I have never been so unwilling to be mistaken for a Christian. It’s been a long time now since I claimed that belief system, and I’ve gotten used to the subtle and blatant ways of cluing the people around me into the fact that I’m not a believer.
But here, wow. I didn’t even realize it was happening. All this time in India, throughout North India, all the way down to Trivandrum and back up to Cochi. It wasn’t until we stopped and met some fishers on the beach at the mouth of the river that runs nearby that I realized what was happening. It had even happened before, but I hadn’t recognized it.
They thought we were one of them! They – these guys – were Christians, Keralan Christians. The whole way they came up to us and spoke with us and urged us to go out drinking with them and asked to come to our house…it was all so intimate. It was as though we were supposed to know them already.
And it was all based on a fallacy. Finally, one of the boys mentioned being Christian and we clarified that we were not. What are you?
What are we? In India, being non-religious seems to be the only really strange thing to be. There are religious systems in India, ancient and unique systems, that have fewer than 200,000 adherents worldwide. There are Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis, Jews, and of course, Christians. Being as though Goa was ruled by Portugal from 1510 until 1961, it shouldn’t be surprising that there would be so many Christians…but it was.
About 75% of the Christians in India live in South India. A Syrian Christian named Thomas Cana, a merchant, arrived in the 4th Century. He had 400 families in tow. That’s a good sized town, so I’m sure they spread out a bit. I don’t know much about the Syrian branch of Christianity, but if they run true to form, they got right down to the work of spreading their religion throughout the area. The Catholics were next with the Portuguese, but the English, Dutch, and Danish all brought their versions of Protestantism.
So what does all this matter, since it has nothing to do with me?
Well, apparently, it does involve me. It sucks me in and assumes my interest, complicity, involvement.
What are we? In India, churches are being burned and people are dying over religion.
The Hindu groups organizing these violent acts claim things like:
- Hundreds of churches are being built and staffed in areas with no Christian population.
- The Christian missionaries make unreasonable promises and target the poorest, most vulnerable Hindus for conversion.
- Modern-day Indian Christianity is largely a result of old-time forced conversions.
- Christian missionaries hand out pamphlets denouncing Hinduism, the Hindu gods, and promising horrible things for those who don’t convert.
- Missionaries stage seeming miracles, contrasting supposed ineffectiveness of calling on old gods with the supposed effectiveness of Jesus. These are frauds such as: giving placebos in the name of the old god and then real medicine in the name of Jesus, setting afire a bronze cross and a paper mache or wood idol of the old god.
Sounds like par for the course to me. Christianity claims to be a gentle religion, but it is the gentleness of assurance and perseverance. I wish that the Hindus would focus on education efforts – at this point in history there aren’t very many (note that I refrain from claiming none) conversions at gun- or knifepoint. But the kind of education that arms a hungry person against someone who wants to trade words for food…that education is not very useful to any religious group who is interested in poaching souls (or reconverting, I mean).
I know a lot of people who will disagree with me on this. I hope that you read this and understand my point of view, even if you can’t share it.
How can a Hindu leader hold his people close and keep them safe from the ravages of Christianity? Not with clear-headed education on the subject of religion. Not with scope and scale on the history of human belief systems that put the minor differences into perspective. Not with a self-reflective and self-critical eye that exposes the defects in Christianity and in Hinduism. Not with exposure of the tricks and systems of manipulation the Christians will use in order to convert you. Because once one turns that eye to religion, one sees that all religions have strange and fanciful histories, that all religions work on a level of faith that cannot be explained away or explained at all. The Jesuits have been torturing themselves (and others) for centuries in their attempt at using that eye on their religion. But faith is a stronger emotional experience than it is a rational experience, and transferring that emotion is not as hard as actually convincing a person that their ideas are incorrect and that yours are correct. Or that praying to Ram achieves real miracles while praying to Jesus does not. To disprove through rational means the efficacy of praying to Jesus, a leader will be leaving his own religion open to that same rational means of examination. What religion can be proven out on those terms?
How does a religion woo practitioners? The easiest way is to buy them. Christian missionaries targeting the poorest low-caste Hindus is a perfect example of this. “There’s no reason for you to go hungry tonight. Come to the church, we will feed you.” This conversation happens every day in churches all over India. If you are hungry, sooner or later you will want to eat. Eating their food is opening yourself to admitting that they are doing good, that they are good. In Orissa, there are people telling tales of actual cash payments – monthly stipends – for coming to church regularly.
Hinduism does not have practice in buying converts. It has been embedded in India for so long that it isn’t used to making itself look good to outsiders for the purposes of conversion. Hinduism wasn’t even a named and organized religion until the British arrived with their measuring sticks and notebooks and decided on something to call this set of practices and beliefs. It was simply the way of life, and as such it was free to stratify clearly, to separate people by types of work done and then assign values to each type of work. And of course, by skin color. That bias is stronger in India than I’d realized.
