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Missionaries are frank imperialists.
May 22, 2001 11:41 AM   Subscribe

Missionaries are frank imperialists. But because they operate in the spiritual realm, they continue to enjoy a fuzzy kind of permission to conduct a kind of business that is largely impossible in other less ethereal spheres of life.
posted by rushmc (26 comments total)

 
They are open and candid, sincere imperialists? Frankly, I think he meant "rank imperialists."
posted by raysmj at 12:02 PM on May 22, 2001


A few weeks ago there was a buzz at the front door that turned out to be missionaries who had come over from Africa to convert British heathens back to Christianity.

Absolutely true. And no, I didn't want any of it.
posted by Grangousier at 12:16 PM on May 22, 2001


Hang on--aren't they merely advocates for a particular point of view? We all believe in something, and in some sense, are continually making a case for our beliefs, whether overtly or not. Certainly some unsavory tactics have been used by some missionaries, but is religious advocacy really to be categorically dismissed?
posted by dmcdonald at 12:19 PM on May 22, 2001


I think such imperialism is permitted in society where the spiritual is not taken as such a serious, mundane, or even existant thing other business affairs.
posted by gnutron at 12:31 PM on May 22, 2001


If religion is the opiate of the masses, then the missionaries are the dealers unscrupulous enough to sell to kids. This crime is even worse when dealing with a culture that has not yet been exposed to the evils of christianity; they don't have any idea how devious the recruitment program can be.
I (verbally) BLAST these people when they ignore the "no soliciting" sign on my door.
posted by tcobretti at 12:38 PM on May 22, 2001


There's a nice paradox here - if you condemn someone for putting forward their point of view, you're imposing your own POV...

It just me that thinks the author of this article is preaching their own philosophy? They conclude by calling for government action to stop or hinder missionaries from travelling abroad, which suggests they don't believe in their right to full freedom of communication - at least for those with whom they disagree.

And that raises the interesting question: how would they react if they had the same right taken away?
posted by n/a at 12:48 PM on May 22, 2001


About 10 years ago, I was one of those young, smiling, Mormon missionaries. I was in southern brazil for two years. However, it was never my intention to take away the culture, ideas, and beliefs of other people. (Besides, as anyone who has been to South America lately can attest, many people in many Latin American countries are doing everything they can to act like Americans anyway. They wear the same clothes, listen to the same music, watch the same movies, etc.)

Anyway, I left the U.S. with the intent not to “change everyone I met,” but rather to share a bit of myself with anybody that was interested. I had been through drug rehab, lost my girlfriend and my mom, and was tired of hanging out with my stoner friends who didn’t ever do anything except get high.

I needed a change in my life and I “found me some religion.” It made me happier than I was before so I thought maybe I could share it with others.

For me, it was a case of “Look, here is something that made my life better. Interested? No? Okay. See ya.” I didn’t take it personally if people didn’t want to hear about my point of view. Everybody has a system of beliefs that works for them. But if you were searching, like I was, maybe this could help you out. I didn’t feel everyone would go to hell without my “saving message.” I agree with the author on this point, that this is a pretty bigoted attitude. Maybe I was too liberal to do my job correctly. Maybe the church should have fired me for not being a bigot.

Personally, I had a great time riding a junky mountain bike on muddy jungle trails. I wasn’t trying to wipe out indigenous cultures as this article seems to suggest.

No, the Americanization of the planet will continue unchecked. It doesn’t need the help of any missionaries.
posted by kzam at 1:00 PM on May 22, 2001


OK, notwithstanding the really poor decision to use the death of a human being as a springboard for moralistic tirade, don't Mr. Tiger's arguments against the evils of missionary work lack any real hard, historical evidence? I mean, as long as we're talking about how terrible missionaries apparently are, why not bring up some specific examples of how they have manipulated and destroyed these cultures they were trying to convert?

Not that we haven't seen our fair share of missionaries doing terrible things to people... but why isn't that the result of them being awful people, instead being the result of their "corrupt" ideology?

