Saving Money By Converting to Christianity

(Photo: Nora Morgan)

The Phnom Penh Post reports on a Cambodian village that’s converting to Christianity for economic reasons:

At upwards of US$500, the cost of slaughtering a buffalo to revive a relative condemned to ill-health by the spirits has pushed the Jarai indigenous minority residents of Somkul village in Ratanakkiri to a more affordable religious option: Christianity.

In the village in O’Yadav district’s Som Thom commune, about 80 per cent of the community have given up on spirits and ghosts in favour of Sunday sermons and modern medicine. 

Sev Chel, 38, said she made the switch because when she used to get sick, it could cost her hundreds of dollars to appease the gods with a sacrificial package that might include a cow or buffalo, a chicken, bananas, incense and rice wine.

“So if I sold that buffalo and took the money to pay for medicine, it is about 30,000 riel to 40,000 riel [for them to] get better, so we are strong believers in Jesus,” she said. “If I did not believe in Jesus, maybe at this time I would still be poor and not know anything besides my community.” 

Residents say that converting to Christianity has alleviated their fears of black magic, saving them hundreds of dollars in sacrifices to the gods in order to prevent illness and bad luck.

(HT: Steve Goetz)

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COMMENTS: 44


  1. Joby Elliott says:

    I can think of another alternative that would be even cheaper (no gods means no tithing).

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 60 Thumb down 39
  2. Eric M. Jones. says:

    “…80 per cent of the community have given up on spirits and ghosts…”

    And this differs from Christianity how?

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 53 Thumb down 45
    • DanSanto says:

      Spirits and ghosts in the Hindi tradition are wildly different from what we in the West typically think of, and very distinct from Christianity. In practice the native Cambodian Hindi view is almost indistinguishable from animism where virtually every object/area has its own “spirit” and when people die their ghosts are typically vengeful and angry.

      Christianity doesn’t have any spirits of objects, and no ghosts hanging around after death.

      I’d love to know how much of the conversion actually embraces Christianity and follows through on it, and how much of it is just an in-name-only conversion so they don’t feel they have to placate evil spirits.

      Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 24 Thumb down 6
      • James says:

        Christians don’t have ghosts? A quick search finds that approximately a third of Americans believe in ghosts, while about 75% call themselves Christians. So it would seem that some Christians do believe in ghosts. Further, the Christian Bible explicitly states that ghosts do exist, as when Saul has the Witch of Endor call up the ghost of the Prophet Samuel (in 1 Samuel 23).

        There are also many Biblical mentions of vengeful spirits, which Jesus and his disciples go around casting out, as with the Gadarene Swine. The Catholic Church (among other denominations) still maintains the rituals and practice of exorcising demons, See for instance http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Exorcism#Christianity and http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/05709a.htm

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  3. Craig says:

    It’s a good thing they’ve thrown off irrational, unsupported beliefs. Should be pretty smooth sailing for the Som Thom people now.

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  4. Michael Smith says:

    What an extraordinarily facile and poorly considered treatment of an important topic. Although even the source article is short on some details, this blurb is so terse as to be worse than meaningless. The conversion of many rural Cambodians from a largely animist belief system to a variety of Christian denominations has coincided with several other developments, notably access to some highly effective components of Western medicine and freedom from onerous superstitions.

    It is not cheaper to be Catholic, but the health of the residents who have given up on some elements of some traditional belief systems has improved because they are using the money they have available to purchase medicines that treat and in some cases eradicate many health issues common to rural southeast Asia, such as malaria, dengue fever, water-borne parasites, etc.

    The blurb confuses and conflates the issues of healthcare and religion. Although the two are often related, especially so in this instance, the Freaks seriously misstate what is happening in Cambodia by suggesting that religious conversions are for purely economic reasons. The conversions are part of widespread cultural change.

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 34 Thumb down 14
    • James says:

      “…notably access to some highly effective components of Western medicine and freedom from onerous superstitions.”

