Sunday, January 4, 2009

God & Africa

I rarely get really righteously indignant. But this bollocks by Matthew Parris that 'Africa needs God' pisses me off. So Parris, a South African-born English journalist and "confirmed atheist", traveled to Malawi and became convinced that Christianity makes an enormous contribution to Africa, distinct from its charity work. 'The rural African mind', you see, is deeply superstitious and fearful (its bugbears are 'evil spirits, ancestors, nature and the wild, tribal hierarchy, and quite everyday things') and focuses on 'the collective', which "grinds down the individual spirit, stunting curiosity". Christianity, Parris contends, "smashes straight through [this] philosphical [sic]/spiritual framework" and, unlike other Africans, its converts thus "stand tall" and are 'liberated, relaxed, lively, engaged with the world, and curious'. "Removing Christian evangelism from the African equation," he concludes, "may leave the continent at the mercy of a malign fusion of Nike, the witch doctor, the mobile phone and the machete."

There is so much wrong with this that I don't really know where to begin. But... The rural African mind? Wtf is the definite article doing in there? Let's do some revision, shall we? According to Wikipedia, Africa covers over 20% of the Earth's land surface and has almost a billion inhabitants, over 2,000 languages, hundreds of ethnic groups, and extremely diverse religious beliefs. (Traditional African religious beliefs are even more disparate). Generalizing about such a large number of diverse people strewn across a huge continent is difficult at best, and literally impossible without rigorous and statistically representative surveys. Wandering semi-randomly across the continent making biased observations will never, ever, equip you to make valid generalizations about Africa. (I'm not saying one cannot generalize, I'm saying doing so is impossible without proper statistics). At the absolutely minimum, then, Parris presents no evidence that his characterization of 'the rural African mind' is accurate or captures even a small amount of the variance in beliefs.

Similarly, Parris presents no compelling evidence for his hypothesis that conversion to Christianity causes Africans to 'stand tall'. All we get from him are some anecdotes: non-Christians are fearful and superstitious and Christians aren't. (Apparently, believing in a cosmic Jewish Zombie isn't an example of superstition). Someone really needs to tell Parris about confirmation bias: he sees support for his hypothesis everywhere only because he expects to and ignores disconfirming instances. Moreover, in the absence of experimental control, it is impossible to determine the direction of causality even if we grant the existence of a correlation: does Christianity make Africans more confident and curious (etc.) or do more confident and curious Africans become Christians in larger numbers? Or is there a third-factor (access to the education and support Christian charities provide, for example) that accounts for both? Pariss makes no observations that can distinguish between these alternatives.

Furthermore, why does Africa specifically need Christianity? While I grant that some ideologies may be more conducive to economic and societal success than others, Parris presents no evidence that Christianity (let alone only Christianity) is the right sort of ideology for Africa. Does Islam not "smash through" the African "philosphical [sic]/spiritual framework"? (Assuming such a thing exists and needs smashing). Does communism not teach people to "stand tall"? How about Afrocentrism? Or humanism? Or liberalism? Or, for that matter, Confucianism, Zoroastrianism, or Frisbeetarianism? Is there any reason to think that the only (or best) way to a better future for Africa is via a detour through the Bible? Is cultural evolution strictly linear, so that Africans can only reach Europe's vaunted current state by going through a period of Christian superstition? Apart from asserting the tautology that one belief system must be replaced with another, Parris addresses none of these questions.

Parris, in short, overgeneralizes crassly, leaps to unwarranted conclusions, ignores a multitude of confounds, pays no attention to complexities, and disregards possibly disconfirming evidence. That his conclusion is also deeply insulting, borderline racist and mind-bogglingly patronizing is, of course, strictly irrelevant to its truth. Had he presented some evidence for his conclusion, I wouldn't have minded as much. But that he confidently asserts such an insulting proposition without any reasonably good evidence whatsoever is entirely unacceptable.

Mr. Parris, shut up.


