Magazine

A Point of View: The perils of belief

  • 3 January 2014
  • From the section Magazine
Missionaries in South America in the 16th Century

The evangelical urge to make other people share our beliefs is a blight upon civilisation - and religion is by no means the sole offender, says John Gray.

"Whatever happens they are all doomed to disappear shortly from this earth." Reported by Norman Lewis, a great travel writer with a passionate interest in indigenous peoples around the world, this was the judgement of a fundamentalist Christian missionary with whom Lewis talked when he visited Vietnam in the 1950s. The missionary made the declaration with a shrug, but also with some satisfaction. He viewed the country's tribal peoples with distaste and even disgust. In their majestic, steeple-roofed long houses, they lived with their pigs, hens and dogs, taking little thought for the morrow. For them wealth was embodied in ancient gongs and jars, which they collected and treasured. Feasting and drinking their traditional rice wine as often as they could, they only worked for wages when compelled to do so.

Though they would later be persecuted and displaced from their homelands when a Communist government came to power, for the missionary the tribal peoples were no better than communist themselves. He welcomed the fact that they were forced to work in the French rubber plantations, often being beaten or tortured, since in these conditions there was no possibility of escape and a return to their wicked ways. Some of the French colonial civil servants, who along with the rubber companies ruled Vietnam at the time, took a more intelligent view. One of them, a doctor and anthropologist, considered the tribes to have one of the happiest and most attractive civilisations on the planet. Yet he too believed the tribes were about to be wiped out from the highlands where they had lived for more than 2,000 years. The men who were taken as forced labourers by the planters sometimes didn't return, while the missionaries were seizing the priceless ancient gongs and jars. So when the missionary told Lewis that the tribes and their way of life were about to disappear from the earth, Lewis could not disagree: "I was sure he was right."

Missionaries of the kind Lewis encountered show religion at its worst. Destroying traditional peoples, these earnest evangelists illustrate the horrendous crimes human beings can commit when they are possessed by an all-encompassing belief. Belief of this kind needn't be religious, and in recent times it has more often been secular. Some of the largest crimes of the 20th Century were committed out of a belief in reason.

In 1959, Lewis had written how "so much of value has been protected by poverty, bad communications, reactionary governments, the natural barriers to progress of mountain, desert and jungle, colonial misrule, the anopheles mosquito". It's a view he would later recant, when he found from further experience that bad governments preserve nothing. Yet what he wrote in 1959 contained a kernel of truth. The enslavement, murder and genocide of traditional peoples has nearly always been perpetrated under the banner of development and modernisation.

It's not only indigenous peoples that have been crushed under the wheel of human advance. In 1918, the first constitution of the former Soviet Union defined a category of "former persons" - a group that included priests of all religions, anyone who lived off unearned income and their families. Having no place in the new order, these human relics were denied voting rights and access to food rations. Unknown multitudes of them died as a result, while the new society that was supposed to be developing predictably came to nothing.

Victims of secular evangelists? Famine-stricken Ukrainian peasants, 1934

There's a pattern here, which has been repeated at many points in history. Driven by their beliefs, Europeans in late medieval and early modern times launched crusades against the heathen, while waging savage religious wars among themselves. Later, it was political believers who tried to convert the world by force. Often these campaigns have been accompanied by a good deal of plunder, as was the case with the missionaries that Norman Lewis describes. But it would be a mistake to think such evangelism is only a cynical cover for predatory behaviour.

Belief has a power of its own, which tends to destroy those who are driven by it as much as those who are persecuted. After "former persons", the next group to be attacked in the Soviet Union was the peasantry, who died in their millions. But after that it was the communists themselves, many of whom perished in purges still firmly convinced of their cause.

An Australian missionary preaches in West Papua, 1962

While human beings are willing to kill others for the sake of belief, they are ready to die for the same reason. No other species shows any sign of killing or dying for the sake of a mere idea. Some will say that's because other species can't formulate ideas or beliefs, but I think the answer lies elsewhere. The ability to form complex beliefs about the world has given us humans great power - at least over material things. But these more highly developed intellectual capacities also give us a clearer awareness of the fact that we are going to die. This can fill us with dread, and there are many who find relief in clinging to a belief for which they are ready to sacrifice their lives. Curiously, it may be fear of mortality that has led so many believers to embrace death.

It's become fashionable to ridicule religious people for their beliefs. But as an atheist myself, I must say I find the confident assertions of unbelievers more ridiculous than any religious myth. It seems to me hard to believe that God can deliver us from death, but at least that's acknowledged to be a miracle. Yet it's quite common these days to find people scoffing at religious ideas of the resurrection of the body while imagining they can become immortal by having a virtual version of themselves uploaded into cyberspace - to my mind a far more absurd idea.

At its best, religion can serve as an antidote against this kind of credulity. If you think human beings are incurably flawed, you'll be unlikely to fall for the latest panacea for human ills. You'll put your trust in something beyond the human world. This is faith, rightly understood - not belief in some creed or catechism, but trust in a higher power. In this sense, faith can be a remedy against the dangerous pride that has so often gone with belief.

The trouble is, the faithful may want to convert others. The tribespeople Norman Lewis describes may have been content to keep their sacred rites to themselves, but much of history is composed of sections of humanity attempting to impose their own sense of the meaning of life on others. Lewis viewed universal religions as being among the great human evils and I am inclined to agree. Whether they are religious or political, evangelists seem to me to have been a blight on civilisation. For them as for those they persecute or bully, belief is an obstacle to a fulfilling life.

Missionaries have often trod roughshod over traditional ways of life

Lewis's own life - he died in 2003 at the age of 95 - was full of adventure and fulfilment. Never going to university, making his living as a photographer and dealer in racing cars, married for a time to a Sicilian woman from a Mafia family, he set out for the Yemen in the late 1930s, arriving by dhow only to be denied entry into that still medieval country. Joining the Army with the outbreak of war he travelled widely, carrying a copy of the histories of Herodotus with him. Entering Naples with British forces in 1944, he saw how human beings reacted in a society in which morality had almost ceased to exist. Continuing his travels after the war, he watched ancient and beautiful civilizations being casually or deliberately destroyed. Still writing and travelling, he spent much of his later years with his family growing lilies.

Norman Lewis, pictured in 1995

Lewis didn't share the modern belief that the human animal is improving, so he didn't look forward to any better time. Nor did he have any faith in a higher power. In an interview towards the end of his life, he declared he believed in "absolutely nothing". He also described himself as being "exceedingly happy". Wisely, he didn't believe in belief.

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