“It’s because of nightmares”, said the pastor; that’s why kids don’t go to school.” Whilst waiting at an airport departure gate for a flight to Kathmandu, I got into a curious conversation with a Canadian businessman-turned-missionary who talked eagerly of his “mission” in Nepal.
After explaining that I was going there to research the public education system, he was quick to voice his opinion. Notably, he attributed Hindu and Buddhist belief as a causal factor to low educational attainment and high dropout rates in schools.
Specifically, supposed nightmares of snakes (the Hindu god Shiva is often depicted in snake form) and of dead bodies (referring to the common practice of public cremation) led to sleep deprivation which ultimately contributed to low attention-spans in schools. Dropouts among girls were also attributed to “snakes in their bellies”, causing irregular or painful periods.
When I asked why Christian children don’t suffer nightmares of hell, he just laughed and remarked on the transformative power of prayer. He then added that he had personally performed exorcisms on a number of Nepali children, particularly in rural areas in which rates of “demonization” are higher.
Before the conversation could go further, we boarded our flights and he disappeared behind the curtains of the business class section.
While this is clearly a fringe perspective of the Christian faith, it is reflective of a particular brand of Christianity that is making a headway in Nepal. Converts and missionaries alike proudly claim that “…the power of God is being demonstrated through healings [and] exorcisms”.
Such activities are met with a suspicion that only increases the zeal of missionaries, who claim the ‘persecution’ of Nepal’s Christians as akin to that of the early Christian community in the Roman Empire.
In a country that now tolerates different religious practices but has a dim view of active proselytising, all but the most evangelical missionaries have been dissuaded from active conversion. As a result, fringe beliefs and practices such as exorcism and an extreme aversion to the “pagan” idols of Hinduism are particularly pronounced.
For decades, Nepal was known as the world’s only Hindu state. Following the country’s transition from a Hindu monarchy to a secular republic in 2006, Nepal now has one of the world’s fastest-growing Christian populations.
Estimates of the number of converts vary widely. While the official government statistic maintains that 1.5 percent of the population are Christian, other estimates put this number closer to 10 percent and suggest that Hindu activists within the government have purposefully manipulated census figures to downplay the number of Christians in Nepal.
In a country where Hindu, Buddhist and Muslim populations have coexisted peacefully for centuries, the rapid growth of Christianity is causing tensions.
At the extreme end, Hindu nationalists perceive secularism as “…a Western conspiracy to transform Nepal into a Christian country”.
There is also the popular perception that conversion has “…more to do with health, discrimination and poverty than pure belief”. Indeed, well-funded Christian missionaries have a tendency to operate in areas of need that the (predominantly Hindu) government neglect. An estimated 60 percent of converts come from the so-called “untouchable” Dalit caste, which make up only 13 percent of the total population.
The egalitarian message of Christianity resonates among many Dalit communities, who continue to face caste-based discrimination such as being barred from Hindu temples and from interacting with upper castes.
This has caused alarm among Nepal’s Hindu elite, culminating in a provision in the 2015 Constitution that protects the country’s “original” religions of Buddhism and Hinduism by banning proselytising from “non-original” religions. Opinion polls have also consistently shown that the majority of Nepalis are unhappy with the country’s secular status, with roughly half advocating for a return to the status of a Hindu state.
Indeed, debate over the secular nature of Nepal’s Constitution erupted in 2015, in which police had to use water cannons and tear gas to dispel angry Hindu protesters. Christian churches are still not allowed to register as religious institutions but as NGOs, leading to a situation in which many evangelical groups operate under the guise of education charities.
An example of this is a group called Mountain Child, that in 2014 signed a five-year agreement to open schools in rural Nepal. From the start, there were rumours that Mountain Child was a cover for evangelical Christian missionaries engaging in religious conversion and “church-planting” in the mountains.
Their Footstool Project organises short-term mission treks for Christians from the US, focusing on “unreached peoples”, usually ethnic Tibetan Buddhists in the Himalayan Valleys, who are “crying out for help”. A blogger from one of these projects described how people in these regions are “raised the Buddhist way - no affection, no emotion, no love, just empty”, reflecting the opinion of non-Christian Nepalis as souls that need “saving”.
While Nepal’s Hindus and Buddhists have historically incorporated elements of other religions into their beliefs, evangelical groups require that their converts renounce and reject all expression of non-Christian traditions which are often viewed as the handiwork of Satan.
Another missionary was quoted as saying: “If I have a choice between possibly offending you or saying ‘OK, whatever you believe is fine’, but I believe in my heart if you don’t believe in Jesus, you’re going to go to hell; well then, I’m going to take the risk of offending you”.
The rapid growth of Christianity in Nepal is testing its new secular identity, and is fermenting an unprecedented rise in religious tension in a country formerly characterised by religious harmony. It exposes the endurance of caste-based exclusion and marginalisation that the state is quick to deny.
