Paganism and Social Progress in Africa

Paganism and Social Progress in Africa

Some Preliminary Considerations

By Rev. Dr. Brian M. Abshire


The dominant worldview for the past 100 years in the West has been evolutionary materialism. Though discussed in different ways, the fundamental assumption of the academic world since 1880 has been that the universe consists only of what we can detect with our senses. The material universe is presumed to have evolved out of primeval chaos through the combination of time and random chance. Evolutionary theory spread through Western Universities with a vengeance, driving out the older Christian consensus and was applied to every area of knowledge; physics, chemistry, biology, psychology, sociology, etc.

History and anthropology have been especially affected by evolutionary materialism. Most modern textbooks assume that modern humans, and their institutions, developed out of the efforts of primitive ape-like creatures in their quest for survival. The family, state, church, etc., supposedly all had their origins in basic survival mechanisms adopted by our sloped-headed, primeval ancestors.

It used to be thought that “primitive” cultures were those that had not yet evolved to develop the more “advanced” survival strategies of “advanced” cultures. Social progress was then defined as going from the simple hunter-gather strategies of early hominids to the complex, industrial, interdependent social structures of modern life. Both these assumptions no longer hold quite the dominance they once had. The environmental movement now glorifies the primitive savage because he lived more in harmony with nature. If that harmony meant a nasty, brutish and short life, well as least he didn’t cut down so many trees.

Religions likewise were thought to have developed from simple superstition into the complex system of beliefs of modern systems. Early man, awed by a universe over which he had little or no control, developed psychological survival strategies to deal with the unknown. For example, when primitive men first recognized lightening in the sky and heard thunder, their natural response was fear. An ever more complex brain that allowed him increasing control over his environment, led to him trying to control the unknown. He then postulated that some great Sky Being had to be propitiated lest it destroy the tribe. This eventually generalized into a belief of spirit beings possessing rocks, trees, rivers and animals. As time went on, these beliefs were systematized into the classic pagan religions such as Greek, Roman, Celtic or Norse mythology. Seventy-five years ago, monotheism was seen as the logical evolution of paganism, with a subsequent “higher” morality. Religion had evolved out of primitive superstition into the Big Three; Judaism, Christianity and Islam, with of course, Christianity being the most developed.

Now that science had closed the door on the supernatural, one could adopt Christian morality, without the pre-scientific “superstitions” that tied it to its pagan past. The moral superiority of the Enlightenment lasted until the machineguns and poison gas of World War One slaughtered an entire generation on the battlefields of Europe. Something other than just a cold materialism was needed to reinforce public morality.

The reign of materialism lasted less than a century. It seems that stubborn old reptile brain to the rear of the cerebral cortex insisted of acting out of instinct rather than reason and today, religious understanding continues to exert a tremendous influence over even the intelligentsia. Whether Jungian psychology, or Huxley’s drug-induced Brave New World, or the ranting of Eastern Existential Monists, materialism could not hold its own against religious impulses. In modern day America, in universities and laboratories, New Age Humanism, a synthesis of evolutionary materialism and Eastern pantheism, is now rapidly replacing materialism as the unspoken, but widely agreed upon philosophical presupposition.

The Biblical view of history and anthropology of course is utterly different and irrevocably opposed to the evolutionary hypothesis (itself merely a modern version of the old pagan myths of ascent out of chaos). The Bible is clear that rather than upward evolution, there is downward devolution. The Bible records man beginning with a complex understanding of the nature of God and His creation. Cities appear almost simultaneously with man (Gen 4:17). Rather than millennia of hunter-gather tribes wandering around being frightened by lightening, farming and animal husbandry are present in the very first generation of the human race as well as complex religious beliefs (cf. Gen 4:1ff). Advanced technology and metallurgy appears immediately (Gen 4:16ff).

Man began with monotheism but as he became epistemologically self-conscious in his rebellion against God, devolved into the more “primitive” pagan practices (Gen 6:1ff). After the Great Flood (Gen 10:1ff), the human race settled on the plain of Shinar. They were fruitful, they multiplied, but they refused to fill the earth. They understood that power comes from a unity of purpose. They insisted on staying at Babel, and building a city that would concentrate their power. God confounded their attempt by confusing the languages, forcing them to immigrate. Because they could not communicate, they could not work together. The various population groups quickly had to deal with limited resources and competing claims.

