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Pondering the South African Memesphere – Looking for the Good in Everything

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The Culture Clash in London

January 5th, 2008 · Posted by Hugo · 11 Comments

A large number of South Africans spend a year or two in London after their studies. A large subset of these South Africans speak Christianese.

In a strange land, away from home and friends, often the first thing they do is to find a church catering for South Africans, in particular usually one catering for their brand of Christianity. (There are quite a couple of “South African” churches in London, I hear.) That immediately supplies them with a support group, a group of like-minded individuals, sharing a cultural background. The community benefit of religion. This community helps you settle, helps you find a place, explains the in’s and out’s of London culture, transport, and job seeking. The backbone of South African culture. In a way, it is beautiful.

A cosmopolitan city with diverse cultures is quite a scary eye-opener to someone not used to international culture. Many South Africans live very sheltered lives. (The Afrikaans word is “eng”.)

Many of these South Africans look at London culture and conclude it is “godless”. Now by this “godless” appraisal, they do not mean people walk around wearing “atheist” labels, they mean they see what they think is immoral behaviour, or un-nice behaviour. They see what they experience as “rudeness” on the tubes. People don’t look out for one another, they say, each just rudely grabs a space on the tube. Guys don’t give girls seats, and don’t open doors for them. They say is a general lack of smiling, a lack of “friendly faces”, and attitudes they are not used to. (I doubt it’s the famous British stiff upper lip, Brits are scarce in London.) They warn one another that when someone invites you over for tea, you should be careful about accepting, as they often have sex in mind for later that evening. (This is really extreme for conservative religious people that intend to wait until marriage before having sex.) This is what they mean when they say “godless”. It really has nothing to do with metaphysics.

Now this is where things can turn ugly: especially from the more fundamentalistic evangelical/pentecostal groups, the sentiment is “London can make you lose your faith… when in London, you have two options: get closer to God, or risk losing God”. They look at the cultural difference, they see what they call immorality due to their own South African sense of morality, and they ask themselves: “So what is the difference between them and us? Why are they so immoral?” Now the atheist label comes into play. Focusing on differences, they conclude: “It must be because they do not believe in God. Just look at how important belief in God is, without God you have moral decadence, moral decay!” In the choice between getting closer to God, or risking losing God, they choose God. Every. Single. Time. (Sorry, hyperbole.) The other option is no option at all, because they find their security in their community-of-faith.

This is how Christian fundamentalism gets reinforced in the cultural clash that is London. I am quite certain that the exact same mechanism is at play amongst the Muslim communities. In fact, from a recent talk presented by some theologians, I learned that the Islamic faith is especially strong when it comes to community-building aspects. These are real survival-benefits, the kind of thing that natural selection selects for.


If any conservatively religious London-based South Africans are reading this, please contribute some of your observations in the comments. Feel free to use a pseudonym. I want to hear your honest initial impressions and any other kind of feedback. I would love for the international people to understand more of the experiences and impressions that the “immigrants” experience. I know commenting on blogs is quite a “dangerous” environment. While I will do my best to defend you from the wolves, if you lack the necessary thick-skin, you can always contribute in a hit-and-run fashion.

Was any of this new to any of my readers? Any thoughts? First impressions? Questions? Contradictions? Experiences? Insights? Please contribute!

R, if you’re reading this, I’m also interested in your observations from your “atheistic humanist” perspective. ;-) I’ve only talked to religious people so far. Do you have much contact with the religious communities? How strong is the non-religious South African community in London? I’m sure they’re typically much more independent, enjoying the cosmopolitan vibe?

Same goes for you, Z, you Dawkins fanboy. ;) What have you got to say? I know you love the London culture! Do you run into religious types much?

