Faith, not Just Good Works, Needed in Africa–according to an Atheist

You’ll be seeing this one flash around the Internet, I’ll bet. I just got it and read it (thanks, Christina!) and want you to see it, too. Imagine: an atheist finding that Christianity changes people–individuals, families, and cultures–for the better, and not just through its helpful charities or basic decency (which lots of atheists manifest too, of course), but through its religion and thus through its–yes, he actually uses the word–evangelism.

Bravo to Matthew Parris for the guts to break ranks and acknowledge what other thoughtful people have observed, whether they could explain it according to their own worldview or not.

And let’s be careful, those of us who do believe in the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, to be respectful of the struggles of an honest man like this, careful not to crow (and thereby humiliate ourselves as quite unlike the poised, quiet Christians he so admires in Africa), and determined to do what our Lord told us to do: “let your light shine before others so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven” (Matt. 5)– as Matthew Parris has done.

0 Responses to “Faith, not Just Good Works, Needed in Africa–according to an Atheist”

  1. Angie Van De Merwe

    What is needed is a social context that gives meaning to the individual, which democracy does. And I think there are programs at the State Department that do this, with NGOs and other means of promoting democracy. The problem, as always with organizations that have not accountbility to the government, is that they are not regulated, therefore, breed lots of money on the backs of thsoe who do the foot work…
    I heard an excellent panel discuss this one at AEI (American Enterprise Institue in D.C.)…this is where I think the ideological ideas out there in meeting the physical needs falls short of meeting the social needs…I think it is really not about a real God, but would work if anyone taught it and someone believed it…It is pragmatism, not idealism,,,that is and works and is what happens in the real world…

  2. John Stackhouse

    Well, Angie, that’s not what the article is suggesting, is it? It’s not saying that “democracy” or “affirmation of individual dignity” is enough, and it certainly is not saying that non-religious NGOs, no matter how well regulated (!), can supply what he thinks needs supplying.

    As for your pragmatism/idealism disjunction, I don’t get what you mean in this case. Mr. Parris is arguing that what works is religious faith–however it works. If you’re following Voltaire and arguing that it’s good that some people have faith in God (like his peasants, for whom he constructed a chapel in order to help them keep believing), even though smart people know better and it doesn’t matter that they’re atheistic, well, then, say so and we’ll have an interesting argument! Otherwise, I’m not sure what you’re asserting.

  3. Angie Van De Merwe

    The experience of/in community that values the individual is the social context that is needed. These communities, if they value the individual can be democratically focused, or faith focused, as both affirm the individual, giving life “meaning, purpose, and value”. These are the ideals of democracy and faith in God, which is faith and reason based.

    Perhaps, this writer’s/man’s return to his roots runs deeper than just his observation of these people and this place, because I don’t believe that you engage the other as a person, when you observe them as a “test” case of scientific investigation. And since he, even though atheistic in belief, experienced a residue to his “self” that resonated with his memories there in Africa and it connected him with his humanity.

    Scientists would argue that since faith works for these Africans, then it can be an area of researching adult learning, and faith conversions. The idealists would be those who are Christian believers (missionaries) that come to convert, disciple and teach these people…so, I agree with you that there is no disconnect, except in purpose. One comes to engage the human, the other comes to understand humans and enlarge the social sciences. While I believe that this is a noble cause, I don’t like any “use” of humans for ends, other than themselves. I guess this is my idealism…I would rather have the two as separate endeavors.

    I just have problems with combining these two, as it has padded pockets on the backs of believers. And I believe that this is nigh to immoral. So, again, not only scientists “using” people, but busniess interests “using” people. I know, I know, that is just how the world works.

    I have resolved to understand faith through what I have come to understand my own values and commitments, as this is the only thing that I can control. I cannot control nor do I want to control others! So, I am not a supernaturalistic universal believer, as God also cannot be understood. While this disconnects me from husband, some friends and family, as they are believers, I have come to a point of “no return”. And I think that I am finding a “center” to what I am to be about. And it wasn’t what I thought all along.