Archeology and anthropology has demonstrated historically a vast series of immigrations 10,000 years ago (though we may rightly question the time scale). As different language groups spread out from Babel in various directions, there would have been inevitable competition for the best land and resources. Stronger, smarter or more aggressive groups would either stake a claim to a certain piece of land, or drive off the previous settlers. Pre-Columbian history is perhaps the last major example of this vast millennia long immigration. As one tribe replaced another, the losers kept moving further East to find new lands. Eventually, they crossed the land bridge between Asia and America. Research shows that tribes repeatedly crossed from Siberia into Alaska, continuing to push the peoples who came before them. Finally, the migration came full circle with the English, Scottish, French and Spanish colonizing the Americas, pushing the latest Eastern arrivals into the least desirable portions of the continent.

Generally speaking, it can be argued that the people who were at the forefront of these migrations were the most “primitive,” i.e., lacking certain skills that would have allowed them to successfully resist invasion, conquest or assimilation. And again, generally speaking, the more “primitive” a culture, the more pagan it’s religious practices. There is a connection between paganism and social progress, both the ability of a culture to maximize its use of its environment, as well as its ability to survive hostile neighbors.

Paganism Defined

Though the details may differ from culture to culture, the essence of paganism is that supernatural forces and entities control the material world. Pagans believe these forces arose out of original, primeval chaos and hence the fundamental nature of the universe is chaotic. There is no transcendent, absolute God. Though there may be a chief spirit, he (she or it) is subject to the laws of universe and chaos. Therefore there is no ultimate meaning or purpose other than chaos. Success, prosperity, etc., comes by propitiating or controlling supernatural forces through the medium of the shaman, or witch doctor, who is thought to have some skill in dealing with those forces. Fatalism is the ultimate reality; whatever happens, happens.

This underlying worldview has distinct, cultural manifestations. The Law of God governs creation, despite men’s rebellion. We cannot help but live within the framework that God Himself established, since the Law reveals His character and nature. The very image of God is imprinted on the universe. Cultures that operate in accordance with His Law therefore will thrive. Cultures that are in rebellion will suffer.

A pagan religion, from a Christian perspective is an epistemological self-consistent expression of man’s rebellion to God. Romans 1:18ff is the classic description. Suppressing the evidence in Creation of the invisible attributes and eternal power of the one true God, pagans are those who willfully worship anything and everything else. Their world is one therefore given over to and controlled by demonic forces. Inevitably because a sovereign God governs Creation, their cultures will be cursed. People are primitive, not because they are undeveloped, but because they are pagans!

Racists never seem to get this. The problem is not race, but religion. The only cultural difference between white Europeans and black Africans is 1500 years of Christian history. 2000 years ago, the English were naked savages, living in mud huts, painting their buttocks blue and eating one another. Christianity not skin pigment, gave the English a civilization, and conquered a worldwide empire for them.

Thus, essentially, paganism can be equated with demonism. The more consistent a man becomes in his rebellion to God and worship of self, the closer he comes to worshipping and serving demonic forces. The pagan throughout the world is haunted by fear of the supernatural. Every moment of his life he is hounded by what these forces may do to him and what he must do to protect himself from them. The worship of demons brings God’s curse because it is a consistent, willful and flagrant violation of His Law, the encapsulation of His moral character. That curse results in the social impoverishment, anti-survival, socially counter-active mechanisms etc., which keeps them “primitive.”

Paganism and Modern Africa:

The problems facing modern Africa is a good example of the effects of paganism on social progress because it is one of the most consistently pagan areas on earth. Africa has a thin veneer of Western materialism (lightly seasoned with pietistic Christianity) covering millennia of pagan philosophy. The endemic poverty, sickness, genocidal tribal warfare, etc., can be directly attributed to the pagan worldview that continues to influence every area of their thinking and life. Demonized cultures reflect contra-survival strategies in two main ways.

In a Christianized culture (i.e., a culture that has been significantly influenced by Christian values), work is good since it is a communicable attribute of God. God worked in the creation. God worked not only in making the world ex nilho, but also in shaping and refining His creation during the six days. Adam and Eve were given work tending the Garden, naming the animals, etc., before the curse. The curse did not destroy the need for work; it just made it harder. Dominion comes, not through idle speculation, or manipulating spiritual forces, but in working hard. Hence, any culture that recognizes this aspect of God’s unchanging nature will thrive and prosper more than ones that do not see this relationship. Societies that value work will be diligent, conscientious and make the best available use of always-limited resources.

