January 04, 2008

Two more questions

After some attacks on Christian churches in the Dangs district of Gujarat some years ago, then PM Vajpayee paid a visit there and announced that there should be a "national debate" on conversions.

Whatever the merits of this -- full disclosure: I criticized it in a column -- I don't recall any such debate happening in the years since. But now there have been more attacks on Christian churches, this time in Orissa. And some of the people involved have spoken about conversions, blaming them for the attacks in Orissa.

So I write here, to try starting such a debate in at least this small space.

What is it about conversions? Why do they threaten and anger so many people?

Same rules apply as here: These are serious, sincere questions. If you're willing to answer them in that same spirit, please leave a comment. In your own words, explained as you understand it and you'd like others to understand it: simply, clearly.

Responses like that will be appreciated. (And will, in turn, get responses from me in the same spirit). I promise not to criticize them.

Abuse, if any, will be ignored.

Thank you.


Anonymous said...

What is it about conversions? Why do they threaten and anger so many people?

I myself, incline towards atheism and believe that all religions should be banned (too dreamy though). But like to put my 2 cents in this discussion.

A well read person (has read text of his faith and the one he is converting to) who can reason how praying to a different sky genius will enrich his life is welcome to conversion.

Conversion of the less read (faith illiterate) is what should be opposed.

The best thing to do is to make them realize their existing faith, make them cognizant about it then explain what the other faith has to offer and let them choose.

Any conversion based on death threats (e.g. extensive sword use), monetary gains (e.g. wish boxes in kerela, drop a wish ,voila!!!, and you have it) should be vehemently opposed and banned. Reason, they are just not right.

I personally believe, that conversions to monotheistic religions should be banned, cause a few generations later these folks will be after your blood for being different.

I remember sitting next to a Preacher in a bus and she wouldn't reason. She stuck on to her line "He is the only way to heaven", after which I realized I was wasting my time talking to her.

I am ok with conversions if they are not monetory based and the convertee is able to explain how praying to the new sky genius will enrich his life.

If there is evidence of converters providing monetary benefits to convertees, they should be jailed.


(I asked you the Question about "How back do you go to decide what you can/cannot forget".)

Anonymous said...

The fact that people convert for practical gains rather than spiritual is a widespread belief. This fact in itself does not threaten.
Given the aggressiveness with which missionaries try to convert and the lot of poor/under privileged in my country... there is an unspoken fear that conversions will render my community(hindu) to become a minority faith. Being a minority community is painful in any society where people do not/can not understand a different culture and will distrust/fear them. It just seems to be psychology of man and unfortunately I have not seen exceptions.
I also believe that no matter what the threat, violence in the name of faith is inexcusable and the miscreants should be exterminated like so much rot. They are a threat to the very faith which they profess.

Transmogrifier said...

I am a culturally Hindu (meaning I go through the motions of Hinduism because they are fun) Atheist. So I don't think there is any thing wrong in conversion from one faith to another. To me it means that instead of one stupid idea you choose to subscribe to another.

I can make a few guesses about what riles up Hindus (primarily) in India about conversions to (primarily) Christianity. Hinduism doesn't have the evangelical zeal that religions like Christianity or Islam have. So that concept of someone going out and actually asking and convincing people to convert to Hinduism is rather new in India. Swami Vivekananda tried to bring this evangelical aspect to Hinduism. Evangelical Christians on the other hand believe that Hindus are pagans wandering in spiritual darkness and see conversion as a means of rescuing their souls. This clash of outlook itself might be a cause for some resentment. Some people may fear that their community and culture is being undermined if many people suddenly start being converted to another religion.

Another hypothesis I have is that people perceive conversion to Christianity as an act of capitulation to Western nations... somewhat like colonial domination.

I oppose the violent response though. Whatever the particular circumstances may be, a violent attack on Churches and missionaries in wrong and the perpetrators should be brought to justice.

To those Hindus who are afraid for their religion, I suggest the following:
1. Start caring more for the deprived 'Hindus' in India. Don't discriminate against them on the basis of their caste. Make sure that they get equal opportunity in education and work. This will ensure that they prosper. Prosperity is the best nourishment for faith (just look at the US for God's sake!). Prospersous and happy Hindus who are able to participate in Hindu society as equals and not as second class citizens will CHOOSE to stay within the faith (Trust me on this).

