December 27th, 2008

Africa and change: what hath the missionaries wrought?

Matthew Parris is a British atheist, not predisposed to favor or look kindly on the work of Christian missionaries in Africa. And yet he also seems to be a member of that rare group of people who, when observing a situation, cannot deny the evidence of their own eyes and the conclusions of their discerning minds.

Parris has come to the reluctant admission that the work missionaries have done in Africa has been basically helpful to the Africans themselves, and that’s not just in the practical sense of opening schools and hospitals. Parris is saying something far more controversial:

In Africa Christianity changes people’s hearts. It brings a spiritual transformation. The rebirth is real. The change is good.

I used to avoid this truth by applauding – as you can – the practical work of mission churches in Africa. 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…

But this doesn’t fit the facts. Faith does more than support the missionary; it is also transferred to his flock. This is the effect that matters so immensely, and which I cannot help observing.

Parris goes on to describe the transformation he has observed, the difference between the converted and those still mired in tribal attitudes. He says the former are more open, relaxed, lively, curious, and engaged with the world. Parris rejects the cultural/moral relativism that denies that there is anything inherently better about these sort of attitudes as opposed to the characteristics fostered by traditional tribal beliefs. Instead, he insists on making a distinction, and a judgment:

I observe that tribal belief is no more peaceable than ours; and that it suppresses individuality. People think collectively; first in terms of the community, extended family and tribe. This rural-traditional mindset feeds into the “big man” and gangster politics of the African city: the exaggerated respect for a swaggering leader, and the (literal) inability to understand the whole idea of loyal opposition.

Anxiety—fear of evil spirits, of ancestors, of nature and the wild, of a tribal hierarchy, of quite everyday things—strikes deep into the whole structure of rural African thought. Every man has his place and, call it fear or respect, a great weight grinds down the individual spirit, stunting curiosity. People won’t take the initiative, won’t take things into their own hands or on their own shoulders.

As a onetime student of anthropology—it was my minor in college—I have a few things to say about that. I agree with Parris about the bankruptcy of moral relativism (see this for my two-part series on the subject, as well as its relation to anthropology). I have no personal experience of missionaries in Africa, but his observations make a certain amount of sense to me, and he has special credence because he comes to his conclusions from a position of reluctance due to his confirmed atheism.

One of the main things anthropologists study these days is not societies in isolation, preserved as in amber. They study societies in the midst of cultural contact and cultural change of a major sort. African societies originally evolved when the continent had few cultural contacts with the West, but that time is long past. Societal characteristics that may have been functional in a more self-contained environment can become highly dysfunctional during times of what is known as cultural clash.

The clash is not always between non-Western and Western societies, by the way. It can be between two non-Western groups, and it has been occurring since human beings began (note that one of the earliest conflicts may have been between Neanderthals and our ancestors, Cro-Magnons).

In Parris’s essay, he points out that certain pre-existing tribal traditions seem to lead many Africans in directions that favor the “gangster politics” that currently hold sway in far too many nations on that continent. My guess is that these traditions originally worked fairly well at the tribal level, when strong leaders emerged in the small and local group in which everyone knew them, and their power was checked and balanced by the rules of the tribal milieu in which they functioned. But now the desire for a “big man” has become unhinged from those moorings, and has become highly dysfunctional in the new milieu of city and nation.

Another point that occurred to me when reading Parris’s essay is that those Africans drawn to Christianity may have been different from their fellows to begin with. As I’ve noted before, a mind is a difficult thing to change—change is not for everyone. So perhaps these people were more curious, open-minded, and engaged with the world to begin with.

It is curious, however, that Parris does not mention Islam in his essay, since that religion is quite prevalent in Africa as well. He discusses the influence of Christian missionaries in Malawi, for example. But it turns out that Islam is the second largest religion in that country after Christianity, and there are Muslim missionaries there. It would be very interesting to learn whether Parris’ observations about the traits of Christian converts also holds true for converts to Islam.

