Missionary Activity and Secularism: Pope's Visit

by David Frawley

Secularism is based upon a separation of church and state, removing religious control over the government. It arose to counter the influence of the church on politics and the religious sanction given to kings and their armies during the Middle Ages. Secularism grants freedom of religion to all citizens. It recognizes that many different religions exist and that people should be free to follow any or none of these. It regards differences in religion like those of race, language or culture, as incidental more than fundamental, and as involving the private life rather than the political sphere.

Opposite to secularism, both in ideas and in practice, is missionary activity, which is the attempt to convert the world to a single religious belief. Starting from the Christian takeover of the Roman Empire in the fourth century, European governments have used their influence to promote the conversion process. In time this gave rise to the Inquisition and to colonial efforts to convert native peoples. It resulted in a history of violence and genocide on a global scale that literally devastated the populations of entire continents. Missionaries used the political and military might of Christian states to discredit other religious beliefs, conquer other religious groups and destroy their holy places.

While modern secular Western states have removed overt religious influences from their governments, they have not removed the influence of religion altogether. In a democratic society any group that can produce votes becomes valuable. Western political leaders cultivate good relations with Western religious leaders in order to access their political goodwill.

Western governments today favor their majority religions in foreign affairs. It is obvious to see how much more sensitive Western Christian countries are to the welfare of the Christian community overseas than they are to the welfare of the non-Christian community. Religious oppression of Christians is quickly highlighted in the Western media, while oppression of non-Christians is seldom regarded as newsworthy. The entire history of Christian conversion activity is forgotten, as if the missionaries were only charity workers with no overt religious agenda!

A good example is Robert A. Seiple, the American ambassador-at-large for International Religious Freedom. Is the man a seasoned diplomat, sensitive to other cultures and religions, as would be expected for the post? No, he was for eleven years the head of World Vision, the largest privately funded relief and development organization in the world, which is a Christian charity and connected to various missionary activities.

Seiple was formerly President of Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is a Christian missionary, which on the Protestant side is dominated by the Baptists. A person with such a background is inappropriate for the role that he has been given, which would be like giving it to a Catholic priest. It reflects an American religious bias not a diplomatic sensitivity and objectivity. Not surprisingly, his report on religious freedom in the world highlights oppression of Christians but ignores oppression perpetrated by Christians, as if Christian groups were entirely innocent of any wrong doing anywhere!

Even the secular West will bow to religious influences when it deems necessary. The result is that missionary activity, which was the main arm of the religious state, is learning to hide itself under the guise of modern secularism, working to subvert it from behind the scenes now that its overt control is a thing of the past.

Let us not forget its history. Missionary activity first arose in a religious state as its main means of expansion. Missionary activity per se is the extension of a medieval state attitude - that there is only one true religion like only one true king. It has had a long alliance with colonialism and with racism, with colonial armies marching with priests and friars, denigrating non-White religions as pagan and barbaric.

Missionary activity, therefore, is the very denial of secularism, which it has regarded as its enemy. The missionary movement holds that only one religion is true for humanity. It creates funds and personnel to convert the world to the one true faith. It targets the poor and uneducated who are vulnerable to favors. It does not work through reason or through friendly debate but through every sort of persuasion and intimidation, friendly or unfriendly.

Secularism and Missionary Activity in the New World Order

The problem for new democracies of the post-colonial era like India is that foreign missionaries use the very freedom of a secular state to promote their anti-secular agendas. A free state means that missionary activity is allowed and that conversion is tolerated. In a colonial state, one religion, that of the foreign rulers was favored at the expense of the others. In a free state, Western missionary religions can use the greater wealth of Western countries, which perpetuates their advantage. They also manipulate the Western dominated world media for their cause. For this reason, a Hindu Swami in India is ill equipped in terms of money and media facing Christian missionary forces in his own country. He is dealing with the multi-national conversion business that has tremendous resources at its disposal, to use with little scrutiny or accountability.

The very groups that denied or limited religious freedom during their colonial rule now want to make sure that religious freedom is maintained in their former colonies, not because they honor diversity in religion, but to maintain their conversion efforts and to sustain the minorities that they carved out by their missionary activity. Such an action is hypocritical to say the least. It doesn't represent a change of heart by the missionaries. It is not a sign of their new secularism but merely a convenient way to keep their agendas going in the changing world order.

Christianity is today, and has historically been, an anti-secular religion. Christian churches may tolerate the laws of living in secular countries, but they have not yet adopted a secular acceptance that many religious and spiritual paths can be valid and that no one religion has the last word. One could argue that any religion based upon an exclusive belief, thinking that only its religion, bible, prophet or savior is true, is inherently anti-secular.

Islam is more obviously anti-secular than Christianity because it generally has no separation of church and state. Christianity was compromised by a resurgence of earlier Greco-Roman pagan ideas of pluralism and democracy, but though softened, has still not given up its goal of converting the world. Christianity needs to go forward with its reformation by giving up its exclusivism and apologizing for its history of intolerance. The Islamic world needs a similar reformation to begin as it stands much where Christianity was at the end of the Middle Ages, still harshly controlling the minds and lives of its people and preventing any religious diversity from arising.

