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Africa, Missionaries and God

February 11th, 2009 · Posted by Hugo · 22 Comments

This article seems to have made its way around certain circles in the blogosphere. I first stumbled across it at a site named FutureChurch (dotcoza). It presents an idea that I will be referring to in the near future, an idea that will help frame some of my discussion. For now I’m sharing it without commentary, so you guys can have your say! I will be picking apart another blogger’s thoughts about the article at a later date:

As an atheist, I truly believe Africa needs God by Matthew Parris, Times Online
Missionaries, not aid money, are the solution to Africa’s biggest problem – the crushing passivity of the people’s mindset

Share your thoughts! Feel free to be passionate, but do be thoughtful, motivate your opinions well, and as always, respect differences of opinion.

Categories: Worldviews
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22 responses so far ↓

  • 1 gerhard // Feb 11, 2009 at 1:06 pm

    ouch, matthew parris is a bit of a culturalist without regard for history 🙂

    he should rename the article as follow, I prefer westernised africans, because i fear cultural attitudes different from mine, infact i hope all non westernnized africans should die out.

    The idiot , and yes , he is one , says :

    hristianity, post-Reformation and post-Luther, with its teaching of a direct, personal, two-way link between the individual and God, unmediated by the collective, and unsubordinate to any other human being, smashes straight through the philosphical/spiritual framework I’ve just described. It offers something to hold on to to those anxious to cast off a crushing tribal groupthink. That is why and how it liberates.

    So what is he doing here? saying , lets swap one ‘evil’ mindset to another one. I understand why one coniders poisoning someone with radiation to get rid of cancer. But should he be the judge of another culture?

    personally i wonder how much exposure the christain rurals and the non christain cultures have had of colonial cultures. rural cultures have been/are treated horrifically by foreign cultures as victimes of cultural arrogance. “our way is right , we must all act like this , why the fuck don’t you guys understand that so now you’re not going to be treated as equals”.

    tollerating a culture (like ahtiest mostly do with fundies) and speaking against it or seeking to limit influence is one thing, but actively seeking its destruction. thats another completely.
    Atheist or not, we don’t need to act like fascists, rather leave that to the fundies.j/k

    Neo-colonialization is not the answer. In fact , the more of it goes on , the more non native africans will be seen as a theat to their cultures. The less christain the society is going to be as a whole. (this has happend elsewehre , where natives have risen up against christainization)

  • 2 Ben-Jammin' // Feb 11, 2009 at 4:11 pm

    I’m not particularly happy with the article. But, I have not been to Africa and know little about how such countries can be helped to achieve less corruption, more freedom, more education, etc. So I don’t know if he is right or not.

  • 3 gerhard // Feb 11, 2009 at 8:32 pm

    ben: I am questioning this because we’re dealing with cultures that don’t want to let go of things like ritual animal slaughtering. playing with the entrails to tell the future of ones success. Some even go off into the bush, starve themselves and try survive for sometime just to earn the privilage to mutilate their genitalia in unsterile enviroments.
    Others travel at great cost across country to bury the dead members of their communitys. no matter how little they actually know of eachother.

    it is quite regular to see households with multiple wives and for men to have many ‘girlfriends’ where there is no taboo about having kids with all of them without being able to support them. (seriously, have so many kids to prevent poverty.[ didnt you know that it’s common knowledge that westerners spread propoganda that the opposite is true!!])
    people still believe in magic potions and other arbirary superstitions. These are all things very deeply ingrained in their culture. Many of these things continue when christainised, because they are accepted ideals in the communities and hece admireably , respectable and to be imitated. Culture. Their ‘native’ , somewhat ‘ancient’ , fairly recently modernised cultures.

    They even have a word for people who are westernized like african people in america , it has the same effect as ‘black people’ in the american context.(so considerd derogetory) the word is coconut. black on the outside but white on the inside. Apparently our way of thinking and doing things is repulsive enough to use it as a proper swear word. A swear word!!!

    in south africa the ex vice president and soon to be president (by groupthink) is famous for his many wives and exploits. He even justifies knowingly having unprotected sex with a hiv infected people with ‘1 in 500 gets aids’ while putting himself, the familys and lovers at risk.
    Great thinking that. Exactly the kind of thinking you want in your leadership. A leader who’ll survive the odds. (said as westernized person living in what to a westernized person seems as chaos) .. the point with this south african example is that south africa is already a christainized african country. A lot of the bad stuff are side products of ‘traditionalism’ being fueled using modern tools.
    It’s not like cutures here are babaric or uncivilized , they just have different boundies to what people in a western society are used to. These cultures just need time to evolve and redraw which boundies work in a modern world.
    Even if the groupthink prevails who are we (westernized people) to say that they should behave like us. its all relative isnt it?