20 Responses to “Africa and change: what hath the missionaries wrought?”

  1. LabRat Says:

    As a confirmed atheist myself, one of the admissions I had to eventually make was that the Judeo-Christian influence on Western culture, far from being a credulous element of culture that one could separate, was in fact utterly complicit with Western individualism, rationalism, and all the other lovely secular values of the Enlightenment and its earlier roots.

    As for the Muslim missionaries, I’m not certain that the profound fatalism found in many versions of Islam is anything like as helpful. “God helps those who help themselves” is far more useful to a struggling population than “inshallah”.

  2. DirtyJobsGuy Says:

    While doing a project in Takoradi Ghana, we were provided with a (Christian) driver. He was very informative (and only later made the obligatory request for help with a US Visa!). His comment on Islam was that it appealed to poor men as it had “simple rules”.

    I often mentioned to my more liberal relatives that the best thing they could do for africa is donate to evangelical missionaries. It’s nice to hear it seconded from someone else.

  3. jon baker Says:

    Labrat: ““God helps those who help themselves” is far more useful to a struggling population than “inshallah”.
    At some point I fear somebody will come along and say “That’s not in the Bible”, so let me head them off at the pass so to speak. The Principle is there more or less. 1 Thessalonians 4:11b-12 “…and to work with your own hands, as we commanded you; That ye may walk honestly toward those that are without, and that ye may have lack of nothing.” Unfortunately, some will take other verses that speak of not worrying and make it sound as though one should just sit down in faith and let God take care of you. There are times I believe when God puts people in situations where their only choice is Faith and they are almost totally helpless themselves, but I do not beleive the Bible teaches that is to be a lifestyle for society. (Salvation does require only Faith and Repentance) When Jesus was sending out the early disciples ( Luke 10:1-16)there seems to be some specific instructions for that group that some people may have taken as a general command for all. I think they are wrong. For example, the great Apostle Paul was quite the worker, making tents to help pay his own way in his missionary journeys.
    Excellent post NEO, Excellent comment LabRat

  4. LabRat Says:

    Well, technically, the inshallah philosophy is more a feature of Arab culture than it is a Koranic command itself, but your point is taken- and the Biblical shoring up is much appreciated!

  5. huxley Says:

    In his magnificent A History of Western Philosophy, even Bertrand “Why I am not a Christian” Russell gives Christianity its just due for contributions to Western civilization.

  6. gcotharn Says:

    One of the things I love about Christianity – and the mention of Bertrand Russell reminded me of it – is Jesus’ injunction: “Render unto Caesar what is Caesars”, thus freeing Christians to contribute to the give and take of government and governing, rather than rigidly opposing or dictating.

    It is nice to read this post.

  7. Hyman Rosen Says:

    It’s important to distinguish between truth and usefulness. By definition, atheists believe that gods do not exist. But without further investigation, it cannot be said a priori that having people believe that gods exist is bad. I’m reminded of the people who knowingly promoted the false idea of nuclear winter, with the useful goal of trying to prevent nuclear war.

  8. waltj Says:

    Having spent a lot of time in the Third World myself, I have seen this tribal attitude many times. Deference to tradition and a “strong man” run deep in many places. My view is that Christianity, with its required introspection of one’s own heart, and its lack of a step-by-step framework of how to live, in contrast to Islam, encourages people to start thinking for themselves and asking questions. Like “why does the Chief take all our cattle? What good works has he done to earn this reward?” or “Why is the village on the other side of the forest always treated as an enemy? They haven’t attacked us since Grandfather was a child. Maybe they would welcome peace”. Dangerous questions in a traditional society that has a vested interest in maintaining the status quo.

    I’ll admit that this seems to be the case more with “new” Christians, Catholic and Protestant, than those Third World societies that have been Christian for generations, where some of the old habits have crept back in, if indeed they were ever fully rejected. But traditional societies offer no hope that things will ever be better for their members. Christianity, however imperfectly at times, does.