  4. Angie Van De Merwe

    I am sorry if you are involved in any way like this, as I am only sharing my struggle with what I have known to be true of the past. And I hope that you do not think that your or anyone else’s scientific endeavors are not important. Perhaps, I’m just jealous…

  5. E.G.

    Very interesting article. Thanks so much for posting it.

  6. Jerry

    I’d have a hard time understanding the existence of Christian ideology if it didn’t, at least in part, provide a better option for people at a time and place where options are limited.

    Two paragraphs in the article that I’m particularly fond of are:

    “It would suit me to believe that their honesty, diligence and optimism in their work was unconnected with personal faith. Their work was secular, but surely affected by what they were. What they were was, in turn, influenced by a conception of man’s place in the Universe that Christianity had taught…

    “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.”

    As I’ve said elsewhere, I don’t deny that there has been, or will be, a time in the human journey when one needs to think and feel as if a loving, superior consciousness created a universe for the benefit of our maturity – as if the universe was something of a mother’s womb.

    But what I think we should all keep in mind is that, first, we all know that there is a time when a child outgrows the physical, mental and emotional needs to remain cuddled in the center of a loving, superior consciousness, and second, we also know there is a time when a child recognizes that he or she is not the center of any ‘universe’.”

  7. Jerry

    I should also probably mention that Christian and non-Christian supporters of evangelical missions should be sure to research who exactly the missionaries are and what exactly have they been doing.

    Here’s one example.

  8. John Stackhouse

    #6 and #7: I’m always amused by the “condescension in lieu of argument” gambit: “Christians, and religious believers in general, may need ‘God’ and such because they’re so psychologically immature, but once they have come to full adulthood, they’ll realize we’re all alone and the world is meaningless.”

    Having not been swayed by much more impressive exponents of this view (such as Comte, Voltaire, Feuerbach, Marx, Nietzsche, or Freud), I trust Jerry won’t be too surprised that I’m not ready to throw it all over now, either!

    It’s just not an argument. Yes, maybe religion is a mark of individual or corporate immaturity. But maybe not. Maybe, in fact, the very widely reported sense of people around the world that there is in fact more to the universe than just matter and energy in motion–including pretty smart, pretty modern, pretty “adult” people–is best explained by there actually being more to the universe than just matter and energy in motion.

    It is not more “grown-up” to believe you are alone when you’re not, and that the world is meaningless when it isn’t. In fact, such beliefs could be a sign of deep mental illness, a sort of self-destructive total denial of the most important fact anyone could know: You’re NOT alone, God loves you, the world matters, and you can be saved from your despair if you want to be.

    The “adult” thing to do, if I may say so from the perspective of my advanced age and advanced education (!) is to see what’s what, to give the plausible options a fair look, and then decide.

    But to dismiss another point of view as merely the result of immaturity is an “ad hominem” unworthy of truly adult discourse, right?

  9. Jerry

    I don’t deny that along with the condescension found in Christian ideology (for example: the “self-destruction” caused by the unsaved being in “total denial”, barring themselves from enough spiritual wisdom and insight to rise above the “despair” or “mental illness” of choosing a “meaningless” life for themselves), I too have a view of reality that happens to be condescending to others. Though, I didn’t deem it necessary to write that your comments “amused” me, both knowing it’s pretty clear neither of us were trying to amuse the other.

    I’m not sure where you see me arguing “we’re all alone and the world is meaningless.” It seems to me, the fact that we cannot rely merely on our individual selves requires us to recognize value in the community ethic, and therefore, demonstrates to all that we are not alone and we find meaning in each other.

    If I understand your comment correctly, would it have helped you if I clarified that when I was using the analogy of a child’s maturity I was commenting on people’s decisions regarding a belief in the supernatural, and their elementary education on cosmology, not their entire lives or “full adulthood”?