However, for the pagan, work plays a very small part of his concept of the universe. Reality for him is governed by unseen, and for the most part, largely uncontrollable spiritual forces. Hence, there is no real connection between a man’s work and material prosperity. Things happen because there are spiritual forces outside of his control, with their own agenda. A man does his best to get by and get the demons off his back. He can’t really expect anything more than that.

Therefore, the pagan sees success and prosperity coming from propitiating the spirits, not by work. If his crops do not grow, it is not because he hasn’t cared for his fields, but because a witch has cursed him. For example, in Zulu culture, men generally do not weed, irrigate or take care of their fields. Instead they go to the local shaman, and buy a magic potion, which they tie to a pole in the middle of their fields. This supposedly will encourage good spirits and drive off the bad. They laugh at Christians irrigating their fields. How can water ward off demons? Though the soil is often poor, pagan Zulu’s will not use the natural fertilizer from their herds. Cow dung is considered “holy” and is used to pave the floor of their huts. Furthermore, it is believed that if crops grow too well, then the ancestor spirits might become jealous. Therefore, it is common for farmers to wade through their cornfields, armed with a walking stick and smash down a significant part of their crops so that the spirits will not and curse them.

Across Africa, though individual practices may differ, the same attitude towards work prevails. Since there is no religious connection between work and prosperity, then one works as little as possible. This is imminently reasonable considering that the earth is under a curse, and man will eat bread by the sweat of his brow. Hard, diligent labor is difficult. If, however work is de-emphasized, then there will be no surplus, and therefore one cannot save for emergencies or investment in other cultural activities. Theft, warfare and conquest often take the place of hard diligent labor.

When the pagan sees the affluence of the Westerner, his response is often envy; for example, the Cargo Cults of the South Seas. During the Pacific war, pagan islanders saw the vast amount of material goods coming to American soldiers and were jealous. They developed an entire religion around propitiating the great sky gods who flew such wonders into the islands. The islanders could not understand why the Americans should enjoy such wealth while they were so poor. It soon came to be thought that the Westerners were selfishly stealing the goods before their own gods could deliver them to the islands. The pagans never made the connection between their religious beliefs and their poverty. Therefore, the affluence of some meant that they must have been taking it from others. Paganism always leads to envy.

Hence paganism develops inevitably a victimistic orientation and mentality. “You caused my poverty by your affluence. If I don’t have what you have, you must have done something bad.” The normal reactions are theft (”After all, I’m only getting back what is rightfully mine”), warfare (”I’ll pay you back for what you did”) or more demonism (”I’ll get the witch doctor to curse you”). Someone or something else always causes their problems, never their own actions. Because their religions do not have a concept of personal responsibility, there is no incentive to take responsibility and do anything practical that might change their situation. Pagan men tend to work as little as possible, and devote their time to brawling, waging war, hunting and drunkenness because they do not see the cause and effect between their actions and their situations.

Since some amount of work has to be done for simple survival purposes, work is usually pushed off by the powerful to those less powerful. African women do most of the horticulture. In previous centuries, slavery was widespread. It is not politically correct these days to point out that the vast majority of Africans sold into Western slavery, were sold by other Africans (either captives in war or sold by their own chiefs!). But slavery and paganism go hand in hand. If a man is enslaved by false religion, it is no great leap to being enslaved by other men. Even when slavery may be outlawed, the attitude of a slave is someone who wants to escape responsibility. This attitude continues to exist today. One minister of an African government said quite plainly, “We Africans do not want to create businesses. We are much more comfortable letting the white man develop a business and provide us jobs.” Starting a business was just too much like hard work. Therefore, let someone else take the risks, and the profits. After all, we can always nationalize the business later!

The pagan theology of work has direct effects on the utilization of resources. During times of plenty, resources are consumed in an orgy of gluttony, leaving nothing for future emergencies or long term investment. Hence, paganism inevitably leads to scarcity, starvation, disease and death. Pagan Africa is locked into a vicious cycle of poverty because they do not understand why things go bad. No amount of foreign aid can ever resolve the problem. The problem is “underdevelopment” but paganism. Foreign investment is simply subsidizing a culture that will invariably return to its most ghastly practices once the subsidies end.

The Christian sense of time is that there is a beginning and an end. A sovereign God rules over time, working out His perfect plan according to His will. Therefore, there can and must be progress, because God is in control and history is leading to a specific destination. We are not doomed to repeat endlessly the mistakes of the past. Our future is not uncertain. There is a reason and a purpose for all that happens and therefore, there is real meaning and significance to our efforts.

