Religion offers change to the hearts and minds of people – something aid cannot do, argues Matthew Parris, a former conservative MP, in a column for The Times.
“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,” writes Parris, who was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, but now lives in England. “These alone will not do. Education and training alone will not do.”
He went on to say, “In Africa, Christianity changes people’s hearts. It brings a spiritual transformation. The rebirth is real. The change is good.”
His seeming epiphany of the positive effects of Christianity on Africa came after a trip to Malawi before Christmas. There, he met with a small British charity that works to install pumps on wells in rural villages to keep the water sealed and clean.
Although the charity, Pump Aid, is secular, he noticed that the most impressive staff members were privately “strong” Christians. While he recalls how none of the charity team members spoke about religion, he says he saw one studying a devotional textbook in the car and another leaving for church at dawn on a Sunday.
“It would suit me to believe that their honesty, diligence and optimism in their work were unconnected with personal faith,” Parris admits. “Their work was secular, but surely affected by what they were … influenced by a conception of man’s place in the universe that Christianity has taught.”
Meeting the Christians working with Pump Aid also triggered his memories of missionaries and Christians he met as a boy growing up in Africa.
He recalls how the African converts to Christianity that he met as a boy “were always different”. Their new religion did not confine them, but seemed to liberate and relax them, Parris says.
“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,” he recalls. “They stood tall.”
Christianity, he adds, also helps Africans break free from the communal and superstitious mindset that suppresses individuality. Parris criticises the “rural-traditional mindset” for feeding into the “‘big man’ and gangster politics” in African cities that teach “exaggerated respect” for a “swaggering leader” that has no room for opposition.
But Christianity – post-Reformation and post-Luther – teaches a “direct, personal, two-way link between the individual and God” that eliminates mediation by the group or any other human being, Parris notes. It offers a framework of social life for those who want to “cast off a crushing tribal groupthink”.
“That is why and how it liberates,” Parris states.
He concludes by arguing that for Africa to be competitive with other global leaders in the 21st century, it must not only think that materials or knowledge is all it needs for development and change.
“A whole belief system must first be supplanted,” the atheist journalist contends.
He warns that removing Christian evangelism from the “African equation” may “leave the continent at the mercy of a malign fusion of Nike, the witch doctor, the mobile phone and the machete”.