"Whatever happens they are all doomed to disappear shortly from this earth." Reported by Norman Lewis, a great travel writer with a passionate interest in indigenous peoples around the world, this was the judgement of a fundamentalist Christian missionary with whom Lewis talked when he visited Vietnam in the 1950s. The missionary made the declaration with a shrug, but also with some satisfaction. He viewed the country's tribal peoples with distaste and even disgust. In their majestic, steeple-roofed long houses, they lived with their pigs, hens and dogs, taking little thought for the morrow. For them wealth was embodied in ancient gongs and jars, which they collected and treasured. Feasting and drinking their traditional rice wine as often as they could, they only worked for wages when compelled to do so.
Though they would later be persecuted and displaced from their homelands when a Communist government came to power, for the missionary the tribal peoples were no better than communist themselves. He welcomed the fact that they were forced to work in the French rubber plantations, often being beaten or tortured, since in these conditions there was no possibility of escape and a return to their wicked ways. Some of the French colonial civil servants, who along with the rubber companies ruled Vietnam at the time, took a more intelligent view. One of them, a doctor and anthropologist, considered the tribes to have one of the happiest and most attractive civilisations on the planet. Yet he too believed the tribes were about to be wiped out from the highlands where they had lived for more than 2,000 years. The men who were taken as forced labourers by the planters sometimes didn't return, while the missionaries were seizing the priceless ancient gongs and jars. So when the missionary told Lewis that the tribes and their way of life were about to disappear from the earth, Lewis could not disagree: "I was sure he was right."
Missionaries of the kind Lewis encountered show religion at its worst. Destroying traditional peoples, these earnest evangelists illustrate the horrendous crimes human beings can commit when they are possessed by an all-encompassing belief. Belief of this kind needn't be religious, and in recent times it has more often been secular. Some of the largest crimes of the 20th Century were committed out of a belief in reason.