Does Christianity make people bad?
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Date: 10 June, 2005


'If the west has now largely lost its faith, perhaps that's not such a bad thing in some ways.'


Steve Tomkins wonders who should learn from whom?

It's certainly not the general idea, I know. If you read a Christian biography about a wife-beating, housebreaking drug-pusher, this is on the whole what happens before rather than after they meet Jesus.

But it can be hard to resist this conclusion sometimes. The conviction of three Christians for abusing an Angolan girl in Hackney is just the latest story to make me want to dissociate myself from anyone who believes anything at all.

These people cut and beat her, rubbed chilli in her eyes and put her in a bag threatening to throw it in the river, all to cast out witchcraft out of her 9-year-old soul.

It's horribly obvious that if it hadn't been for their beliefs this would not have happened. Reports of Christians inflicting appalling damage on children in attempts to cast out demons emerge all the time.

In 2003, for example, the eight-year-old Torrance Cantrell was killed in a church in Milwaukee in attempts exorcise his spirit of autism.

Of course, it would be stupid to say that this kind of atrocity is typical of the way Christians treat their children.

I'm not about to do my Polly Toynbee impression. Christianity has just as often driven people to make life better for children - from British evangelicals with their factory reforms and schools and orphanages to Catholics in the slums of Brazil and India, not forgetting those who are campaigning now to end the poverty that kills 30,000 children a day.

But as long as people believe in the supernatural, isn't there a temptation to abandon modern psychology and science, and blame demons or sin for our problems, with potentially disastrous results?

Only 400 years ago, Europeans embarked on a witch craze that claimed 100,000s of lives. If the west has now largely lost its faith, perhaps that's not such a bad thing in some ways. Hearing about the Hackney child abuse case I find myself waiting impatiently for Angola to catch up with us.

But, thinking again, I find that train of thought rather misguided.

For one thing, it shows little grasp of the situation in Angola, where this spirituality has bred. It's all very well sitting here in the comfort and safety of my Lewisham front room, pronouncing that Africans should put their trust in modern medical science, when we here are the ones who have it.

If my country had been ravaged by a disease, poverty and a 27-year war, I guess I'd be rather more inclined to turn to exorcism to solve my problems, not having much in the way of alternatives.

What's more, saying that Africa needs to 'catch up' with the west is arrogant cultural imperialism, and simply not true.

I was irritated recently to read Jerry Springer saying that British TV is '10 years behind American television', that it will take us till 2015 to get where they are today. What annoyed me is not the idea that we are where the US was 10 years ago, but the assumption that we want to end up where they are now, ever. We probably will, but why assume that it's desirable or necessary?

It occurs to me that this is how I would feel if I were an Angolan, hearing people in the liberal, secular west talking about how long it will take Africa to 'catch up'. No one denies that various African countries need to progress, whether economically, politically, medically, technologically, socially. But what many would deny is the assumption that they will, should and must end up with the values and culture of the west.

It's easy enough to feel superior when it comes to witch-related child abuse. But is European treatment of children generally better than African? In the UK, 53 mature (20-week+) foetuses are killed each week because of handicaps. You don't have to be wildly pro-life to feel bad about this. It seems that demonophobic religion isn't the only thing that blinds people to the value of a child's life.

The proportion of pregnancies aborted in Europe is more than three times that of Africa, according to the Alan Guttmacher Institute. I don't condemn all abortion by any means, but I still don't see the point of leaving exorcism behind and rushing forward to this.

Another thing I imagine Africans will be in no hurry to copy from the west is family life. The close knit extended family seems to be a cornerstone of life and society in ways which even those westerners who talk most about family values could learn something from.

In fact there must be countless things that the west should be learning from Africa. I can't say what they are because that's the way with things you haven't learned yet. But the Society of African Missions has some suggestions:

Religious tolerance, profound respect, loyalty and affection for the extended family and its ancestors; the highest regard for the equality of the sexes; brotherhood and sharing; hospitality to all, patience and fortitude in adversity and abiding faith in God.

That would certainly be a start, wouldn't it?


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