Greg Laden’s Qualms With Missionaries

Just learned about this from PZ Myers. Sounds most interesting, their last episode in their current format (before they switch to a podcast) starts at 8 am this morning.

But more than just the concept of an atheist talk show is this really intriguing and morally urgent topic for today’s show:

Missionaries tell us that they are saving the world, traveling to foreign lands to help the natives. Of course, “saving the world” means something a little different to those of us who don’t believe there’s a Satan who needs to be battled at every turn. We usually mean saving lives and bettering standards of living, actions that have meaning in the here and now. How do missionaries do in that regard?

Biological anthropologist Greg Laden joins Stephanie Zvan to talk about his experiences with missionaries in the remotest parts of Africa and answer questions about what missions really offer the indigenous populations. He’ll tell us about the good and the bad and let us know where we need to step up to provide secular help uncomplicated by the religion of the missionaries.

Here’s a taste of Laden’s perspective in his own words (again thanks to PZ Myers):

One of the things that I have not sufficiently conveyed in these posts about missionaries is the broad misconception people … not just missionaries, but most people in The West … have about Africans and Africa and the nature of life there. The average American will see a photograph of a mud hut with a grass roof and a family positioned outside the hut staring into the camera and this average American will think, “Oh, those poor people” without any understanding of the fact that they could be looking at the happiest people they’ve ever seen living in relative comfort, with fulfilling lives. They are just not the lives that the average Westerner has determined, in their privileged, middle class, suburban mindset, to be ideal. But who cares what you think?image
Most likely, they are dead by now.
Or, you can look at the broadly smiling face of an African Child bursting with happiness, and think, “well, they fixed that one … he’s happy” and not have any idea that this is a kid who will die of malaria next month because the region of Africa he lives in has zero medical care because there is a war going on over access to the raw materials needed to make your cell phone. Or because he lives near a Christian mission with a medical facility but is not a Christian.

In other words, you have no clue, most likely. And not only do you have no clue, but most of the bad stuff happening to these people is your fault. And you’re probably never going to get a clue. In fact, you are going to spend your energy denying that this is all your fault instead of just doing something to undo what your civilization has done.

The reason you not likely to figure this out, and that you are most likely to keep doing the wrong this, is because the reality that you are willfully misunderstanding is actually quite complicated, but you’ve been trained by your culture and society to view Africa and Africans as rather monolithic and simple.

His whole blog post and the comments section below it are worth reading, as Laden replies to many of his respondents.

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.


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