Africa Needs Reason

Friday, January 02, 2009

Via Arts & Letters Daily is an article by Matthew Parris, an atheist, to the effect that Africa's path towards civilization and prosperity is Christianity.

I used to avoid this truth by applauding - as you can - the practical work of mission churches in Africa. 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.

But this doesn't fit the facts. Faith does more than support the missionary; it is also transferred to his flock. This is the effect that matters so immensely, and which I cannot help observing.

First, then, the observation. We had friends who were missionaries, and as a child I stayed often with them; I also stayed, alone with my little brother, in a traditional rural African village. In the city we had working for us Africans who had converted and were strong believers. The Christians were always different. Far from having cowed or confined its converts, 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. [bold added]
Parris makes an interesting observation here, but he draws the wrong conclusion. In fact, he makes the same type of error Dennis Prager makes on a near-daily basis when he extols what he calls "Judeo-Christian values". That is, he is package-dealing the generally rational, implicit outlook of Western missionaries with their explicitly irrational teachings. As I once put it:
While we are indeed witnessing a battle of civilizations, this battle is between Western civilization and Islam. Western civilization is in fact a mixture of two traditions: the Greco-Roman and the Judaeo-Christian. Ever since the spread of the latter into the West, there have been periods when that element has been stronger or weaker. ... [T]he lowest point for the Western world was reached precisely when its cultural milieu was closest to being unadulterated Christianity. The Renaissance arose after classical learning was rediscovered in the West and men began using their minds again, rather than subordinating them in blind obedience to the dictates of religious authority.


... Prager lumps [together] the virtues of the classical, non-Judaeo-Christian strain in Western civilization [with] his religious tradition. As I just noted, the relative influences of the Greco-Roman and Judaeo-Christian traditions vary over time in the West. While some might claim that these complement one another, these two strains are actually at odds on a fundamental level. One tradition is based on the epistemology of reason while the other is based on faith. One tradition offers argument and demonstrable achievement; the other authority and misery. Just as Islamic civilization objectively offers nothing in the way of accomplishments, so too would the Judaeo-Christian -- without Greco-Roman rationality to prop it up. [formatting dropped, bold added]
The Christian missionaries are thus transmitting not just their teachings to Africa, but, however imperfectly, rational elements of their native civilization. I further give the angels their due, so to speak, by noting another role of religion here, which Parris seems to be alluding to.

As I have noted here from time to time, religion has, by default held a monopoly on terminology for (and attributed source of) higher emotions, such as exaltation. It also enjoys an undeserved reputation, thanks to the fact that most modern philosophy is nihilistic, as the only coherent worldview that fosters positive values. Both of these facts lend further surface credibility to the notion that Christianizing Africa is its surest path towards civilization.

To be sure, the Christian missionaries may be the best, comparatively speaking, among the various other prominent attempts at helping Africa, but to say this is one thing. To credit faith with rational achievements and a positive, this-worldly outlook is quite another.

Africa needs the same thing any other part of the world needs: Reason. The Christian missionaries foster reason imperfectly and incidentally. That they are as successful as they are at doing so is not because of their faith, but in spite of it. Imagine what truly rational men could accomplish!

-- CAV


Andrew Dalton said...

Africa has already been devastated by terrible ideas put into practice: tribalist mysticism, Marxism, and radical Islam. In that context, it's hardly surprising that Western Christian culture (with its rational elements along for the ride, as you said) is an improvement.

On another issue, I continue to be annoyed by the whole "Judeo-Christian" package deal, which is a polemical device of modern conservatives. It has been popularized by the Buckleyan "fusionist" movement that seeks to unify religionists toward common political goals, and probably also motivated by modern Christians' desire to show a clean break with the antisemitism that so frequently accompanied Christian religious zeal before the Holocaust. I'm surprised that Jews like Dennis Prager buy into the notion so enthusiastically.

Anonymous said...

"Just as Islamic civilization objectively offers nothing in the way of accomplishments, so too would the Judaeo-Christian -- without Greco-Roman rationality to prop it up."

This is an excellent point, one which I have come to see more clearly the more I read about Christian history. I don't know if I am using this right, but I see Christianity as a Potemkin village entirely supported and held afloat by Pagan antiquity (and maybe even the Pagan Germanic peoples). When Christian apologists (like the Jewish Pragger - and the rise of pro-Christian Jewish Conservatives is an interesting phenomenon) point to "Christian culture" they are really pointing to the advanced civilization made possible by the Classical world and those Europeans that rediscovered that Classical world and improved on it over the last 8 or 9 centuries.

Andrew Bernstein has a great article on this in an older TOS issue where he critiques Rodney Stark's book which claims capitalism was created by the Catholic Church. Yaron Brook also has a great expose of Christianity with regards to finance also in an older TOS issue. Brook shows that Christian laws against usury made advanced banking and therefor the financing of large scale commerce impossible. (Although Aristotle himself opposed interest but for more honest reasons than the Christians.) The scientific revolution would have been impossible under a system of Christian epistemology, etc, etc, etc. One wonders where the West (and the world) would be if Christianity had never risen and the Pagan world somehow managed to embrace its Aristotelian elements instead of its Platonistic elements. I wonder just how large the Galactic Federation would be. :)

Happy New Year!


Harold said...

Really? And did Japan or Singapore or South Korea elevate themselves due to an increase in Christianity? It's interesting that some people seem to think that when Africans are involved, somehow the normal rules don't apply. But of course they do, as we see in the case of Mauritius. As it happens, I had a Chinese roommate who worked there. According to her, China has a significant presence in the country.

I guess though, it's more fun for some people to play jungle bigshot than to actually address the real issues here. Issues like rule of objective law, individual rights, private property, and central to all these things: rationality (as you mentioned).

Oh well.

Gus Van Horn said...

Happy New Year to all, and thanks for your comments. I especially appreciate the mention of the Bernstein article.

The whole idea that Christianity underlies Western civilization is, in fact, the one of the most dangerous ideas to Western civilization.

Chuck said...

Excellent post, Gus. As for Rodney Stark's book, "Victory of Reason," Burgess Laughlin conducted a study group (on the Forum for Ayn Rand Fans) on that book in which we dissected it nine ways to Sunday, as they say:

Gus Van Horn said...

Thanks, Chuck, and I do appreciate the heads-up on the study group.

Joseph Kellard said...

I think Rob Tracinski once pointed out that Africa is largely in a terrible mess due to the Christian missionaries that did a lot of their work on the continent, while places like India are better off (even if not by much) because they inherited the English educational system.

Even parts of Africa are better due to this essentially religion/reason-based distinction. For example, if I remember correctly from my reading of "Infidel," the book’s author, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, discovered Western novels (her savior in life) through the English-based school(s) she attended in Kenya, while Islam ruled the day in her native and dreaded Somalia.

- Joseph Kellard

Anonymous said...


Thanks for the link to that discussion of Stark's blatant attempt at Christian propaganda. Your (Kitty Hawk) entries were extremely enlightening. I recommend reading through that 100 post vivisection of Rodney Stark's book for anyone who wants ammunition against Christianity's tireless revisionists.


Gus Van Horn said...

Thanks for the additional info, Joseph!