  1. Matthew Parris has basically said that we can't let the poor savages have one superstition taken away without being given the pacifier of a white god to stop them from collapsing in brown puddles on the floor and giving up. Oh yes, *obviously* Africa's problems today are caused by lazy people, and "tribal" customs which make it impossible for them to achieve what we can in CHRIST. If he thinks the rampant spread of AIDS on the continent isn't at least partly to do with Catholicism then he's badly misinformed, and I doubt very much that a spirit of community is such a handicap to anyone's ability to function. (moreover, what with the rates of infidelity, I'm not sure this spirit is such a driving force either)

  2. I suspect Parris thinks Protestant Christianity is what Africa needs (though, he doesn't say so explicitly). He says "Christianity, post-Reformation and post-Luther...". Whether that applies to post-Luther Catholicism, I don't know, but I suspect not. It's not as if Parris is a careful thinker or anything...

  3. That Jewish Cosmic Zombie pic is gruesome! I don't understand how Christians can state beatifically that they're "covered in the blood of Christ". Imagine walking around looking like Carrie or (shudder) Diamanda Galas.

  4. Haha... yeah. I love that thing though. Sums up Christianity pretty nicely.

  5. I applaud Parris for sharing an opinion that runs against the grain of his stated beliefs, and against what is acceptable in atheist orthodoxy's public face. Your rant above is equally devoid of any statistical (or otherwise) basis. It's just the repeated cry of 'Disavowal!'.

    While Parris doesn't quote statistics, there is in fact a broad description of African Traditional Religion, and someone as widely travelled as Parris is likely to have experienced and reconfirmed that first hand. I don't see any statistics in your post that would show him to be incorrect, except for some smokescreen Wiki about Africa's diversity.

    Furthermore, you trot out the usual about 'Why Christianity as opposed to ...?' as though there is not a phenomenal amount of diversity between religions, as though they can all be grouped under the gallingly blinkered heading of 'stupid superstition'. There is a universe of difference between religions, and certainly Christianity demonstrably stands alone on some very key areas. I don't see you exercising any of the intellectual and scholarly integrity here that you indict Parris for.

    Biblical Christianity may indeed not be the only ideology that might call one to 'stand tall'. Heck, Oprah's being banging that drum for decades. But Parris has seen that it has unusual power to back it up and to genuinely change lives. Sticking your fingers in your ears until you see hard data seems a little churlish.

  6. zeropluslessthan... Parris, quite obviously, has the onus and it's therefore his responsibility to provide evidence for his hypothesis, not my responsibility to refute it. (I do think, by the way, that it is possible to falsify his claims, but doing so would take a lot of research and I have other things to do).

    You seem to have missed my central point: the 'power of Christianity to change lives' is just not the kind of thing that can, in principle, be "seen". That is, anecdotal evidence is always insufficient to establish any causal relationship. I'll take churlish over irrational any day. There is a reason we have science...

  7. Nice one, Michael. And zeroplussless does seem to have missed the point: the claim that there is such a thing as "The rural African mind" is intrinsically implausible for reasons you give, so the burden of argument is clearly with Parris. Parris's specific claims are offensive condescdending crud, for the reasons you give, and so the burden is higher. The sorts of reasons he does give are, for reasons you give, worthless. There's nothing churlish about wanting good data to back up policy proposals.

  8. "Removing Christian evangelism from the African equation," he concludes, "may leave the continent at the mercy of a malign fusion of Nike, the witch doctor, the mobile phone and the machete."

    I assume that "the machete" is referring to Rwanda genocide which is kind of weird considering that they are deeply Christian.
    I’m reading a good book interviewing many killers from the genocide (“A time for machetes” by Jean Hatzfeld). They are asked how they reconciled their deep religious beliefs with the slaughtering. Several of the killers responded that they believed God would stop the killings if it did not please him. Which he of course didn’t do (because God doesn’t exist as far as we know).
    So much for Christianity helping Africa become “civilized”.

