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As an atheist, I truly believe Africa needs God (timesonline.co.uk)
22 points by yters on Jan 7, 2009 | hide | past | web | favorite | 32 comments

Hacker news tends to focus on Adam and Eve but Church and the Bible is more then a few lines about "creation". It is more about banding together in the local community for a common cause which is to empower the community, provide support for each other, and those far away.

I could write pages, but will leave one example for each.

Empower the Community

The church I attend has 50 people who volunteer at least once a week in one of three different local grade schools that are low performing schools. These schools do not have many (to none) parent volunteers. Members also have donated 3 new books for each child in the schools, along with providing items that the school needs but are not budgeted by the State.

Support for each other:

About 8 years ago when I was between jobs we did not have enough money to buy any presents for our children that Christmas. Someone found out and the church we attend came through with 3x what we would have spent if we did have the money. The kids would have been happy enough with a few things from the dollar store but they were much happier with an amazing Christmas.

Those far away

Last year our Son (age 12) was able to help put together a large play structure for an orphanage in Mexico. It wasn't some cheap Chinese plastic play structure but one that was solidly hand-built to last and handle the use by 30 orphans. This was a good experience for our Son as well to go out and see first hand that there is a lot of need out in the world that is unaddressed.

As a Christian I think this article is lacking; it doesn't belong here. While it has plenty in feel good 1st hand experiences, there's just no objective data to analyze or think about

[Update] Just so that I'm not a hypocrite (based on my past posts) I'm going to post a counter argument (though the article doesn't give you much to argue - it is mainly a personal account).

For every feel good subjective article, you can always find one on the opposing side (though this one is less subjective and it has things relevant to YC - things like facts and data): http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/africaandindianoce...

First, the article is not subjective. While the article does not have a table of figures and hypothesis tests, the author presents a credible explanation for his experience. So, you can't necessarily critique his evidence, but you can critique and discuss his rational.

Second, the article you posted is not a counter argument. If anything, it bolsters the original article's claim. Your article says that when Christianity is mixed with the local animistic religions, the result is bad, especially when money is added. This is not the same as saying African's don't need God. Instead, it implies they need the Christian understanding of God.

I understand what this guy is talking about. Christianity holds a different meaning some places outside the US. I've met quite a few Christians in Norway, as part of going to a Christian private school for three years. A lot of these people have a drive that you don't see so often - a sense of purpose. I'm worried that there may be a correlation/causation issue here, but it's definitely something to investigate.

There is a lot of really evil people in the undeveloped parts of Africa, and I'm positive to any idea that can reverse this trend. Nothing the Western world has done so far has worked, and it may even be impossible for us to influence the African continent to become a better place to live.

But this story supports anecdotes I have heard from people working as missionaries in Africa. Christianity does good things to the mindsets of the people who live there. One missionary that talked to us had worked for 10 years translating the Bible to some obscure African tongue. One major snag in the process was getting the tribe he lived with to understand the concept of forgiveness. After a few weeks of on-and-off talking to the people, one of them understood - he replied that "yes, we have a way to express not getting revenge for a wrongdoing. But no one would ever do that."

Africa stumps me - I just don't understand why so many people there keep doing so many nasty things to one another. It's really un-PC to claim that there is a moral and ethical issue involved, but it's a belief I hold pretty strongly. I'm not saying that Christianity is the only way to fix this, but something is needed.

Well, if Christianity works, it may also provide a valid interpretation for why Africa has so many problems. Christians would say the occult practices of the Africans make them susceptible to evil spirits.

This interpretation works in the Amazon too. Read Spirit of the Rainforest. It is a first hand account of a shaman's induction into witchcraft and eventual conversion to Christianity. It is eye opening both for the account of the shaman's culture and the bad things Western anthropologists do over there.

Great article. Nice counterpoint to the usual "Christians are trashing our world" articles. It's written in an informal, conversational style, and the author is an outsider, giving him a different viewpoint than you usually hear.