      Still, I think the buffalo would be cheaper. As for the “onerous superstitions”, do a search on say gay marriage, anti-abortion activists, or the influence of the religious right in general. Still superstitions, just a different set, and arguably more onerous.

      Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 28 Thumb down 26
      • TexCIS says:

        Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

        Disliked! Like or Dislike: Thumb up 33 Thumb down 42
      • James says:

        Since when are any of those things Christian ethics? You’ll find any number of non-Christians who share most of those values, and a lot of self-proclaimed Christians doing just the opposite. Indeed, I’d expect the percentage of either sort to be pretty much the same between Christian and non-Christian. (Maybe an economics/sociology thesis there?)

        What you don’t see (much) among the non-Christians are superstitions like the ones I mentioned above.

        Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 27 Thumb down 13
      • J1 says:

        Arguably more onerous? In Christian countries, the debate is over gay marriage. In most atheist countries it’s how long homosexuals should be imprisoned. In Muslim countries, it’s the proper method of executing homosexuals. Opposition to gay marriage notwithstanding, Christian countries treat homosexuals a lot better than most non-Christian countries do. Even those supposedly dominated by the religious right. And the values Tex mentions, while not exclusive to Christians, are far more prevalent in Christian countries than in non-Christian.

        Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 21 Thumb down 25
      • Lev says:

        James,

        The two “superstitions” you have mentioned are opposition to abortion and gay marriage. How many religions do you know that don’t have them?

        I’m fairly sure that only certain Christian and Jewish denominations allow gay marriage and abortion.

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      • Enter your name... says:

        The typical person in Cambodia earns about $700 a year. The buffalo costs eight months’ income. How could two-thirds of a person’s annual income cost less than Christianity, which is famous for extolling a woman who gave two of the smallest coins in production?

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      • Enter your name... says:

        Tex, don’t let the media fool you. The US is quite liberal compared to everyone in the world except northern and western Europe.

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      • Lev says:

        J1, What do you mean by “atheist countries”? If it’s Communist countries, then you are right.

        Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 0
      • J1 says:

        All the countries I’m aware of that are atheist as a matter of state policy and/or law are communist or formerly communist countries.

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      • Ian M says:

        @J1
        A small number of countries have a state religion. Of them, most are muslim (with some specifying Sunni or Shia). Does the USA fit into your description of a Christian country or an Athiest country? It is neither, being a secular nation like the vast majority of countries.

        Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 1
      • prorock says:

        @lev “I’m fairly sure that only certain Christian and Jewish denominations allow gay marriage and abortion.”

        You just have no idea about religions in the world. Most religions do not treat such mundane things as sexual preferences as religious issue. It is mostly Judeo-Christian tradition to think that the God is so much interested in sex.

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  5. John Glenn says:

    Hey, at least it brought some good.

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  6. Voice of Reason says:

    It’s a variable 10%, rather than a fixed amount that they struggle to afford, could be 50-60% in some years. Who knows if they even do tithe.

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  7. P. Matye says:

    “If I did not believe in Jesus, maybe at this time I would still be poor and not know anything besides my community.”

    Somebody needs to introduce Atheism, STAT. Apparently accepting modern medical practices is equal to belief in Jesus’ divinity for these people, but they still have much to learn about how the modern world works. Glad to see a step in the right direction (it only slightly), but it certainly isn’t a far enough step.

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    • Lev says:

      It seems that most people require a deity to pray to. For example, both Buddhism and Jainism theoretically have no deities, but practically they do.

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  8. P Radhakrishnan says:

    An interesting report. But it does not reveal the hidden side of conversion to Christianity; for as conversion by its very nature is a black magic, it is switching from one black magic to another ; the result of the switch – whether it is economising rituals or freakonomic will be clear only much later. I thank Professor S Neelakantan for sending me this link.