  9. Not directed at anonymous above, who has a good point. I think you're expecting rather too much of the kind of literature that Parris has written (I mean, policy proposal, Dr Spurt? Come on!). I don't know on what basis you're so sure he HASN'T made use of relevant statistical studies, but even so, statistical analysis is out of place in an opinion column, unless he makes some kind of controversial claim about African belief, which he does not. He limits himself to the most well-attested facts about African social structure and belief, namely that Africa values community over individual, observes very large power distance, and generally maintains an ancestral-spiritist view of reality. If this is not so, then let's hear it. If his opinion and experience is generally correct, then what are you barking about?

    As for 'life change', why can't it be seen? If there is a notable difference between one group and another, or a difference between what a person is and what he once was, is that not visible enough? Is it so awfully lacking in rationality to suggest a connection, even if one has not established it satisfactorily? Would science have got anywhere near where it is without hunch and speculation?

    And did your righteous indignation flare equally scarlet when Dawkins suggested that atheism generally coincides with intelligence? That would seem to be at least as unscientific and unphilosophical as Parris' musings here, if not more so.

  10. zeroplussthan,

    There are myriad statistical analysis which show a correlation between Atheism and intelligence,

    Is a summary, with some referenced points.

    Making mass generalisations, such as the existence of a typical "rural african mind", is falling prey to prejudicial stereotyping as well as oversimplifying complex problems.

    Your definition of "well-attested facts" must be different from mine, zeroplus, to me, that sounds like precisely the kind of narrow minded bigotry that suggests that "all jews are..." or "all americans are..."

    Furthermore, notable differences between two groups can ONLY be related to a particular cause if every other potential explanator is ruled out, I think you'll find that's a big ask IRL.

    I for one, don't think it would be "expecting too much of the literature..." to expect it to be fair to the scope of the problem, not to ignore contrary evidence (as mentioned by (both) Anons, above) and a little less quick to suggest a magical sky fairy as the answer to a rather complicated issue.

  11. "[Pariss need to provide evidence] unless he makes some kind of controversial claim about African belief, which he does not. He limits himself to the most well-attested facts about African social structure and belief."

    You really think this? Can we please have a citation to study published in a peer-reviewed journal documenting these 'well-attested' facts? I've read a hell of a lot of social science, and quite a bit on Africa, and I've never seen anyone come anywhere near Pariss' conclusions.

    Human beings suffer from a huge number of cognitive biases and illusions, and the informal observations of a lone and untrained person is therefore entirely unreliable. (Untrained in a relevant discipline such as anthropology or social psychology). Moreover, causality is counterfactual and thus experimental manipulation (or in rare cases, 'natural experiments') are the only way to determine its direction. Parris, manifestly, has not done this and is therefore not entitled to his conclusion. (Have a look at this for further information).

    As Jeff points out, there is some evidence that atheists are more intelligent than religious people on average. I don't find this literature particularly convincing but there is some evidence. As far as I can tell, there is just no good evidence for Pariss' hypotheses. I will, however, happily stand corrected if you have this evidence.

  12. Oooops... [Pariss need NOT provide evidence]

  13. Quite a bit on Africa ought to have linked here:

  14. Ok. Fair enough. Btw, I wasn't referring to his conclusions (re: non-controversial statements), only to his generalisations about African belief.

    @ Jeff, I don't think it's at all a racial prejudice of the order of 'all Jews are...'. It's a worldview description that is more accurately aimed at rural Africa, because urban Africa is far more prone to the dilution of cosmopolitan population. We make these kinds of statements about Western populations / postmodernists / Christians etc all the time.

  15. Well, I say his generalizations about African belief IS controversial. Pretty much everything I've read on the social science of Africa suggests that there is no simple way of characterizing its belief systems. Again, I could be wrong...

  16. "I'D say... ARE"

    SIGH. I should check my comments first! :-)

  17. Africa's a big place. There isn't the homogeneity of culture you seem to suggest when you refer to "postmodernists" "rural africans" and "christians" being equivocable groups.