  9. njcommuter Says:

    Those signed with the cross of Christ go gaily in the dark.
    —-G.K.Chesterton

  10. Tom Says:

    I submit the notion that the tribal mindset is very deeply rooted and survives both time and distance from its origin. How else to explain the Marion Berrys and Kwame Kilpatricks (and the list goes on and on)?

  11. Assistant Village Idiot Says:

    Whoa, Tom. Northern Europeans were pretty tribal not so long ago. You ask “how else to explain…?” I can think of seven else’s off the top of my head. Among them would be the tribalism of liberals in general, ethnic politicians in general, and minority groups in general, oppressed or not.

    As a Christian, it is always a curiosity to me to try and tease out what cultural factors we have contributed to the world’s societies (for good and ill) and what things would look like if we had ceased to exist at any time in the last 20 centuries. Certainly, I can identify times and places where we seem to have created little if any improvement. However, there is some good in the world, particularly in the west, that I cannot see having happened any other way.

    I entertain the fantasy that Judaism would have been different, and taken up some of the slack.

    Additional note: The medical mission and orphanage my family has worked at over the years in Romania (and where we got our third and fourth sons) is run by a Romanian doctor who traveled throughout the US and Europe starting in 1989 to raise funds and volunteers. He stopped bothering with western Europe in the late 90′s. “No one ever comes but Americans,” he says. “It’s not worth my time to go anywhere else.”

  12. Ymarsakar Says:

    Northern Europeans were pretty tribal not so long ago.

    They still are. Except the tribe has been replaced by such things as “class” and “power” hierarchies, along with ethnic lines.

    Tribalism is only one extrapolation of the basic human need for hierarchy, leadership, social control, and self-survival. Yet even if tribalism appears in another name, it still has some of the same effects: parochial tribal effects.

    It is why Democrats can be seen as a “tribe” and why that tribe cannot be said to be part of the loyal opposition in America, an uber-tribe.

  13. sergey Says:

    The most important impact of conversion to Christianity, as most anthropologists observed, is eradication of tribalism, especially replacing of extended family and clan structure by nuclear family and class structure. This is most effective for protestant denominations compared to catholicism, under which pockets of immoral familism still survive as mafia “families”, and compared to Eastern Orthodox, under which patriarchal society largely conserved as a system of patronage and family clans government. But Islam is the most retarded in this aspect, leaving most tribal structures intact.

  14. Artfldgr Says:

    the “big man” effect is a key part of socialism… we look to the state, and to its leader… no different than the africans, and making it less different is that the “big man” in these situations need not worry about the support of the people, since they are a collective and will not think without the head. russia from 1917 on was and is like this, china is too, but much more quiet about it. the people of russia take little initiative, they have a lot of sex (cheap entertainment), more abortions than births, and drinking is heavy. the peoples ability to make a change in state or provide and create an economy is atrophied.

    we are doing the same things now to ourselves. centralizing through propping up huge corporations and preventing them competition. inventions have to happen in the corporation and with the collectie rather than external, and so forth. schooling is dumbing them down, and making them look to the big man, or didnt you notice the election? their education is compartmentalized, broken, so that they dont function competently. the tools that allowed the ignorant to grwo and constantly learn are denied them (methodologies. new schooling wants them to rediscover everyting, or other methods that do not give them methodologies of how to formulate solutions, and build knowlege on their own. etc). news and literature dumbed down 3 grades in my lifetime (8 to 5). consensus tricks replaced merit. appointments replace competition. things are more expensive, yet lower quality. companies dont please customers, but hate and trick them using the protections of the state. tons more. new age crystals and magic and pagan religions now replacing christianity and faith based. ideology based superstition replaces empirical based common knowlege. we got the message, western religion bad, and a large number get around their need for it by repalcing it with some retro one that really feeds the mentally incomplete and home incomplete.

    maybe the moral momentum and the fancy cars cloud our vision. prevents us from seeing how we are not that far away from that same level.

    a new military report as to riots and fights in the US shows that others see it, even if we dont.
    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/11/30/AR2008113002217_pf.html

    with Stalin Makes Top 12 in Russia’s Poll for All-Time Hero
    http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,473245,00.html

    we are not really that far from the same collective type mindset that looks to power to solve the problems rather htan accept the limits of meritocritous rule that cant lie.

