October 11, 2009

Helping or hurting Africa?

As an atheist, I truly believe Africa needs God

by Matthew Parris, TimesOnline

Before Christmas I returned, after 45 years, to the country that as a boy I knew as Nyasaland. Today it's Malawi, and The Times Christmas Appeal includes a small British charity working there. Pump Aid helps rural communities to install a simple pump, letting people keep their village wells sealed and clean. I went to see this work.

It inspired me, renewing my flagging faith in development charities. But travelling in Malawi refreshed another belief, too: one I've been trying to banish all my life, but an observation I've been unable to avoid since my African childhood. It confounds my ideological beliefs, stubbornly refuses to fit my world view, and has embarrassed my growing belief that there is no God.

Now a confirmed atheist, I've become convinced of the enormous contribution that Christian evangelism makes in Africa: sharply distinct from the work of secular NGOs, government projects and international aid efforts. These alone will not do. Education and training alone will not do. 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; and only the severest kind of secularist could see a mission hospital or school and say the world would be better without it. I would allow that if faith was needed to motivate missionaries to help, then, fine: but what counted was the help, not the faith.

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.

First, then, the observation. We had friends who were missionaries, and as a child I stayed often with them; I also stayed, alone with my little brother, in a traditional rural African village. In the city we had working for us Africans who had converted and were strong believers. The Christians were always different. Far from having cowed or confined its converts, their faith appeared to have liberated and relaxed them. There was a liveliness, a curiosity, an engagement with the world - a directness in their dealings with others - that seemed to be missing in traditional African life. They stood tall.



Mike said...

I remember reading this article last year (possibly even posting on it. I´ll have to check). The thing I take away from it is, it´s nice to, now and then, run into the sort of atheist who is not simply one sided and condecending about his beliefs, but still has the intellectual honesty to hold a decent debate over the existing evidence for a world view other than his own. In my experience, and I´ve had some, this is a rare individual. I should also say, I think negatively as well (probably more so) when that attitude comes from the side of the believer (and it very often does), especially a believer who is not as well trained in the area of debate as he´d like to think he is. Sadly, the negative representatives of each of these two conflicting world views are the most common and have poisoned the waters of intelligent debate for those of us who truly enjoy the exchange of ideas and information between the two belief systems.

On the issue of his belief that "Africa needs God," well, as a believer I, of course, think everyone does; but that´s a different conversation. I understand his point that there have been numerous examples of missionary work in Africa (after all they´ve been going there for over 200 years) that have been very beneficial to the livlihood (spiritual, emotional, and physical) of African people. However, there have also been those who have exploited Africans for thier own purposes, be they religious or material. Mr. Parris seems to have been fortunately influenced by the former.
There are literally hundreds of missionary organizations functioning within Africa, representing dozens (or more) religious and non-religious "denominations." All of them combined, after 200 + years have had very little, if any (and often negative), effect on the African civilization and culture. I agree, probably 100% with Parris' statement "Christianity, 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." Unfortunately, there is a very small fraction of even religious workers in Africa today who approach their work with that mindset and the confusion it has caused when conflicting "christian" messages have been taught, in my opinion, has only added to the confusion and suppression the African people have suffered for literally thousands of years of social and spiritual imposition on their lives and culture; most recently in history the destructive influence on all areas of their lives that has been caused by the forceful takeovers of, first Islam and second European colonists, each with thier own set of destructive impositions on every perceivable area of African life and culture.

Sorry for the book, NG. You just hit on a couple areas of real interest to me. Again, apologies for the length.

Rhod said...

The Hound of Heaven (read Thompson's poem if you have a chance) might be snapping at Parris's heels.

In Parris's context it doesn't even matter if God is real, but that something good is liberated in the human being who believes in Him, and only the ferocious ego is liberated by materialism.

Mike said...

A beautiful poem. You may be right about it snapping at his heels; otherwise I find his reasoning quite paradoxical; at least to him personally. He claims to be a "confirmed atheist," yet recognizes and affirms that it is not just the Africans´ general belief in God that liberates them, but the "direct, personal, two-way link between the individual and God." Without naming names he is making a very thinly veiled reference to the uniquely evangelical christian teaching of a personal relationship with God through the work of Jesus Christ. Clearly he has seen (and sees now) the change in the hearts of people that that relationship brings about. He is arguing its case while maintaining, as far as he allows us to know, his atheist stance.

It´s interesting, to say the least.

Anonymous said...

I have few problems with day-to-day go-to-church Christianity. If there is no God, churches still perform a valuable community function.

In the same way, Missionaries tap into a desire for structure and mystery that often is unaddressed by other societal entities.

Anonymous said...

BTW, Mike... Great comments. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Rhod, I've searched every poetry site everywhere and I can't find a limerick called Hound of Heaven.

Snarky Basterd said...

I'm no Bible thumper...but I'd take God over government any day.

USA_Admiral said...

Africa needs something. We should send them Barack. A little Hope and Change over there for about 3 years I think.

Mike said...

Here ya go NG. But, not a limerick. A really beautiful work. Thanks for turning me (us) on to it Rhod.

Rhod said...

Goomba gets bored with any work longer than "There was a young lady for Dallas"..., or the instruction sheet for a towel.

That's why God's house has many mansions.