    You're talking about populations that share circumstances, but (in some cases) very little else. As Michael says, the onus is on Parris to prove that there IS a simple way to group all of these different people together.

    Otherwise, it's a gross generalisation. I think he sounds like an uninformed git, and rehashing the idea of the White Man's Burden is hardly the bold, brave idea that his supporters are claiming it to be.

  18. I am not a scholar on African customs and culture, but one thing I did pick up in Parris' article. He points out that;

    "In the city we had working for us Africans who had converted and were strong believers. The Christians were always different... They stood tall."

    Perhaps the City African's were more relaxed because they lived in a far safer environment. Furthermore they would have been independent, a good reason to hold one's head high.

    Just a thought.

  19. ooh I loved that course! But I wish I could do it all over again, I was such a dumbass one year ago.

    I think it’s pretty common to be blind to the differences within a group that one does not belong to (e.g. how many of you haven't heard someone say that "all Chinese people look the same"). Thus to the outsider it may seem entirely legitimate to generalize all ethnic-Africans in this way when in fact this might not at all be true.

  20. That's a good point Sigrid -- it's called Out-group homogeneity bias and certainly seems to be in play in this instance.

  21. Oh, apparently, I'm a poser:

  22. I have a hard time following his logic...

    have you loosened up your balls yet?

  23. A relevant revelation of how Christianity helps Africa, is right here in good ol' South Africa where our friend JZ proclaimed that the "ANC will rule until Jesus comes" and uses the bible to reject inter alia homosexuality. He sure is standing tall...but of course JZ can not be defined as a rural African any longer, but he does do a lot of campaigning in rural areas using rhetoric such as this.

    Why do they stand tall? Because they are comforted by the thought that God is looking out for them?

    An effective government could probably achieve the same result. And education would ensure there is no "stunting of curiousity".

  24. Heidi may even have support in the Hebrew Scriptures.
    I think it's Judges 19 that has the most horrific account of intertribal slaughter against the tribe of Benjamin. At the last verse, it is held that these things occurred, not because there was no religion, but "because there was no king".

  25. If I were to prescribe a religion for anybody, it would be Buddhism or Jainism.
    If I were to believe in a God, it would be Shiva (or Siva) the Destroyer, who creates, and destroys, and cares only for the dance. He probably cares little for the worship of humans, either.

    But Africa needs science and scientific philosophy (of the sort T.H.Huxley practiced) just as much as the USA does.

    The USA does not really believe in Jesus. The God whom most of my fellow-citizens worship is the great deceiver Mammon, whom Jesus condemned.

    Then again, if we were Druids, we might have more respect for our surviving forests.

  26. Excellent piece. I too was moved by Parris's arrant and arrogant nonsense to analyse how he managed, because he is a good writer, to make the piece create the illusion of considered opinion. If anyone has the time or inclination please take a look at

  27. I don't like the post above. But I'll fight for its right to be heard and written. Just like I would fight for Parris' right to be heard. Which is maybe why I don't like the piece above, for sentiments like these: "Mr. Parris, shut up."

    That said, the rhetoric and word choice in the piece above represents Michael in a pissed off state (I am assuming things here, but based on some evidence from his first paragraph, the words "pisses me off".

    BTW, sorry Michael, I don't know if I should be talking to you in the second person, or talking to everyone here and thus refer to you in the third person... second person might be better. But I digress...

    I'm not arguing that this post doesn't have a point, I just like opinions, I like hearing opinions, I think his opinion has some interesting ideas. For sure I have some bias that makes me like this kind of article, no doubt about that, so the fact that I don't like this article is also a matter of feeling/opinion, not one of rationality.

    Parris' article is, to me, an article to provoke some thought, to encourage some investigations, etc. There are a number of things that can be true about it, maybe in specific instances if not in the generalised case. I personally know someone whose life was turned from crime and terror, to something much more constructive and positive, by Christianity. This is *one example*, so it isn't a general "scientific truth". Is it an "anecdote"? Only in the context of misusing it to make a broader claim and pretend it has scientific validity. That one life that was turned around? *I celebrate that*. Maybe it could have been done in another way as well, I don't know, all I know was that Christianity was effective in turning that particular life around.