  • 4 gerhard // Feb 11, 2009 at 8:37 pm

    sorry , didint run spellcheck or proof read , am in a hurry and it might be an embarrassment.

  • 5 Pieter // Feb 11, 2009 at 11:13 pm

    Interesting article.

    I’ve had similar thoughts…would atheism serve a morally corrupt society better than christianity? Or do we only engage in atheistic arguments once we’re all “good people” to start with.

    By criticising Africa the author is of course risking the display of his colonialist moustache and monocle. Look at lack of individualism but forget Africa’s sense of “ubuntu”? Look at lack of ambition, but forget people truly happy and relaxed in their way of life?

    Was christianity not quite prevalent in Europe’s Dark Ages? (and even some more when they went all barbaric on each other…last century)

    I think a well-funded good school that really engages its pupils completely (as Oprah commands) would do the trick as well. That is typically the important role that missionaries play anyway.

    I still suspect the article is onto something though.

  • 6 Hugo // Feb 12, 2009 at 1:52 am

    Ben’Jammin and Pieter: excellent. Thanks for your contribution.

    gerhard, the idiot, and yes, he is one says, paraphrased:

    Matthew Parris is an idiot


    gerhard, this is your final warning, you’re going to have your “bypass the moderation queue” rights revoked if you keep it up. Keep what up? The combination of the following:

    – hurling insults, like calling him an idiot. And yes, he isn’t an idiot. He is certainly no more of an idiot than you are. Hint: his opinion may be incorrect, and you might be able to show that, but with the way you comment, and have commented, I can’t even be sure that you fully understand what he’s suggesting/advocating. You’ve misunderstood me often enough, and headed out on your vendetta without showing much effort to understand.
    – your comments are destructive. They dominate the conversation, and don’t give others the scope to talk about something they find interesting.
    – on top of that, the whole spelling/grammar thing, which shows further disrespect to everyone else reading your comments.

    In addition to the problems above, there’s the following problem as well:

    – you quite possibly do not understand/comprehend the reasons for my saying this. This connects again with either not understanding what I’m on about, or not caring about it, in both cases, I’m revoking your privilege for skipping the moderation queue if you do this again.

    Suggestions for improvement:

    – nope, sorry, use your brain. You should be able to figure it out. We’ve been over this a million times.

    Enough said.

  • 7 g // Feb 12, 2009 at 10:56 am

    gee thanks hugo. thank you so much again for making it personal. Maybe you missed it, but i was saying one should stop telling people how to behave and accept them apposed to trying to change things you can’t. Yes i believe he is an idiot much like i feel you act like a rightious one and no i will not refrain from calling people that when i feel it is necessary. So i guess i may as well leave.

    thank you very much for the time i obviously wasted here. I hope this blog effort works out for you , the hater of a thousand hates:P

  • 8 Heidi // Feb 12, 2009 at 12:22 pm

    There is an arrogance and a patronizing tone to Parris’ argument that really leaves a bitter taste in my mouth. And he isn’t even speaking of me (or is he….?)

    If one looks at the way that the ANC uses Christianity to motivate some of their practices, one can surmise that perhaps religion isn’t the answer, because it can be used to manipulate, particularly when dealing with an unsophisticated audience.

    Education, education, education. That is all there is to it.

  • 9 Hugo // Feb 12, 2009 at 1:01 pm

    Interesting! I’m quite curious to hear more about those ANC motivations, being a bit out of the loop. If you feel like sharing a couple of examples that is.

    Education, yea, but that is quite a long-term effort, right? I wonder how much a political regime might make “just education” not really help much. If you have a culture/belief that “there’s just no fighting the system”, how do you get past that? Educating a certain kind of mindset…? “Embracing the Power of Humanism” kind of “go-getter” mindset? Easier said than done, and this isn’t the realm of “pure factual education”, it’s a philosophical lifestance, be it an eupraxsophy or a religion. That kind of education does fall under what I would happily call “missionary work”, using the term broadly (humanist-missionaries?)

    On the “arrogance/patronizing tone”, I didn’t perceive that. I’m getting more and more convinced that things like that, and “condescension”, is rather a tricky thing to talk about, especially without paralinguistic clues, without real tone. I feel such things are often perceived, but not meant. (Or maybe even sometimes meant but still not perceived.) So yea, while I didn’t see any arrogance or a patronizing tone in his article, I appreciate that you did.

