Religion, Western Perceptions of Traditional Religions

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Religion, Western Perceptions of Traditional Religions

The colonization of the Americas, Africa, India, and Southeast Asia brought European Christians in contact with other religious groups never before known to the West. Historians and anthropologists have given considerable attention to the ways this encounter between peoples of different religious traditions unfolded. Western perceptions of traditional religions initially depended upon a Christian framework for understanding variations in religious beliefs and practices, which often resulted in the characterization of non-Christian religions as somehow unfit to be called religions or to be the work of the devil. At other times, Western observers romanticized and incorporated some components of traditional religions into Western philosophical and religious systems. Yet no matter the perception, the imaginative and actual interactions between disparate religious traditions transformed all involved parties.

Christian missionaries, philosophers, and explorers were most responsible for the creation of popular perceptions of traditional religions throughout periods of colonialism, all of which were contingent upon social and cultural changes over time and in particular places. These Western perceptions, however, rarely encapsulated the religious experiences of people in full. What is more, interaction with Westerners or conversion to Christianity rarely generated a total destruction of traditional religious beliefs and practices. Instead, through a process of accommodation and adjustment, many aspects of traditional religions survived the initial period of colonization and continue to demonstrate themselves in the twentieth century, but not without immeasurable changes.


In 1492 Christopher Columbus (1451–1506) and his entourage of Spanish sailors landed on the Caribbean island of Guanahani and thus initiated a massive and destructive encounter with non-Western peoples in North America. The Spanish, under the sanction of both the Roman Catholic popes and the Spanish monarchs, arrived with the dual goal to Christianize and civilize the native inhabitants of the New World. Such missionary ideals, however, took well over a half century to become even haphazardly implemented by the Spanish. During the sixteenth century, Bartolome de Las Casas (1474–1566), a Dominican missionary to New Spain, criticized Spaniards for killing, terrorizing, afflicting, torturing, and destroying the native peoples, who he considered to be by nature the most humble, patient, and peaceable of human beings. Indeed, it took the intervention of Pope Paul III (1468–1549) to officially pronounce that Native Americans were human beings worthy of conversion to Christianity. Franciscan missionaries provided the primary impetus for converting native peoples all over New Spain. They established mission settlements in order to indoctrinate native peoples in Christianity and thus purge them of what the missionaries perceived to be satanic and superstitious beliefs and practices. Franciscans also worked hard to repress the liberal sexuality of many native groups and then reorganize their societies based on European and Christian models.

French explorers brought a similar missionary zeal to the North American colonies of Canada. During the 1530s, Jacques Cartier (1491–1557) led an expedition through the waterways of Newfoundland and Prince Edward Island, and there referred to the god of the Stadaconans as a wicked spirit with deceptive powers over native peoples. However, it was not until the founding of Quebec in 1608 that the French Crown effectively supported the advancement of Catholic missions to native inhabitants of the Great Lakes region. Recollects and Jesuits began arriving in New France soon thereafter. Recollect missionaries, also known as Gray Robes, considered all native peoples to be so brutish and savage that it was futile to attempt conversion until they were properly civilized. They tried to transform the Huron people into Frenchmen by forcing them to live in small enclaves known as reductions. Jesuit missionaries, also known as Black Robes, differed from the Recollects in their consideration of all native peoples as innately good and civil. The Jesuits also demonstrated a willingness to convert Hurons without frenchifying them. Instead, they decided to live as traveling itinerants or temporary inhabitants of native communities far removed from French settlements. Such a total immersion brought the religions of the Jesuits and the Hurons in close contact with each other. Yet while Jesuits attempted to adapt Catholicism to native idioms, they also saw such adaptations as a necessary step toward conquering native superstitions and the religious authority of shamans.

