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Atheists credit the Gospel

Two high-profile atheists concede that to get practical help to the poor and liberate them from poverty you need Christianity’s teaching about man’s place in the Universe


© iStockphoto.com/nunoRoy Hattersley, well known British politician, author and journalist.

Although an atheist, veteran British politician Roy Hattersley1 is considered something of an authority on the origins of the Salvation Army, since he wrote a best-selling biography of William and Catherine Booth.2

Hence it wasn’t too surprising that a BBC program3 about the Salvation Army’s effectiveness sought his opinion on the subject. The narrator, Peter Day, put it to Hattersley that, “This sort of thing, a sort of social entrepreneurial drive which starts off out of a particular place and circumstances—those sorts of things often run out of steam after a generation or two. Is the Salvation Army in danger of running out of steam?”

Hattersley’s response was immediate and effusive:

Roy Hattersley, well known British politician, author and journalist.
Since the publication of his biography of William and Catherine Booth, Roy Hattersley has written further (http://textualities.net/author/roy-hattersley/) of the positive influence of Christian evangelists: “My view of society is very different from that which was held by Booth and [John] Wesley. I am an atheist. But that does not prevent me from admiring the strength of their different convictions. Nor did it stop me from realising the crucial part that Wesley’s ‘respectable’ Christianity played in the development of modern Britain.” For more on the positive effects of the Wesley/Whitfield revivals, see Anti-slavery activist William Wilberforce and A Tale of Four Countries.
“I don’t think the Salvation Army is remotely in danger of running out of steam. And I think it remains a vibrant organization because of its convictions. I’m an atheist. But I can only look with amazement at the devotion of the Salvation Army workers. I’ve been out with them on the streets and seen the way they work amongst the people, the most deprived and disadvantaged and sometimes pretty repugnant characters. I don’t believe they would do that were it not for the religious impulse. And I often say I never hear of atheist organizations taking food to the poor. You don’t hear of ‘Atheist Aid’ rather like Christian aid, and, I think, despite my inability to believe myself, I’m deeply impressed by what belief does for people like the Salvation Army.”

Roy Hattersley is not the only high-profile atheist to publicly note, grudgingly or otherwise, the fruit of the Gospel.

Matthew Parris, another well known UK politician, author and journalist,4 wrote in The Times a most remarkable piece entitled …

“As an atheist, I truly believe Africa needs God”

… and subtitled:

“Missionaries, not aid money, are the solution to Africa’s biggest problem—the crushing passivity of the people’s mindset.”5

Parris’s article was written from a very personal perspective, dwelling particularly on his experience in various countries in Africa during his childhood and during an extensive tour across the continent when in his twenties. Of a more recent visit to see a village well development project, he wrote:

“It inspired me, renewing my flagging faith in development charities. But travelling in Malawi refreshed another belief, too: one I’ve been trying to banish all my life, but an observation I’ve been unable to avoid since my African childhood. It confounds my ideological beliefs, stubbornly refuses to fit my world view, and has embarrassed my growing belief that there is no God.

“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. These alone will not do. Education and training alone will not do. In Africa Christianity changes people’s hearts. It brings a spiritual transformation. The rebirth is real. The change is good.”

Rebirth? Spiritual transformation? Hardly the language of an atheist. But nevertheless, Parris’s atheism is real. He tells of trying to “avoid this truth” of what he was observing, wanting to applaud the practical work of the mission churches while ignoring other aspects of missionary work. “It’s a pity, I would say, that salvation is part of the package,” writes Parris, “but Christians black and white, working in Africa, do heal the sick, do teach people to read and write; and only the severest kind of secularist could see a mission hospital or school and say the world would be better without it. I would allow that if faith was needed to motivate missionaries to help, then, fine: but what counted was the help, not the faith.”

However, as Parris admitted, “this doesn’t fit the facts”. He explained how Christian faith benefits the poor not merely because of its supportive effect on the missionary, but because “it is also transferred to his flock. This is the effect that matters so immensely, and which I cannot help observing.”

Matthew Parris has written many books.
Matthew Parris has written many books, including Chance Witness, an autobiographical account focusing primarily on his UK parliamentary observations and experiences. But the time he has spent in Africa is arguably of much greater significance. As a child more than 45 years ago, Matthew Parris grew up in southern Africa, and often stayed with Christian missionaries (friends of the family). When he revisited Africa in his twenties, the inescapable observation that Christians, whether black or white, were ‘different’ from other people continued to taunt him wherever he went, driving from Algiers to Niger, Nigeria, Cameroon, the Central African Republic, through the Congo to Rwanda, Tanzania and to Nairobi, Kenya. And his recent trip to Malawi reminded him of it once more—a truth he’d been trying to ‘banish’ all his life.

Parris notes indeed what many other people, past and present, have observed in those who believe the Gospel. “The Christians were always different. Far from having cowed or confined its converts, their faith appeared to have liberated and relaxed them.”

Matthew Parris also notes that Christians had a certain “liveliness, a curiosity, an engagement with the world—a directness in their dealings with others” that was lacking in non-believers. “They stood tall”, he writes.

