Dame Carol Kidu sues over film-makers ‘cinematic liberties’
PNG has world's worst access to clean water

Missionaries weren’t misfits, but then again….

Melanesian womanMICHAEL DOM

MORE often than not the saving grace that missionaries offered to Papua New Guinea’s tribes was balanced by cultural destruction, sequestered land, diminution of sustainable lifestyles and, to some degree, retarded capacity to think and make decisions.

I have a theory that one origin of women's disempowerment worldwide is religious teaching, and probably the notion of religion itself.

No matter how innocuous or enlightened religious teaching may be, its foundational precepts seem flawed where women are concerned.

Think of it, most creation legends of so-called less sophisticated tribal belief systems often included both male and female progenitors.

And, for the most part, they were polytheistic or believing in the spirituality of creatures, objects and places.

All right, perhaps today’s modern thinking makes us laugh at these ideas now, but take a step off the beaten path and find yourself alone in the bush for a few days and you’ll very soon come to terms with your own spirituality or lack of it.

Back to my theory about women’s disempowerment.

Christianity and Islam, the two big guns, teach the mystery of creation by the Word of God - a monotheistic belief in one sexless creator.

Islam, in essence, ignores women and where women figure they tend to be marginalised or subjugated entirely.

Christianity on the other hand is more subtle – promoting Mary as The Virgin Mother and relegating Magdalene to prostitution.

Poor Eve was apparently an afterthought, and also had the dubious qualification of being the first woman ‘born of a man’.

Interestingly, the Hindu pantheon contains thousands of gods and goddesses which have both male and female avatars.

As for Buddhism, thousands of men living alone from childhood in close quarters with fellow monks and usually in isolated environments. Exchanging the marital arts for the martial arts.

It’s only comparatively recently that secularism seems to be exerting influence on these major a.

I have this suspicion that women’s roles and responsibilities in traditional PNG took a sharp downward turn after the arrival of missionaries.

Perhaps the introduction of the meri-blouse to hide the body of the ‘uncovered village maiden’ was more than an attempt at modesty or to keep philandering white husbands out of temptation's way.

Maybe it was a symbol of a culture also to be hidden, if not buried.


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Peter Kranz

Ed - I think you are right, if you count all the various sects, splinter groups and cargo cults.


Ah! The sublime paradox of religion! Which can produce such sublime treasures as St. Francis, Tallis, Mozart, and Chartres, but also the iconoclastic fundamentalists who destroyed ancient art, compelled women to wear what was acceptable to missionaries and preaches that gay people are condemned to the eternal fires of hell.

You can both love and hate religion at the same time.

It's a bit like the Romans in the Python's 'Life of Brian'.



Ed Brumby

I once heard/read that, at one stage, there were more than a hundred different missionary denominations/sects operating in PNG. Can someone confirm (or refute) this?

That aside, I'm no believer, but have to acknowledge that the christian missions have contributed greatly to the 'development' of PNG, especially in providing education, health and other welfare services in areas that the former colonial administration (and the current government) was unable (or unwilling) to.

And Papua New Guineans can be at least grateful (?) that, unlike the case in so many other parts of the world, christianity has not been imposed by 'force'.

Chris Overland

Missionaries are, in practice, the marketing arm of whatever religion they happen to follow.

While the monotheist religions are predominant in the Western World, the multi-deity variety tends to dominate in Asia.

Historically speaking, PNG was dominated by animistic belief systems, with a bit of ancestor worship thrown into the mix. This seemed to serve the people well for a very long time.

The adoption of Christianity (in one of its many forms) which accompanied European colonialism seems to me have been a remarkably smooth and rapid affair across the Pacific.

I have always wondered why Papua New Guineans, Fijians, Hawaiians, Maori and other peoples were so quick to adopt a religion that was, philosophically speaking, profoundly different to their traditional belief systems.

Perhaps it was a pragmatic decision to "get with the program" in the face of overwhelming evidence regarding the material and technological advantages that seemed to accompany the Christian belief system.

I guess that missionaries might reasonably argue that this happened because of the obvious truth and power of Christian theology. God willed it so.

