Africa needs God?

Mattghg and Hemant Mehta, the Friendly Atheist, both linked to Matthew Parris’s article As an atheist, I truly believe Africa needs God.

Parris is an atheist who writes admiringly not just of the work done by Christians in Africa, but of the changes conversion brings about in people, supplanting a tribal mindset he regards as unhealthy.

Matt also links to (but rightly criticises) a response to Parris by Stephen Noll, who writes for something called Anglican Mainstream. Noll’s article makes a couple of good points and then veers off into a parody of the Daily Mail, telling Parris that he should reflect on how atheism has lead Britain into darkness, and rounding off with the threat of the UK being over-run by Islam. I’ve not really been keeping up with who’s been anathemising whom in Anglicanism lately, because it’s all a bit tedious, but I’m assuming that something called “Anglican Mainstream” is actually a fundy schismatic organisation, much like a “People’s Republic” is always a communist dictatorship.

It’s odd that Noll thinks Theodore Dalrymple supports his claims about Britain, because in the article Noll links to, Dr Dalrymple doesn’t prescribe a dose of God: he says Brits were civilised and are now being un-civilised by intellectual activity and legislation (presumably they believed in God throughout the civilisation phase), and speaks fondly of a time when Brits regarded religious enthusiasm (a term which once referred to evangelicalism) as bad form.

Strangely enough, I’ve already quoted Dalrymple in a statement which will probably get my Dawkins Club membership card confiscated, namely, that faith groups in prisons are OK if they introduce prisoners to a culture which is less broken than the one they belong to already. This pragmatism is a reflection of my devotion to the ideas of Neal Stephenson, I suppose. (Of course, the faith groups needn’t be theistic: Buddhism can do the job, too).

It’s an annoying fact that religions are better at spreading than rationality is, as Andrew Brown points out. Christianity, or at least the right sort of Christianity, certainly isn’t the worst belief system out there. If a dose of God will displace tribalism or nihilism (which, pace Noll, isn’t equivalent to atheism), it seems like the lesser of two evils, to me.

Is it inconsistent for me to say this and also write stuff about how Christianity is wrong? I don’t think so: I’d always want to help someone to become a rationalist, which is the goal of the stuff I write. But I’m trying to be realistic about the prospect of that happening to someone who’s starting from less than zero. Evangelical Christianity is infectious and can create in some people a tremendous valuing of truth per se. We can use that 🙂

11 Comments on "Africa needs God?"

    1. It would be interesting to hear the conversations between them if they ever crossed in the airport… 🙂

      A: “So, erm, what do you do?”
      B: “We’re on our way to evangelise the UK, as us Nigerians really think you need God.”
      A: “Well, that’s funny, as we’ve just arrived here today from the UK. We believe you Nigerians need God, and we’re here to evangelise…”
      B: “Great! Well, we’ll be on our way then…”


      1. C: “Pardon me for overhearing, but can’t you just swap jobs and both stay at home more cheaply?” A and B, in unison: “That’s crazy talk.”


        1. England
          D: OK, missionaries. Where would you like to go – Nigeria or Moss Side?
          E, F, and G (with one voice): Nigeria!

          H: OK, missionaries. Where would you like to go – Kaduna or England?
          I, J and K (with one voice): England!


  1. Yes, “Anglican Mainstream” is a schismatic organization, or at least one that wants to make Anglicanism into something very different from what it currently is. You may remember David and Peter Ould from uk.r.c; I think Peter at least is quite heavily involved. (I think Peter was their first webmaster. There was a thread in uk.r.c where he complained that another site had “stolen” images from the A.M. site. It turned out that he meant one image. It turned out that that image was a version of an image that has been used by Anglicans since long, long before A.M. It turned out that the one on the A.M. website was bit-for-bit identical with one on another site that had existed long before the A.M. site.)

    I agree with your take on Parris’s article: it’s perfectly possible that Christianity is less broken than the things Parris sees it replacing in Africa, but of course that doesn’t mean that there aren’t other things that are less broken still.


    1. Peter at least is quite heavily involved

      Blimey. Small world eh? (Mind you, another mutual friend of ours was once web-master for the Doctrinal Rectitude Trust).


      1. Yes. I’ve always wondered (but not enough to ask him, which is odd since it’s clear that he likes being asked things) how he feels about that now.


  2. “Is it inconsistent for me to say this and also write stuff about how Christianity is wrong?”

    It depends whether you mean wrong as in factually incorrect or wrong as in A Bad Thing, doesn’t it? I’d say you’ve made a pretty good case for the two meanings of wrong not always being correlated…


  3. As someone of the ‘academic sociology’ school, I do (predictably) want to disagree with his insistence on individuality as inherently superior to more collective ways of living/being/thinking. As abstract concepts there’s no way to meaningfully compare the two: definitely a case of They’re Just Different Cultural Ways of Thinking, Get Over It.

    What Parris might not realise, though, is that anthropology tends to be quite political and pragmatic, due to the centrality of real-world, on-the-ground fieldwork. I, and I suspect quite a lot of anthropologists, would be happy to explore the ways in which traditionalist culture and collectivist norms are exploited by undemocratic political leaders – indeed, if I had JSTOR access I’m sure I could dig up scores of existing articles along these lines. Likewise, there’s certainly work on the socio-political impact of missionary Christianity in parts of Africa, and part of this commentary will be positive (though surely there are also cases where evangelism’s been more destructive than constructive).

    The difference between anthropologists and Parris is that the former just wouldn’t argue for the saving graces of individualism as such; that this attitude of active political citizenship really needs to be built from inside a culture. Evangelical Christianity can sometimes be adopted (and altered) to become something that deeply belongs, but I hae a suspicion that whole-culture change is most sustainable when it comes from within a culture rather than as an import. These “tribal values” Parris talks of (which tribes? He talks too broadly sometimes of a whole Africa, a whole ‘African Christianity’, when the diversity of both is huge. Anyway!) are not set in stone, nothing like that. What’s often patronising about a Western view of development is that it fails to consider how a ‘tribal modernity’ might be possible.


    1. Parris seems to be saying that the consequences of African collectivism are bad:

      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.

      ISTM that Christianity will help with some of that stuff. I recall that I stopped being scared of walking through graveyards when I became a Christian as a teenager. Of course, a Christianity which is obsessed with the demonic can be as bad as the sort of thing Parris complains about, and you do wonder whether that’s the sort of Christianity that might take root in a place where spirits are already seen as a commonplace. Similarly, there are Christianities where knowing your place is taught. It sounds like Parris has seen more healthy forms of religion.

      Acccording to the Beeb, Africa represents the single largest group of worshipers within Anglicanism, so I’d say that Anglicanism is something that belongs there. It’s not clear what sort of Christians Parris was meeting, though.


  4. Roughly what percentage of Rwanda was Christian before they started killing eac?


    ‘Christian missions started in 1900. By 1920 the Roman Catholics already had five indigenous priests, and by 1952 there were 100 priests and the first Rwandan bishop. During the 1930s more than 1 000 people were being baptised each week (Barrett 1992). By the 1940s 90% of the headmen were Catholics, so that the king officially declared Rwanda a Christian kingdom in 1946’


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