So in Orissa, the anti-Christian Hindu organizations have begun to emphasize the benefits of being Hindu. If you were low-caste before you converted, you gave up a status in the legal realm that gave you access to reservations, the Indian version of Affirmative Action (and predating it by quite a bit, being as though the first reservation system was put into effect in 1935). They organize to help feed, clothe, and house reconverted Hindus.
Is this better? Well, I’m always glad to see a community begin to take care of itself…meaning the money spread a little more equitably. But it doesn’t change the fundamental societal weaknesses that leave people ripe for conversion: poverty, hunger, illness, ignorance, and lack of options.
What are we?
We are people with no god. I would think that would leave us without a side in this issue, but I’m finding that atheism is also present in India. We do not turn “Atheism” into a religion, as many people do, with their own sort of proselytizing and converting, so I feel little to no community emotion at the idea of there being other atheists.
We are people with respect for culture. I recognize that there are ways of dressing, cooking, and otherwise living one’s life that are comfortable, make one happy, and fulfill human needs for community. Beside, the different ways people live make for a better, more interesting, more adaptive world…when those people are willing to adapt. One of the problems I have with religion is the fierce consequences for change and adaptation. In a world where outrageous resources are needed to bring meat from fertilization to table, holding onto one’s meat-eating habits in order to differentiate oneself from one’s neighbors is counter-adaptive. (Yeah, I know. The reasons for eating meat are many, but I’ve never heard any but culture, habit, or inertia that I could really understand.)
We are people with no community. This may sound megalomaniacal (it feels vaguely hubrisish just writing it), but there are no people like us. We are able to take part in bits and pieces of rite and ritual from a collection of communities: travelers, sailors, writers, cyclers, tech geeks, vegetarians, sexual activists, non-breeders; but we do not shape our behavior to ensure continued membership in any of these. So we are not tied to any community traits and we are therefore more flexible in integrating what we like about cultures we meet and get to know.
So why, of all of the assumptions being made about me daily, does the assumption of Christianity bother me?
It must be discomfort with some corollary assumptions I’m assuming they’re making. And that brings up my own assumptions about Christianity. It’s uncomfortable to think about, because I’ve been so sure that I disagreed with the ideas of Christians but that I did so rationally and clearheadedly.
Over the last few days, as I’ve slowly eeked this post out, I’ve been thinking a lot about this. I’ve been realizing that I have more negative feeling for Christianity than for any other category of belief. Not as much as for ways that people act or think, like fanaticism, intolerance, violence, and so on. But as far as straight up in-your-face disagreeing, it’s Christianity that inflates my balloon.
Thinking about my anti-Christianity bias, I come to several conclusions.
- As someone who leans toward the empiricist view, I most believe and feel strongly about those things I have personal experience with. (Though even Locke argued that God was an exception to empiricism. Sigh.) My overwhelming experience with religion has been with Christianity. Therefore, my strongest feelings and deepest held beliefs will be about Christianity rather than another religion.
- There are qualities and characteristics I abhor having attributed to me. Some of those qualities are fanaticism, irrationality, proselytizing, condescension, close-mindedness. I attribute all of these to Christianity in general. These are qualities which are very common in the practitioners of Christianity.
- I have a degree of prejudice against Christians that would shame me were it any other group on the planet. Does it shame me? Some. But I also have many bad experiences with Christians that I can base my prejudging on. It’s like, how many frogs have you seen? How many of them were some shade of green? Is it fair to assume that most frogs are green? Yes, if you’ve seen a lot of frogs from different places with different backgrounds living different kinds of life. (We have little frogs who invade our kitchen to eat bugs.)
- I probably have many of the assumptions wrong. I bet there are prejudices in Indian people toward Christians that I never even thought of. So I need to say about this the same thing I say about the other assumptions people make about me. So be it.
In all the (more and more secular) world, India is a place where religion is an issue, where religion is a major part of the public as well as the private lives of the citizenry. I know that there are many places we could go where most of the people we met wouldn’t wonder about our religious beliefs. But we’re in India and we will continue to confound expectations at every turn. I’ve begun learning Malayalam, so I hope to get a basic vocabulary with which I can shock people on the basis of language. I don’t have unlimited funds (though I do have some nifty toys and it’s true that I have more resources than many people). We’re pretty familiar with the range of veg food served around here, so our ordering and eating is pretty smooth. And wow – I have no god.
P.S. You’ve all tended to send me emails about my posts – I’d be interested in getting you to comment instead so that there could perhaps be a discussion. I definitely want to know what you think about all this.