    You’re right in that I wasn’t presenting an argument to persuade you “to throw it all over now”. Besides, can you imagine the upheaval in your life if you were to do such a thing? Family, career, friends, etc. You’d most likely be letting down the majority of your whole world of human contact. It would be entirely unrealistic for me to expect that much of a response over my puny little comment.

    I shared my opinion on your blog because I assumed your blog was open to more than “an argument”, free for others to express their views, even if they differ from yours. I got the impression that the writer of the article was acknowledging the utilitarian value of evangelism for a particular context. I was merely commenting on the tentative nature of evangelical accomplishments.

    My response to there being “more to the universe than just matter and energy in motion” would be better suited, I think, by quoting Carl Sagan’s questioning – if we are merely matter intricately assembled, is this really demeaning? If there’s nothing in here but atoms, does that make us less or does that make matter more?

    By the way, I try not to take foregranted that one’s accumulating age and education provides he or she with more experiences, so I’m not begrudging you of that. And I’d bet you could confirm for me that you try to encourage others (students?) that it’s what one does with their experiences that really matters.

  10. Angie Van De Merwe

    Jerry, I do not know how to read your comment, as I do not know your tone, nor you, so I cannot assume.
    But, what has transpired in my experiences have led me to a place where I question God, myself and others…and I wonder, indeed about God’s immdediacy, as community has not been my experience, although I have attempted to connect. And because of my own self-doubt, there are many questions I “attack” myself with…so, I am not just critical of others or God, (as my own self-questioning is also how I even come to understand my faith, and why I even would want to believe, etc..), I am self-critical most of all, so I don’t need anyone else’s “judgment” and “conviction” about my life, as I want to take responsibility…and I seek a reason to continue to believe as I once did. I cannot really in all of my readings, and thinking resolve within myself, how to understand my faith, as faith does seek understanding. No, I do not believe in a “leap in the Dark”,because experience is not trust about a transcendent realm, as much as commitment in ther “real realm” of politics and I don’t believe that it is healthy “discipline” to attempt to create experiences which “terrorize” another… But, I do have to come to a settlment. And I cannot come to a second naivete, because it is absurd to reason, and there has been no stable community as support, encouragment, etc…I am not one to assume that individuality is spirituality, but I do believe that the individual is of primary importance, in finding where one can “rest” and then “do”…I had thought I had found that place…so, as it regards, family, commitments of obligation etc., I question everything…I don’t need to go on, as you don’t need to know all the details, but it is impossible for me to think that God is personal anymore, as too much has happened not just experientially, that disconnect me from my former way of viewing things…And anyone who believes in development must believe that there must be an addressing of some of these issues…
    I do not believe that a somplistic way of thinking helps in any way, as it mimizes and travializes suffering, such as Job’s comforters…theoldicity is a hard problem to solve in this life and world…

  11. John Stackhouse

    I’m sorry, Jerry, but I really don’t follow your line of argument in most of your paragraphs. I like your temperate tone of voice and I try to be open to both alterative viewpoints and criticism of my own, but each time I’ve tried to figure out whether you’re really disputing with something I’ve actually said and raised an actual argument against it, I come up short.

    Of course you can register an alternative opinion. And then others of us might dispute with it, as I have. I confess I have to stand by what I wrote since I think your last reply takes issue with something I pretty clearly didn’t mean (by “alone,” for example, I simply meant “we human beings are alone with no supernatural help,” not “we each are windowless monads with no contact with other sentient creatures”) or makes rhetorical gestures (such as the Sagan quotation) that don’t actually argue anything, or just makes no sense to me (such as your last paragraph).

    I apologize for being obtuse: I really do like to understand different points of view. But it seems to me that you’re simply convinced of a particular form of atheism that sees all religion as jejune and therefore unhelpful–and you’re not doing anything more than stating that. Okay, I’ve heard that. What next?


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