I mean, who knows.... maybe these people who were killed in Peru were just trying to help people, simply because they felt it was the right thing to do?
posted by gaudeamus at 1:09 PM on May 22, 2001


Exactly. They thought it was the right thing to do, and all of us, whether we think we have a moral system or not, are behaving according to some concept of what we think the right thing is. In other words, we're all moralists and we're all religious. The author of the article is making the common error of assuming that he himself is free of moral and religious assumptions, while angrily judging others as religious bigots.

Even the opinion that a certain religion is bad, or that religion in general is bad, is an opinion of a metaphysical or religious nature. In other words, it's a religious assertion. 'There is no God' is a pretty grand claim to make. That's not arrogant? Arrogant or not, it's certainly a statement of religious faith.
posted by dmcdonald at 1:18 PM on May 22, 2001


I'd suggest Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe, which discusses the effects missionaries can have on a culture.
Beyond that, dmcdonald, is asserting that Goblins dont run the senate a religious claim? Is saying that egyptian mummies do not control the laws of physics a religious claim?
Beyond that, is it a religious assertation to say that gravity never causes things to be repelled? And if it isn't, what is the difference between that statement, and "The Christian God doesn't exist."?
posted by Doug at 1:32 PM on May 22, 2001


An assertion, whether affirmative or negative, regarding the existence or nature of a deity or deities, or any claim regarding the ultimate meaning, or lack of meaning, of existence--that's a religious assertion. It's a claim to belief or knowledge about who we are and what our place in the universe is. I would say further that all assertions about matters whose real nature is not directly knowable, are either religious assertions or akin to religious assertions, inasmuch as they rely not on proofs, but on assumptions. And even proofs ultimately rely on assumptions, when you trace back the line of reasoning. That's why I would maintain we all possess faith of some kind.

My point is that it's a mistake to think that negative assertions in this realm are somehow enlightened and exempt from critique, while positive assertions are instances of some nasty, archaic way of thought. You're right to mention the 'Christian God' in this context--really it's assertions about that god which are at issue here.

The assertions you list are all negative assertions--'blah never happens,' or 'blah doesn't exist.' On a logical level, they're all indefensible--I challenge you to prove any negative assertion. They're all assertions of the same kind inasmuch as they are categorical denials. They all make a claim of knowledge about forces or entities whose real nature is subject to speculation, because they are (if they do exist) beyond the province of day-to-day experience, and if they do not exist, no one possesses the omniscience necessary to conclusively prove it.

So I guess I'm saying that your example assertions are indeed, besides being logically fallacious, religious in nature. If I say mummies aren't running things, it's because I believe something else is, be it an arbitrary order, or chaos, or some god, however defined--I would make that denial about mummies because I think I have some alternative account, which does explain what sort of world we live in.
posted by dmcdonald at 2:31 PM on May 22, 2001


dmcdonald said: ...all of us, whether we think we have a moral system or not, are behaving according to some concept of what we think the right thing is. In other words, we're all moralists and we're all religious.

Religious people (in my experience, anyway) seem to be incapable of separating morality and religion. Contrary to your belief, it is possible to behave morally while not practicing a religion. Religion, to me, is actually what you have when you remove the purely moral bits - the dogma, the ceremony, the trappings. The moral kernel can exist without the trappings.

I'm not religious, and every time I have this kind of discussion with a religious person, they always say, "Yes, you have religion. You believe in something, don't you? Well, what you believe in is your religion." That argument doesn't make sense to me, because you can (and people inevitably do) believe in anything and everything. People have believed (and some still do believe) that the earth is flat and that sickness is caused by demons. To me, that just goes to prove that religion and morality are independent. You can believe that the earth is flat and that sickness is caused by demons, and that killing is wrong. Believing the earth is flat isn't a moral conviction, but believing that killing is wrong is.