Conversely, it is the state’s reluctance to fully accept freedom of religion that discourages all but the most radical of evangelical Christian groups from operating in Nepal, whose actions so far appear to be feeding a negative cycle and perception of Christianity as a whole.
While in Nepal, I tried to contact the same preacher from my flight. He declined, saying he was too busy touring schools across the country and meeting with Nepalese politicians. It looks like the exorcisms will continue for some time.
Samuel John recently graduated with an MSc in international development studies. Formerly a research intern with Kinder, he is now working as an English teacher in Japan; and continues to write the occasional article for Kinder World
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When we think of “global threats”, we usually imagine terrorist attacks, cyberwars, and weapons of mass destructions. Or maybe, trespassing into the realm of fiction, of James Bond’s Dr. No and other, similar, cats-owning villains.
Obviously, these are all fearsome scenarios and risks (especially Dr.No). However, there’s another “global threat” that is looming above us, even though we probably wouldn’t think of calling it that way. Such a threat is climate change.
Last Tuesday, the Office of the Director of US National Intelligence published its yearly Worldwide Threat Assessment, a hearing of the US Senate Select Intelligence Committee that has occurred since 2006.
In the report, the US intelligence community lists a series of “global threats” that humanity is currently facing. Amidst transnational organized crime, the proliferation of weapons of mass destructions, and online operations to interfere with political elections, we find also — grouped in the section relating to “human security” — the “negative effects of environmental degradation and climate change.”
In particular, the assessment highlights how the increased magnitude of these phenomena is likely to “fuel competition for resources, economic distress, and social discontent through 2019 and beyond.”
Three are the main critical points raised by the report. First off, the intelligence community is concerned by extreme weather events and particularly by how they will affect urban coastal areas in South Asia, Southeast Asia, and the Western Hemisphere.
Secondly, they link the increasing water and food insecurity around the world with the “changes in the frequency and variability” of heat waves, droughts, and floods.
And, finally, the report zooms in on the issue of diminishing Arctic sea ice, highlighting how this problem paves the way for increased competition with Russia and China over access to sea routes and natural resources.
En passant, the intelligence report reminds its readers that Arctic ice is shrinking constantly. “In 2018, the minimum sea ice extent in the Arctic was 25 percent below the 30-year average from 1980 to 2010,” the report warns.
As environmental media outlet Inside Climate News reminds us, The Worldwide Threat Assessment included “climate change” as a global threat to human security also in the past years, so there’s “nothing new under the sun”: the ice is still melting.
However, while other global threats like terrorism are treated as such in the media, climate change is still too often debated not as an imminent threat but as something that, if at all, will strike far in the future. At the opposite, as the 2019 Worldwide Threat Assessment denounces once again, climate changes' effects are already underway.
A year ago, the UK government asked economist Frances Cairncross to conduct an independent review of the challenges high-quality journalism is facing in the country.
Last Tuesday, the Cairncross Review was published, highlighting nine recommendations that the government and regulators ought to follow to help secure the sustainability of journalism in the future.
The recommendations range from investigating the workings of online advertising (aka the Google-Facebook duopoly) to developing a media literacy strategy.
However, the recommendation that attracted my attention the most, given my particular interest in the charitable sector, was number nine.
It reads: “New forms of tax relief: The government should introduce new tax reliefs aimed at (i) improving how the online news market works and (ii) ensuring an adequate supply of public-interest journalism.”
Cairncross is hinting at two tax changes here. The first one is the extension of zero-rating VAT to digital subscriptions and micropayments for online news (currently, the exemption is enjoyed just by print newspapers and periodicals) and the second is granting charitable status to particular types of high-quality, public-interest journalism.
Last June, Cairncross issued a ‘call for evidence’ to gather material for the report and the review reveals that granting charitable status to select news outlets was one of the most frequently raised proposals.
As known, charities benefit from several tax breaks in the United Kingdom so it would be much easier for a news organization with charitable status to attract philanthropic donations that could provide a much-needed additional revenue stream.
However, this is easier said than done. As the report notes, UK’s current charity law is probably incompatible with the role of news organizations since it forbids charities “to undertake certain political activities such as securing or opposing a change in law, policy or decisions affecting the country”.
A solution could then be to add public-interest journalism to the list of charitable causes the 2011 Charities Act set out to advance. But, again, this might take time and be deemed legally too complicated. That’s why the Cairncross report also highlights a “second-best option”: building a journalistic equivalent of the Creative Sector Tax Relief that grants support to creative industries ranging from video-games to film production.
Legal feasibility aside, the indication expressed by Craincross is part of a larger trend that is taking hold in the news industry: non-profit journalism.
Facing shrinking revenue opportunities, several news media startups across the world decide to opt for business models that rely solely on donations, from private individuals or larger foundations.