    A friend told me a story about doctors working in Africa, giving people medicine that cures their illnesses/disease. At the same time, they had some superstition that wasn’t discouraged/fought… gaah, can’t remember the details… but “as long as they are taking their meds, it’s good”. Don’t know why I just mentioned that.

    gerhard, the point with moderation is to help those that end up in the moderation queue be more reflective and improve their writing/contributions to become better citizens. If you just want to give up, that’s also fine. It’s probably less frustrating than having to improve your comments until they’re good enough.

    “Matthew Parris is an idiot” -> how is that not a personal attack? Just because he’s not here? I probably have too broad a definition for “making things personal”, because under my definition I feel I’m just following your lead. (That was kinda the point I was trying to make, but I clearly failed.)

  • 10 Heidi // Feb 12, 2009 at 1:24 pm

    Well, as you may or may not know, Jacob Zuma proclaimed that the ANC will rule until Jesus comes. His world view and politics are intermeshed and is informed by his Christianity. See for a full analysis.

    Hugo said:

    If you have a culture/belief that “there’s just no fighting the system”, how do you get past that?

    Well, with ubuntu, with that sense of community, you can argue that you are the system and change things from within. Revolutions aren’t brought about by an individual, but by a community of individuals. So teach critical thinking skills and let the individuals or the communities come to their own conclusions.

    Hugo said:
    On the “arrogance/patronizing tone”, I didn’t perceive that.

    Perhaps it IS a subjective thing, but I see it in e.g.
    “Removing Christian evangelism from the African equation may leave the continent at the mercy of a malign fusion of Nike, the witch doctor, the mobile phone and the machete.” The implication here is that Africans are too stupid, too violent and too unsophisticated to develop as a nation without Christianity.

    And this:

    “Those who want Africa to walk tall amid 21st-century global competition must not kid themselves that providing the material means or even the knowhow that accompanies what we call development will make the change. A whole belief system must first be supplanted.” So, if Africa wants to compete globally, one belief system has to be replaced by another. Why is a belief system necessary for development? And why specifically Christianity? He doesn’t provide any statistics or proper motivation for his conclusions.

  • 11 Pieter // Feb 12, 2009 at 1:36 pm

    Missionaries can very easily do more harm than good, there are quite a few examples in history.

    Destroyed local cultures and languages. Broken up family units. Questionable memetic techniques (counter to the Geneva convention).

    Congrats on using eupraxosophy in a sentence 😉

  • 12 Hugo // Feb 12, 2009 at 2:07 pm

    @Heidi: Fair enough, and good examples / things to think about.

    A quick hypothetical: suppose Matthew had been caught under a “belief system” similar to the one he considers a problem in Africa, and then converted to Christianity himself, and found it to be an effective way at beating his prior belief system. Do you think if the article were informed by that kind of personal experience, that it would be less likely that he would seem arrogant or patronising? (I.e. is it the “I’m an atheist, but…” that sets the tone?)

    Missionaries can very easily do more harm than good, there are quite a few examples in history.

    Most certainly! Missionaries can be colonial, can be harmful… and in terms of the Christian flavour, I’m placing hope on McLaren-et-al, who understand the evils of colonialism, approach their style of “evangelism” with the utmost care and awareness. Post-colonialist evangelism.

    But you guys know me, I’m always looking for the good in everything, and emphasize that first. And I only feel prepared to tackle the more “problematic” elements once I feel I can do so without breaking down the good that’s also there. “Excessive caution”….

  • 13 Heidi // Feb 12, 2009 at 2:17 pm

    I don’t think it would seem any less arrogant if it was informed by personal experience. It is arrogant for anyone to tell anyone else that they know what is best for them. What works for one is not necessarily going to work for someone else. If it was an African from a rural community that wrote the article, that would have been a different story all together, but would probably still only be relevant to that particular milieu. Kind of like the prime directive in Star Trek (*sigh* see what being married to a trekkie is doing to me???)

    The fact of the matter is there are Islam/Christian/Tribal/ etc etc etc belief systems in Africa and many different social/economic/political circumstances in the different African countries and I don’t think Parris gave due consideration to this. This is why I maintain that education is the only broad stroke that may be applied, so that communities can decide for themselves what is best. Forcing a belief system on someone, anyone, is just plain wrong.