English Puritans founded the colonies of Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay during the 1620s and 1630s. These Protestant peoples brought with them the perception of native peoples as suffering from savagery and barbarism. The Protestant settlers associated Native American forms of ritual with those practiced by Roman Catholics, and thus referred to both traditions as idolatrous. Yet they also believed that native peoples were easily susceptible to Christian education and conversion. This impression lasted well into the eighteenth century, and especially the notion that missionaries had to civilize the savages before converting them to Christianity. The English process of civilizing and converting native peoples required that the religious and social habits of native peoples be reduced to the level of false religion. It also required that native peoples leave their customary lifestyles and enter into the strictly ordered confines of praying towns. John Eliot (1604–1690), the leading English missionary of the seventeenth century, popularized this form of civilizing and Christianizing native peoples, a form very similar to that of the Spanish missions. Conversion to Christianity was necessary for the elimination of what was seen as demonism, Satanism, and devil worship in native rituals and beliefs.

By the nineteenth century, the conversion of Native Americans to Christianity was widespread. Many European inhabitants of the Americas, however, continued to question the extent to which native beliefs and practices could be incorporated into Christian systems. Many believed that Native Americans lacked the essential human qualities necessary for religious understanding. Native ceremonial practices received considerable attention from European observers, especially the popularization of the Lakota Ghost Dance in the Great Plains of North America. A Native American prophet and visionary named Wovoka (1858–1932) instructed fellow American Indians to perform a ceremonial dance in preparation for the Second Coming of Christ. Christian missionaries and federal officials became concerned about the native religious movement. In 1890 tension ultimately turned to violence at Wounded Knee, where the United States military killed 250 women and children. The legacy of Lakota religion remained present throughout the twentieth century. Black Elk (1863–1950), an Oglala Sioux holy man, demonstrated how Catholicism and native religious traditions complemented each other, whereas members of the American Indian Movement laid siege to the village of Wounded Knee in 1973 in an effort to raise awareness of their civil rights concerns.


Slave traders and Catholic missionaries from Portugal landed on the west coast of Africa during the fifteenth century. They brought with them very little knowledge of traditional religions on the Dark Continent. Catholic missionaries of the Capuchin order quickly recognized the difficulty in converting Africans without first gaining the support of African monarchs. For this reason, European priests and African kings often acted out of diplomatic and political necessity. As missionaries serving at the pleasure of African kings, Capuchins had to tread more softly than they would have liked when it came to the total conversion of Africans to Christianity. Africans, as a result, largely controlled the commingling of Catholicism and traditional religions, especially in relation to spirit worship, religious specialists and healers, rites of passage, and religious icons. The willingness to adapt Catholicism to traditional African religious systems, however, did not mean that missionaries thought favorably of African religions. In fact, when it was possible to get the support of a strong African-Christian leader, missionaries waged severe assaults on what they considered to be heathenish, pagan, and sinful abominations.

The political and economic alterations of the European Reformation allowed for a Protestant missionary presence in Africa. This new evangelization coincided with the explosive growth in the Atlantic slave trade. The correlation between missions and trade, though not always in complete accord, was evident in both Dutch and British ventures during the eighteenth century. Thomas Thompson (1708–1773), the first Anglican missionary sent to what was known as the Gold Coast, tried and largely failed to convert Africans to Christianity. Many Africans, upon identifying all Europeans as Christians, could not reconcile the ideas espoused by Thompson and other missionaries with the actions of European slave traders. Further south along the coast of Africa, Europeans of all religious backgrounds encountered the people of the Cape, also known as Hottentots, during the seventeenth century. Many observers of these native peoples disputed the legitimacy of the Hottentot religion. In fact, many Europeans refused to even recognize the beliefs and practices of Hottentots as religious, instead choosing to refer to them as beasts and savages devoid of reason. It was not until the establishment of a Dutch settlement at the Cape during the 1650s that Europeans recognized Hottentots as moon worshipers.

The international slave trade altered the traditional religions of Africa to an incalculable degree. Historians and anthropologists, however, have identified survivals of African religious beliefs and practices in both Africa and the Americas. The enslavement of Africans set in motion a series of ruptures in individual lives and communities. Enslaved persons experienced the Middle Passage from Africa to North America, South America, or the Caribbean islands. The British, alone, brought 1.5 million to the Caribbean, and another 500,000 to North America. Upon arrival, enslaved persons were sold to slaveholders without respect for family bonds or ethnic identification. Traditional religious systems, therefore, rarely survived the fragmentation of the slave trade in full. However, once settled into new slave communities either on plantations or in cities, enslaved Africans generated new religious systems that incorporated many components of African traditional religions, especially herbalism and conjuring.