    So my gripes is with when science and the striving towards generalised objective "facts" comes at the expense of listening respectfully to an individual. You don't need to respect his ideas, I suppose... wait, let's not dig into the "what's to be respected?" question now, that still takes me into a quagmire of thoughts.

    To sum up my "irrational" liking of the article then: as an opinion article, it is the kind of thing that encourages further investigation. "Hey, that sounds interesting! I wonder, shall we investigate it in a more scientific manner?" And I think the world would be a much more boring place if we couldn't have that kind of opinionated articles pondering things, if everything had to be oh-so-scientific. I don't feel he's making scientific statements, so I don't feel he needs to back it up with empirical evidence. I love science, and we do need more of it, and yes, it'd be much better if everyone could recognise that article as some speculative opinion and "ponderings about possibilities" rather than "gospel truth". If that were the case, maybe Michael/you wouldn't have had to become so pissed off? Either way, in general I prefer criticisms of articles like Parris' to be a bit more "constructive".

    FWIW. Don't take this comment *too* seriously, I'm just trotting out an opinion here, not investing too deeply in it, my opinion aint backed up by scientific study. I aint a "positivist", in the sense that I find it worthwhile to discuss and ponder things that aren't backed by evidence. (Yet...? Or aint debunked yet.) So maybe my comments don't belong on a scientific blog? ;)

    ps. "Perhaps the City African's were more relaxed because they lived in a far safer environment."

    -> that sounds like a misinterpretation by skepticdetective. The example talked about, talks about comparing Christians in a city with others also in the city? Maybe I'm mistaken. Dunno.

  28. While I'm here, the kind of caricature that Cosmic Jewish Zombie poster paints of Christianity seems to me somewhat similar to the sweeping statement Parris makes about "the rural African mind". I'm sure you'll find a significant portion of Christians wouldn't sum up the essence of their religion that way (assuming they could use such a negative phrasing of it).

    Because a significant portion of Christians do not take Genesis as literal history. (Ah, what portion would be significant to you? I don't know.) I do agree that there's quite a divide between... "elite religion" and "popular religion" in the sense that theologians have a rather different picture of how it all fits together than the typical rural fundamentalist.

    But still, it pisses me off that people can make such sweeping generalisations about Christianity, and then complain in similar fashion about such sweeping generalisations in Africa. Even if the generalisation of Africa is "worse" or "more incorrect". I don't care. I'm just saying it pisses me off.

    But I will not say "Mr Meadon, shut up", because I enjoy reading this blog from time to time (as time permits), and I think it makes a valuable contribution (this post included). Just like I feel Mr Parris is making a valuable contribution, even if it is wrought with dangers. I don't want to get into the game of quantifying whether the good or the bad is greater, or how much this post's value exceeds that of Mr Parris' contribution. I just don't like what looks to me to be a touch of hypocrisy, and I don't like it when a group of people are all thinking the same and riling each other up to come to the same "statement of faith" (nothing to do with faith, mind you, just talking in terms of an emerging ecumenical council of atheism in the blogosphere coming up with new "gospel truths" like that the moderates are to blame for fundamentalism and therefore *need to be wiped out*. Not that that is an incorrect opinion necessarily, just that I don't like it when everyone agrees. :-P I for one carry an ideal that "moderates" should become an anti-fundamentalism force, rather than be exterminated. "All religions should take responsibility for *their own* fundamentalism".

    I will now refrain from adapting the last paragraph of the post to refer to some stereotypical attitudes towards Christians and Christianity, for I have ranted enough.

    Besides, we're all a little racist-by-word-substitution:

  29. I realise I'm jumping on the bandwagon a bit late, having only been pointed to this article recently, but I just want to say "thumbs up" to Michael for writing this. I also missed the Parris article. Cringeworthy indeed.