06/08/2010 08:03 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Hindu Spelling Whizzes: Why Religion Is Not Destiny

How are immigrants from a Hindu nation putting the Protestant work ethic to shame, even within the most American of contests?

An overlooked lesson from last weekend's national spelling bee is that religion affects us far less than we might imagine. That should be good news for those who worry that religious-based conflicts are intractable.

Hindus, in the eyes of many Westerners, meekly tend to accept their station in this life as the only way to get a better station in the next life. It's one of a hundred common religious stereotypes of our day, and it's why many believed that Hindu-majority India was a dysfunctional, hopeless mess for so many recent decades and even centuries.

And yet how and why do the Hindus sport one of the dynamic, high-tech economies on the planet? Why have Indian-Americans won the Scripps-Howard spelling bee for the third straight year and eighth time in a dozen years, even though they constitute less than one percent of the population?

The short answer is that culture drives behavior far more than theology ever could. And when culture changes, theology meekly bends around culture and sanctifies culture's changing whims. That's why one girl's California-based family worried less about traditionally rigid Hindu roles and more about wearing yellow clothes that they felt honored the fates in a way that would bring her success. (She made it to the sixth round.)

Indian immigrants found spelling bees effective ways to learn about their new land and establish confidence that they can make it here. The popularity of 2002's Spellbound, a documentary that examined Nupur Lala's 1999 championship run, turbocharged the trend among proud Hindu-Americans: Slate recently noted that a Hindu temple in Shawnee, Kansas hosts a veritable minor league for aspiring spellers.

This can be a conundrum for those who prefer theological stereotypes. Many evangelical missionaries' raison d'être is tied to the notion that rival religions such as Hinduism have theologies that defeat personal initiative and personal responsibility. The missionary believes that if these Hindus can only be "liberated" by a new theology that emphasizes personal responsibility, they can finally thrive.

But we're reminded that no religion is permanent in its character or style, and change can happen relatively suddenly.

Jingoists today charge that Muslims are inevitably "backward" because of the fatalism of their predetermination doctrines, and are inevitably violent due to the Koran's theology of war. To hold to this belief, such jingoists must be willfully blind both to Islam's past golden age and Christianity's own darker ages. Yet as historian Bernard Lewis (no syrupy liberal) noted, Islam's scientific and cultural golden age happened closer to its birth than did Christianity's, so religion itself cannot be the cause of such eras.

Religion doesn't kill people: culture and human nature kill people. Religion does provide a nice way to motivate and mobilize the troops, granted. Since religion will remain potent as a mobilizer, it's important to look for pressure points that can change culture in, say, the way that the culture that envelops Hindus has changed.

Rob Asghar is author of Lessons from the Holy Wars, a Pakistani-American Odyssey, now available in paperback and on Kindle at Amazon.