Religion is like chocolate

Forrest Gump famously said: ‘My mom always said life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.’ (Forrest Gump, 1994 movie)

Religion is like chocolate.

I don’t mean this literally.

Religion is not chocolate, and chocolate is not religion. But there are similarities. Think about this:

What is chocolate?

For me, the most typical thought I have about chocolate is along these lines:

A bar of Cadbury’s Dairy Milk. But, of course, chocolate comes in many other forms and brands. Thorntons chocolate boxes (good for Christmas, birthdays, and Valentines), Mars or Snickers bars, M&Ms sweets, or Lindt or Green & Black’s.

Or even:

‘Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face, Great chieftain o’ the Tunnocks-race!’ (A Tunnocks teacake, or two or three. A marshmallow filling on a biscuit base, covered with milk chocolate, kept fresh in a distinctive foil wrapper. The quote is a paraphrase of Robert Burns’ ‘Address to a Haggis’.)

Of course, chocolate is also enjoyed in liquid form with milk, in a hot creamy drink of ‘hot chocolate’, as pictured at the top.


Did chocolate exist before 1492?

It is common knowledge that Europeans first found out about chocolate with the Spanish invasion (the ‘discovery’) of the New World in the late fifteenth/early sixteenth centuries.

It is also fairly commonly known that something that is related to ‘chocolate’ was in use by various people —particularly the Aztec and Maya people, and others — in central and southern America before the Spanish invasion.

There is evidence of Americans consuming chocolate for thousands of years before the European presence — at least three and a half thousand years, but perhaps much longer than that. The substance that was consumed —perhaps called xocolati in the Nahuatl language of the Aztecs — was a drink that used the powder of cacao (cocoa) beans.

These cacoa beans, that had been cultivated in central America for a long time, naturally taste bitter, but when fermented, roasted, and then ground make a well-loved drink.

The drink may be sweetened with honey, and/or flavoured with vanilla or chilli, or mixed with maize to make the famous tejate drink that is popular in Mexico.

A cup of fresh Tejate from a market in Oaxaca de Juárez, Mexico. By Glorgana.

The powder of the ground beans may be added to food, or just eaten as a form of snack in itself (as indeed may be the unground beans).

Although all of this may share something with the commodity that Europeans call chocolate, there are also some significant differences.

Mexican Chocolate: Rustic, Stronger, Better

Indeed, the solid chocolate that is so famous (and indicative of chocolate globally) did not come into being until the nineteenth century, when a Dutch chemist called Coenraad van Houten developed a specific technique for processing cacoa beans to separate its products: that is, cocoa butter from cocoa solids. A series of European and American entrepreneurs (Nestle, Fry, Cadbury, Rowntree, Lindt, and Hershey) then went on to develop this further, to create forms of solid chocolate that stored and shipped well, but had that typical ‘melt in the mouth’ chocolate experience and sweet taste.

From our experience of all the Tunnocks tea cakes, Mars bars, chocolate box selections, and milk chocolate bars, most people in Scotland probably have a strong sense of what chocolate is. We know chocolate when we see it (or more likely when we taste it), and we know when something is not (what we would think of as) chocolate.

And for many, chocolate is more than simply the food itself, it is a way of life (or a way of enjoying one’s life).

Although the Mexican forms of chocolate (the drink, the ground cacoa beans, etc.) may be made from the same source material, they are not what most Europeans would call ‘chocolate’.

My point here is not to make you an expert on the history of chocolate, or even to point you towards extending your palette.

Instead, the history of the idea of chocolate is somewhat similar to the history of how we think about religions.

Chocolate became chocolate through colonial encounter and appropriation.

Spanish armies invaded lands in America, and in the process they found new foods and other consumables to try — potatoes, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, maize, tobacco, and of course cacoa beans.

These were not neutral botanical discoveries, they were part of a process of military invasion, land appropriation, political imperialism, and the development of economic appropriation for personal and state enrichment.

A lot of wealth was made from the development of these cash crops in America: commodities such as tobacco and cacoa, and other crops (some of which were taken over, such as sugar). Most of that wealth was transferred to Europe and kept in the hands of European colonialists.

