Nwoye is drawn to Christianity because it seems to answer his long-held doubts about his native religion, specifically the abandonment of twin newborns and Ikemefuna’s death. Furthermore, Nwoye feels himself exiled from his society because of his disbelief in its laws, and the church offers refuge to those whom society has cast out. The church’s value system will allow twins to live, for example, which offers comfort to the pregnant woman who has had to endure the casting away to die of her four sets of newborn twins. Similarly, men without titles turn to Christianity to find affirmation of their individual worth. The osu are able to discard others’ perception of them as members of an ostracized caste and enter the church as the equals of other converts.
Okonkwo, on the other hand, has good reason to reject Christianity. Should Mbanta not drive the missionaries away, his killing of Ikemefuna would lose part of its religious justification. The damage to his relationship with Nwoye also seems more pointless than before. Both matters become his mistake rather than the result of divine will. Moreover, men of high status like Okonkwo view the church as a threat because it undermines the cultural value of their accomplishments. Their titles and their positions as religious authorities and clan leaders lose force and prestige if men of lower status are not there—the great cannot be measured against the worthless if the worthless have disappeared.
Nwoye’s conversion devastates Okonkwo. Although he has always been harsh with his son, Okonkwo still believes in Nwoye’s potential to become a great clansman. Nwoye’s rejection of Igbo values, however, strikes a dire blow to Okonkwo’s hopes for him. Additionally, Nwoye’s actions undermine Okonkwo’s own status and prestige. It is, as Okonkwo thinks at the end of Chapter 17, as though all of Okonkwo’s hard work to distance himself from the legacy of his father has been destroyed. He sighs and thinks to himself: “Living fire begets cold impotent ash.”
Despite the challenges that the church represents, Mbanta is committed to peace and remains tolerant of the church’s presence. Even with the converts’ blatant disrespect of Umuofia’s customs—rumor has it that a convert has killed a royal python—the clan leaders vote for a peaceful solution, deciding to ostracize rather than attack the Christians. Okonkwo is not happy with their decision and advocates a violent reaction. His mentality is somewhat ironic: he believes that the village should act against its cultural values in order to preserve them.
The arrival of the white colonists and their religion weakens the kinship bonds so central to Igbo culture. Ancestral worship plays an important role in Igbo religion, and conversion to Christianity involves a partial rejection of the Igbo structure of kinship. The Christians tell the Igbo that they are all brothers and sons of God, replacing the literal ties of kinship with a metaphorical kinship structure through God. The overjoyed response of a missionary to Nwoye’s interest in attending school in another village—“Blessed is he who forsakes his father and his mother for my sake”—illustrates that the Christian church clearly recognizes Igbo kinship bonds as the central obstacle to the success of its missionaries.
Achebe does not present a clear-cut dichotomy of the white religion as evil and the Igbo religion as good. All along, the descriptions of many of the village’s ceremonies and rituals have been tongue-in-cheek. But the Christian missionaries increasingly win converts simply by pointing out the fallacy of Igbo beliefs—for example, those about the outcasts. When the outcasts cut their hair with no negative consequence, many villagers come to believe that the Christian god is more powerful than their own. Achebe himself is the son of Nigerian Christians, and it is hard not to think of his situation, in Chapter 17, when the narrator points out Okonkwo’s worry: “Suppose when he died all his male children decided to follow Nwoye’s steps and abandon their ancestors?”