2. Beat em' with your own stick (forgive the phrase, I don't recommend actualy beating). Start converting people to Hinduism by raising a crop of Hindu missionaries. Send them to African countries and Florida etc, wherever Christian missionaries are working the most. They won't mind, they are champions of free market and competition. They know that a little competition doesn't hurt business. Start charity missions to African nations. Pay people to roam the streets with signs that say "Vishnu saves" or something of that sort. Hinduism has a lot of interesting faith based ideas which can compete well with other faith based ideas... use them and have fun :)

Anonymous said...

What is it about conversions? Why do they threaten and anger so many people?

A: Conversions are like selling a product to a consumer. In this case the product is religion. One way to sell a product is to show the negatives of the rival product. This approach is often an easier tool than selling the positives of a product. When the Missionaries descend on India they come with an air of superiority complex trying to demonise Hindusim and "free" the people living in "dark ages" and bring them "Lord's light". Now when salesmen of religion peddle their faith based on negativity, it is bound to create anger amongst competitive salesmen of rival religions. Also not all salesmen of different religions are gentlemen. There are quite a few goondas amongst salesmen of all religions. They are the ones who create the turmoil and the poor folks pay for that. The intellectuals of the various religions then write pages of sob stories about each other's crimes and the cycle of silliness continues.

It's as simple as that. Going on for thousands of years.


Although a bit late, would like to answer your question about Hindutatva too.

Hindutatva is nothing but a vote bank strategy. The BJP is using it to create a united Hindu votebank. Theoretically this is 80% of India's population but the Hindu votebank is still as fractured as ever. The CPM uses anti Hindutatva in West Bengal with 25% (should reach 30% soon) Muslim vote in West Bengal - a decisive factor of why it has stayed in power for 30 years (no it is not socialsm that has won it for the CPM)! It is worried now a days that Mamamta Bandh Didi is eating into that pie by spreading rumours that the CPM is a Brahminical party taking away land of Muslims.

For all sane citizens of India it is best to stay away from religion and communal and communist politics.

Anonymous said...

Dear Sir,

First about the attack on the churches in Orissa. Please verify and realise that there were homes of Hindus burnt, an old man attacked, allegedly by local christians and police firing also which took place. The sequence and whether who reacted to whom is still an open question. So deeming the episode as an attack on churches will be pretty inaccurate.

About the questions, Conversions prima facie are not a problem to people.

Why i think they anger so many people is similar to why large companies make people uncomfortable. The threat caused by it is obvious. The loads of money pouring in for harvesting souls does manage to render some sleepless. Added to that the feeling that people in villages are helpless against such organised onslaught is understandably infuriating.

Now when i think about it, I do not even have a proper answer, just some speculation, just as good as you might make based on some conversations with some people. I do think that taking any religion too seriously is not too great, but that is the atheist speaking, and atheists are not really the ones having the problems to conversions.

I will share with you my own experiences, i was invited to go to this play in the church about the heavens gates and hells fires. And all i was being imbibed was a fear that if i was "bad" I would be burnt endlessly in hell. And all the time I was just hoping that i do not get this fear. Because i fear life after that. Of course there was a fairy tale like heaven also. Anyway, I stay miles away from a church or a preaching christian. I fear myself to fall pray to this, and my better judgement tells me that its not a good thing. Its like staying away from cigarettes.

Although an atheist, I feel some part like a hindu by tradition, no more. And its not the reason that i have some soft corner to it. Considering that it is a more inclusivist religion, and more of a culture than a religion anyway.

I guess we are trained to look at aggression with scornful eyes. Thats probably what it is.

I know that there were no answers that i gave you, all speculations. But i hope you can take the answers if there from my own experiences.

Dilip D'Souza said...

Thanks for the responses, all.

Kshitij, I have problems with conversions based on threats and coercion, like you. But for this reason: threats and coercion are criminal acts. In such cases, there are laws to address the threats, and let's apply those.

Besides, for the people seeking to convert, it's the worst possible way to do it anyway, because who's going to truly believe something that they are forced to express belief in?