Categories: Culture · Worldviews
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11 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Zach // Jan 6, 2008 at 5:24 pm

    Firstly, it’s not “in’s and out’s”, it’s “ins and outs”.
    I don’t think it’s just a religious difference, it’s much broader that that. These Brits are quite insular. They’re overrun with immigrants from everywhere. You have to be reserved when you live on an overcrowded island.
    Since we’re all coalition forming creatures, and we are more comfortable with those like ourselves, we all tend to be insular, and avoid every other ethnic group. And of course you network with the friends of friends.
    And so there are entire neighbourhoods dominated by one or another ethnicity.
    The strange environment South Africans experience is what everyone else experiences too. London is not, in my opinion, a friendly place. And English people are constantly bemoaning the decline of civil society across the whole country.
    The reasons for this are endlessly debated. Maybe it’s the decline of a settled community, maybe it really is godlessness. I think it’s the work culture and the abandonment of family, the raising of kids by the state and television etc.
    I have experienced some religion here. I share my house with a Mormon (praise be to Joseph Smith!), and I’ve had other Mormons knocking at my door early on a Saturday morning (WTF!?). I attended a (Christian, non-denominational) church service which was pitiful, the minister deriding gays (“I don’t criticise what they are, merely what they do”) and urging his congregation not to read Philip Pullman or watch The Golden Compass as Pullman was out to “kill God”. Yet the service didn’t anger me: it made me sad.
    The zeitgeist here left religion behind years ago. It’s only with mild embarrassment that you would state your belief in Jesus at the dinner table. The only time it really comes up is what to do about radical Islam and the wars.
    When you arrive in this place, you may feel isolated. That is the perfect condition for religious recruitment. I see those Scientologists eying despondent and lost youngsters with a predatory glee.
    The main thing about London is that London doesn’t care. For some, sticking with those you know and the consolations of your own culture is the only remedy available.

  • 2 R // Jan 6, 2008 at 6:42 pm

    To be honest, the religion thing has been a complete non-issue for me arriving in London. I did notice how few people here really care that I’m atheist. In fact, many of the Brits I know are atheist, agnostic, or just indifferent to religion. That’s just my experience though, it’s different for everyone. One thing that does not work in London is generalisation. So my experience may be totally different to the next guy (or girl).

    I have noticed the birds-of-a-feather phenomenon with us South Africans. That’s totally cool with me, whatever the underlying reason. So long as they’re happy. Me, well, I’d far sooner choose a night out in Soho than in Putney.

    Personally, I don’t think London is immoral. I think it may look that way as a result of the extreme tolerance and lack of prejudice here. I’ve never seen anything like it before. No one cares if you’re atheist, tattooed, pierced, gay. That’s part of why I love this place. But it would obviously raise moral doubts for anyone of a more conservative persuasion.

    So I guess it’s all just point of view at the end of the day.

    As for the effect on fundamentalism, well, two of my flatmates have just stepped out the door on their way to Hillsong, the local version of His People. They both happen to be quite unhappy here at the moment (for what I believe to be cultural reasons). So maybe it’s related. Who knows. Hopefully they’ll come home tonight cheered up.

    To each his own. Did I mention I love this place?

    R

  • 3 Hugo // Jan 6, 2008 at 7:03 pm

    Ins and outs. Gotcha, thanks for the heads-up. And thanks for the insightful response. That minister saddens me also. Personally, in my language, I’d state Pullman knows God much better than that minister does. (“What is God?” is the question that pops up. But never mind that now.)

    R, I love your outlook. We’ll sit around a braai again some day. Um, again? Maybe for the first time. Or have a beer or something. I do wonder if you could find out more about your flatmates’ views… hear how they summarise their experiences, and share it here. But yea, that’s not your obsession, that’s mine ;-) — don’t sweat it.

  • 4 Hugo // Jan 7, 2008 at 1:19 am

    R, of particular importance, I don’t want to ruin this for you:

    To be honest, the religion thing has been a complete non-issue for me arriving in London.

    Asking them about their views might just be opening a can of worms for you. It’s the kind of worms that I have for breakfast, but not everyone shares my tastes.

  • 5 Marnus Malan // May 7, 2008 at 7:31 am

    When does religion really matters?

    Thanks Hugo, rather appreciated this topic. I would like to add my two pence on this matter, I have an opinion on this matter, based on personal experience obtained throughout europe/eastern europe.

    I take it that your opinion is not based on personal experience? No critisism here, in fact I regarded your thoughts as well informed.

    Fact is, the vast majority of communities in Britain suffer under severe social breakdown, especially regarding family values, something which I think, in South Africa at least, is almost directly linked to values propagated by the church and the strength of church in a particular community.

    Furthermore it seems clear that for a particular nation/social identity christian (maybe even religious) orientation is directly proportional to materialistic wealth. I found this to be evident in the mainsty EU countries and paticularly evident so in the super-wealthy countries of scandinavia.

