At sixteen and seventeen, I took 200- and 300-level college history courses in East Asian and Russian History. I chose those classes because my high school’s treatment of world history was severely lacking. Our history teacher kept getting shipped out to Afghanistan for combat, so my sophomore year had been spent oscillating between him and a bunch of random substitute teachers who seldom knew the material well.
Rural Missouri used the Texas-approved schoolbooks that taught Old Testament history as if it were true while at the same time teaching us disparaging and often incorrect things about African, Asian, South Asian, and American indigenous practices/history. As the sole non-Christian in the class, I didn’t know the Old Testament, so I actually had to learn the names of people and memorize things for the test.
I spent a fair bit of time reading Gnostic gospels and their commentaries, occult and esoteric texts, and (starting at seventeen) philosophy when I wasn’t trying to juggle readings for those aforementioned college classes targeted at students who were well out of high school. One of the things I learned how to do quite rapidly in my mid-teens — and which I refined and still do quite well now — is making models of history and large-scale cause and effect while simultaneously trying to consider micro-scale events and interpersonal dynamics. Weight is how I conceptualize these things. Most of the way I conceptualize complex topics like historical cause and effect or gods involves mentally following things that are less thoughts than they are impressions of weight and spatial placement.
The thing that preoccupied me in my early twenties was what happened in the reign of Julian Augustus, along with the question of whether or not Christianity’s evangelism, growing power, and nascent ability to religiously cleanse (in the sense of ethnic cleansing) the areas under its political control could have been stopped if he hadn’t died. I sometimes lay in bed at night trying to funnel what I knew about early Christianity through Julian, who bottlenecked everything, and I grappled with the weight of what came after.
This post is not about that thought problem. I started with it because I think the best way to start this — based on some things said on Twitter and elsewhere — is with my own background and experience. I’ve thought deeply about historical trends in conversion violence, which is a huge reason why I support decolonization and what comes along with it, like indigenous language and culture revitalization.
Edward Butler has talked at length on Twitter about the toxic beliefs surrounding the term polytheism that colonialism has instilled in the colonized when the conquered culture is polytheistic. I then said — not in that conversation — that toxic shame is responsible for a lot of things in polytheist communities. We all have to come to terms with the mental artifacts from colonialism, ancestral conversion violence, and the like, but the challenges are going to vary depending on where we are, how recently in ancestral history this violence happened, and what people do — or don’t do — about it.
When I talk about conversion violence and monotheist evangelism, I’m essentially talking about the ideological drive to convert others to one’s monotheistic pan-religion under a One True God, regardless of which religion that is. Typically, one of the drivers for this conversion is a mandate from Heaven that people worshipping other gods in other ways is sinful and that something horrible will happen to them if they don’t convert. In addition, if we look at literalism, the people who refuse to convert after hearing that they aren’t worshipping the One True God are often seen as ritually polluted, or miasmic, to practitioners of the One True God faith.
Biblical literalism and the ritual pollution of apostates/nonbelievers, incidentally, is one of the reasons why I had few/no friends in my very Christian rural Missouri high school. My sinful polytheistic lifestyle actually kept at least one person up late into the night envisioning my eternal torment. That person often pleaded with me to not end up in Hell. Le would have said nothing if le hadn’t cared. At the core of a lot of conversion efforts is compassion turned toxic.
The historical conversion of Europe from polytheism to monotheism offers a model (note: not the) for the emotional responses of people to monotheist evangelism. A lot of people get pissed off. Some people shut down. Others get defensive and try to pacify the aggressor. This is not new information.
Getting pissed off, shutting down, or trying to pacify an aggressor do not work. Anger often leads to violence because people who are all angry together frequently make really bad life choices, including dehumanizing the Other — which can lead to things like people killing kids.
So, surprise: I’m not talking about white supremacy. I’m actually talking about Hindutva.
I decided to talk about Hindutva because I read this piece a few days ago, and it got me thinking actively about things I have mulled over for years at this point.
I only know basic details of how the Muslim conquests oppressed indigenous religions. Most of my experience with Islam (and Muslims) in the USA has been positive. My knowledge comes from understanding the historical path that Christianity took. I understand where some of Hindutva adherents’ anger and pain are coming from. After all, I am a person who has stayed awake at night trying to figure out if Christian imperialism was avoidable, so I have processed a lot of pain. I don’t understand all of it, though, and never will because my lived context is different.
The Hindu population of India (and worldwide) has legit grievances against a number of colonialist (e.g., the British) and religious (i.e., areas under Muslim rule historically where Hindus were treated as second-class citizens; the British; Christian missionary activity) oppressions.