One of the most notable examples is certainly ProPublica, a Pulitzer-Prize winning newsroom established in New York in 2007 to produce investigative journalism in the public interest.
But media organizations that adopt mixed business models are also considering the idea of attracting philanthropic money to fund in-depth reporting with increasing interest.
Just to give a number, Oxford University’s Reuters Institute for The Study of Journalism found that 12 percent of European publishers saw philanthropy as an “important” income stream in 2019.
Obviously, “philanthrojournalism” is not immune to criticism. How can we make sure that the money comes with no strings attached? And even if we can guarantee that the media outlet retains total editorial control - as in the examples I mentioned above - how could we envision a system where the funding doesn’t necessarily reflect the funder’s interest areas?
These are complex challenges that require bold and imaginative solutions.
Maybe we should think beyond large foundations. In a recent article for The Guardian, journalist Owen Jones contemplates a sort of democratized public subsidy for the whole media industry. His idea, firstly proposed by US media scholar Robert McChesney, consists of the state giving every citizen a yearly allowance of $200 to donate to one or more publications. In Jones’s hypothesis, the allowance would be funded by an annual tax on the advertising industry.
The idea lends itself to an array of criticism. There’s the evident risk, for example, that the funding will just mirror the electorate’s political preferences of the moment resulting in a pro-government press with more money than its competitors.
Regardless, the idea has the merit of being radical and out-of-the-box and that’s the kind of thinking we need in this ongoing brainstorming on the future of journalism.
There are many reasons why people decide to cut animal products from their diet, but the negative health effects of excessive meat and dairy consumption and the enormous environmental impacts of industrial agriculture are popular ones.
However, the suffering of billions of animals each year in factory farming, referred to in a 2015 Guardian article as one of the “worst crimes in history”, is the most powerful motivation for many, including myself.
Refraining from something that causes so much harm and suffering is laudable, but there’s one argument occasionally used in vegan and animal rights campaigns that warrants closer attention – the idea that consuming other creatures is morally wrong in its own right.
Opposing meat eating on ontological grounds – meaning, simply because animals are sentient beings, we shouldn’t eat them – separates humans from nature and prevents truly ethical relationships between humans, animals and the natural world. The late environmental philosopher Val Plumwood coined “ontological veganism” to describe this absolute opposition.
Ontological veganism asserts that beings that count as ethical subjects should not be eaten, in the same way that there’s a widespread taboo about eating humans. While this thinking erects another unhelpful boundary between animals and other life forms, it’s also ironic that the rationale underlying taboos against eating humans is the desire to radically separate humans from other animals.
By framing the consumption of other living beings as an inherent moral wrong, ontological veganism also risks demonising predation. In order to avoid this, a common approach is to “excuse” animal predation by arguing that the latter is part of “nature” while humans, as cultural beings, should be exempt.
Some of us – especially those living in wealthy countries – can indeed choose to opt for vegan products, but this argument reproduces another false dichotomy: nature vs. culture. Life is entanglement, with no clear boundaries between “humans” and other species, or between “nature” and “society”.
"Come among the deer on the hill, the fish in the river, the quail in the meadows. You can take them, you can eat them, like you they are food. They are with you, not for you."
This quote is from the late utopian author Ursula Le Guin, in her novel Always Coming Home. Her idea is akin to Plumwood’s theory of ecological animalism, which seeks to replace human supremacy over nature with mutual and respectful use between humans and other species.
Ontological veganism would frame using or consuming animals itself as inherently exploitative. But consider forms of mutual use seen in symbiotic relationships, such as those between pollinating insects and plants. In such scenarios, use isn’t oppressive or exploitative. It’s the form of use seen within industrial capitalism, where humans and non-humans alike are treated only as a means to an end, that prevents ethical relationships.
Ecosystems and all living beings depend upon mutual use and consumption. Orcas consume fish and other marine mammals, we must consume living vegetable matter at least, and when we die, we become food for a host of microorganisms, nourishing them in turn.
If humans are indeed animals who differ from other species only by degrees rather than kind, then like them, we are food. To deny this is to deny that humans are embedded within the ecosystems they originate from and are sustained by.
The horrific cruelty involved in industrial factory farming reduces living beings to mere profitable commodities. This is why I am a vegan, and it is here where calls for eradicating or at least reforming animal agriculture find firmer ground.
The ways in which animals are currently treated in agriculture represent the exact opposite of respect and mutuality. No wonder Aldous Huxley observed in his poignant ecotopian work, Island, that
"For animals… Satan, quite obviously, is Homo sapiens."
Ecological animalism offers a powerful basis for truly ethical and egalitarian ways of relating to other species. We are all food, and crucially, so much more. We are with and not for one another, and we are all worthy of respect. Go vegan whenever and wherever possible, but be mindful of the underlying rationales involved, lest we reproduce the same harmful dualisms we want to dismantle.