Friday, April 13, 2007

Capitalism and Conversion

I was reading this BBC article about Pope Rat's Easter celebrations. It appears, if one can believe the BBC, that the Catholic Church wants to focus on Asia. Allow me to quote: “the Vatican regards Asia as its most promising area for future converts.”

Then it occurred to me that is very nearly the same language that capitalists refer to underdeveloped markets. Corporations regard Asia, too, as this vast market waiting to be exploited, either as consumers or for raw materials.

In many ways, fascism is the right-wing merger of state, business and religion. The truth of that rushed on me, all at once, even though in my mind I've known it for a while. In the West, the exploitation of the New World was a state, business and religious prospect all at once. The Conquistadors came with state authority to convert Indians as well as rob them of their resources. The American conquest of the West was done in roughly the same way – missions preceded colonists that preceded reservations and/or genocide. Missionary activity has gone hand-in-hand with industrial exploitation.

Asia, in all ways, has been a tougher nut to crack than Africa and the Americas. Asia has a number of native religions and philosophies that, really, put Christianity to shame. Hinduism, Taoism and Buddhism – in intellectual terms, in completeness, in almost all ways – make Christianity look like a primitive, second-rate religion, not to mention that monotheism is already well served in Asia with Islam. Asia boasts ancient civilizations and a powerful culture. So Asia has not been Christianized nearly to the extent as the rest of the world, just as Western style capitalist exploitation didn't work out as well there as in other places. Sure, both India and China were colonized, but they retained their own independent character and have taken the reins of industry into their own hands – both countries are averaging around 10% growth a year, currently, and the success of Japan and South Korea are well known. Nowhere has Western style capitalism succeeded outside of functionally Western nations (and not even all of those) except in Asia. So, with business as much as religion, Asia has been a tough nut to crack.

Which puts my mind onto two thoughts. The first is . . . is Western religion getting into a trap by going into Asia? No one doubts that India and China are going to become economic and perhaps military superpowers in the next twenty years or so. Both countries have managed to maintain their cultural and political identity against Westernization while adapting the industrial system of the West to their own purposes. Is the Roman Catholic Church's interest in Asia pure arrogance? Why do they think that Asia won't merely adapt the techniques of Western religion that suit them and turn the tables on the West, as they are currently doing with business?

This segues into my second thought. China is already a fairly large cultural exporter, nowadays. India is developing into one (not only with cinema and letters, but, interestingly enough, comic books – several Indians have decided to try to export Indian comics into the West, probably attempting to recreate the success of Japanese manga in America). How much longer will it take to occur to them to start the sort of cultural exportation that the West has done for centuries? Before they start to organize Hindu or Buddhist missions to flood the West with their own religious culture?

Those cursed lucky Europeans might be able to resist, because it appears that most Europeans simply don't care much about religion – even those that still identify with their traditional religion. So, in France, if one believes Stew's translation of those French graphs, and I do, 59% of the French identify as Catholic, but over half of declared Catholics have only ever been to church for marriages, baptisms and funerals, and only 23% of declared Catholics bother to attend church for even the big ceremonies like Easter, Assumption and Christmas. And only 38% of the French believe in the Christian god – which means that something like 2/5ths of declared Catholics don't believe in God or are agnostic! So, I doubt that Hindu or Buddhist missionaries would be terribly successful in that sort of environment.

On the other hand, here in America, where we are pretty religious and belong to a very backwards, primitive religion, they might find really fertile ground. Think of it. Nothing in, say, Hinduism or Buddhism requires a person to deny evolution, or that the earth is billions of years old. Modern science fits a lot better with most Asian religions than it fits with Christianity, and they are capable of the same level of spiritual comfort and community.

So, really, I find myself asking, “Right now, are there folks in India and China saying that the United States and South America would be perfect places to gain new converts?” Because if my thesis is true and missionary work goes hand-in-hand with economic exploitation, the West will soon become a big target for cultural imperialism from Asia.

A third thought also occurs to me, that it required the missionary zeal of Christianity to develop capitalism. Christianity is all about exploitation, about converting people, and about controlling them (religions being top-down systems of authority that have strict codes of conduct and such, I don't think it can be reasonably said religions aren't primarily about control . . . at least, not without invoking a god in an apologia). Most other places, prior to the advent of Christianity, had reasonably tribal religions or attempted to identify their own gods with the gods of other places. One of the fairly unique things of primitive Christianity was its exclusivity (there is but ONE god, and it is OUR god) combined with its missionary zeal. It is unsurprising to me that a people so used to exploitation, so used to destroying other people's cultures, came up with the idea that, economically, they're also fair game. It isn't something, I think, that would occur to people, otherwise, used to seeing them either as outsiders to be avoided or believing, as most in the ancient world did, that everyone's gods were the same but simply called by different names and under different faces. That religious conversation that destroys a culture's religious uniqueness would naturally lead to exploiting their labor and resources.

Though I doubt that Pope Rat would agree with this. After all, he's jump right into the apologia of his premeditated cultural imperialism against Asia as justified because his god really exists.

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divabeq said...

I think you're bang on about the idea of Eastern religions being exported to the US. I think this has happened, already, to some degre with Buddhism. I think it's a young, hip thing to do, religiously. (or, perhaps merely hip) As a way to be religious, and, yeah, all the comforts therein, yet not be "backwards"

April 13, 2007 3:07 PM  
Chris Bradley said...


Yeah, it has occurred SOME with Buddhism. And, unsurprisingly, Japanese types of Buddhism are most popular in the US for the time being.

But, so far, no Asian religion has gotten the missionary zeal or really tried using the missionary techniques of Christians. I think this is basically inevitable. Some Hindu or Buddhist group is going to decide that America is open ground, religiously speaking, and do to US what has happened to THEM for so long.

It'll be interesting, shall we say. ;)

April 13, 2007 4:38 PM  

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