Alongside this, most of the labour for this was forced — through the kidnapping and brutal exploitation of either enslaved indigenous Americans, or otherwise transported and enslaved Africans. When slavery was abolished by the British in the 1830s (and other European powers in subsequent decades), new forms of exploitative labour were developed for the harvesting and production of cacoa beans.

When we think of the major chocolate manufacturers, we think of Cadburys, Lindt, Nestle, etc. These are European producers of a crop that is harvested in America, and also in Africa, since following European colonisation of Africa in the nineteenth century it was taken there for commercial development.

In short, cacoa beans existed before European colonialism, as did derivative products from those beans such as cacoa powder and cacao based drinks.

But the thing we assume chocolate to be was created, developed, and economically controlled by particular European individuals, rulers, and businesses.

And after 500 years of European colonialism in America, it is very hard now to find any form of chocolate that exists beyond what Europeans have made chocolate to be.

This is where the analogy with religion comes in. Religion — in particular, the idea of religion and religions of the world — is equally something that has emerged from similar histories of European colonialism.

To explore this analogy, it is probably easiest to follow European colonialism in a different direction. At around the same time that Spanish ships, explorers, and armies were sailing west over the Atlantic Ocean to (what they decided to call) America, other Europeans were heading east.

In particular, the Portuguese (rivals to the Spanish, and vice versa) sent Vasco de Gama on a number of colonial missions around the edges of Africa and across the Indian Ocean to India. By the middle of the sixteenth century, Portugal had become a dominant power in the region.

A panorama of Calicut, on the Malabar coast. Georg Braun and Franz Hogenbergs atlas Civitates orbis terrarum, 1572

In Asia, there was no chocolate or cacoa beans. But there were plenty of spices — pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves—which, in their own ways, were worth their weight in gold in European markets.

Eventually Portuguese power declined, and this was replaced by power exerted by other Europeans, particularly the Dutch and the British.

Each of these colonial invaders found cultural practices that they found somehow familiar to what they thought they already knew. Thus, the Portuguese found in India people who considered themselves Muslim (like the Moors of North Africa and the Arabs of the eastern Mediterranean). There were also communities of people in India who considered themselves followers of a Christian tradition (that is, the Thomists of the Syriac church, which had been brought to India many centuries before).

However, the Europeans also found people whose religions they did not recognise, that they had no way of placing within any prior context.

It is only with hindsight that we now say that these people were ‘Hindus’ and ‘Buddhists’.

When the Portuguese ships arrived in south-west India in the early 1500s (which of course was not a unified country at the time), the Indians were not particularly impressed by these new arrivals. They certainly did not go rushing to them to say, ‘Hi, welcome to India, we are Hindus and Buddhists’.

The people that the Portuguese encountered, and who they went on to subjugate, did not use such terminology about themselves.

Instead, it was through a process that took several hundred years that the European colonialists came to think about the many different groups they encountered (and went on to politically control) as being ‘Hindus’ and ‘Buddhists’, belonging to systems — religions — that were ‘Hinduism’ and ‘Buddhism’.

There were many different — extremely diverse — traditions and cultures that came to be systematised under the name and identity of being ‘Hindu’ and being ‘Buddhist’.

And so, just like ‘religion’ (which is seen as a universal aspect of human culture) is not a thing in itself, neither are particular religions — such as ‘Hinduism’ and ‘Buddhism’ — things that exist in themselves.

That is, religions are not like cocoa beans, they don’t exist in the world waiting to be named by Europeans.

Instead, religions are more like chocolate.

As we have seen, chocolate came from Europeans taking a particular local product (a thing called xocolati, made from processed cacoa beans) and changing it into something quite distinct — which was very palatable, industrially processed, and commercially marketed on a global scale.

In a similar way, the various experiences, traditions, and contexts across India became developed over time during the colonial (and later post-colonial) eras. What we now see and think about as ‘natural’ and ancient religions have, in fact, emerged at certain specific times and locations in the contexts of colonialism.

And just as we love the chocolate that we have created because of its texture and sweetness, we learn to love the idea of unitary religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism because by studying and classifying them as such, we have made them comprehensible.

To conclude, let us take this analogy one step further. Let us take a hypothetical possibility with chocolate.

