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?