    Having had a lot of exposure and extensive travels in the eastern european countries which is now just rinsing from the communistic ashes the contrast was really stark. Their sense of family, their christian conviction and their drive and ambition to succeed was far beyond what you would find in any first world country. Also, in Russia christianity in various shapes and flavours is spreading rapidly, with the absence of some evangelical churches, mostly those rooted in the American ideology where you don’t establish a congregation but buy a franchise and operate it as a business. I couldn’t help but think this is due to the lack of wealth.

    This is the only exception to my religious conviction/materialistic wealth equation: evangelical churches. Also quite interesting is to compare statistics, for some or other reason evangelical churches show a remarkably high turnover of members (ie if you go back to a church , how may of its members from ten years ago is still present) as opposed to your more “traditional” churces.

    My thoughts is intended purely as an observation, not wanting to pick a fight or step on anybody’s toes. Have a nice day!

  • 6 Hugo // May 7, 2008 at 1:20 pm

    My first reaction when someone digs up an old post, is to cringe… “Uh oh, what did I write back then?” This post looks okay though. My opinion above is based on relatively limited experience and exposure.

    Furthermore it seems clear that for a particular nation/social identity christian (maybe even religious) orientation is directly proportional to materialistic wealth. I found this to be evident in the mainsty EU countries and paticularly evident so in the super-wealthy countries of scandinavia.

    Do you mean inversely proportional? (Scandinavia being largely secular, and other “Christian areas” you mention being relatively poor.)

    Fact is, the vast majority of communities in Britain suffer under severe social breakdown, especially regarding family values, something which I think, in South Africa at least, is almost directly linked to values propagated by the church and the strength of church in a particular community.

    Can you tell us more about the “severe social breakdown”? This is something that concerns me. And the solution isn’t religion. In fact, one could argue religion’s prior monopoly on social structures might be the problem. If a community’s social structures become highly dependent upon their religion, and they then lose their religion, their social structures can break down. The challenge then, is to develop social structures not dependent upon the failing elements of religion. (I.e. not dependent upon religion, if they’ve already lost their religion, or developing “religion” in a way that it no longer depends on the elements that end up undermining it, like creationism, superstitions, threats of hell, or somesuch.)

    That’s the challenge I’d love to look at thus: how to keep the good, while letting the bad fall away.

  • 7 Marnus Malan // May 26, 2008 at 7:04 am

    Good day. Sorry for the long delay in response, been globetrotting like mad in the last few weeks and there was also the irresistable opportunity of a few summits with some old friends in the Alps.

    “Can you tell us more about the “severe social breakdown”? This is something that concerns me.”

    Sorry for digging up the old post, I was researching a subject and google kindly directed me to your electronic-intellectual premises

    Quite simple, kids as young as five running wild, swearing and assualting helpless pensioners and “it’s a pity ut what can you do?” position taken towards such incidents. Total loss of family cohesion, kids at the age of 15 with a criminal record longer than Mugabe’s reporters blacklist (and it is not a shame), vandelism of public property (Busses, trains, community buildings etc), assaults on nursing staff in hospitals… The list of anti-social activities goes on and on. Most of it carried out by people who had a seemingly good education and no disadvantaged or deprived background, where the blame can certainly not be directed at a lack of oppertunity. However, most of the time there was no family-structure or it was a complete shamble. I think a big factor is the complete lack of drive and ambition, there is no desire to excell in life, its acceptable just to coast a long as a non-contributing member of society. values in convictions usually fostered at home or aquired by the desire to escape adverse enviroments. Certain values can not be established by a goverment or any form of governing body, they can merely enforce laws and prosecute perpetraitors.

    In the UK you can compare the social and family of the religious/church-going mebers of society (the little thats left) with that of the non-religious and you’ll notice a stark difference. I dont say the religious convictions or the church as such is the only cause, if at all a factor, for the stability

    Certain values are established in your upbringing, and where there is no conviction for family values and no domestic stability the consequenses become rather alarming.

