Writer Matthew Parris has been to Africa many times. There’s also no doubt he’s an atheist.
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 have to agree with him on some level. At the various churches I’ve been over the past couple years, most of them were involved in some sort of missionary work — work that goes unmatched by the secular charities that are out there.
In the plenty of books I’ve read written by Christians, the authors have often gone on these trips themselves. They write about the difference they made in this village and that one. In one I just finished, the author worked side-by-side with Mother Teresa. I’ve seen my own high school students come back from trips transformed themselves after going to help people in impoverished places — they’re not just building churches; they’re saving lives.
I haven’t heard about or read books by atheists (or any non-Christians, for that matter) doing anything similar and on that scale.
Christians definitely have the money and the numbers to make a difference in places so many others have forgotten about.
The downside, of course, is the whole preaching superstition thing — not just religion, but also the dangerous belief that condom are evil:
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.
The help only goes so far, though. The faith takes them the rest of the way.
Parris reports that in his encounters with “missionized” Africans, the new Christians were different people:
… 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.
None of this suggests the beliefs of Christians are true. Rather, it reinforces the idea that the Christian story is a powerful one.
I also don’t think that change has to come from Christianity — a powerful secular force could achieve something similar. But religious mythology gives the people hope for a better life even if there’s no reason to think it’s valid. That is one powerful placebo to argue against.
The article leads me to ask a few questions:
- Is hope the thing that these missionized Africans need most? Or could their spirits be transformed by something else? Kindness from strangers? Basic food/water/medicine/education?
- Are the teaching of Christianity and the sex miseducation the only reasons you (atheists) may not support these missionaries? Why else don’t you?
- Is the Christian proselytization helping Africa or hurting it?
- If you agree that Parris is correct in saying these mission trips are undeniably good, would you be willing to be a part of a trip as an atheist? Have you done this already?
- Do you support or condemn Parris for writing the column?