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)

Joby Elliott

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

Enter your name...

Tithing isn't mandatory in Christianity.

Eric M. Jones.

"...80 per cent of the community have given up on spirits and ghosts..."

And this differs from Christianity how?


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.


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

Michael Smith

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.



"...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.


The U.S. is one of the most "religious right" countries, and one of the most wealthy. Coincidence? I think not. Christian ethics: work hard, provide for your family, help the poor, don't lie or steal, don't get drunk or abuse drugs, don't have children out of wedlock. All of these things provide the best for our society, and others.

John Glenn

Hey, at least it brought some good.

Voice of Reason

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.

P. Matye

“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.


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.

P Radhakrishnan

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.

Shane L

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.