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  9. Shane L says:

    I’ve often been puzzled by the big expenditure on religious rituals, cathedrals, temples, etc. that appeared to be common in early societies. Since they were so common I’d assumed that they had some kind of material benefits to societies: helped to build social cohesion or deter enemies or something.

    So I wonder how the abandonment of expensive ritual might affect this society. Perhaps Christianity will fill the basic role of the older religion somehow, and society won’t change too much.

    That said, in history Christianity often ended up adopting the rituals and festivals of the pre-Christian religions. We’ll see if the old sacrifices to spirits will be replaced by new sacrifices to saints in due course.

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  10. Lev says:

    One thing I don’t understand is this phenomenon of conversion of faith. It can go like this:

    I have decided to convert to Christianity and will do it tomorrow. Therefore, today I believe in spirits, but tomorrow I’ll believe in Jesus Christ.

    This doesn’t make sense. If he decided to convert to Christianity because he thinks it’s the true religion, then he already doesn’t believe in spirits as they aren’t “true”. If it’s for economic reasons only, then again it doesn’t make sense.

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    • Enter your name... says:

      I think it’s the difference between “believe in” and “follow”. James (in the New Testament) says “You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that —and shudder.” You can “believe in” the Christian God, the Hindu gods, any number of spirits, the Almighty Dollar, President Obama, your family, or anything else, without “following” any of those things.

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    • Sean Ormiston says:

      It’s not like getting a library card. From the perspective of an animist, Jesus (and the Father and the Holy Spirit, a little pluralism to make things easier for polytheists to swallow) has just emerged as a bigger and badder dog out of a pre-existent arena of competing deities. Animistic polytheists are always able to “believe” in the presence of a foreign god because for them gods are like Pokemon, and you can’t catch them all. From there, it’s just a drastic shift in sense of which gods are important. Jesus is just undercutting the competition.

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  11. FrDennis says:

    Say what you will about medieval European villagers who had 4 or sometimes 5 generations giving what the could to build cathedrals so they would have a great building to visit on Sundays, but consider that the people of Dallas / Ft. Worth recently spent something close to $900 million to build the new Cowboy stadium so they would have a great building to visit on Sundays.

    As for Christianity being just another stupid set of superstitions among many, consider for a minute that the very idea of atheism, historically, is only possible in a Christian (largely Catholic) intellectual tradition. Of all the religious systems that ever developed, on Christianity has made space for the possibility that someone might believe nothing at all. If you are an atheist who views history as progressive, with a trajectory leading ever toward smarter and smarter ways of thinking, with the greatest progress coming from the shedding of all religious ideas, then you might consider being just a little grateful to the Christian (Catholic) intellectual tradition, which still to this day considers the marriage of faith and reason to be among the most important of projects.

    Thumb up 4 Thumb down 1
    • Eric M. Jones. says:

      FrDennis:

      “…atheism, historically, is only possible in a Christian (largely Catholic) intellectual tradition….”

      Baloney.

      All Buddhism is technically atheist. In fact most Eastern religions (even Native Americans) don’t subscribe to a unitary god…they are awed by the “the cosmic mystery”, but that’s about it.

      The US (except for Massachusetts and Maryland) was founded by steadfastly non-religious people as a result of the Catholics burning nine million witches and centuries of countless other travesties and abject horrors.

      Google “613 Commandments” and get back to me bubela.

      Thumb up 7 Thumb down 3
      • Enter your name... says:

        Actually, most indigenous American religions are pantheistic (multiple gods), just like Hinduism and ancient Greece. The opposite of “monotheism” is not “atheism”.

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      • FrDennis says:

        I’d love to see your source for your claim that Catholics burned 9 million witches. I’m aware of 1 heretic in all of history who was burned by Church authorities. Perhaps one too many. Or maybe not enough. Depends on your view of history. But 1 heretic is not 9 million witches. To quote the commenter, “Baloney.”