That is why missionaries irk me, because they teach the entire package as what is completely correct. If they just went out and taught that killing was wrong, that would be one thing, but they go out and teach that killing is wrong and that the earth is flat. Not literally, I know, that's just an example, but they teach dogma that is, in my estimation, incorrect, along with the moral lessons. And the fact that they're going out to teach these lessons implies that they don't think these people don't already have a code of morals that they follow - I think most people in the world do. The only thing they're really trying to change is the dogma, the trappings.
posted by RylandDotNet at 2:41 PM on May 22, 2001


Great points, dmcdonald... It made me think of a logical puzzle I ran across when I was younger: To prove that God does not exist, would take a comprehensive and inexhaustible understanding of this and all other universes. In short, for someone to say that God does not exist would require that they would have to be, in fact, a god. Thus undermining their assertion. It's a little bit over-simplified, but you get the point.
posted by silusGROK at 2:47 PM on May 22, 2001


ten years ago i was a mormon missionary riding my mountain bike on snowy trails in washington, opposite of kzam...i also was way to liberal to do my job correctly, and left the whole church business behind me soon after that.

so i can honestly state that i am biased against missionaries, and mormon missionaries in particular. Now...with that said...i do have to admit that of all of the various zealots and missionaries i've run into from various faiths, the mormons really aren't into destruction of indigenous cultures, they are REALLY into genealogy and keeping in touch with your roots, its a very important thing. Obviously certain beliefs get shot down for moral reasons but other than that they don't teach that the american way is the right way.
posted by th3ph17 at 3:03 PM on May 22, 2001


Hey, th3ph17, funny meeting you here!


: )
posted by silusGROK at 3:06 PM on May 22, 2001



If religion is defined as some formalized, inherited system of practices, rituals, and observances, then certainly I think it's possible to behave morally outside of religion. And I would agree that all people, and societies, have some kind of morality to which they try to adhere. I don't think I said that you have to be religious (in some institutional or traditional sense) to behave morally.

Part of what I am trying to say here is that dogmatism is not a disease exclusively afflicting the so-called religious. For example, the notion that 'religion' amounts to 'trappings' is no less dogmatic and presumptuous than those smug beliefs ascribed to 'religious people.'

We all have opinions, and it often seems that 'dogma' is just a pejorative term for a body of opinions we don't like, while 'my cool life-philosophy' is how we might regard our own collection of opinions. No one can truthfully claim that they don't have a set of opinions, some of them downright inflexible, about what is and isn't acceptable, what is and isn't true, and so on. Even the most committed nihilist espouses dogma.

To address another point, why would the vast variety of possible beliefs (among them, for example, that the earth is flat) mean that religiousness isn't universal? To me, the fact that people can and do believe just about anything imaginable, argues in favor of human beings as being religious by nature. Sure, human beliefs are myriad and often arbitrary, but that doesn't signify that we're not religious. It demonstrates how incorrigibly religious we are.

We all tend to grab hold of ideas and cling to them stubbornly. Is any one claiming to have transcended that behavior somehow? Can anyone claim to be free of received opinions? I haven't met anyone, liberal or conservative, cool or uncool, avante-garde or reactionary, who isn't swimming in a sea of ideas, most of which are simply taken for granted, unquestionable. You may dislike, and disagree with, traditional religious positions, and see religion as a Bad Thing. Fine, be bold and say so. But don't then pretend to be free of judgements, presuppositions, and prejudices.

It's common these days to consider disdain for religion to be no more than pointing out the obvious. But to regard your own opinion as self-evident seems to me the very essence of dogmatism.

It's the implicit 'I am intellectually liberated, but you are imprisoned by dogma,' assumption which bothers me.

I'm only arguing that we're all in the same boat.
posted by dmcdonald at 6:49 AM on May 25, 2001


gaudeamus said: "I mean, as long as we're talking about how terrible missionaries apparently are, why not bring up some specific examples of how they have manipulated and destroyed these cultures they were trying to convert?"

Well, since you asked, try looking into Philippine history, when Spain sent priests over to make sure the natives would behave by saddling them with Catholic guilt, so Spain (and the friars too, mind you) could steal them blind.
posted by lia at 9:54 AM on May 25, 2001


I don't know Phillipine history very well, but it seems to me that rather than providing something factual and instructive, you're making a sweeping generalization about motives. You really think the missionaries were, in some orchestrated and self-conscious way, cynically trying to inflict guilt in order to extort wealth? How about a little more generosity in your interpretation.... Would you allow that most of them actually believed in an altruistic goal, though perhaps one you consider misguided? I just can't picture the boatloads of avaricious friars, sailing toward the Phillipines, cackling with glee at the gold they'll soon have.