Many people in Hindutva are also really, really homophobic, especially towards lesbian women. I saw the “India” episode of Gaycation and it was the most surreal thing ever to have (on the one hand) a woman trying to arrange a gay marriage for her son and (on the other) women hiding from their families who wanted to lock them up or have them go to conversion therapy. (There are also things that Gaycation did poorly in that episode. Of course an ascetic cultivating non-attachment will have certain opinions on non-procreative desire, and of course that ascetic will attempt to steer people towards behavioral paths that align with those opinions. The problem is that he’s offering gay cures. Anyone can become an ascetic, but homosexuality/same-sex attraction is not curable. Asceticism is not appropriate for everyone where they are right now, and non-straight people who are sexually active need to have viable social pathways available that allow for thriving and community belonging. He should be called out on the real problem.)
A lot of Western polytheists have nominal/real support for Hindutva because the people in it are pious, we know that all Hindus have a giant missionary target on their backs, and many other Westerners look down on polytheists as “primitives” and stoke those fires of shame. These things are all true.
I can’t in good conscience back an ideology that includes homophobia and misogyny and killing kids even if a group that hates idols and polytheism smashed temple statues. I cannot support Hindutva ideology.
No amount of piety cancels out ongoing unjust habits and actions.
Unjust actions also lead to impiety.
For example, casteism leads to Dalits and others being excluded from acting as religious officiants and being fully able to participate in worship even when they meet all other criteria for being an officiant — or harassed if they overcome the barriers and do do it — and then this exclusion becomes weaponized against Hinduism by missionaries, leading to more conversion and shrine-smashing in a vicious cycle. (Note: Gender-wise, there are (rare) cases in which there are theological arguments for restricting some temples’ access. I am not talking about that here. I mean, I went to a women’s college and loved it. It would be hypocritical for me to have a different position.)
Finding out that there was a progressive coalition of Hindus in NYC was a breath of fresh air for me, and I have been super excited to read things they post on social media. Maintaining values of plurality and multiplicity in a world full of gods is really, really important. One can’t do that by closing rank and lashing out at other people. I’m not Hindu, and I can’t speak to Hindu individuals or about them, but I can speak to other Western polytheists, and I can say that it’s really, really important who we make our friends.
Also, Christianity and Islam are here to stay. We’d all do a lot better as non-Abrahamic religious people to actually address solvable problems. We’d do better to realize that what our predecessors tried 2000 years ago, 1500 years ago, 1000 years ago, or 500 years ago didn’t work and that we might learn from these case studies to understand how to develop fully pluralistic societies that can push back against problems like missionary and evangelistic activity or universal-one-true-god-ism.
This kind of stuff is not sexy. There’s this joke that went around the Internet when the Star Trek reboot movie came out in which someone said that the battles, explosions, and action-packed scenes were far better than Star Trek’s previous emphasis on statecraft, negotiation, and diplomacy. Only in a society that doesn’t value soft skills. Only in a society that thinks violence is always the best way to preserve one’s traditions with dignity — that statecraft, negotiation, and diplomacy are not sexy or desirable tools to help us live with one another.
I don’t want this post to be all talk. So, practicalities: I avoid giving money to charities that evangelize because I don’t want to intensify current problems. When others mention charities that I know are problematic, I say something. (Atheists put some effort into curating lists of secular charities, and that’s one resource that I really appreciate.) I tell other people about human rights abuses, evangelistic violence, and what iconoclasm is like for people on the receiving end — because our history books in America glorify iconoclasm in that chapter about the schism between Rome and Constantinople, so people don’t realize that it’s wrong and painful. I assume that most people around me don’t know these things. A lot of this is empathy-based. It is small work, but it’s a start — and small things are important.
Since I mentioned Julian, I’ll close with some verses I wrote over half a decade ago, which I probably intended to turn into something more than a fragment:
The feeling comes when I go
down the highway,
music on the radio.
One song will play.
cities bursting —
all of it disappears.
I see you standing
in the window of some
Troops wait below.
They cry. I weep.
Who you are catches me,
trapping me in the bottleneck’s shaft.
I cannot breathe.
Fingers straining, I try to grasp you.
For a moment our eyes meet,
but when my hand touches
your cloak, you fall back
transparent as smoke and ash
and I am once again
this girl crying
over your broken body.
Note: I edited the title of this post to make it clearer what this was about.
Note 2: I updated this to clarify some of the ways in which extremism harms the worship of gods and altered the paragraph breaks in a few places so the post would flow more easily and the eye would land on places I wanted to emphasize.
Note 3: I reread this post and altered some phrasing because I realized some antecedents were ambiguous, and I want this post to be clear.