March 4, 2024

Would a return to "indigenous religions" be a progressive move within US society?

 There are a number of people in the US who, discontented with their childhood religious indoctrination as well as the seeming soulless and anti-human character of our technocratic society, imagine if we only could remove Christianity conditioning of our consciousness, we could get back to some primordial pro-human reality in which indigenous spiritual tradition would provide a basis for new human flourishing, removing things like shame, guilt, and other “foreign” ideas.

Notably, a methodology for this recovery is rarely proposed or specified, so it typically takes a very idiosyncratic form and is often draped in a naive nostalgia, uninformed by history.

A scientific way to study the viability of such assertions would be to look at a contemporary society where rejection of Christianity and Islam in favor of some other religion are actually in ascendancy today and study the practical significance of such views. 

India is an ideal case study: the current government’s legitimacy rests on an assertive Hinduism, which is contrasted with foreign ideologies of Christianity and Islam. Elements within government and civil society assert that these foreign ideologies have had Indians in a mental chokehold for millennia and that only a return to a primordial idea of religious coexistence under Hinduism can revitalise society. Essentially the government is advocating a return to what Christians and Muslims would understand as neo-paganism, only this time with modern characteristics.

I really wish more critics of Christianity in the west, especially those in the wellness industry, would pay much closer attention to the practical consequences of the realization of the idea they cherish in Indian society. If they did, I think they would see there that an assertive and victorious non-monotheism has produced as dangerous a fundamentalist reaction as any monotheistic faith, complete with lynching, widespread religious persecution of minorities, and a thorough-going purity culture as virulent as anything produced in Christianity and Islam. One cannot really avoid the conclusion that the assertion and attempted implementation of Hinduism as the indigenous tradition of India has resulted in many of the worst dynamics present in Christian fundamentalism, and even the resurgence of several anti-human dynamics that Christianity as a belief system had attempted to eliminate or reform.

Unfortunately global dynamics militate against westerners developing a more critical understanding. The dynamic of muscular Hinduism in Indian society is obscured by the rebranding of Hinduism in the US as a tolerant New Age belief system, flattering the sensibilities of the many post-Christians and other lost souls who migrate to the wellness industry in search of meaning. Our New Age wellness advisors have fundamentally misdiagnosed the problem. But they are not the only ones misled. Put in terms familiar to decolonial scholars, modern Hinduism exemplifies the "coloniality of power", but absent any of the ideological geneaologies decolonial scholars impute to coloniality's origins. A similar geneaology of power's coloniality could be revealed in many to most non-western religions, suggesting in turn that decolonial scholars have fundamentally misread the historical situation, and that coloniality is not a historically specific situation but a perennial human dynamic inherent to our attempts to build social groups and create collective meaning. It might also be said to be an artifact of the development of consciousness in our species, inherent in our evolutionary descent from our nearest non-human ancestors.  This is something our decolonial scholars could profitably examine, if they were able to break from the romantic mental shackles imposed by the idea of 1492 and Descartes "cogito ergo sum" as epistemological ruptures producing the ideology of coloniality.

My personal belief is that most such projects of ideological “return”, not only Hinduism, are doomed to produce these types of dystopian outcomes. I believe the way is not to return to a past that only exists as an imaginary construct, but to look boldly forward and define the customs and values worth preserving from our various traditions and try to live by them. Tolerance will play a huge role here. However I will die on the hill that there is nothing inherently tolerant or utopian about pre-monotheistic traditions; their appeal to ex-Christians in the west says more about the psycho-dynamics of romanticism in our secular US society than it does about the practical consequences of reanimating the ethics of those belief systems. I think the decolonial turn is the academic version of these psycho-dynamics. We need a much more sophisticated approach.


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