It seems to me possible that political leaders would manipulate the missionary effort for their own gain, but I find it hard to believe that the missionaries themselves, as a group, were so deceitful, so downright irreligious.

I think that missionaries have made some profound and destructive mistakes. But when the criticism of missionaries is so shrill and absolutist, it doesn't advance the anti-missionary argument.
posted by dmcdonald at 10:15 AM on May 25, 2001


"If I say mummies aren't running things, it's because I believe something else is, be it an arbitrary order, or chaos, or some god, however defined--I would make that denial about mummies because I think I have some alternative account, which does explain what sort of world we live in."
This isn't true at all. Because there is an alternative. You could just admit that you have no idea. You could say, "From what I've seen, there's no reason to believe mummies control us all, but I don't know if anything does, or what possibly could."
Yes, we all have ideas, and we're all probably wrong about the majority of what we believe, but religious belief has no basis in rationality. Clearly neither of us can prove a negative statement. You can't disprove that Goblins control the earth from invisible spacecraft, and I can't prove that whatever spiritual belief you have is wrong. But I'm sure they're both as unlikely. The problem is, you seem to think its a good idea to teach your beliefs as fact, and I just live in a private fear of the wrath of the Goblins.
posted by Doug at 11:26 AM on May 25, 2001


dmcdonald: mind explaining what, exactly, is NOT religious? As far as I can tell, every thought that passes through one's head is a religious thought, according to the definition you've been arguing. If that's the case, the word is empty and might as well be discarded, since all it means is "part of human nature".

This is an example of what I'm talking about:
To me, the fact that people can and do believe just about anything imaginable, argues in favor of human beings as being religious by nature. Sure, human beliefs are myriad and often arbitrary, but that doesn't signify that we're not religious. It demonstrates how incorrigibly religious we are.

It sounds like you're arranging your definition of "religion" such that it fits all humans, then using that to argue that all humans are religious, which is a nice little rhetorical trick but not exactly a strong argument.

Here's the Webster's definition of "religion":
"The outward act or form by which men indicate their
recognition of the existence of a god or of gods having
power over their destiny, to whom obedience, service, and
honor are due; the feeling or expression of human love,
fear, or awe of some superhuman and overruling power,
whether by profession of belief, by observance of rites and
ceremonies, or by the conduct of life; a system of faith and
worship; a manifestation of piety."

This sounds pretty good to me. It also provides a clear way to tell what isn't religious.

-Mars
posted by Mars Saxman at 11:49 AM on May 25, 2001


Doug:
you seem to think its a good idea to teach your beliefs as fact
I didn't say that--my primary point all along has been only that there's dogmatism on both sides and that it's inconsistent to criticize missionaries for sincere advocacy of their beliefs.

To address the point about being willing to say you have no idea: there are plenty of matters on which I profess ignorance or agnosticism. But I don't think any of us are agnostic when it comes to first principles. That's all. And as for rationality, even rationality has no basis in rationality. That is, reasoning is always founded on fundamental assumptions, which aren't themselves amenable to proof. So to tell me that religious belief isn't rational isn't very informative. Show me a system of thought which isn't ultimately founded on unprovable assumptions....
posted by dmcdonald at 1:51 PM on May 25, 2001


Mars:
I'm not trying to be rhetorically tricky--I'm trying to convey an opinion. I'm happy to put aside definitions of 'religion' and 'religious,' if you think my definitions are disingenuous.

So let me instead say this, a restatement of what I though was a pretty inoffensive proposition: that none of us lack for opinions on religious matters, and it's therefore inconsistent, not to mention uncharitable, to condemn missionaries as contemptibly dogmatic, while depicting oneself as benign, neutral and somehow free of any baggage on the question of religion.
posted by dmcdonald at 2:03 PM on May 25, 2001


"It seems to me possible that political leaders would manipulate the missionary effort for their own gain, but I find it hard to believe that the missionaries themselves, as a group, were so deceitful, so downright irreligious."

Well, I guess that's why we're having communication problems here -- because you can't imagine that missionaries can do bad things. They can and they have. I'm not saying all missionaries are bad -- I never have -- just trying to make the point being a missionary doesn't automatically invest you with pure conscience, or a conscience as at all, as you would apparently prefer the rest of us believed.

