Comparative religion

Teaching about religions is always tricky in part because I and most of my students are heavily influenced by the Christian (especially Protestant) idea that the essence of religion is what you believe. Of course there are things besides orthodoxy (common belief) that religions promote such as common practice or common ritual behavior. The standard way of teaching about religion is to talk a lot about belief, but as this 1870 piece from the Atlantic (via Andrew Sullivan) shows there are other ways to do it.

Those who strive to establish a monopoly of labor are accustomed to sneer at the Chinese as “Pagans.” They urge that citizenship ought not to be granted to them, because their religion is different from ours. Yet those who talk in this way make no objection to receiving Irish emigrants and intrusting them with the elective franchise. But is the Buddhist religion, which prevails in China, much more foreign to our customs and our modes of thinking and believing than the Roman Catholic religion is?

The essay is trying to show that the Chinese in America should not be discriminated against because their religion is not in fact barbaric and they are presumably capable of civilization. Well, at least as capable as the Irish. The author, Lydia Maria Child was not a sinologist and I suspect that much of what she wrote would not have been accepted by scholars even at the time. She comes up with a long list of similarities between Catholicism and Buddhism: pilgrimage, buying your way out of purgatory, cults of the saints, relics, monasticism, a pope/dali lama, art that is mostly “grotesque”, an educated class who scoff at the peasant form of the religion, etc. It is actually sort of tricky to figure out what she is doing here. Part of it may be that as a 19th century Protestant she really is blind to how universal a lot of this is and that what really needs to be explained is not that Catholics and Buddhists go on pilgrimages, but that Protestants do not, given that it is one of the most common forms of religious observance around the world. Child was a great campaigner for abolition and woman’s and Native American rights, so I suppose what she is doing here is trying to make the Chinese seem more like “us” and by focusing on practice rather than belief she actually does a pretty good job of it. I could imagine a number of classes where this would be a good thing to assign.

1 Comment

  1. Child did not “come up with” the long list, she just gathered up the hoary stereotypes that would be acceptable to reviewers who were familiar with them andring true with her readers — the stereotypes repeated for centuries since the 16c jesuits wrote about buddhist and catholic similarities as a trick of the devil and soon after the protestants took up the same as proof catholics were not purely xtian as they were , , , Thoreau has Irish as pretty piggy and his description of the children reminds me of equally well-intentioned but still a bit creepy (to us) descriptions of piccaninies (sp?). . .

    But, so saying, your point re maybe protestants are the odd ones is good and one of the types of arguements some of us used to debate national stereotypes (mostly usanian vs japanese) in the 80’s. As a type of rhetoric it is indeed interesting.


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