article when you sang the praises of Mother Theresa. She was an EVIL, despicable woman, and embodied everything evangelical atheists (if that’s a term) hate about Christianity.

    “Religion is the business of spirituality” – Al Nashashibi

  • There are missionary organizations that do work to improve the lives of others without expecting a conversion or “saving a soul” in exchange for providing help.

    The Unitarian Universalist Service Committee has been in international and domestic relief work for many years. Given their small size, they have to focus the scope of their work because they cannot be everywhere at once. Their focus area in Africa is Darfur:

    The United Church of Christ does similar missionary work. For the UCC folks, “witnessing” is not expecting others to believe as they do but rather through the example of working for justice for the marginalized and oppressed:

  • I wonder, what is Christianity replacing?

  • CurryGirl

    The Unbrainwashed Says:

    Does anyone know if there’s a consensus regarding why Africa is in such a crappy situation? Why is Africa (quality of life, warfare, disease, education, government, etc.) so worse than Europe, North America, and Asia? I mean and it’s not even close, that’s just a bad continent. The only bright spot is South Africa I guess.

    What’s the reasoning behind it? I have no idea so I’m not leading anywhere, I’m just curious what people think.

    WikiAnswers gives what I consider to be a good explanation for the reason of Africa’s “crappy situation.” The following repsponse is to the question, “Why is Africa so poor despite its gold and diamond reasources?”

    “This is a very complex and misunderstood topic. Before answering, it is important to note that “Africa” is not a political or economic entity, and therefore addressing this issue must be done on a nation-by-nation basis. In fact, some African countries such as South Africa, Kenya, and to some extent Morocco and Egypt have relatively high standards of living. The question is also posed poorly, as Africa as a whole does not contain an even spread of gold and diamond resources, and often nations have additional resources or less (such as oil in Nigeria but desert in Chad).

    Effects on most African nations’ wealth include, among other things, (1) residual effects of colonialism, (2) current exploitation of poor nations by wealthy nations, (3) a pervading lack of strong political institutions to manage the economy, and (4) Western ignorance in their interventionist strategies such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank.

    Colonialism forced African peoples into regimented and incredibly foreign manners of government. Warring tribes were often “placed” in the same nation while other tribes were split by these artificial boundaries. Also, colonizers placed certain tribes in positions of power which has caused uprisings in areas such as Rwanda.

    Pertaining to the question about natural resources, these are often extracted by wealthy nations, who take the wealth from those resources back to their already wealthy countries. This has been the case in oil-rich Nigeria and diamond-rich South Africa. Wealthy nations also often trade extraction rights for vast amounts of extorted “dirty money”.

    Historically, the world has not seen a well-developed economy without a corresponding strong government. In contrast to a Western-style political institution of checks and balances, traditionally African tribes were not organized in such a way. Many argue that in addition to easy access to education, healthcare, and natural resources, a strong government that can balance its own power by virtue of the bureaucratic structure of itself is essential.

    Lastly, the IMF, World Bank, and other international aid organizations have created massive problems by failing to understand the social and political contexts of the African countries within which they work. They lend money to nations, henceforth focusing on repayment of the loan, rather than the efficacious use of that loan. They require structural changes in the government that detrimentally weaken the local and federal governments. Furthermore, aid organizations normally focus on distributing birth control and food, which benevolently helps the people, but it ameliorates the symptoms without tackling the sickness, such as establishing and funding schools or citizen advocate groups.

    For more information and very helpful commentaries, please visit these web sites:

    and the very intelligently written:

    Just to add to the above, as an African now in the UK I can relate a lot to what you are writing about. I will also add that one thing colonialism appears to have done in Africa is introduce an inferiority complex among the general public. It was instilled into everyday living that whoever is in authority has got control over you and you as a citizen of that country are a “slave” to authority. All (or should I say 99%) political leaders in Africa see them self as being the “top dogs” i.e. “Chef” i.e. father to the nation and all its people. Therefore you can never replace your father, you can never replace your minister or president as these people are in their own eyes very special and no one could be trusted by them to take their thrown.

    During colonialism, you are given a mindset of a stooge and you learn that people in authority are in charge of your destiny. Unfortunately for most African countries, after their liberation from their colonial master, the chosen few elect to colonise their own people in return for all the power and wealth that comes from the lessons they learned from their former masters.

    Take a look at the way Mugabe runs “his country” all the presidential ceremonies, motorcades, doctrines, lavish residence, the countries judiciary systems, the opening of parliament ceremonies and many more.

    All these events bare a close resemblance to the former colonial powers and help to emphasise the fact that most leaders in Africa do not care about the welfare or their citizens but are very happy to sit as the new colonialist under the disguise of being the “African sun”. They all emulate the very institutions that they “freed” them self and their countries from. OK so they are copycats which means they should carry all the blame. Yes they should, all the current African leaders with poverty stricken communities are the perpetrators of their own countries demise and until this changes my beloved Africa will always bleed.”