Enslaved Africans also experienced a new wave of Christian missionary activities in the American colonies. Many Anglicans, Moravians, Baptists, and Methodists attempted to convert the enslaved within the British colonies of North America and the Caribbean, often despite the unwillingness of slaveholders to allow for such attempts. The interaction between European and African religious traditions created new forms of Christianity that incorporated music, dance, and spirit possession. So, too, did Catholic priests convert, or at least baptize, many enslaved persons in French and Spanish colonies. The mixture of French and Spanish Catholicism with African religious traditions produced the religions of Vodou and Santeria.


In 1498 the explorer Vasco de Gama (1460–1524) led a Portuguese expedition to the port city of Calicut in southern India. The first Catholic missionaries followed soon thereafter. However, they did not immediately refer to the traditional religion of India as Hinduism or Buddhism. It took centuries of Western encounters with the people of India to gather a comprehensive understanding of their many and diverse religious systems. Roberto Nobili (1577–1656), a Catholic missionary, exhibited an uncommon willingness to interact with the people and consume the culture of India. He studied the languages of India, translated the Catholic catechism into Tamil, and transcribed Indian texts, all with an effort to find Christian-like components of Indian religions. Many Catholic missionaries and travelers compared the idea of the Brahman, or the supreme deity, with the Christian godhead, and they compared the Brahmans, or the members of the highest caste in Indian society, with Catholic priests. The Indian texts of the Vedanta and Upanishads also appealed to missionaries because of their similar investment in sacred texts such as the Bible. Protestant missionaries tended to compare Indian religions with Roman Catholicism in derogatory ways.

European philosophers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries also contributed to the public perception of Indian religions. Voltaire (1694–1778), the French philosopher of the Enlightenment, viewed India as the cradle of world religion and civilization. Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) described Indian religions as once the purest of religions that was now spoiled by superstitions. Some Romantic philosophers from Germany highlighted the pantheism of Indian religions, or the idea that all things were united in one Supreme Being. The German Romantics then used their perception of Indian religions to criticize the science-based philosophy of the Enlightenment in Europe. Some scholars have identified August Wilhelm Schlegel (1767–1845), a leading spokesperson for Romantic philosophy, as the first professional Indologist. Even the most influential of German philosophers, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831), incorporated his perception of Indian religion and philosophy into his understanding of world history. For Hegel, India was the cradle of civilization, but he saw the progress of civilization as moving from the East in ancient India to the West in contemporary Europe.

Interestingly, the term Hinduism did not enter the common parlance of Europe until the nineteenth century. Friedrich Max Muller (1823–1900), an Oxford professor, translated a six-volume edition of the Rig Veda, an important Indian text, whereas another Oxford professor, Sir Monier Monier-Williams (1819–1899), wrote the book Hinduism in 1877 for a series entitled Non-Christian Religious Systems. Afterward, a large portion of Europeans began to regard Hinduism on par with the other world religions of Buddhism, Judaism, and Confucianism. Yet, according to Monier-Williams, most Indians did not recognize Hinduism as their religious system. It was not until the creation of Pakistan and the independence of India in the 1940s that Indians started to consider themselves Hindus on a massive scale.

By the 1620s, Antonio de Andrade (1580–1634), a Jesuit priest from Portugal, crossed the Himalayan Mountains north of India and entered into Tibet. Yet instead of recognizing Tibetan religion as a form of Buddhism, Andrade tended to notice similarities between Tibetan religion and Catholicism, such as the idea of the Trinity, the sacraments of baptism and confession, and the performance of exorcisms. He turned his observations into a book, which was soon translated into Spanish, Italian, French, German, Flemish, and Polish. The Italian Jesuit Ippolito Desideri (1684–1733) followed Andrade a century later in what he described as the false sect of the highly curious religion observed in Tibet. He considered it his responsibility to study the religion of Tibet in order to logically refute their claims and convert them to Catholicism. Protestant observers, and particularly the British, also recognized similarities between Roman Catholicism and traditional Tibetan religion. However, whereas Catholics looked with favor on these findings, Protestants meant for such features to prove their illegitimacy. British explorers, in particular, likened the Dalai Lama to the pope, the city of Lhasa to Rome, Tibetan monasteries to Catholic monasteries, and Tibetan rituals to the Catholic mass. Non-Catholic observers, in addition to the negative associations with Catholicism, also perceived of some components of Tibetan religion with favor, including its social organization, diplomatic acumen, and rationality.