Philosophically, switching from multiple deity worship to monotheism means groups of people begin to share common opinions about how their life and actions fit into a grander scheme. Switching further into a religion based on love and self-sacrifice means the individual is not the sole purpose of living (and neither is the state). Add to that the reformation, which underlined personal responsibility for dogma and spawned ongoing dogmatic renewal, and you've got a philosophy that puts common morals over self and continuously strives to re-adjust those morals to changing times.

This article reminds me of a comment by a Roman doctor, who observed that when the plague hit cities, doctors, priests, and acolytes would all flee into the hills for safety -- except for the Christians, of course, who would stay and tend to the sick.

Religions and the way we practice them have a lot of good and a lot of bad things associated with them. I'm not of the opinion that they are all good, or that they are all bad. I like to see opinions from both sides. I think we confuse the scientific method with the effects of beliefs, e.g., if by believing my neighbor's barn is red, I become happier and a greater contributor to society, it matters very little what actual color my neighbor's barn is. It's the belief, not the shared empirical consensus. (Of course, lots of problems occur when these clash, which means that longer-lasting faiths must rest on believing things that are not seen, cannot be observed in any fashion as one of the Pauline letters pointed out, I believe.)

"Sure, I am too intelligent for the God delusion. But those Africans, they need it.."

Don't trivialize his viewpoint like that. What's wrong with being an atheist and observing the positive effects that religion has on some people? If he hadn't mentionned that he's an atheist, it could easily have come off as religious preaching.

Also: why did this get killed? I hope we don't lose the ability to discuss the effects of religion, independent of one's religious preferences.

You put your finger on what I liked about this article, but couldn't quite articulate. It's so much more subtle than what's usually written about these things by either side (including on the sides of buses).

Did the story get killed? I don't see any indication of that.

The title was showing as [dead] for some time. It's been resurrected.

Oh, I see. How religiously apropos.

Surely it would be better to school children in ethics and philosophy instead of indoctrinating with primitive, irrational belief systems?

Wow, this guy manages to profoundly offend more sensibilities than I would have thought possible in a single article - yet without being gratuitous or trollish. I am impressed.

Edit: there is something gratuitously provocative about the headline, but I'm assuming he didn't write that.

What would newspapers do without provocative headlines?

Publish good articles that speak for themselves?


Newspapers have been linkbaiting since their inception.

I think of religions as instruction manuals for running societies, similar to the McDonalds handbook for running a McDonalds joint. So it is not surprising that different religions have different outcomes for societies.

Apart from the lack of data (the article is all just anecdotes, and I am also skeptic because Africa is so big and diverse), I refuse to belive that Christianity is the only way - there must be alternatives... And Christianity might have it's downsides, too - if the author is right maybe it would bring Africa out of an initial inertia, but at what cost for the long term?

According to Rene Girard there is one thing distinguishing Christianity among other religions - it is not sacrificial (that is not based on scapegoating) - or even it is anti-sacrificial by revealing the scapegoat victim is innocent. I am sure this is a too strong statement - as he could not analyze all existing religions - but the material that he did cover (myths and rituals) is very convincing for me.

Personally I am an agnostic or even an atheist - but the more I read of Girard works the more I am convinced about the grand scale of the transformation Christianity has done to our European minds and culture.

Girard was at Stanford when I was there, and I took one of his courses. He was charming and engaging. I remember once at some learned, oh-so-politically-correct talk he got up and made a comment to the effect that "it isn't allowed to criticize any culture at all, unless of course it's Western culture, and that you can only mention in order to [and here he stood up and kicked the air vigorously] KICK IT DOWN!" It was very refreshing - nobody except a star professor with the equivalent of fuck-you money in academic reputation could have gotten away with it.

That being said, with all the respect I have for Girard, I could never escape the feeling that his analyses of Christianity were to a large extent thrice-removed expressions of his own Catholicism. This doesn't invalidate everything he says, but it made me skeptical of his grand theory.

Ad. Girard and Catholicism - one interesting fact about that is that he started as an atheist (I cannot verify that right now by googling - but I remember it from somewhere) - only later he returned to religion.