If you were here, I would invite you to look at land titles dating to the Spanish period; in most towns, the Church wasn't just a landowner but the landowner (and if you think they paid for the land, well, I have a bridge I'd like to sell you). And as for political power, it wasn't a pawn of the state, but a full partner -- it takes more than a few boatloads of Guardia Civil to oppress an entire people for three hundred years, my dear. If you don't believe me, you're quite welcome to talk to people from Mexico or Latin American countries, all of whom share the same historical pattern (historical baggage is not a bad word).

(oh, and by the way, Philippines is spelled with one l and two ps. I used in my post directly above yours earlier, so unless you thought I'd spelled it incorrectly, I'm at a loss to explain why you got it wrong)
posted by lia at 3:44 AM on May 26, 2001


because you can't imagine that missionaries can do bad things
We certainly are having communication problems. I very clearly said I thought missionaries had made profound mistakes.

being a missionary doesn't automatically invest you with pure conscience, or a conscience as at all, as you would
apparently prefer the rest of us believed

Please reread my postings. I did not say that being a missionary imputed any particular qualities. I merely said it was a mistake to assume that missionaries, as such, are devious, harsh-minded, or insincere.

As for my mis-spelling of Philippines, it was simple inattentiveness. I noticed right after I posted, that I'd got it wrong. Your tone suggests that you think I'm either priggishly trying to correct your spelling, or maliciously mis-spelling just to be nasty. Come on, be more generous in your assumptions about me. I just wasn't paying attention enough to my spelling. I'm sorry.

On the topic of missionary history in the Philippines, I defer to you--I believe you.
posted by dmcdonald at 3:38 PM on May 26, 2001


Ok. Considering I'm this far down the page, and that this is several days old, I'm guessing what I have to say is not likely to get read, but here goes anyway:

There really is a simple solution to all of this, and it can be explained in quite a simple image.
If people from other countries had the right to go door to door on american soil preaching the word of their god/savior/deity, then I might stand in favor of missionaries.
Imagine a spiritual map like a political map, in which each faction/religion/cult/belief group left a colour behind on that map for each person they influenced spiritually. Before long it would look like hundreds of colours of fire lapping back and forth as one group arives on your doorstep, and sways you to their side; only to be userped by the next group the next day who have better ideas.
Now think about the fact that modern commercialisim has its roots in the engine of religion and its systems of getting followers. There was a time when the freedom of choise in religion was tempered by the god who showed the best tricks and made their deciples the happiest. Greece springs to mind in the ancient pre modern pre christian pre roman era.
So why does this no longer happen freely?
Because people, as kzam said earlier, the Americanization of the planet will continue unabated. The future is not bright when a "free" country merges its religious and state policies.

"Look for dark american skies tonight with storms of self righteous judgement followed by fundimental zelots and cults on into the late evening. This will be followed by a long night of ignorance and crumbling social infrastructers, shortly followed by the final steel fist of control exerted over the people. Sometime on near dawn we will see the disilution of tyranical fashists clothed as democratic sheep and a new more equal world. Im sorry folks, but it looks like its going to be a very very long and Kold ameriKan Knight. That is your christian weather report, goodnight."
posted by Azaroth at 8:48 PM on May 26, 2001


dmcdonald said: To me, the fact that people can and do believe just about anything imaginable, argues in favor of human beings as being religious by nature.

Never said most people aren't religious by nature. And believe it or not, I don't have anything against religion per se. I just said (and am saying) that religion doesn't equal morality, so the majority of people who are religious are not necessarily moral (although they probably are in fact, to some extent anyway).

It's the implicit 'I am intellectually liberated, but you are imprisoned by dogma,' assumption which bothers me.

I don't claim to be morally or dogmatically or intellectually superior to anybody, and I apologise if my statements implied that I do. I didn't mean to use the word "dogma" as a perjorative, but merely as a descriptive. My belief system could be described as dogma, if I ever bothered to codify it in writing. My superiority (if any) lies in the fact that I realize that my belief system is limited and imperfect, and I don't go around trying to push it on others.
posted by RylandDotNet at 9:48 PM on May 27, 2001


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