  • CurryGirl

    In my previous post, one sentence stated:

    During colonialism, (speaking of Africa particularly) you are given a mindset of a stooge and you learn that people in authority are in charge of your destiny.

    So, to answer your question: Is the Christian proselytization helping Africa or hurting it?

    Perhaps this is why Christianity may help those in Africa- because Africans begin to believe that their fate is not in the hands of those in power within the government, but that it is in the hands of an all-powerful god. This may reliquish some of the power that those in charge have, and give the people a chance to reform their government because they do not see their government leaders as the be all, end all.

    In relation to that, perhaps what many Africans need most of all is the help to realize that their fate is in their own hands- not in the hands of their government leaders and not in the hands of some supernatural god.

    Oh, and sorry for the long post preceding this one.

  • Pustulio

    I think much of the problems with Africa boil down to inter-tribal conflict. Tribe A hates Tribe B and so they try to wipe them out even if the individual members have no idea why they are supposed to hate the others.

    I think the benefit of Christianity in Africa is that it gives people a new tribal identity which supersedes their old affiliation. If members of the aforementioned Tribes A and B both convert to the same new religion then they are now members of the same “tribe” and don’t have to hate each other any more.

    Of course that can completely backfire as we’ve seen in the Middle East. If you get two competing flavors of the same religion in the same area, then you actually make things worse by giving the conflict a new focus.

  • SarahH

    Preface: I spent a few months in Zambia and observed the abject poverty, disease and lack of resources there personally. I was on a missions trip. We sang about salvation, led people in the Sinner’s Prayer and went on our merry way, content that these suffering people could someday die (maybe sooner rather than later), go to heaven and stop suffering. The whole thing made me sick in retrospect, starting a month or two after my return to the US and all its luxury.

    I think large social movements and groups can generate powerful emotions and results. This is just as true of, say, Barack Obama’s campaign as it is of Christianity. Political campaigns, religions, uprisings against injustices – these things can all unite huge groups of people, stir up powerful hope and achieve massive results.

    God and religion are cheap, available, effective means to the same end that could be produced through a more secular movement. The religious movement has a huge head start, an enormous base, and while I’m infuriated by some aspects of it that should NOT be ignored or left unchallenged (attitude towards condoms/birth control, proselytization prioritized over any real help, stamping-out of existing cultural traditions, etc.), it is working to relieve suffering now. Not hypothetically – really.

    There are also tons of non-religion-specific groups that are making a big difference in Africa (Bono has championed plenty of non-religious political and practical aid), but they aren’t unified under some catchy movement like a religion or political uprising. They’re simply there, helping. Those are the kinds of groups I donate to, and eventually, as African countries attain better and better levels of education and information availability, people will have a better set of tools with which to make their own decisions about religion.

  • Now I’m not sure about the Christianization of Subsaharan Africa, but the Islamic conquest of North Africa (where I live) definitively was not a good thing. I’d go so far to say that it was the darkest page in hour history…

  • Joanna

    But religious mythology gives the people hope for a better life even if there’s no reason to think it’s valid. That is one powerful placebo to argue against

    This statement troubles me.

    I understand that one function of religion is to recruit followers and true believers. This particular missionary aspect of Christianity in Africa certainly gives the impression of “strings attached” humanitarian aid. In a similar way that homeless shelters sometines have a “prayer service” that appears obligatory.

    I suppose I shouldn’t downplay anybody’s genuine sincerity to help, but I often think that Christians are just marketing like anybody else. Like an advertizing campaign for Jesus. That’s the cynic in me.

    However, the beneficial part of a “missionized Africa” is the opportunity for education, shelter, food, and healthcare. The pragmatic side of helping people become self-sufficient and communities more self-sustaining.

    I would hope that the chances of being “liberated” from poverty also bring along more choices: curiosity and intellectual engagement were mentioned. These 2 qualities mean that religion doesn’t have to be obligatory for “a better life”. The most curious and engaged people are those most liberated from religious, faith-based repression.

  • Aj


    a) Great job fixing Africa Christians, I guess you have really proven your worth.

    b) Africa wouldn’t be in such a great mess if it hadn’t been highly secular for years.

    c) We all know hope in the face of reason leads to victory, not setting yourself for disaster.

    d) How awful would life be if Africans didn’t kill witch children and have unprotected sex?