Recalling his driving tour in a Land Rover with four student friends when he was aged 24, Parris observed that the difference between Christians and non-Christians was particularly striking in “lawless” parts of the sub-Sahara. “Whenever we entered a territory worked by missionaries, we had to acknowledge that something changed in the faces of the people we passed and spoke to: something in their eyes, the way they approached you direct, man-to-man, without looking down or away. They had not become more deferential towards strangers—in some ways less so—but more open.”

His recent trip to see the village development project in Malawi brought him in close contact with charity workers. Although Parris admits that it would suit him to believe that their “honesty, diligence and optimism in their work” had no connection with their evident personal faith,6 he had to concede that they were undeniably “influenced by a conception of man’s place in the Universe that Christianity had taught.”

Parris also makes this astute observation: “There’s long been a fashion among Western academic sociologists for placing tribal value systems within a ring fence, beyond critiques founded in our own culture: ‘theirs’ and therefore best for ‘them’; authentic and of intrinsically equal worth to ours.7

“I don’t follow this. I observe that tribal belief is no more peaceable than ours; and that it suppresses individuality.” He goes on to say that such a mindset “feeds into the ‘big man’ and gangster politics of the African city: the exaggerated respect for a swaggering leader” and does nothing to allay fear of evil spirits, ancestors and nature that so burden many in Africa. Parris writes that “a great weight grinds down the individual spirit, stunting curiosity. People won’t take the initiative, won’t take things into their own hands or on their own shoulders.”

But in stark contrast, Christianity, “with its teaching of a direct, personal, two-way link between the individual and God, unmediated by the collective, and unsubordinate to any other human being, smashes straight through the philosophical/spiritual framework I’ve just described. It offers something to hold on to for those anxious to cast off a crushing tribal groupthink. That is why and how it liberates.”

Parris concludes by warning that aid programs that focus only on provision of material supplies and technical knowledge are unlikely to succeed. “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.”

Parris’s observations remind one of other atheists who like ‘Christian values’. Richard Dawkins has often said that on social and moral questions, he is no Darwinist. He even called himself a ‘cultural Christian’ in that regard. However, it’s all very well for atheists to want Christian values, but if people are told they can’t believe Christianity’s Bible, those values, as we see all around us, are simply not sustainable in society. It’s as if the post-Christian West is still living off of the last gasps of Christianity’s cultural capital, which is being rapidly exhausted.

Observant and open-minded, yet deceived?

Given Roy Hattersley’s and Matthew Parris’s keen observations about the undeniably positive impact of Christianity’s teaching about “man’s place in the universe”, why don’t they themselves believe that teaching?

Perhaps, in their case, it’s because they only want to believe what is true and conforms to reality. They don’t want to waste time and energy in duping themselves into believing what they think is a falsehood. Remember, they’ve been taught that evolution is fact, thus in their mind relegating the Bible, beginning in Genesis, to ‘fairytale’ status.

How many thousands of other people are victims of the same deception? It doesn’t have to stay that way, as many readers of Creation magazine would personally testify.

Published: 13 April 2010

References and notes

  1. Baron Hattersley (Roy Sydney George Hattersley, born 1932) served as Deputy Leader of the UK Labour Party from 1983 to 1992. Return to text.
  2. Hattersley, R., Blood and Fire: William and Catherine Booth and their Salvation Army, Doubleday, UK, 1999. Return to text.
  3. Broadcast on BBC World Service, Saturday 2nd January 2010, www.bbc.co.ukReturn to text.
  4. Matthew Parris, born 1949 in Johannesburg, South Africa, was a UK Conservative MP from 1979–1986. He has written many books on politics and travel, and in 2005 won the Orwell Prize for Journalism. Though ‘conservative’, Parris voiced his support as an MP for ‘gay rights’, and is openly homosexual himself. However, he has strongly attacked the dishonesty of churchians who pretend that Christianity and homosexual behaviour are compatible—No, God would not have approved of gay bishops, The Times Online, www.timesonline.co.uk, 9 August 2003. Parris points out, “Jesus was never reluctant to challenge received wisdoms that He wanted to change. He gives no impression that He came into the world to revolutionise sexual mores. Even our eye, if it offends us, must be plucked out. So this, in summary, is my charge against the Anglican modernists. Can they point to biblical authority for what, on any estimate, amounts to a disturbing challenge to the values assumed in both Testaments? No. Can they point to any divinely inspired religious leader since to whom has been revealed God’s benevolent intentions towards homosexuals? I know of no such saint or holy man. Most have taught the opposite.” Return to text.
  5. Parris, M., As an atheist, I truly believe Africa needs God, The Times Online, www.timesonline.co.uk, 27 December 2008. Return to text.
  6. Parris noted that he saw a worker “studying a devotional textbook in the car”. He also observed that another “went off to church at dawn for a two-hour service”. Return to text.
  7. That fashion continues apace, with films such as Avatar—see Avatar and the ‘new’ evolutionary religion; creation.com/avatar. Return to text.

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