I don't follow your point about monotheistic religions.

ru, fair enough. I recognize and acknowledge that fear. But surely you'll consider the figures? The Hindu share of the population is still above 80%. For Christians (2%) to equal the number of Hindus in India over the next 50 years (which I'm broadly assuming will be about your lifetime), some quick calculations tell me that they need to be converting Hindus at the rate of 40 every second -- hour after hour, day after night after day, week in and week out, for 50 years. (Leave a note if you'd like to know how I got that number). Even the most efficient missionaries in the world can't manage this feat. Surely this should allay those fears?

Dilip D'Souza said...

Transmogrifier, you've put your finger on what gets me about religions -- the need to paint those who belong to another one as "pagans wandering in spiritual darkness." This kind of language is certainly and understandably cause for resentment.

Andy, I'm not trying to offer you my version of events. All I'm saying is, there were attacks on churches (whatever the reason), and there were people who spoke out against conversions, saying the attacks were a response to them. Therefore, I'd like to have some small debate about conversions here.

Transmogrifier said...

"This kind of language is certainly and understandably cause for resentment."

All religious beliefs are axiomatic. No "true believer" ever acknowledges this. In fact acknowledging that the foundation of ones religion is a set of unverifiable axioms is considered a sign of wavering faith. Obviously some people are bound to think that their own axiomatic beliefs are superior to others. The kind of language that Dilip detests is a natural result.

Religious tolerance should be about realizing that religious beliefs other than one's own can be equally valid in guiding one's life towards good. However in most cases religious tolerance manifests in "tolerating" people of other religions even though you think their beliefs are wrong and inferior than your own.

Dilip D'Souza said...

Very true, TM. (About axioms). As for tolerance, in my experience some of the most intolerant people are those who loudly profess tolerance. It's an empty word. I think I prefer "understanding", because that (to me) invokes the spirit you are getting at -- realizing that "beliefs other than one's own can be equally valid in guiding one's life towards good."

(Note I left out the word "religious" from your quote above).

Anonymous said...

One word: Ethnocide.

Dilip D'Souza said...

How ethnocide? Please elaborate.

Dilip D'Souza said...

Incidentally, Kshitij, I had meant to respond to this:

believe that all religions should be banned (too dreamy though).

Dreamy or not, and even though I don't care for religion, you can't ban it. You can, however, work towards making it irrelevant or redundant. Very hard job, but at least possible to work towards. Have you read Richard Dawkins' "The God Delusion"?

Anonymous said...

Thank you for responding Dilip.
I will accept that your numbers are correct.
Even so, I think globally the Hindu community is outnumbered by the Christian community. If a nation(maybe this is far fetched ..but a majority in a nation?) chose to base their identity on religion mostly, they are unable to accept evangelism funded by foreigners

As a Hindu bordering on atheism I shouldn't care really. I wish I did not have to. However today when global war against terror means distrust for people of a faith and every dispute is colored by ethnic and religious divide, one worries about which side one happens to fall in.

This reminds me of an Oprah show in which Oprah introduces a man who professes to be an atheist. He believes it was enough be good and one not does have to believe in god for that. The verbal assault of the audience on the man surprised and shocked me... I wondered then..what was their problem?

Anonymous said...


I am not sure about the facts, but hadn't china come close to banning practice of all religions.

I had a number of chinese friends at grad school and whenever asked about their religion, they said they had none. The only festival they celebrated was chinese new year.

I have no idea how they achieved this this feat. Surely they have one less reason to kill their own countrymen.

Elaborating on about conversion to monotheistic religion :
TM talked about understanding that there can another path other than yours. This is what the christian preacher I met would not get/accept, she kept on saying "he is the only way". Again, I do not want to generalize, I bet there are crazy folks everywhere.

I agree that if you convert someone forcefully then they will not follow it truly, but can you say this for sure about their future generations.
Aren't there student organizations in UP whose aim is convert India to their religion. Surely their forefathers who converted/got converted would not have had these goals/views, but their future generations do.

So why facilitate something that will surely hurt you later.


Transmogrifier said...

This thread is a few days old now but I am interested in the discussion primarily because I recently completed reading a few books about atheism, religion etc.

