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December 31, 2008

An atheist advocates Christianity for Africa

Matthew Parris has a piece in The Times Online, As an atheist, I truly believe Africa needs God that I enjoyed a lot.

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. ... 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. ... There's long been a fashion among Western academic sociologists for placing tribal value systems within a ring fence, beyond critiques founded in our own culture: “theirs” and therefore best for "them"; authentic and of intrinsically equal worth to ours.

I don't follow this. 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.
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.

In areas where Christianity is rare, Parris's observations are perhaps attributable to the selection effect. It may be that the most talented and tribally stifled individuals convert to Christianity. More generally, areas with weaker tribes and greater benefits from individuality may provide a more fertile field for Christianity. That said, I've commented before about how nice and generous I've found religious people, and I think this is an effect of treatment rather than selection.

Respecting the possibility that devotion and worship makes us into better people because it makes are actions harmonious with a divine plan, I've been reading some evolutionary biology books, and so I've been viewing this phenomena through that lens. We know that religious makes us live longer, both by preventing intra-group violence and by providing a healthy social network of observation and support. People who live longer usually have higher discount rates or at least plan for father into the future. That leaves greater opportunities for reciprocity. I may babysit my neighbors children even though I have none of my own, knowing that one day you will bring me soup in my old age, or give alms to pay for my niece's wedding. If we live in a brutal and short horizon environment, better to tell you to care for your own kids, I'd better spend the extra time tilling my own garden or perhaps robbing others.

But tribal religions provide a lot of this same framework, so why should Christianity provide a superior structure. I certainly don't know, but I suspect that this depends on three factors, monogamy, an ever-watching judge of the universe, and a lack of sacrificial worship.

In a few past postings I've linked to articles discussing the purported sociological consequences of polygamous marriage (Big Love?, The Applied Economics Blog, A cool list of human similarities, No, it doesn't make everyone better off, A dark and fascinating* gedankexperiment). The major reoccurring theme is men with lower chances of reproductive success are statistically more likely to be violent, drug abusers, rapists, and consumers of prostitution services. Marriage, on the other hand, encourages men to take less risk and be well behaved (modestly) productive members of society. They also have an interest in the stability and prosperity of the future through teaching their sons and to protect their daughters and provide them dowries. By encouraging monogamous marriage, You decrease the number of men that have no prospect of getting married and increase the number of men who are married. This comes at the cost of decreasing the prosperity of the average woman, but since it seems that the ability of men to wreck havoc outweighs the benefits of the additional female prosperity in total social wealth, this is a trade-off many societies will make. And yes, it is happening in these countries:

In the countries of the Sahel region of Africa, the percentage of women living in polygynous households ranges from 45% to 55%. In West Africa, Central Africa, and East Africa, these percentages are mostly in the range from 25% to 35%. In Southern Africa, polygyny is less common, with just under 10% of women living in polygynous households.
On the Economics of Polygyny

The belief in a divine power that is always watching is another mechanism for manufacturing cooperation. We can't watch out fellow villagers all the time, so shirking and cheating may occur when they can't be monitored. Yet if you and I could both figure out a way to make sure that the other didn't cheat, we could form new cooperative ventures. The white bearded man in the sky watching everything and punishing us in the afterlife is just such a supervisory mechanism.

Finally, many religions believe in repentance through sacrifice, not through contrition, apology, and good works. The former puts the rich and powerful beyond religious moral sanction, while the later do not (at least in theory). Because Christianity requires contrition, apology, and good works, it puts everyone's soul on the line, acting as an expensive punishment regardless of personal wealth and power. This not only improves personal behavior, but it also allows the weak to trust the strong. The weak need not worry as much about the strong taking by force. The weak know that the strong know that their wickedness will be punished and this reduces the likelihood that they will be wicked in the first place.

And so by creating more trust and greater opportunity, Christianity provides greater prosperity than traditional African religions through the mechanisms of monogamy, surveillance, inescapable punishment for wickedness.

Perhaps the differentiating circumstances are everything but I found it odd that this article would appeal to many Americans that would have balked when Bush suggested we take advantage of the same phenomena here in his faith based initiatives.

Posted by OneEyedMan at December 31, 2008 8:28 AM


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