The Pope's Visit

The Pope's upcoming visit to India is a product of the same old anti-secular and intolerant Christian conversion agenda, which has not fundamentally changed throughout the centuries. The Pope can be described, though perhaps unflatteringly, as a Christian chauvinist leader encouraging massive conversion efforts to eliminate non-Christian beliefs. He is not a bringer of peace but a destroyer of culture. The Pope has never stated that any other religion is as good as Christianity. He has never said that Jesus is not the only Son of God. He has never said that salvation can come from outside the church or apart from Jesus. He has made statements of brotherhood, peace and tolerance but has not removed the barrier of religious intolerance and exclusivity that upholds these.

All Hindus, including the so-called fundamentalists, have not made such chauvinistic statements as the Pope. They recognize the existence of many religions and of many paths. They are not promoting the idea that Hinduism alone is the true path and that non-Hindus must go to hell. They are not insisting that everyone in the world become a Hindu. They are not asking everyone to bow to Kailash or Kashi.

Recently Ashok Singhal, head of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), asked the Pope to "announce that Christianity is one of the ways that can lead to salvation and not that Christianity is the only way to salvation." The newspapers called Singhal a "hardline" Hindu leader but did not accuse the Pope of being rigid in his views. Yet Singhal accepts a pluralism to religion and salvation but the Pope does not. In terms of ordinary religious discourse Singhal has more liberal views than the Pope does but he is called a hardliner because he is questioning the missionary process! A very statement asking the Pope to affirm religious tolerance is itself styled intolerant!

In other words, Hindus should tolerate the effort to convert them but it is intolerant for Hindus to question the motives or ideas of those who denigrate their religion. That such statements are accepted in the modern media shows how deep-seated the anti-Hindu and pro-missionary bias is.

Make no mistake about it. The Pope is not a friend of Hindus. His visit is organized to promote his evangelization activities, his targeting Hindu India for Christian conversion. The Pope wants to convert Hindu India to Christianity. He would be happy if all Hindu temples were abandoned in favor of churches. He would be happy if all the swamis, sadhus and yogis either became Christian priests or disappeared altogether. He has no praise for a Ramana Maharshi, a Sri Aurobindo, a Ramakrishna, or a Shankaracharya. He does not honor the Vedas and the Gita like the Bible. He does not allow pujas to the Gods or the chanting of Om in churches. He has nowhere apologized for the use of the Inquisition in India or elsewhere. He has nowhere said that Hindus won't go to hell. He may claim to honor India's spiritual traditions but not to the extent that it requires him giving up his efforts to convert Hindus.

Let all Hindus therefore ask the Pope to say that he respects Hinduism, that Hinduism can also lead people to the ultimate goal of life, and that Catholic efforts to convert Hindus are a mistake. Let the Pope repeat the mantra of samadharma samabhava, that all dharmic teachings are in accord, and ekamsad vipra bahudha vadanti, that the enlightened seers declare the One Truth in various ways.

Let the Pope have a conference in Rome and bring the main Hindu religious leaders to dialogue with Catholic leaders on the nature of God, consciousness, the universe and immortality. Let such dialogue occur above board, out in the open and with the educated people in the field, rather than a secretive Christian targeting of poor Hindus. This would be the correct procedure if discovery of truth was the goal of such encounters.

If the Pope will not do these things then let us call him an intolerant and chauvinistic religious fundamentalist, which is what such behavior would be called in a Hindu. And let Hindus stop bowing out of respect to the Pope, prostrating to a religious leader who does not respect their religion, who is in fact plotting its downfall.

It is time for Hindus to take the offensive on religious tolerance and freedom, even if it means confronting the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church has been in India for centuries. There is no reason why Catholic leaders can't appreciate the Vedas, Upanishads or modern Hindu teachers as having insights as great as those of Jesus. And this should be done starting with the Pope, not with some Indian priest that has no real power in the church or influence outside of India.

Let the Christians in India not appeal to Hindu tolerance but show their own tolerance and acceptance of other faiths by saying that though we believe in Christ we also accept Rama, Krishna and Buddha as sons of God. Let them declare a unity of religions that includes Hinduism and Buddhism as true faiths and does not require placing Jesus at the top for everyone. While Christians in India are unlikely to do this, the challenge for them to do so is bound to impact on their community and cause a deeper introspection.

As long as we hold that only one religion is true, that it must convert the world, and that other religions must be false we are not good citizens with respect for all, much less secular people. We are promoting an agenda of intolerance and violence that must cause conflict and suffering, even if we are doing so in the name of God. If we truly honor the Divine, we will recognize the Divine Self in all and will afford each individual their own perspective on truth and their own search for enlightenment, not to be circumscribed according to a church or a creed. If the West is so modern and enlightened it should stop exporting its intolerant medieval religions and become open to the great wisdom of the yogis and sadhus of India. Then a real basis for religious tolerance and spiritual growth could occur without obstruction.


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