Mahadev, “Economies of Conversion and Ontologies of Religious Difference”

Mahadev, Neena. 2018. “Economies of Conversion and Ontologies of Religious Difference: Buddhism, Christianity, and Adversarial Political Perception in Sri Lanka.” Current Anthropology 59(6): 665-690.  

Conflicts over conversion often involve divergent logics about religious publicity and persuasion. Shortly after the turn of the millennium, Sri Lankan Buddhists began expressing renewed hostility toward Christians, who are seen as “unethically” converting Sri Lankans away from their native religions. They see the material accoutrements of Christian grace as estranging Buddhists from righteous, karmic inheritances. Distinctive economies of religious persuasion are perceived to engender differences in the essential character of persons. Buddhist nationalists tend to take evangelical Christian economic and religio-moral inclinations (prosperity gospels, charitability, and expansionism) as malignant attributes of Christian personhood (greed, zeal, misguided forgiveness, fraudulent economic manipulation). Anti-conversion discourses paint conversion to Christianity as an insidious socialization process that threatens Buddhism and generates fraudulence and anti-nationalism. These anxieties over religious difference crystallized in allegations that a Sinhala convert to Christianity—a businessman and philanthropist—was culpable for the death of a prominent Buddhist monk. The iconic conversion of the alleged culprit, seen alongside prior conversion trends, makes evident a periodized history of “pragmatic” conversions (a) from Buddhism to Christianity (colonial era), (b) from Christianity back to Buddhism (decolonization), and (c) from Buddhism to charismatic Christianity (during “nationalization” of the economy amid global neoliberalization). Religio-economic affinities are split along partisan lines in Sri Lanka, thereby intensifying the conflictual interplay between evangelical conviction and nativist skepticism.

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