    the distance between the people of africa and us is not that far, look how much cultural knowlege (we cant even rear our kids well), and other things that have been permanently removed in the past 40 years? whats left?

    one should note that most of those horrible acts in the past century were intentional. removing about a third of the population served the removal of the cultural knowlege and its cohesive struture of trust and such which allowed for trade and ambition, and other things.

    remember that in every one of these states, from somalia, cuba, china, russia, etc… the people died more at the hands of their own rulers than at wars and have more to fear from those that step in and become the big man of the collective.

  15. Artfldgr Says:

    I’m reminded of the people who knowingly promoted the false idea of nuclear winter, with the useful goal of trying to prevent nuclear war.

    you mean the same people who starved 7 million in one winter? or the useful idiots who after hearing all the false hard work of the state organs active measures, promoted it as a means of removing protections so that an attack could succeed?

    the ‘useful goal’ was the asymetrical disarmament of the united states while the other side built up in secret in preparation for a tipping point or opportunity.

    there was nothing good in that, not even its core purpose. convincing honest good people to all put their weapons down in a world that has criminals not willing to also comply, leaves us in what position? knowing the source of the ‘good purpose’ was the criminals with their own weapons, should tend to show the fallacy of that.

  16. rightwingprof Says:

    Actually, the problem with anthropology, at least cultural, is the utter lack of intellectual honesty. That’s the reason I ran screaming to the bioanthro side of the department to do my undergrad degree.

  17. davis,br Says:

    One word: Rhodesia.

    The one-time prosperous jewel of the continent …has become Hell.

    My cousin’s were missionaries there, some 30-40 years ago. They had young children, and finally had to leave.

    …the outcome …the result you now see …was – sadly – never in doubt.

  18. Atheist Praises Missionaries « The American Catholic: Politics and Culture from a Catholic perspective Says:

    [...] one of the blogs I read regularly, Neo-Neocon, the proprietress has an excellent story highlighting the praise of Mathew Parris, a British atheist and writer, for the work of [...]

  19. Sissy Willis Says:

    I couldn’t figure out how to trackback but have responded to your most interesting post here:

    Music to my ears

  20. David Says:

    “It would be very interesting to learn whether Parris’ observations about the traits of Christian converts also holds true for converts to Islam.”

    Just compare the Western and Islamic world in terms of technological progress, educational system, taking care of the sick and the poor. Go back in history for a while… that might provide the proper answer.

    The Amish people in Pennsylvania could be deemed as quite fundamentalistic, even a bit legalistic, right? They stick to some rules you actually don’t have to hold as a Christian. But In 2006, a gunman entered an Amish school, killing and wounding ten young girls. Within days, the Amish community expressed their forgiveness for the man. Not only that, but they would try to console the family of the murderer, as as far as I’m informed.
    Now, ask one of your acquaintances or friends with an islamic background what the proper islamic anwer would be. I would expect quite a different approach.
    There are many more different approaches, when it comes to the relation between the sexes, esteem of education, dealing with your enemies, the worth of the individual, dealing with the sick, dealing with those who disagree, what a contract means between a Moslem and a Non-Moslem, and between a Chrstian and a Non-Christian (with severe implications for a nation’s economy)….and so on.

    further reading:
    On Islam:
    Ali Sina’s website: http://www.faithfreedom.org/
    (former muslim, persian, somewhat related to an ayatollah, but beware: no kidding there, no mincing words)

    On Christian influence on the Western world: The books written by Rodney Stark.
    From a sociological perspective, agnostic (recently, after writing all his stuff, reconsidering).

    On the Character of the Triune God (why Triune? a loving God – really?), forgiveness (deep on that one), why allows God suffering in this world?:
    Paul Young: The Shack
    (Novel with some of the best theological content I ever came across; highly controversal though [with little reason, in my opinion])
    (After reading the book, without knowing his background you would say: I don’t want to go through what it takes to write such a book!)

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