Culture and Society

The Colonialism of Religion

Across the history of humanity, religion has been a powerful and all-encompassing force. I have some thoughts I want to share about the nature of formalized religion both historically and in the modern day, but before I dive deeper into this post, I have a few details to establish.

  • Like most of my family, I was born and raised in the Roman Catholic Church. I received the sacraments of baptism, Holy Communion, and Confirmation under the auspices of this Christian religion.
  • I grew up on an island in the South Pacific going to Catholic mass every Sunday morning. I served as an altar boy and graduated from a Catholic high school.
  • As an adult, I personally do not ascribe to any particular formal or established religion. I follow a private set of personal spiritual beliefs that I keep all to myself.

Now here are some technical points:

  • According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the word “colonialism” is defined as “control by one power over a dependent area or people.” It is also known historically by the word “imperialism.”
  • Examples of colonialism include the establishing of the 13 colonies by Great Britain in the New World, France taking over a small group of islands in the South Pacific now known as French Polynesia, Germany taking over the Samoan islands, and Spain claiming the islands of the Philippines (my original home country). Lands and resources of indigenous people all over the world were forcefully taken away by powerful European countries.
  • Colonialism still exists today in many different forms.

Lastly, I have nothing against the healing powers, the compassion, and deep spiritual connections that people experience through their religious practices. These can be rich, tender, and deeply fulfilling components of a person’s life.

What I have a problem with is the part of organized religion that needs to survive and grow by imposing its beliefs on everyone it can get its hands on. There are thousands, if not millions, of missionaries all over the world preaching the glory of Christ and the benefits of “being saved.”

I understand that people can be so passionate about their beliefs that they genuinely want to share the joy of their spiritual experiences, but often enough, this sharing occurs in mission trips in foreign, third-world countries in which people do not have the means and education to advocate for themselves. Missionaries proselytize toward the sick and impoverished and those who are vulnerable. In some ways, they are getting much-needed attention and assistance from these missionaries, but in a broader sense, is it possible that they are being forced to believe in something outside of their own history and native traditions? Is this an example of a powerful religion forcing its hand upon the vulnerable?

From a deeper perspective, religiosity and militarism have often been cozy bedfellows. The former has often been the cause of the latter. Religion has often been the rationalization for violent acts all over the world (such as the conflicts in the Middle East), and it should come as no surprise that it has also been the justification for imperialist expansion. One harrowing example is the concept of manifest destiny, which proclaimed that the United States was given the divine right by “Providence” to expand its territories across the continent. This ideology was used to empower the forceful US acquisition of vast lands and territories for its own purposes.

Clearly, religion can be a dangerous and formidable device. It has wielded its powers to the furthest reaches of our planet.

When I was young and lived on a small island in the South Pacific, I noticed something strange about the local villages in the area.

They all had churches, and everyone went to church.

This is certainly not unusual in and of itself, but I began to question why Catholicism and the Mormon church had become so ubiquitous that they were thriving in a remote island thousands of miles away from anything.

Did a bunch of European missionaries arrive on this island to claim this land and “enlighten” the local savages? Were they saying our “God” is better than your gods and all of your native traditions? Did these ambassadors of religion do all of this as a way to extend their influence and power all over the world?

Simply put, yes.

This brings to mind a question that has haunted me for a long time.

Why isn’t there an EXCHANGE of ideas and beliefs rather than the obliteration of one spiritual practice over another?

Did these missionaries ever think to simply have a discussion about their different spiritual traditions? Could it have been possible that the rituals and traditions of indigenous people were just as rich, meaningful, and powerful?

Simply put, in the colonialist mindset, no.

As an islander, I often wondered what spiritual practices existed in our villages before European Christianity came and took over everything. There was never any mention of it when I attended school. I wondered about the purity and uniqueness of what might have existed—that a spiritual life can be cultivated by a small group of people through their own ideas and experiences. The notion that an indigenous people can have their own independent spiritual lives is a thing of beauty.

Over the last few decades, my childhood island home has built numerous parochial schools and huge church buildings that no tropical hurricanes and tsunamis can take down.

Religious colonialism has made its mark all over the world, and that’s just how it is.

Whenever someone tells me that they are about to go on a mission trip, I honestly cringe at the thought. I want to tell them that I am happy for their personal spiritual growth, but is it absolutely necessary to force it onto other people? I often want to encourage them to also have discussions and exchanges about the local, indigenous spiritual truths that exist in those areas that they visit.

Better yet, what if they just went to help them with their needs without any of the proselytizing?

Under that scenario, these missions would become an act of pure kindness and compassion with no expectation of getting anything in return and without imposing a foreign (and largely European) religious ideology.

Would that be so bad?

Simply put, no.

-Roqué

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