We have seen that bars of chocolate (the chocolate that we know and love) are made from the processing and commercial manufacture of cacoa beans.

Let us imagine that a new plant is found (or an existing one is developed) that can be manufactured in such a way to produce something very similar to cacoa-based chocolate.

That is, perhaps European chocolate makers may find something different — say the bark of a tree in south-east Asia — that can be cooked in a certain way to make us think it is like chocolate. Its taste, its texture, its appearance, its sweetness, the pleasure of eating it are all so much like chocolate that it is as good as the real thing.

In fact, it is so much like chocolate that a major chocolate manufacturer starts to sell it in purple packets under the name chocolate.

Is this new (hypothetical) commodity still chocolate, even if it is not ‘really’ chocolate, since it is not made from cacoa beans?

I hope you see where this is going.

To make it plain, the analogy suggests that if it looks like chocolate, and tastes like chocolate, then it must be chocolate. It does not matter that it is not really the same as the chocolate that we are used to (i.e., cacoa bean based chocolate).

And so similarly, we (i.e., Europeans) have found certain things (traditions, customs, cultures, outlooks) from very different parts of the world and have chosen to condense them all into a single category. In fact two categories: religion (as a general human experience) and religions (into specific religions, such as Hinduism or Buddhism, etc.).

When we try to work our way through this analogy, though, we do need to keep in mind that religion — as a category that is put onto various contexts — is not a thing, in the way cocoa beans are some thing.

Religion is also not a thing like a bar of chocolate is a thing.

Instead, religion is like the idea of chocolate, something that has value and meaning to us because we associate it with specific things that we (perhaps) like — such as eating a bar of chocolate, or giving a box of Thorntons to a loved one, or memories of being given a Tunnocks teacake by your mum for a treat.

This is the power of the idea of chocolate. And this works in a similar way to how we think of religion (or the idea of religion).

We generalise our category (based on our own particular experiences, rooted in our cultural location) and extend it as a worldwide category — applying it to contexts and situations that may be very different to what we think they are.

And so, no matter how powerful the idea of chocolate may be to us, we must remember that there was no concept of ‘chocolate’ in European contexts until cacoa beans were brought to Europe from newly-invaded territories. There were no cocoa beans, very little sugar, and it took a long time for chocolate as a commodity and an idea to become what we think of it today. It came to us out of a very particular history.

In contrast to this, at the time of early European global colonisation — during the era when cacoa beans were first discovered by Europeans — there were very significant disputes going on in Spain and among other emerging colonial powers about issues that we now talk about as religion.

That is, although there was little talk at the time about religion in the sense we use it today, during the time that chocolate began to become meaningful in Europe, religion was the source of major conflicts between European powers. That is, the sixteenth century was not only a time of early colonialism in America and Asia, it was also the time of violent upheavals about religion — the time we think of as the Reformation.

So, going back to (and stretching) the analogy: imagine that at that time Europeans already had some beans that could be processed into a solid that deliciously melted in the mouth, which they called ‘chocolate’. And so, they liked it so much that they fought each other, exerted power, tortured and executed others over it. It was the basis of much of the political system, indeed it was the politics that structured much of daily life.

And then, as these Europeans expanded their political interests and began to establish new empires across the world, they found different things that seemed to be like their beloved chocolate.

From there, they established that all the different forms they found were different variations of the universal thing ‘chocolate’ — which they then classified into different types, to make it easier for themselves to understand all the differences.

And just as this chocolate was the basis of the politics of Europe, by using the classifications of chocolate in other places, they found this understanding of chocolate helped them to rule and exploit others.

I hope you get the point…

Religion is not like chocolate. But the ways in which we think about the idea of religion are similar to the ways in we think about the idea of chocolate.

And the ways in which we think about religion (as a common human experience, across all humanity, through particular religions) have come to us from particular historical processes, just as chocolate has.

Malory Nye is an academic and writer who teaches at the University of Glasgow. He can be found on Twitter (@malorynye) and on his website,

He produces two podcasts: Religion Bites and History’s Ink.

Malory Nye is also the author of the books Religion the Basics (2008) and There Shall be an Independent Scotland (2015).

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