    “In fact, one could argue religion’s prior monopoly on social structures might be the problem.”
    I certainly agree with you on this line of thought. Nowhere is it more evident than in the Afrikaans establishment. Prior 1995 a lot of things have been regulated by the goverment which to a great extend danced along with the influence of churches. For instance media and entertainment was over-regulated by law, consider matters like pornography and gambling: Should it be society’s conviction to have/not to have these elements or should it be regulated by goverment so that the individual have no choice to make? The moment regulation was slacked/abandoned, it was pretty interesting to see what happend when moral conviction was to dictate the acceptence of matters previously labelled as “very sinister”. Which again highlight the importance of moral conviction being far more important than over-emphasised power to institutions like goverments and churces and the importance that a religion should never be a governing body, not at macro or micro-scale.

    Lastly, I’m not participating here to critisize, provoke or to stamp down personal opinion, merely enjoying constructive discussion. Thus if any readers disagree or would like to share thoughts: Good on you and please respond! Thanks to Hugo for facilitating these discussions.

  • 8 Kenneth Oberlander // May 26, 2008 at 3:35 pm

    In the UK you can compare the social and family of the religious/church-going mebers of society (the little thats left) with that of the non-religious and you’ll notice a stark difference.

    What precisely is this difference? Could you elaborate?

    a religion should never be a governing body, not at macro or micro-scale.

    Agreed.

    _______________

    I’m a bit confused by what you’re saying, though. Are you saying that religion is responsible for the creation of family values and domestic stability, and that with the loss of religion, that the morality of Western Europe is going down the tubes?

  • 9 Marnus Malan // Jun 2, 2008 at 6:19 am

    “… and that with the loss of religion, that the morality of Western Europe is going down the tubes?”

    No, any London commuter will tell you very little of this can be seen on the tubes.

  • 10 Hugo // Jun 2, 2008 at 9:16 am

    Marnus writes:

    “… and that with the loss of religion, that the morality of Western Europe is going down the tubes?”

    No, any London commuter will tell you very little of this can be seen on the tubes.

    I believe he just meant “down the drain”, nothing about the London Underground.

    Kenneth writes:

    What precisely is this difference? Could you elaborate?

    I’m assuming the paragraph starting with “Quite simple, kids as young as five running wild, swearing and assualting helpless pensioners” describes the differences Marnus is talking about.

    I also think we’re talking rather specifically about UK morality here, rather than generalising to “western Europe as a whole” (but I may be wrong).

    If the discussion is to be more grounded in specifics, I suppose it would be important to know what percentage of the population we’re really talking about, which demographic. It’s easy to notice the worst and then generalise. Then again, isn’t that okay? Compare the worst in one nation with the worst in another…? As long as you’re not unknowingly comparing the worst 0.5% of one with the worst 10% of another.

    Religion and church is one (quite successful) way to pass on values from one generation to the next. Without religion and church, does this responsibility fall directly on the shoulders of parents/family? What else? So if families/parents don’t do a good job, the loss of a church structure where “people that care” take care of children and teenagers and their values in life can be rather dramatic?

    Certain values can not be established by a goverment or any form of governing body, they can merely enforce laws and prosecute perpetraitors.

    I’d think you could teach some values in school, but yea, “certain” values might be hard to teach? Ponder… Certain values come from home, from family. And when family life is tied to a religious tradition, these values come from that community. Schools aren’t communities like that. (But there’s a question: could they conceivably fill more of that role?)

    I’m still looking for more on this:

    Furthermore it seems clear that for a particular nation/social identity christian (maybe even religious) orientation is directly proportional to materialistic wealth. I found this to be evident in the mainsty EU countries and paticularly evident so in the super-wealthy countries of scandinavia.

    With reference to Marnus’ mention of eastern European countries and their religion, I suppose this might indeed be meant as “directly proportional” (I previously questioned that, thinking it might have been a typo). So Marnus, you’re saying that, in what is supposedly largely-secular Scandinavia, that those with a Christian orientation tend to have greater materialistic wealth? Is this what you mean? Is it true? (Might it be due to effects of observational bias or something similar, e.g. just the way they live/show it, rather than backed by hard data?) And assuming it’s true, why do you think that could be? (I could find this ironic in some sense… are the Christians maybe more materialistic? ;) Or is it really due to having more “drive”, motivation, in life?)

  • 11 Kenneth Oberlander // Jun 2, 2008 at 10:46 am

    Yes, a poor turn of phrase on my part. Apologies.

    I second Hugo’s questions. I am pretty certain that you will see equivalent, if not far worse, behaviour on the public transportation system of Johannesburg, or Cape Town. Are you sure you are comparing apples with apples?

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