Paganism does not have a linear view of time but rather cyclical. There is no beginning or end; life just goes on and on and on. Things might get better, or they might get worse. Who knows? It just depends on what part of the cycle one is in. Consequently, things just happen, and time and history have no real meaning. Thus there is no real sense of progress, as the Christianized West understands it. How can there be? Progress implies a destination.

Therefore, a future orientation is normally missing in “primitive cultures” and pagans tend to live for the moment. When the environment is conducive, then life can be simple and uncomplicated. South Sea Islanders lived what seemed an idyllic existence when first discovered by Western sailing ships. However the lack of future orientation causes them to be victims of their environment rather than masters over it. If the environmental aspects changed, they were unable to cope. A drop in temperature, a new disease, or even an unusual season of bad weather could and did destroy such cultures, almost over night.

Cultures without a long-term focus cannot master the basic tools of prosperity because they do not think in terms of long-term goals. The want of the moment outweighs the needs of the future. For example, seed corn, developed to improve the yield of the average, small African garden, is often eaten immediately because it tastes better the local brands. They then they plant the old corn with the same sub-standard yields! In the same way, land is often over-grazed by too many cattle. Cattle in Africa are considered wealth and it is the number, rather than the quality that is important. Thus, there is no incentive to use selective breeding to improve the herd, increase milk and meat production and therefore make better use of limited resources. All that matters is the number. But too many cattle means over-grazing limited areas of land. The over-grazing destroys the soil and causes massive erosion when the rains come. The rains wash away the topsoil turning fertile land into desert. But pagan Africans do not and cannot see the long term consequences of their actions, nor will they change the behaviors that turn their land into deserts. A long-term focus would reduce enormously the size of the cattle herds, while producing more raw materials and protecting the land. But pagans don’t think this way, and they starve.

Massive foreign investment into pagan nations never succeeds in benefiting the people because without a long-term focus they waste the investment. Pagans often desire the trappings of industrialized, Western nations without understanding the time or effort needed to keep that system going. Power plants, freeways, office buildings, etc., are constructed without the technological infrastructure necessary to support them. I well remember queuing up in one major African city to get into the one working elevator in the entire city. The others didn’t work because no one knew how to repair them! Because of a lack of future orientation, decisions are made that uses up limited capital, without appreciating the ongoing consequences.

The lack of a sense of time means things happen, when they happen, if not today, then tomorrow. This has definite effects on the ability of an industrial society to function. Africans regularly miss appointments, show up late, and put off till tomorrow what must be done today. Concepts such as preventive maintenance are esoteric mysteries beyond the imagination. One time while flying into an African capital, I noticed a fleet of Soviet made MI-24 Hind attack helicopters lined up on the backside of the airport. The MI-24 is one of the best ground support helicopters in the world. It is literally a flying tank. When I asked the head of their Air Force what he thought of the Hind, he shrugged and said, “They are wonderful when they fly but all of ours are grounded.” It seems that the maintenance technicians had not changed the oil and fluids regularly, leading to excessive wear and tear on expensive parts, which they could no longer afford to buy. This nation had state of the art equipment, specifically designed for simplicity and export to undeveloped nations. Yet the pagan concept of time had destroyed the investment.

Conclusions and Applications

While there is much more that could be said, the basic principle here is that pagan nations continually exist on the border of disaster as a result of their basic religious presuppositions. Africa will continue to experience cycles of famine, disease poverty and warfare until this pagan orientation has been destroyed by the gospel. Satan’s counterfeit kingdom can only grow by mimicking God’s, hence cultures in history that succeed, must imitate Biblical morality. But eventually they must fall because they cannot sustain it without the renewing power of the gospel.

The entire Western world is headed back into barbarism as men reject God and resurrect pagan principles. Paganism is making a victorious come back in science, education and social theory. This ought not to be surprising, materialistic humanism worshipped man. And it is not a great leap to go from the worship of man to the worship of demons and all that entails.

The only hope for Africa, and the West is a great Reformation and Revival. Africa is not well served by pietistic missionary activity that seeks to save souls, but does not deal with the greater issues of Christ’s Lordship over every area of life. The Rwandan massacre was committed with the tacit approval of various Christian churches. A pietized Christianity is no barrier to racial and tribal animosity. Liberia was settled by freed American Christian slaves and suffered constant internal strife. Zambia was heavily evangelized but voted itself into a 26 year Marxist dictatorship. Cultures will prosper only as they repent of their sins, acknowledge Christ as Lord and obey His Law. Americans in particular need to look hard and long at the social and cultural affects of paganism in Africa. Their past may well be our future.


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