Of course, I write this as a committed atheist, believing that religion, and especially the monotheistic varieties, have been a great curse upon humanity.

To my mind, religions are frequently anti-scientific, instinctively anti-intellectual, authoritarian in nature and hierarchical in structure. Naturally, with rare exceptions, men dominate the leadership positions, with women being given subordinate roles.

I met many missionaries whose fundamental intelligence, humanity and kindness I respected and admired. I also met a few whose rigidity of thought, intolerance of others and humourless nature that I disliked intensely. So, they are much like the rest of us it seems.

Despite my own atheism, I acknowledge that missionaries have done a lot of good in PNG but, at the same time, they have also consciously disparaged traditional belief systems.

Sometimes, such as in the case of witchcraft or puri puri, this has been a very good thing. Unhappily, quite a few very good and innocent things of cultural importance have also been suppressed or destroyed.

I hope that Papua New Guineans will, in the future, feel able to reclaim that which was good and useful in their traditional belief systems and thus, perhaps, create a better balance between the old and the new.

Garry Roche

A missionary has been described as “someone who is a misfit in his own country coming to be a misfit in somebody else’s country.” Speaking as a missionary myself I find this description to be thought-provoking and challenging rather than offensive.

Not all churches or not all missionaries were hostile to the local cultures. For example, the Lutheran missionary Strauss who was based in Ogelbeng was quite positive and insightful in writing about the Hagen people. Often it was the missionaries who made an effort to learn the language.

In some cases translations of the bible into the local language are helping the language to survive.
With regard to the role of women in society the Church run Divine Word University for several years now has had more female students than male students. And currently both the President and Deputy President of DWU are female.

That having been said I believe all churches should be open to criticism and self examination.

Joe Herman

Women outnumber men in the world, yet they are considered a "minority" group. They are paid on average $0.75 on the dollar than men in the US. The issue Michael Dom raises is found in every society but presented differently.

Michael Dom

The Catholics were pretty crafty - apart from using the local female deities as avatar's of the Virgin Mary, they also knew that at a basic level it's usually far easier to talk to your mother than your father about stuff-ups etc.

Also the idea of serving an all caring mother, with nurturing spirit provides a balance to the stern image associated with a 'male' or father figure deity.

Philip Fitzpatrick

Some of the major foundation deities in PNG are female Paul - the Faiwolmin/Duna founder, Afek, is a really cool chick.

I presume the line "It’s only comparatively recently that secularism seems to be exerting influence on these major a." should be "It's only comparatively recently that secularism seems to be exerting a major influence on these."

And Peter, some secularists seem to be turning it into a new religion!

Paul Oates

During a visit to Aphodisias in Western Turkey our guide explained that the residents of this ancient city who we now call pagans, worshipped ‘The Earth Mother’ and did so energetically and communally during a three day festival each year. The city was dedicated to Aphrodite, hence its name. The concept of an Earth Mother is common throughout many parts of the ancient world and reflects how the mystery of conception and birth were worshipped as these phenomena gave the gift of life to all.

When early Christians arrived in the first Century BC and sought converts, the people were naturally suspicious about any change to their traditions. ‘No problem,” reputedly said the newly arrived crowd. The Virgin is just the same deity by a different name.

This was how the veneration of the Virgin was first promoted and has since been amplified and propounded by a hitherto male dominated sect ever since. At least, that was what we were told by our guide.

Husat isavi?

Michael Dom

Religion and capitalism are convenient bed mates.

Philip Fitzpatrick

And if you marry religion with capitalism where women were (are) regarded as property the potency becomes stronger.

In Australia women are still not paid as much as men for the same job and violence against women persists. We've still got a long way to go.

And I like the idea of finding spirituality off the beaten track. Nature can be a wonderfully healing experience, both for body and mind.

Peter Kranz

Digicel have jumped on the religion bandwagon with their new 'Lotu Line Service' Anything to turn a buck I suppose.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been saved. Comments are moderated and will not appear until approved by the author. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Comments are moderated, and will not appear until the author has approved them.

Your Information

(Name and email address are required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)