Fugitives from Fundamentalism

The Musings of Adult Missionary Kids (MKs) & Former Born-Again Believers

Why Growing Up in Africa Made Me an Agnostic Non-Theist

Posted by Clamence/The Chaplain on July 9, 2008

[This message was written in response to a Christian who asked why I considered my childhood in Africa and my time at a Christian college as contributors to my self-removal from the Christian faith.]

When I said that my observations of Africans, and the value of their beliefs, culture, etc., led me to see that the Christian faith was no more real than any other faith, I had a few things in mind. At my Christian boarding school I remember being in a Bible class taught by Mr. —. He created a list of theological questions for the class to answer. I can’t remember if it was for a test or just something he gave at the beginning of the course. One of the questions asked something like, “Imagine a group of people who live in a part of the world where they are completely isolated. They live good lives but have never heard of Jesus. What will happen to them when they die?” The majority of the class answered that it wasn’t their fault that they hadn’t heard of Jesus, so they couldn’t be blamed and they would go to heaven. Mr. — seemed agitated as he explained the “correct” answer to the question, that those people would burn in hell for all eternity, and I heard through other staff members that he had been very disturbed that so many of us answered the way we did. When I reflected on it later, I understood why he was disturbed. After all, almost all of our parents were serving in Africa because of the Great Commission. We were answering the question based on some sort of innate sense of fairness and justice, instead of Christian dogma. This was one of my earliest clues that morals do not truly stem from a deity or the Bible, but probably had their root in some shared biological and cultural source.

Back to the Africans. There isn’t any one thing I can point to in African culture to say that it caused me to be an agnostic non-theist. Rather, just about everything I saw and lived on a day-to-day basis had beauty and value (and at the time, it was difficult to sort out the African culture from the French. Those of you who lived in the villages probably didn’t have that problem), and it was a stark contrast to what I heard some missionaries say about Africans. Whenever there was something negative about a specific African ethnic group’s religious traditions or ceremonies, these missionaries would be sure to point it out. I would hear other MKs repeating these “talking points” they had heard their parents and parents’ friends repeating. In generic form, the talking point would usually go something like this, “Did you know that such and such tribe believes that spirits do such and such, so they do such and such demonic or evil thing. No wonder we have to come here and bring our superior religious beliefs to them.” Of course, not all missionaries were guilty of saying those things, but their very presence in the country to convert the Africans reveals that they all found their Christian religious beliefs to be superior; the Africans beliefs were to be eradicated and replaced. Don’t think I cling to some romantic idea like Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s “Noble Savage.” I am aware that some African groups did cause pain and suffering through their religious practices, but they were no more destructive than anything believed and practiced by Westerners–or if they were more destructive and superstitious in a particular case, it was simply due to the absence of thousands of years of accrued knowledge in books and not because of the magical power of Jesus.

Essentially, my experiences with and observations of Africans and my African friends (not to mention my Arab, Asian, and European friends), introduced me to a plurality of beliefs and modes of thought. They all had flaws and value; they were equal. I have noticed that I didn’t point to any specific thing in African culture that I valued. Basically, I loved African culture and habits. I loved walking to the local marché with a few hundred CFA stuffed in my sock (for security reasons), a bottled coke and brochette sandwich from a street vendor, the bright colors of the women’s wraps, the sticks of wood or cigarettes hanging from between the full lips of the men, the meat sitting on blocks of wood covered with flies, the smell of alloco, fish, yams, and rice, the slight onion/charcoal smell of my African friend’s house (which clung to him as well), the bright colors of a chicken with its throat cut dancing insanely in the foreground of a scene with palm trees and a cinderblock wall with glass shards embedded in the top, bright signs that read MIKO or “Bière pour l’homme fort,” and the outrageously dressed prostitutes on the street corners. I loved playing barefoot soccer with my African friends on the mission compound, hunting orange-headed lizards with homemade slingshots, playing with knifes, and experimenting with Chinese firecrackers purchased at the marché. I loved the African ceremonial dances, with the masks, the drums and people beating up clouds of red dust with their feet as they danced with every limb in their bodies. All of it was beautiful, and it doesn’t need the Christian faith to improve its value—it has that value already.

When I attended [a Christian college], I once again encountered the Christian feeling of superiority as it pertains to their religious beliefs. I took a class titled, “Cults in America.” We studied the Christian Scientists, the Mormons, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and a few other groups labeled “cults” by evangelical Christianity. In this class, I had the most difficult time figuring out what made their belief systems less valid than my own. Just “thinking” or “believing” that they were right wasn’t enough for me, since I assumed that adherents to those other faiths must think the same thing about their religions. Of course, the class pointed to flaws in interpretation and dogma in the other groups, but it occurred to me that this would also happen in a class titled, “Evangelical Denominations in America.” A course like that, if taught at a Mormon school, would point out the flaws in interpretation and dogma of the Baptists, Methodists, Lutherans, etc. So the difference between a cult and a religion came down to a subjective degree in difference. My professor explained that if one group strayed off of “core” beliefs, they became a cult. This explanation might make sense to someone with little knowledge of the origins of Christianity; however, history shows us that those “core” beliefs were not always in existence; they were developed by Paul, St. Augustine, Martin Luther, Calvin, etc. It reminds me of a joke I once heard; Question: What is the difference between a cult and a religion? Answer: Two thousand years.

Richard Dawkin’s book The God Delusion contains a quote by Douglas Adams, “Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?” I agree with him. The desire to replace a collection of African superstitions with a set of Western ones is not an improvement. We don’t need to replace one set of fairies with another. We also don’t need to approach the world with the question, “What is the meaning of life, the universe and everything?” Scientists observe the natural world in an attempt to figure out how it works, but they don’t try to attribute supernatural meaning to it. I don’t see why the natural world has to be approached with that question–why would “meaning” be applied to something physical? I would never say, “What is the meaning of this guitar?” or “What is the meaning of this car?” It is the superstitious belief in the supernatural, the fairies at the bottom of the garden, that causes a person to approach a physical object with a question like that. When missionaries believe their religion provides the answers to the “meaning” question, they automatically end up trying to place themselves in a position of superiority over other faiths and cultures. When you are so convinced of the rightness of your beliefs that you feel the need to actively replace others beliefs, you are–intentionally or unintentionally–making a claim of superiority for your faith. On the other hand, my observations of, and love for, the beliefs and cultures of the dozens and dozens of cultures I encountered in Africa and in college, regardless and their apparent shortcomings as well, taught me that they were all of equal value.

[The Chaplain]

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