WHEN I VISITED PAPUA NEW GUINEA in 1987, and again last month, I saw evidence of many Christian missionaries along with some of the fruits of their labour (both sweet and sour, depending on your point of view).
PNG is one of the most Christian countries in the world. More than 96% of its citizens identify as Christian, with Catholicism the largest denomination at 27%. Here are some of my PNG observations, then and now.
I first went to PNG for six months in 1987 as a visiting professor of mathematics at the University of Papua New Guinea (UPNG) in Port Moresby.
While in the country, I only travelled outside Port Moresby to give math talks at universities in Goroka and Lae.
About 800 languages are spoken in PNG, reflecting the isolation of its many tribes. In the 1930s, Australian explorers discovered the Highlands, home to roughly one million people who had never before encountered Caucasians. In a video I saw of this first contact, one PNG woman said they thought white men were gods, until they had sex with them.
Not only were most students at UPNG the first in their family to go to college, they were the first to leave their tribes.
In the tribal “payback” system, if someone from Tribe A is harmed by a member from Tribe B, then members from Tribe A can take revenge against any member from Tribe B. Part of my mission was to inform students that UPNG was a payback-free zone.
One day I encountered a Catholic priest who deplored the “ungodly” sight of bare-breasted women. When I brought up serious problems like wife beating, which was legal at the time, he just shrugged and said he couldn’t change everything.
Shortly thereafter, I attended a UPNG beauty pageant with five contestants representing different villages. My colleagues were impressed when I confidently predicted the winner. You see, the primary judge was the priest, and four of the five contestants were bare breasted.
In a recent cultural trip with my wife, Sharon, we traveled to villages along the remote Karawari River, surrounded by dense jungle as far as the horizon, and to villages in the Highlands near Mt Hagen. We visited places I had only heard about on my previous trip.
In the villages, many men sleep together in dirt-floored huts, while women, children, and young pigs (yes, pigs!) share other huts. It is not uncommon for a woman to nurse an orphan piglet along with her own baby.
Both brides and pigs are sold or used for barter, the woman/pig ratio depending on the quality of both. Knowing how valuable pigs are, I asked our guide, “How many pigs could I get for Sharon?” He thought for a moment and said, “About 20.”
I couldn’t tell if he was complimenting or insulting Sharon, but I’m pretty sure he was just playing along with my joke. Beliefs in witchcraft and sorcery make the situation for women even worse, with women being scapegoats for various ills and misfortunes that happened to men.
PNG’s population growth is high and life expectancy is low. About half the inhabitants are under 18 years of age. Health care and education are substandard, with lots of poverty and urban crime.
Despite some government attempts to promote family planning, birth control is rare. A man without children has no prestige, so many divorce wives who don’t conceive. Polygamy is legal, and the larger a man’s family the more powerful he is thought to be.
Papua New Guinea desperately needs social services, whether from government, religious, or secular organisations. Each village I visited, regardless of size, had several churches associated with Christian denominations, some with medical or educational facilities.
I asked the same two questions of Christian natives I met: “How did you choose your church?” and “How has becoming a Christian changed your beliefs or behavior?” Church choices had nothing to do with theology, and the only behavioral change I heard was attending church on Sunday.
PNG Christians maintain what might seem like contradictory practices and beliefs. For instance, most believe that animals and plants have spirits (like human souls) that need to be appeased or respected.
I met a revered spirit doctor in one village who treats illness by smearing a pig’s blood on his magic stones, with all cures attributed to this procedure. When I asked about his religion, he said, “Catholic. Pope John Paul.” That was the only reference I heard to a Christian, though the spirit doctor was two popes behind the times.
Visits to other villages along the Karawari River helped me better understand how traditional indigenous beliefs blended with traditional monotheistic beliefs. Our guide took me into a men’s house, allowing Sharon to enter, too, because she was from outside the country.
We saw a display of human skulls collected from when the tribe practiced cannibalism some 70 years ago. Rival tribes ate their victims’ bodies (especially the hearts) to gain strength over their enemies. The practice is now illegal, but one guide told me it still occurs in remote areas.
We visited men’s houses that hold initiation rites for boys at about age 13 in a ceremony where village elders cut each boy on his back, chest, and neck so the ritual blood can flow freely. (I’m glad I only had to go through a bar mitzvah ceremony to become a “man.”)
The PNG blood sacrifices and cannibalism only seemed strange to me because I was in an unfamiliar culture. But I have to wonder how gaining strength by eating a body and drinking the blood of a tribal enemy is much different from the Catholic practice of Holy Communion, where communicants believe they are actually eating the body and drinking the blood of Jesus, magically transformed from a wafer and wine by a priest’s incantation.
Blood, a life force for all, is important symbolically for Judaism, Christianity, and PNG spirit practices. A circumcision ritual performed when I was eight days old sealed a covenant (Hebrew for “to cut”), without which my “soul” would be cut off from my tribe.
Folks everywhere learn passages from holy books to justify what they believe or want to believe. Christian belief in Satan, demons, ghosts, and supernatural evil provide sufficient justification for PNG Christians to continue their ancient practices.
I wish more people had rational and evidence-based worldviews, but I also value religious freedom. That’s why I’m troubled by widespread support for making Papua New Guinea officially a Christian nation, possibly banning non-Christian religions. We have ample evidence that theocracies don’t work.
Before leaving PNG for Australia, Sharon and I spent two days at Loloata Island Resort, near Port Moresby. Dik Knight, its manager from Australia, has lived in PNG for 34 years and is married to a Papua New Guinean.
We had several enlightening conversations about religion, culture and missionaries in PNG. I found him to be both knowledgeable and objective, seeing that his views were mostly consistent with what I had observed.
Dik said that some missionaries were there only to ‘save’ natives who accept Jesus. Some mostly enriched themselves through government subsidies or donations for evangelising.
Some, whom Dik called ‘practical’, learned about the culture and tried to improve the quality of life for residents.
One practical Catholic priest, who understood the importance of family planning, overlooked Vatican policy against contraception because he saw how such a ban leads to more poverty. I like this priest’s interpretation of the social Gospel.
“They got a good thing going, when the words don’t get in the way” is from Peter, Paul, and Mary’s satirical song I Dig Rock and Roll Music. I think that those who educate and assist the needy got a good thing going, when theological doctrines don’t get in the way.
Herb Silverman is founder and President Emeritus of the Secular Coalition for America, author of ‘Candidate Without a Prayer: An Autobiography of a Jewish Atheist in the Bible Belt’, and Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Mathematics at the College of Charleston