Sunday, December 28, 2008

Better Ideas vs. The One True God

Presenting himself as a firm atheist sheepishly admitting to truths he would prefer to wish away, Matthew Parris has some rather sweeping things to say about the impact of Christian missionaries in Africa, beginning with the culture they encounter:

I observe that tribal belief is no more peaceable than ours; and that it suppresses individuality. People think collectively; first in terms of the community, extended family and tribe. This rural-traditional mindset feeds into the “big man” and gangster politics of the African city: the exaggerated respect for a swaggering leader, and the (literal) inability to understand the whole idea of loyal opposition.

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.
Into these cultural norms Christian missionaries inject, Parris says, a needful corrective:
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 [sic] 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.
It certainly does not sound like Parris has Roman Catholic or Greek Orthodox or Russian Orthodox Christianity in mind, which sweeps quite a wide swath of Christianity from this tidy picture. Nor is it clear what their exclusion suggests to Parris: do African missionaries bearing pre-Reformation, counter-Reformation, and Luther-indifferent forms of Christianity fail to crack the "philosophical/spiritual framework" he describes? Do they deepen it? Attenuate it slightly? Do they, too, "liberate"? He doesn't say.

This is the consequential question for atheism per se. Parris is either telling us that missionaries are changing lives by delivering a new way to conceive the world (individualism) or by delivering news of a savior (Jesus). Is a new set of ideas -- albeit delivered in a religious bundle -- making the difference, or is a particular deity?

If the latter, atheists should indeed take notice.

If the former, theists and atheists alike will see nothing new here. Anyone who has read, say, The Autobiography of Malcolm X will recognize the basic structure. In that instance, the transformative set of ideas came packaged with a variety of Islam, but few clear-eyed observers read that story, as compelling as it is, as proof of the claims of Islam.

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More discussion of this piece is at Secular Right: Walter Olson and David Hume; also at The Unreligious Right.

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