Sunday, January 23, 2011

A Question of Worldview (or two)

I had a few extra slots in my schedule after finishing classes for my major, so I decided to take a fun class on ancient Chinese religion.  (I have a kind of weird idea of “fun.”)  My professor grew up in China but studied in India, which apparently led to some interesting cultural interactions.

According to my professor, Indians almost always asked him two main questions, which I think are very revealing about Indian culture and worldview and how it differs from American culture.  The first was “Why don’t Chinese people believe in God?” and the second was, “Why did the Chinese change from a Communist economy to the one they have now (which encourages business but still has tight governmental controls in many areas)?”  I don’t think either of these questions would be asked in America for a number of reasons. 

I would be quite surprised if an American asked a Chinese person why the Chinese don’t believe in God because, although the majority of Americans believe in God, atheists are plentiful and vocal enough that most of us have been exposed to them and don’t find their views too surprising.  India, by contrast, is one of the most religious nations in the world, so a country where the majority of people do not believe in God would seem extremely strange to them.  Also, Americans would be unlikely to raise the topic of religious differences with a complete stranger because these discussions get so heated so quickly.  One thing I learned in China is that although Americans have a reputation for being very blunt and straightforward, we actually have a lot of taboos that do not exist in other countries.  I do know some people who would ask a complete stranger why they hold to their religious beliefs, but they are considered the exception rather than the rule.

Another factor may be the pervasive influence of secularism even among religious believers.  We tend to consider one’s religious beliefs (or lack thereof) to be a personal matter that it would be very rude to question.  This is even more the case when the beliefs in question are shared by most members of society, because then it becomes a “cultural difference” which we are very interested in respecting.  The Indians, on the other hand, have a robust religion that they expect to be a part of public life.  As a Christian who believes Hinduism to be false (a phrase which should be redundant but isn’t), I have somewhat mixed feelings about this.  I completely disagree with their answers to religious questions, but at least they recognize the importance of these questions, unlike many in America.

The question about why China switched to a semi-Capitalist economy surprised my professor as much as it did me.  The simplest answer is that Communism wasn’t working.  It had resulted in a stagnant economy and massive starvation, particularly when it was strictly enforced, a policy ironically called the Great Leap Forward.  My teacher explained to the Indians that the Chinese wanted to live a more comfortable, prosperous lifestyle, and that the best way to achieve that was to allow free trade.

This seems perfectly understandable to me, and (I assume) to any other American, but it did not make sense to Indians steeped in a Hindu worldview.  Hinduism believes that the material world is an illusion and that the goal of life is to let go of this illusion and become one with spiritual reality.  This means that the Hindus considered pursuing material wealth, as the Chinese were doing, both foolish and immoral.

Although this conversation took place between proponents of two worldviews neither of which I hold, I thought it was interesting to see the way philosophical and religious ideas played out in this bit of cultural interaction. 

1 comment:

  1. Peter Berger, a specialist in the sociology of knowledge, once said that if Indians were the most religious people in the world and Swedes the least religious, America was a nation of Indians ruled by Swedes. I'm not sure how that fits your post, but the blog made me think of the quote.