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      • FrDennis says:

        Did some quick checking. Don’t know everything off the top of my head, and wrote my previous comment before looking into a few things.

        To amend my previous comment for fairness, heretics and witches are not the same thing. Turns out the 9 million number you quoted was from a Canadian film called “The Burning Time,” which was widely criticized for exaggerating the numbers and playing loose with history. Looks like maybe 100,000 people were executed by Catholics for witchcraft. 100,000 too many, I’d say. It’s also a lot less than 9million.

        That said, the greatest atrocities in all of human history were committed by athesistic ideologues of the 20th century: Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot and others.

        So let’s be clear. We all can point to examples in history of people of various faiths or no faith at all who have committed mass murder to promote their ideologies. No one should point to Stalin’s atrocities and say “See, this is what atheism leads to!” because we can easily point to good, moral atheists who would be horrified by the idea. Likewise, to say “Christianity encourages murder, violence, war, and all sorts of evil” is the worst kind of intellectual dishonesty.

        I’d like to see a world where such ad hominems disappeared from internet comments. It’s fun to feel superior to everyone, but it doesn’t accomplish much. In fact, baseless ad hominems might actually be harmful to the establishment of a more peaceful world. I wish John Lennon had mentioned ad hominems in that song.

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      • Dan says:

        “Catholics burning nine million witches”

        Off by multiple orders of magnitude, buddy. Some haters of Christianity apparently occupy a virtually fact-free zone.

        For instance, only 20 were sentenced to death in Salem, Mass. And none by burning. Your common sense should have alerted you to the absurdity of your statement. Consider that the whole of the Spanish Inquisition recorded less than 50,000 deaths. Absolutely horrible, but still more than 1000x less than the number that were later killed under Communism.

        Honest attempts to determine the number of ‘witches’ killed in history are generally in the five-figure range, similar in magnitude to the Spanish Inquisition.

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  12. Mickey says:

    The correct title should be

    “Wasting less money, by converting to Christianity”

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  13. Mark Wolfinger says:

    The converts are not going to be happy when then learn all about tithing.

    Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1
  14. James says:

    It would be interested to learn whether there were Christian medical missionaries active in the area. If so, the conversion might well be the mistaken result of “bait and switch” sales tactics: the missionaries provide religion-neutral western medicine, but tell the villagers it’s part of Christianity. The villagers claim to have converted to Christianity, but in reality have converted to medicine.

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  15. Harihar says:

    This is how actually people fall trap and can not differentiate between modern medicine and cureall gods.. Typical example of concerted efforts to promote “Belief” making use of backwardness of communities at the cost of nativity and diversity..

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  16. brothersower88 says:

    I was disappointed in the discussions about religion in the comments on this page. I am also disappointed in the author of this Steve Goetz.

    Before anyone commented they should have taken time to read the original article. Goetz did a poor job of summarizing it, and rather (and successfully) wrote to encourage passionate responses.

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  17. Cafeteria Non-Catholic says:

    Why don’t they just practice Cafeteria Black Magic: continue to believe in the same gods and spirits as before, but only offer the ritual sacrifices that are convenient and affordable?

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    • FrDennis says:

      Now THERE’S a comment that gets at the economics. Trying to game the system, with the lowest cost for the greatest gain. Clever. Kudos.

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    • Sean Ormiston says:

      If they could *cheapen* the tithe, they wouldn’t be the same gods or spirits. To offer them some substitute value for “half a buffalo” would be to demeaning or pissing off the deity, no? Can you imagine expecting a favorable divine intervention if you tithe short? That’s why Jesus is so popular: all you have to do to make him happy is say you’re sorry. And if he’s happy, grandma will get better, no?

      The deity is defined by the relationship.

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  18. iftikhar ahmad says:

    i want to become a christain becouse i want to nationality in christain contry and get money

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  19. Mrmee says:

    i want 2 convert my religioun n convert hindu 2 Christianity.
    Plz how dis posible

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