Kshitij: China actually allows some religiosity now a days. There are official Christian churches which are promoted by the state. They also allow some Buddhism and Taoism etc.

Dilip: Semantic differences apart, I don't see any future for tolerance/understanding unless all major religions accept other religions as "equally valid propositions". I don't see such an understanding happening anytime soon primarily among monotheistic religions because they are tied to a "book" which is supposed to be divine word. Believers have the need to think that their faith is "THE" answer and all other answers are less valid if not wrong and irrelevant. I see no way to get over this "need".

Dan Dennett suggests that children be taught comparitive world religions in school. His suggestion is to impartially teach about the history, basic propositions, creation myths and other mythology of all religions to the children in school. This will enable them to make an informed choice. I actually like his idea.

I am pretty sure that if such a thing is done it will definitely promote some "understanding" of the sort we discussed. I don't see it being done especially in India. If meditation and yoga- asanas are construed as religious indoctrination, how will people accept this?

Dilip D'Souza said...

RU: the only side I think you should care to be on is the one of justice and the truth. I realize that sounds idealistic, but it's the guide I try to use. (Note I say "try": I'm human too).

My feeling is, if we are looking for a minority to belong to, we will find it: either in our country, or the world, or some other. So again, what I try to use is that I don't claim to belong to any minority. I'm just Indian, and human. That's it.

Religious people who assault the guy on the Oprah show, like you said, know nothing about religion -- theirs or any others.

Kshitij, I cannot bring myself to believe in banning anything. I also cannot bring myself to follow the model of China.

My feeling is, every religion appears to believe it is better in some respect than every other, and therefore its adherents believe they are better people than others. TM, in that sense you're right: none of the religions are willing to accept others as equally valid.

I like my idea better than Dennett's, but I also recognize that his is more practical and real-world. My idea is: teach NO religion of any kind in school. Try Richard Dawkins, incidentally.

Transmogrifier said...

Could we just discuss the relation between religion and government here. When I came to the US few years ago I was surprised to note that the government here is not interested in knowing what my religion is. I didn't have to state it on any official document.

In India on the other hand while getting my domicile certificate and other official things I was asked to note my religion and caste etc. I think one way to get rid of the caste discrimination especially is to make government blind to the caste of the person. The only thing the government should care about when selectively treating someone (college admissions e.g.) is economic hardship.

Wouldn't similar thing work for religions as well? At the very least it will make religion a more personal thing, something that only you and perhaps people who know you may care about. One can at least be sure the government doesn't care about it and treats you the same irrespective of your religion.

This will also cut down on vote bank politics. If the government cannot make policies targeting specific caste or religion, there won't be any special need to cultivate vote banks based on caste or religion.

Annie Zaidi said...

i've been thinking about this for a while, dilip. collecting my thoughts before i said anything on the subject and now have rambled so much that i'll probably just do a post taking off from here.

Anonymous said...

Started reading Richard Dawkins' "The God Delusion".

Its engrossing.

Thanks for the suggestion.


where are you in Texas?

Dilip D'Souza said...

Hope you enjoy Dawkins, Kshitij. Let me know how it goes.

I'm no longer in Texas! Now I'm in western NM, close to the AZ border, going gradually westward.

Dilip D'Souza said...

TM, I've always believed you should never have to state a religion in these forms. When I fill them out, I write "None" (and am always tempted to add "of your business"). But now I sometimes run into the form, computerized, and religion is available via a drop-down box, and there's no "Agnostic" or "Atheist" or "None"! In that case, I choose at random.

Anonymous said...

Richard comes down on monotheistic religions heavily, at least until now (chapter 2).

He even says move from polytheistic to monotheistic religions isn't progression at all. (its him or nobody scenario).

Do you have a different view?


Transmogrifier said...

Found something related to this thread. Religious folk say that God is the source of morality and if we didn't believe in God we would succumb to immorality. Richard Dawkins talks about this in The God Delusion and gives evolutionary explanation of morality.

This article by Steven Pinker in NYT magazine talks about the universal moral instinct and how it has evolved. It is a long piece but very interesting nevertheless.

Anonymous said...

how about we have also been gifted with something called "Brain" and more specifically "Conscience" to answer to, before you go an immoral streak.

Crazy folks TM.