  • Jodie

    Please stop referring to “Africa” as a shithole place that we are all so blessed not to live in. As well put above, Africa is a continent, and at that, so much more diverse than either North America or Europe.
    That rant aside, this is an issue I struggled with as I lived in Mali (Muslim nation in West Africa) for over two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer. I would say I came away appalled by most aid workers, whether governmental or missionary. Both groups lived in fantastic palaces with air conditioning, water, and electricity (though most missionaries lived in villages, thus using generators instead of actual electricity). They were beyond out of touch with life in the places where they worked, seemingly intent on completing their own agenda – regardless of the impact it would have.
    The negative effects of religion I observed include: the subjugation of women, literal witch hunts and lynchings of witches and albinos (who have powerful magic), female genital mutilation, and the propensity to use traditional medicine (magic) before seeing a doctor. I came to realize with time that most of these items were well in practice before Islam came along and were part of the real religion of the region. They just threw in daily prayer call and ramadan.
    The positive effects of religion, however, were overpowering. This time in my life created the more “Friendly Atheist” perspective that describes me. Simply put: In Mali women are more likely to die in childbirth than anywhere in the world. Three out of five children do not live to the age of 5. Famine, cholera, malaria….A child does not even get a name until one week after their birth. Most women have well over ten pregnancies in their lifetime, with at least one miscarriage. In the face of constant death, what happens without god (traditional, muslim, chrisitan, or otherwise)? Without “N’Shallah,” who could resist disintegration?

  • Jay

    Parris isn’t actually really talking about religion, though – but rather the individualistic thinking it provides, and the active citizenship behaviour this enables. Religion only matters insofar as it’s one of the few ways to affect that deep level of people’s self-conceptions of personhood and agency. As one of these “academic sociologists” he doesn’t like, I’d say anthropology would be quite happy to acknowledge how corrupt ‘big man’ politics exploits existing tribal, collectivist norms. The difference is that I’d rather explore ways of building ‘tribal modernity’ rather than assuming outside evangelising will save the day. Some missionaries clearly are doing real good, but what’s key are issues of social and personal identity that go beyond religious details; religious debates are a side-dish to the main issues here.

  • Grimalkin

    The last thing most parts of Africa (or really, all of Africa, since this applies to the whole world) needs is more superstition. Why sell impoverished regions the hope for a better afterlife when we could, instead, sell them hope for a better now-life? Building a school, raising the critical thinking and education of an area, giving them the resources to do more than just subsistence farming – isn’t that a whole lot better than making sure every village has a church and every household has a bible?

    Jodie – You say that religion is good because child/mother mortality rates are so high. Wouldn’t the better solution be to LOWER child/mother mortality rates, rather than just convince the population that it’s okay because the dead go to heaven? Teaching people about hygiene, for example. Making sure safe/clean water is available. Educating the local population so that each area can have a doctor (rather than always having to import doctors). Wouldn’t that be better than just preaching that we should accept death and be happy that at least the new baby is heaven?

    That’s what I mean about selling hope for a now-life. “Yes, your babies and wives are dying. But if we all work hard and are good to each other, someday babies and mothers won’t die anymore.”

  • The downside, of course, is the whole preaching superstition thing — not just religion, but also the dangerous belief that condom are evil:

    That’s misrepresentative of Christianity as evangelicals and charismatics have no more problem with using condoms than you do and these expressions of Christianity make up a big part of the missionary efforts. Care for the poor is however a concern shared across the Christian spectrum.

  • Aj

    I didn’t know it was the Catholics behind abstinence only “education”. I guess it was the Catholic influence in the US government that compelled Bush’s global AIDS strategy to include abstinence only “education”.

  • Brian T – Your comments are ON. THE. MONEY.


  • Jodie – while your points were well-taken, I’m not sure how anything you said supports the notion that Africa is not just a “shithole place that we are all so blessed not to live in. ”

    I came away from your post thinking that Africa in general, and Mali in particular was “a shithole place,” and I feel “blessed” not to live there.

    Maybe I misunderstood.

  • grazatt

    Here is an interesting link to an article the author wrote on the subject of gay bishops

  • TeachinginUganda

    I’ve been in Uganda now for a few months. When I arrived, I fully agreed with Matthew Parris. As an atheist volunteer I felt in no way conflicted in teaching at a Christian school. Religion gives people a sense of purpose, community and indeed hope.

    However, I’m now seriously starting to reconsider this. Matthew Parris says that without Christianity, Africans will be at the mercy of the witchdoctor. But Christianity offers no resistance at all to belief in witchcraft. On the contrary: people go to church BECAUSE they believe in witchcraft. They pray for protection against witches. The idea that Christianity is inherently better than “witchcraft” is profoundly Christian anyway. Is it really more individual? Does it make people “walk tall”? I beg to differ. Witchcraft is a technology to control the world, religion is a submission. And the rejection of witchcraft as evil is precisely the kind of metaphysical politics that any secular-minded person should object to.

    It seems to me Parris is an unbeliever in his brain but not in his heart. He still wants there to be a God and is delighted by people who think there is. The fact that they are completely misguided in their sexual policies (abstention-only, which works only in police states like Saudi Arabia, not in African semi-states), and in their financial priorities (the proportion of money going into building churches is mindboggling), that doesn’t seem to bother him one bit. They are happy, that’s his only concern. Indeed, it seems the first poster is correct. Parris is advocating a drug.

  • ManicRaider

    No, it is not needed. Already have the lies of Christianity caused trouble. Telling people that giving money to church will cure AIDS or that having sex with a virgin will cure AIDS. It’s sick and disgusting. They are being tricked and it’s an awful and sad thing to watch as they grin with delight over it.

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