There are few religions that can claim to be truly undiluted, as most religions have adopted or borrowed aspects of others as they have grown and evolved. Over time, these cultural appropriations have either been forgotten or are simply accepted as now being an integral part of its adoptive parent. However, could it be argued that, under circumstances, cultural appropriation is wrong, or is it a good thing, paving the way for a more united approach to religion as a whole?
The power of Christianity
Possibly the biggest example of cultural appropriation belongs to Christianity. What we know today as the world’s biggest religion is actually made up of a number of rites, traditions, beliefs and stories from other religions. Christianity, in its earliest form, was an offshoot of Second Temple Judaism; the religion that was prevalent during the construction of the second Jewish temple in Jerusalem and its destruction by the Romans in 70AD. However, the two religions soon parted company, splitting over the Christian idea of the Holy Trinity, while the Jews continued to espouse the idea of the oneness of God and completely rejected the idea of God incarnate.
As Christianity gained popularity, it sought to become the most widespread religion in the world, but encountered the strongest opposition from the Pagans. Paganism is widely thought to be the oldest religion in the world, with Pagan worship sites and evidence of rituals dating back as far as Neolithic times. This was the religion that worshipped the forces of nature, rather than a single deity.
In an effort to convert the masses, the Christians of this time absorbed certain aspects of Paganism into their own system of beliefs. For example, the Christian tradition of Christmas was appropriated to fall on December the 25th, which was the date on which the early Pagans celebrated the winter solstice. Easter, too, has its origins in Paganism; it was used to celebrate the return of the goddess Ishtar from the Underworld. Faced with Pagan women who refused to give up the ancient tradition of baking sacred cakes on this date, the Church compromised and blessed the cakes, inscribing them with the sign of the crucifix and making it seem as though they had strong Christian relevance.
The consequences of the wrong intent
This could be cited as an example of when cultural appropriation has a negative connotation, because of the intent behind it. The intent in this instance was not to spread the word about a religion or to acknowledge its existence but, rather, to suffocate one entirely. The fervour that surrounded Christianity’s rise to prominence resulted in accusations of witchcraft and Satanism and some of the worst crimes in the name of religion: the witch hunts. Anyone caught practising ancient Pagan rites was firmly accused of being in league with the Devil and, more often than not, put to death. Despite the fact that Paganism is once again asserting itself as a major player in the religious arena, many Christians still refuse to concede that their overzealous forefathers had a hand in Paganism’s sudden and rapid decline.
However, the Christians aren’t the only ones who borrowed beliefs from other systems. In the Third Century, Buddhism established itself in Ancient China – a move bitterly opposed by the Taoists. After centuries of unrest between the two systems, they finally reconciled themselves with one another – and then the borrowing began.
The Buddhists and the Taoists
The Taoists absorbed the ideas of praying for the dead and the Chinese version of the Christian Holy Trinity. In addition, they drew up liturgies that owe much to the Buddhist Sutras and even took on board the Buddhist notion of Purgatory. Even the structure of worship was appropriated, with the Taoists absorbing the idea of nuns, temples, ritual and priests. The Chinese philosopher, Chu Hsi, remarked that “Buddhism stole the best features of Taoism; Taoism stole the worst features of Buddhism. It is as though one took a jewel from the other and the loser recouped the loss with a stone.”
However, what we are left with is two religions that are striking in their similarity. It is often only their temples and nuns that set them apart and representatives from each are sent to consult on religious matters of either system. Given that both systems are fiercely peaceful, can it be said to be wrong in any way? After all, they now co-exist in peace and often meet to discuss differences in ideology in a way that puts most other religions to shame. In this instance, the absorption and appropriation of cultural beliefs seems to have worked for the greater good.
Most religions have something in common; an appropriation or two that have flown under the radar – so does it really make any difference in the 21st Century? Surely, if religions absorb each other’s ideas, then that means we are coming a step closer to ending the strife between religious groups and creating a universal belief system?
While this might be an ideal, it seems that there will always be those who are opposed to it – particularly if their religious beliefs are all that they have left. The Native American Indian religious leader, No Capo, said that “Our beliefs are very much tied to our culture. We have been stripped of our land, in many cases our languages and our traditional ways of life. Our spiritual systems are all that we have left and we do not appreciate these wannabes taking what is not theirs to take. This is especially so as what they are taking is usually some mish-mash of different native religions that they may have read about in a book or seen in a movie and then go on to proclaim that they follow ‘Native American religion’.”
In Capo’s eyes, the appropriation of religion can only take place if someone is genuinely aligned or prepared to convert to that faith. In a historical sense, there are certain religions that are the only surviving elements of ancient civilisations and, once they are gone, they will be gone forever. Cultural appropriation has its place – but only if it is undertaken with the right intent. Which in itself, is appropriated from Buddhism.