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.