The Western attraction to Hindu and Buddhist traditions has resulted in any number of novel manifestations throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862), the famous American transcendentalist, brought the Bhagavad Gita with him on his now-famous stay at Walden Pond, which inspired the words, "The pure Walden water is mingled with the sacred water of the Ganges." The public notoriety of Hinduism reached a pinnacle during the 1893 World's Parliament of Religions at Chicago. Swami Vivekananda (1863–1902), a Hindu mystic, became an international celebrity after he spoke on several occasions before the parliament about the commonalities and discrepancies between Christianity and Hinduism. In an illuminating statement, Vivekananda admitted that it was difficult for an Indian representative to request humanitarian assistance from Christians because of the Christian interpretation of Hinduism as heathenism. In a similar fashion, the fourteenth Dalai Lama (b. 1935) of Tibet has captured the attention of many Westerners. The exiled Buddhist leader has redefined the Western perception of Tibetan Buddhism, mixing mysticism and contemplative practices with political interests and nationalism. Free Tibet bumper stickers and popular publications such as the Tibetan Book of the Dead have contributed to Western perceptions of Buddhism in both North America and Europe.

To the east of India and Tibet, in what is now referred to as Southeast Asia, the religions of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam form one of the most religiously diverse regions in the world. In 1511 Portuguese explorers attacked the port of Malacca in an effort to disrupt Muslim traders. Dutch, British, French, and Spanish expeditions followed soon thereafter, making contact with the peoples of Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, Indonesia, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, and the Philippines. The Spanish capture of Manila in 1571 allowed for an extensive Western assessment of traditional religion and the large-scale conversion of the Filipino population to Roman Catholicism. Countries such as Thailand, Burma, and Cambodia remained Buddhist countries despite the best efforts of British missionaries and colonists. Portuguese Catholics and Dutch protestants encountered the syncretic religious cultures of Java and Bali during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The resilience of Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, and traditional Indonesian religions made it difficult for Western missionaries intent upon the conversion of the island peoples. And even where Protestant missions were somewhat successful, in places such as the Molucca Islands of the late twentieth century, religious violence often developed between Muslims and Christians.

During the 1950s, over four centuries after the European colonization of Southeast Asia, the anthropologist Clifford Geertz (b. 1926) performed extensive research on the traditional religions of Indonesia, and particularly the religious beliefs and practices of Java and Bali. His perception of traditional religions lacked the missionary zeal of the past, relying instead on an emerging body of work in the sociological, psychological, and anthropological study of religion. Geertz, like his academic predecessors Max Weber (1864–1920), Emile Durkheim (1857–1917), Sigmund Freud (1856–1939), and Bronislaw Malinowski (1884–1942), looked to traditional religions in Africa, India, and Southeast Asia for insight into the origins and patterns of religions worldwide and throughout history. Geertz defined religion as a cultural system based on rituals and symbols that gave meaning to life for its participants. He did not ask questions of value, legitimacy, or truth when examining religious traditions of Southeast Asia. Instead, at least ideally, he attempted to interpret traditional religious systems on their own terms and in their own settings, all the while admitting that the process of interpretation always reveals just as much about the observer as the observed.

see also London Missionary Society; Missionaries, Christian, Africa; Religion, Roman Catholic Church; Religion, Western Perceptions of World Religions; Religion, Western Presence in Africa; Religion, Western Presence in East Asia; Religion, Western Presence in Southeast Asia; Religion, Western Presence in the Pacific.


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Religion, Western Perceptions of Traditional Religions