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Paganism and Social Progress in Africa: Some Preliminary Considerations

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 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 applied to every area of knowledge: physics, chemistry, biology, psychology, sociology, etc.

  • Brian M. Abshire,
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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 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 applied to every area of knowledge: physics, chemistry, biology, psychology, sociology, etc.

History and anthropology have been especially affected by the 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 was once thought that "primitive" cultures were those that had not yet evolved and developed the more "advanced" survival strategies of other cultures. Social progress was then defined as going from the simple hunter-gatherer 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 savage because he lived more in harmony with nature. If that harmony means a nasty, brutish and short life, well, at least he won’t cut down so many trees as his modern counterpart.

Religions likewise are thought to have developed from simple superstition into the complex system of beliefs of modern religions. 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 man first recognized lightning in the sky and heard thunder, his natural response was fear. An ever-more complex brain that allowed him increasing control over his environment led him to attempt to control the unknown. He then postulated that there must be some great sky being who 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 machine guns and poison gas of World War I slaughtered an entire generation of young men 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. That stubborn old reptile brain to the rear of the cerebral cortex insisted on acting out of instinct rather than reason. And today, religious understanding continues to exert a tremendous influence over even the intelligentsia. Whether Jungian psychology, Huxley’s drug-induced Brave New World, or the rantings of Eastern Existential Monists, materialism could not hold its own against religious impulses. In modern America, in universities and laboratories, rationalism is now rapidly being reinforced by New Age humanism, a synthesis of evolutionary materialism and Eastern pantheism.

The Biblical View 

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 chaos). Rather than upward evolution, there is downward devolution. The Bible records man’s 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-gatherer tribes wandering around, being frightened by lightning, we read about farming and animal husbandry—as well as complex religious beliefs—present in the very first generation of the human race (cf. Gen. 4:1ff). Advanced technology and metallurgy appear almost as soon as there are enough men to invent them (Gen. 4:16ff).

Man began with monotheism but as he became epistemologically self-conscious in his rebellion, devolved into more "primitive" pagan practices (Gen. 6:1ff). After the Great Flood (Gen. 10:1ff), the human race began fulfilling the dominion mandate 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 which 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 large population quickly had to deal with limited resources and competing claims.

Archeology and anthropology have 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 tribes 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 millennium-long immigration. One tribe replaced another, with the losers moving further on to new lands. Eventually, they crossed the land bridge between Asia and America. 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 and Spanish colonizing the Americas in modern times, pushing the earlier tribes 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 and conquest. And again, generally speaking, the more "primitive" a culture, the more pagan its 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 the material world is controlled by supernatural forces and entities besides the Triune God of the Bible. These forces arose out of original, primeval chaos; hence, the fundamental nature of the universe is chaotic. There is no real, 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. Success, prosperity, etc., comes by propitiating or controlling supernatural forces through the medium of the shaman,i.e., 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 epistemologically self-consistent expression of man’s rebellion to God. Romans 1:18ff is the classic description. Ignoring 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 creation is governed by a sovereign God, their cultures will be cursed. People are primitive, not because they are undeveloped, but because they are pagans!

Racists never seem to get this in focus. The problem is not race, but religion. The only cultural difference, for example, between white Europeans and black Africans is 1500 years of Christian history. Two thousand years ago, the English were naked savages, living in mud huts, painting their buttocks blue and eating one another. It was Christianity that made the difference, not skin pigment or eye color.

Thus, essentially, paganism can be equated with demonism. The more consistent a man becomes in his rebellion to God and worship of self, the more closely he will worship and serve 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. This worship of demons elicits 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 counteractive mechanisms etc., which keep them "primitive."

Paganism and Modern Africa 

The problems facing modern Africa are a good example of the effects of paganism on social progress because Africa is one of the most consistently pagan areas left on earth. Africa has a thin veneer of Western materialism covering millennia of pagan philosophy. The endemic poverty, sickness, tribal warfare, etc., can be directly attributed to the pagan worldview that continues to operate. Demonized cultures reflect contra-survival strategies in two main ways.


In a Christian culture, work is good since God worked in the creation. Work is therefore a communicable attribute of God. God worked not only in making the world ex nihilo, but also in shaping and refining his creation during the six days. Adam and Eve were given work to do in the garden, before the curse. The curse does not destroy the need for work; it just makes 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 will make the best available use of limited resources.

