I am aware that as statements of cultural insensitivity go, the misplacement of books on Eastern Religions may seem fairly mild. I do not know of any litigation, legislation, or protest groups with their danders up that have attempted to address the small insult to the religious traditions of East Asia that American booksellers renew every time they open their doors. I also recognize that by making these words available to any naive Tom, Dick, Harry, Susan, Katrina, Bubba, Lily, Ferdinand, Zoe, or Chloe who happens to pass through this wildly popular web site that I may be responsible for the largest brou-ha-ha in American culture since the release of Windows '95. Nonetheless, this fire in my belly cannot be quenched! This restless yearning churning inside of me to breathe free will not be ignored! I will no longer remain silent while the dreams of countless orphan souls are locked away in the dark, damp, very smelly asylum of intolerance! In short, I cannot keep my big mouth shut, so here goes.
The average American bookstore has no idea where to place books on East Asian religions. A bookstore could easily have one section on religion divided up into subsections for each religion, but this simple arrangement is almost never used. If you look in a bookstore's "religion" section, you will find Bibles and other books about Christianity, but nothing about the many other religions of the world. American booksellers arrange their stores as if Christianity is the only religion that exists. Even Judaism is often put in a separate section labeled "Judaica". It is unsettling, to say the least, that bookstores categorize Christianity as religion but are unwilling to grant the same recognition to the tradition upon which Christianity is based. Islam is also often placed outside of religion, in spite of the fact that it is the most rapidly growing religion in the United States today. The religions of eastern Asia and India are set even further away from the category of religion than Judaism and Islam.
To make up for their rejection of Eastern traditions as religions, bookstores expend a great deal of creative effort to come up with new categories in which to include them. Two of the more popular section titles for East Asian religions in bookstores are "Eastern Philosophy" and "Eastern Thought". These labels seem neutral enough at first, but when compared to the term "religion", it becomes clear that these titles are meant to imply a lower status. Religion, after all, is commonly understood to be based on a divine message of truth. "Philosophy" and "Thought", on the other hand, are regarded by most people as just the opinions of some poor guys who don't get out enough. By dichotomizing the religions of the world into these two groups, American bookstores are sending an implicit message that Christianity is truth and that Eastern religions are merely curious intellectual diversions.
Even worse is the inclusion of Eastern religions in the categories of "New Age" and "Occult". Hinduism, Buddhism, Shinto and the other religions of East Asia should not be grouped with Wicca, neo-paganism, and astrology. A book on the Ramayana does not belong next to a book on Tarot cards. It is true that some New Age movements have borrowed from Eastern traditions, but that does not mean that those traditions are part of New Age. To call Hinduism, for example, a New Age religion is like calling Judaism a form of Christianity. Eastern religions are ancient traditions based on complex and systematic beliefs. New Age is a new, primarily Western group of widely varying beliefs that depends heavily on the beliefs of other religions and has yet to develop a coherent definition of its own.
The term "Occult" is also an inappropriate label for Eastern religions, because it implies religious practice that is either evil or an alternative to a dominant religion. What is or is not evil is anybody's guess, and it is not appropriate for a bookseller to decide which beliefs are right and which ones are wrong. Furthermore, religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Zoroastrianism and Shinto are far from marginal. These belief systems are quite vigorous and are the mainstream religions of billions of people. They are not and never have been part of the "Occult".
When it comes to cultural insensitivity, there certainly are bigger fish to fry than bookstores that arrange their shelves according to an ethnocentric perspective. Nonetheless, it is important to address such small slights when they occur because they often reflect larger trends of intolerance. In this instance, the miscategorization of Eastern Religions in American bookstores is a reflection of a general unwillingness on the part of Americans to accept the legitimacy of religions other than Christianity.
Bookstores are more than just businesses. They are community centers for the distribution of cultural information. As such, they are responsible in part for the manner in which American culture develops. A store's placement of the Tao te Ching on the shelf next to the Bible won't solve America's problems of intolerance, but it will make a statement that differences in religious belief are accepted and appreciated, if only by the owner of that store. Small actions of this sort can have a surprisingly powerful effect by creating a higher standard of interaction that puts bigotry to shame.
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