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 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 …
… 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.”
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.
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.