However, for the pagan, work plays a very small part in 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 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.

Success and prosperity therefore derive 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 demon has cursed him. For example, in Zulu culture, paganism has direct influence on horticulture. It is believed that if crops grow too well, then the spirits might be offended. Therefore, it is common for farmers to wade through their corn fields, armed with a walking stick, and smash down a significant part of their crops so that the demons will not become jealous and curse them. In the same way, when the land becomes exhausted from over-farming, magic potions are bought from the local witch doctor to propitiate the spirits. The only natural fertilizer comes from their cattle herds. But this is deemed holy and is carefully collected and used for paving the floors of their huts. It is never put back into the land.

Across Africa, though individual practices may differ, the same attitude towards work prevails. Since there is no religious connection between work and prosperity, 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 work is de-emphasized, then there will be no surplus, and therefore one cannot save for emergencies or investment in other cultural activities.

When the pagan sees the affluence of the Westerner, his attitude is often envious; i.e., the famous Cargo Cults of the South Seas. During the Pacific war, pagan islanders were overwhelmed by seeing the vast amount of material goods that the soldiers possessed. 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 themselves 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 be taking it from others. Paganism always leads to envy.

Hence paganism inevitably develops 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 reaction is 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"). Problems are always caused by someone or something else, and therefore there is no sense of personal responsibility. And, of course, there is no incentive to take responsibility and do anything practical that might change one’s situation. The men tend to work little, and devote their time to brawling, waging war, hunting and drunkenness, precisely 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, 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 a vast number of Africans sold into Western slavery were sold by other blacks (either by being taken captive in war, or by their own chief). But slavery and paganism go hand in hand. If a man is enslaved by false religion, it is no great leap to be 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.

The pagan theology of work has direct effects on the utilization of resources. During times of plenty, resources are consumed in a orgy of gluttony. When there is scarcity, starvation, disease and death are the norm. Pagan Africa is locked into a vicious cycle of poverty because it does not understand why things go bad economically. No amount of foreign aid can ever resolve the problem. These nations are not "under-developed"; they are pagan. 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. We are not doomed to endlessly repeat 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? 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 almost always missing in "primitive cultures," and pagans do not live for anything except the moment. When the environment is conducive, life is 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 environment changes, they are unable to cope. A drop in temperature, a new disease, or bad weather can all destroy such a culture, almost overnight.

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 than the local brands. Farmers then plant the old corn with the same, substandard yields! In the same way, land is overgrazed by too many cattle. Cattle are a sign of 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 meat production, and therefore make better use of limited resources. The overgrazing causes massive erosion when the rains arrive. The rains wash away the topsoil, turning fertile land into desert. A long-term focus could 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 they lack a long-term focus and waste the investment. Pagan nations want the trappings of an industrialized, developed West without putting 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. The other three didn’t work because no one knew how to repair them!

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. Pagans miss appointments, show up late, put off till tomorrow what must be done today. Concepts such as preventive maintenance are esoteric mysteries beyond the imagination.

Flying into one African capital, I noticed a fleet of Soviet- made MI-24 Hind attack helicopters lined up on the back side 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 a local Air Force officer what he thought of the Hind, he shrugged and said, "They are wonderful when they fly." It seems that the entire country’s chopper force was grounded because the maintenance technicians had not changed the oil and fluids regularly. This led to excessive wear and tear on expensive spares, which they could no longer afford. They 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 its cycles of famine, disease, poverty and warfare until this pagan orientation has been destroyed by the gospel. Satan’s counterfeit kingdom can grow only by mimicking God’s; hence, cultures in history which succeed must imitate Biblical morality. But eventually they must fall because they cannot sustain it.

The entire Western world is headed back into barbarism as men reject God and retreat to pagan principles. Paganism is making a victorious comeback in science, education and social theory. This ought not to be surprising, since 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, as well as 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 at the social and cultural affects of paganism in Africa.

Their past may well be our future.

  • Brian M. Abshire

Rev. Brian Abshire, Ph.D. is currently a Teaching Elder associated with Hanover Presbytery. Along with his pastoral duties, he is also the director for the International Institute for Christian Culture, has served as an adjunct instructor in Religious Studies at Park University and is a visiting Professor of Comparative Religion at Whitefield College.

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