    But of course all of this is informed by my own view which is life and let life. 🙂

  • 14 Heidi // Feb 12, 2009 at 2:18 pm

    Aarrgh I mean liVE and let liVe

  • 15 Pieter // Feb 12, 2009 at 2:28 pm

    “Life and let life” seemed like an innovative twist on the age old 🙂

  • 16 Heidi // Feb 12, 2009 at 2:29 pm

    Haha…maybe, but then it needs to be

    life and let life be

  • 17 gloep // Feb 12, 2009 at 8:14 pm

    @9: Surely education and religion are both long-term efforts? If there’s a huge short-term impact via religion, then I’d be a little wary of the long-term outcomes when misunderstandings and misplaced passions start poking out their little heads.

    Treating Africa as a whole (one big “tribe”) is not the way to go. I feel it’s somewhat dangerous to say “Africa needs [insertacause]”. Look at at each community, and take it from there. And if you want to be a missionary, be an education-missionary.

  • 18 Ben-Jammin' // Feb 12, 2009 at 10:54 pm

    I’ve had similar thoughts…would atheism serve a morally corrupt society better than christianity?

    That’s not a fair question. You could legitimately ask whether atheism would serve better than theism. Or you could ask whether secular humanism would serve better than Christianity. But atheism, a simple position on a simple question, can only be fairly contrasted with theism. For a more comprehensive and positive set of beliefs such as Christianity, you would have to give atheism a correspondingly comprehensive and positive set of beliefs such as secular humanism.

  • 19 Gericke Potgieter // Feb 13, 2009 at 12:06 am

    I believe that Matthew has a point. Yes, for those who cannot fathom the existence of a God or reject the idea that we must somehow be slaves to an almighty religion it must seem like a tough idea to swallow.

    Africa needs God, but not the religion that goes with it. Africa today suffers the fate of a man that was forever told that being what you are is wrong simply because you are. Imperialism in all its forms justified the rape and pillage of this incredibly wealthy and potentially powerful continent through the church of the day. Yes the Christians did a lot of good for Africa and its people, but with it came the demise of the true character of the African. Any belief that requires of you to lose your identity asks of you to lose your power to choose.

    Atheists bear with this Christian for a minute and simply take it as a perspective: the God I know gives me the ability, and even more importantly, the responsibility to choose. He doesn’t command my life as if I am a slave, but rather teaches me how to choose a life worth living.

    Now, if one could take this principle into Africa and show others how to choose a life worth living, wouldn’t that be the key to the real development of Africa? If Africans could choose their own lives according to their own context in the knowledge that how they choose will bring them a good life, it would most certainly look different to any life I can imagine. But in every case it would almost definitely lead to stronger people with greater potential.

    What Africa doesn’t need is more NGO’s, more aid funds, more food contributions, more western style schools. With more than US$32 billion spent by the World Bank in Sub-Sahara Africa in 2005 alone, with more than 14850 NGO’s actively trying to “do good” in the same area, Africa just seems to grow weaker every day. Higher levels of corruption, greater need for food aid, bigger dependence on (often untested) medicines, more civil war. How can this possibly be?

    Africans were taught that they have no choice in the matter. They were taught that they are not good enough, strong enough, or developed enough and as such must become like their imperial masters. Christian that I am, I believe the church had a lot to do with that.

    If God gives us the ability to choose a worthwhile life, then yes, Matthew is correct. But if this implies missionaries that force foreign culture down the throats of my fellow Africans, then I will vehemently object.

  • 20 Pieter // Feb 13, 2009 at 1:04 am

    @Ben-Jammin’ : Yeah my mistake, to rephrase:

    Would any moral foundation typically associated with atheism serve a morally corrupt society better than Christianity?

    My guess is no. Christianity (and Islam) has proved itself over time as being exceptionally good at converting people. They have all the tricks and gear figured out, even the evil ones.

    I’d prefer it if Secular Humanism could offer a solid teaching framework to educate people, or that good moral values simply appear as side effect of a good education. Perhaps there are programs that people can work through…as provided by your nearest scientologist 😛

  • 21 Ben-Jammin' // Feb 13, 2009 at 8:20 pm

    My guess is no.

    I would guess yes…but in the absence of any good empirical evidence, this is a biased guess on my part. We need some successful humanist missionaries and then we need studies on the results. 🙂

  • 22 Pieter // Feb 14, 2009 at 6:07 pm

    Ok, I suggest we find two cannibal tribes in Central Africa, and parachute in a bunch of Christian missionaries and a bunch of Humanist missionaries to each respective site. The winner shall be determined by survivor head count.

    I just remembered the airing of Human Rights ads here in South Africa a few years back, and I wonder whether that could count as humanist missionary work. The Declaration of Human Rights being one of our more important moral secular documents.

    By these people:
    but interesting who is behind it all…

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