That's odd because the very word "scapegoat" seems to stem from Christianity. I remember attending a catholic funeral and being really put off when the preacher suddenly started talking about sending the scapegoat into the desert.

However, I don't know much about it, never belonged to church and never received much of an education about Christianity.

Also doesn't Christianity make a big deal about Jesus sacrificing himself? What exactly do you mean by sacrifices?

That is a rather deep subject and the perhaps the best answer is to redirect you to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ren%C3%A9_Girard. But I'll try a short answer here: scapegoat is the name of a general social mechanism - according to Rene Girard it is a way to relieve the violent tention inside a human group. Originally it was with human sacrifices - but later it became ritualized - and one form of this ritualization was using goats in the Jewish religion. According to Girard Jesus was a scapegoat - but the Evangelies tell the story of the scapegoating from the point of view of it's victim - showing the whole injustice of it.

Interesting, although I must say I suspect he is projecting his own issues onto the world. Like "scapegoating" might have played a big role in his life, so he sees it everywhere (classical psychological mechanism). At least it never appeared so prominent to me, somehow I doubt that it is sufficient to build a theory of human societies.

There's more to it than personal issues - it's one of the great socio-cultural insights of our time. Girard's argument is that human societies are originally based on violence and that this violence remains in ritualized form, though it is mostly no longer physical. If you are at all aware of how human communities tend to treat non-conformists, this mechanism won't seem so rare. It's a matter of noticing the symbolic and indirect forms that it takes. For me, it's a great insight because it calls each of us to be vigilant about our own capacity for violence, which goes a lot further than what we would normally label "violence".

Edit: you made another interesting point:

Also doesn't Christianity make a big deal about Jesus sacrificing himself?

I know Girard argues that this is not the scapegoat mechanism but the ultimate exposure of the scapegoat mechanism. I remember thinking this is where he starts to get too clever in defence of his own religion. Certainly it's his cultural analyses, not his religious thought, for which Girard is widely respected. But I think also that his claims about Christianity are bound up with a vigorous defense of Western civilization that in the late 20th century was an intellectually courageous position to take.

I don't think that insight is original to Girard. Nietzsche reinterpretted morality along those lines, i.e. the slaves don't have anyone to vent their will to power on, so they vent it on themselves in the form of morality. Freud's development of the ego and id are also along these lines.

Girard does refere to Nietzsche and Freud - but has an entirely different theory about the mechanism of the conflict.

True, but see my response to grusome where I explain how I see their ideas working together. My understanding of Girard's work is based on the wikipedia article:


Don't know about originality, but I think you're painting with way too broad a brush there.

You are right, I haven't read Nietszche state the precise idea that religion is based on scapegoating. Nietzsche does have the more general idea that religion is based on catharsis reached through violence and oppression. However, the root of violence is not mimetic for Nietzsche, but rather a common will to power that all have, but only some can act out externally.

At the same time, I can see the will to power idea working together with Girard's mimesis idea. The slaves want to be like the masters. This is the first form of mediation, the type that is beyond the reach of the desiree. When multiple slaves want to be like the masters, then you have the second form of mediation.

At that point, Nietzsche and Girard branch apart. Nietszche thinks the slaves reach catharsis through internalizing their will to power in the form of conscience and the ascetic ideal, while Girard thinks they reach catharsis through externalizing their desire for power on a common victim.

Yes, Girard thinks it is rivalry that leads to scapegoating, but if the original desire is power, then this neatly conflates the nature of the desire and the rivalry, since rivalry and the final scapegoating can also be considered the exercise of a will to power.

Africa does not need religion, they need education.

I believe Africa needs Judaism.


1. Jews have predominantly high IQ

2. Jews living anywhere in the world automatically become Citizens of Israel.

You are a product of your environment. --Clement Stone

"atheist" : someone making a statement as ungrounded as that of the worshippers.

"truly": content free.

"believe": wrong attitude. 'Believing' means shutting down one's analytical abilities.

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