16 June, 2019

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Reimagining The Relationship Between Development And Religion

By Rasika Sumudhu Jayasinghe

Rasika Sumudhu Jayasinghe

Rasika Sumudhu Jayasinghe

For many decades now, the concept of development has been a goal sought after by countries around the globe. Though this concept strives to improve human welfare, quality of life, and social wellbeing in a region or community, development’s first and foremost emphasis in Sri Lanka, appears to be that of economic growth and infrastructural development. While these can certainly add to human welfare, quality of life, and social wellbeing, perhaps it is worth questioning whether they can also be a deterrent to the achieving of these outcomes.

Development as we know it, owing to its roots in the rational scientific method is often at loggerheads with religion. Most Western governments and development agencies, particularly, in the post-World War II era, have seen religion as part of the development problem, rather than as a potential solution. Moreover, according to Haynes (1995), the idea of modernization and development has been greatly associated with urbanization, industrialization and to a rationalization of “irrational” views, such as religious beliefs. Therefore, technological development and the application of science to overcome persistent social problems of poverty, hunger and disease, soon replaced any room for religion in development discourses. In the South Asian region, this leaning towards a ‘material’ and ‘rational’ development idea seems to have been further compounded by concerns over rising levels of religious fundamentalism; whether Buddhist, Evangelical, Hindu, Islamic, or other. However, too much emphasis appears to be placed on the ways in which religion can stymie the process of development (a point which is acknowledged, but not the one focused on, for the purpose of this article), rather than on how, when and why development antagonizes religious thought and beliefs.

Development certainly includes material and tangible outcomes such as the construction of railways and roads, and the raising of buildings and bridges. While such construction serves practical purposes, alongside this comes the aspect of urban beautification; cleaning up of parks, restoration and renovation of structures and among others, erection of sculptures and statues.  The question though is, when the construction of railways results in the displacement of people and houses; when the raising of buildings leads to the relocation of a religious site; and when the erection of statues incites the outrage of communities, at what cost do these ‘advancements’ come?

As long as development remains exclusionary, rather than inclusive, only a fraction of society will continue to develop, while the rest will remain marginalised and impoverished. The lives and livelihoods of the displaced are disrupted as they struggle to reintegrate into both the economic and social fabric and functioning of society. When religious sites are relocated, for the purpose of development, communities are provoked, for it is important to note that a nation’s cultural and spiritual development cannot be compartmentalised apart from its economic development. Meanwhile, the blatant exhibition of certain religious markers, over others, can only add to a sense of exclusion to communities. This not only creates wounds spiritually, but adds to feelings of animosity as well, impacting those communities psychologically. It is often argued that as a result of such triggers, minority communities may turn towards mechanisms of solace, such as religion. In fact, regardless of specific religious tradition, religious faith forms an important identity marker for many among the poor and marginalised in the developing world (Sen, 1999). However, this hardly means that of this number, many who practice religion will take on a hard-line approach. Rather, it adeptly highlights why development discourses need to acknowledge religion when creating and implementing development policies, practices and programmes, rather than allowing it to be an ‘elephant in the room’, particularly in developing areas, where religion is prevalent and prominent.

Perhaps to some, pointing out why development practices should be both inclusive and not focus solely on economic development is easy enough. However, history has always shown cases where exclusion has been promoted in certain societies, if not by the State, by influential parties, particularly in South Asia. Pakistan, for instance, since its inception has exuded a dynamic interplay of a various strategic agendas among political actors and different interest groups. During Zia’s regime, Islam symbolised the ‘supreme source of legitimacy’ (Waseem, 2002). Appearing to lend morality, political conservatism, and further an evolving national ethos, Islam has since enabled the ruling elite to advocate their ideas through a state-wide ideology and identity which straddles political, social and economic development, while giving the military legitimacy, and marginalizing mainstream political parties and minority communities. It remains important to question who the development is for, and by whom it is being carried out. To think that development, and even solely economic development, stands alone from political and social factors would be an error.  In areas such as South Asia, where religion and nationalism become strongly entwined, social unrest has been equally instigated by majority communities, in response to moves which would have seemingly encouraged inclusivity. India in the early 1970s experienced continued division within the populace and the administration over the caste issue. Efforts to extend reservations (a process of setting aside a certain percentage of positions belonging to the Scheduled Castes, the Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes, who are otherwise socially and economically marginalised groups) in the fields of education, employment and political representation made a move towards abolishing all communal distinctions. However, this both imparted each group with a new political relevance and was met by a backlash that threatened the unity of the ‘Hindu family’. “The core supporters of Hindu nationalism are dominant caste and class groups whose interests lie in strengthening social hierarchies” (Basu, 2001). While the reservations system is a heavily debated mechanism in itself, this move to ‘empower’ certain communities; thereby developing human welfare, quality of life, and social wellbeing, induced just as much religious fundamentalism. Caste tensions were further politicized, as the upper caste positions have felt their social and economic positions were being not only encroached upon, but also, threatened.

When religious fundamentalism can stem from; minority and majority communities alike; exclusionary practices and steps towards inclusive practices alike; and explicit focus on economic development, as well as holistic approaches to development, it becomes questionable whether any clear policy design exists for the incorporation of (or dismissal of) religion in development. Perhaps what becomes clear instead is that both ‘secular’ and clearly ‘religion-biased’ development trajectories which often aim to exclude religion (or certain religions) from development discourses can be detrimental. Increasingly, there has been a stronger involvement of religious actors in human development sectors, ranging from health and education to relationships and empowerment. ‘Human development’ can be characterised in several ways and Haynes (2007) states that, the idea of human development is a broad category focusing on societal stability, security and relative prosperity, with political, economic, social, moral and psychological dimensions. Development, of course does not stand alone from any of these focuses, and therefore needs to take into account each strand, by recognising the complexities and the pervasiveness of religion in the political, economic, social, moral and psychological fabric of a nation; and particularly so, within the South Asian region. Let us move towards a development, which is not limited in scope, which is ‘human’ rather than material, and which constantly engages and creates discussion between all stakeholders involved. Providing educational opportunities on all religions can promote tolerance and acceptance. Ensuring that health opportunities are available to all irrespective of traditional social attitudes and cultural norms (while leaving room for choice) can deter religious fundamentalism and unrest. And, encouraging inter-religious relationships in social settings such as teams and committees, fosters understanding and communication between communities. While parks and bridges, railways and highways, sculptures and structures remain functional and often aesthetically pleasing, let us strive for this kind of development which will truly increase human welfare, quality of life, and social wellbeing within a nation, and across communities.

*The ‘Reimagining’ series by the Centre for Poverty Analysis (CEPA) is intended to be a forum to communicate diverse perspectives on development. CEPA is an independent, Sri Lankan think-tank promoting a better understanding of poverty related development issues. If you wish to follow the conversation on related topics please visit www.reimagining.cepa.lk

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  • 2
    1

    My reading of the origins of development is that its roots are in welfare, care and charity as practiced by Captain Booth, founder of the Salvation Army, the first NGO/CSO in Britain during the industrial revolution. In that period, welfare and charity were inspired by religion (Christianity – love your neighbour as yourself etc.). Later welfare grew and bloomed into development, empowerment and now is rights based.

    All religions are ritual based and all exhort their followers to transcend ritual and reach the spiritual/mystic states where people become one with all creation etc. i.e. self-less, loving, compassionate and self-sacrificing etc. These traits are today deemed to be part of the holistic development that mankind should strive for. Unfortunately, most followers of religion do not traverse beyond rituals and get fixated on them and then the reserve of self-lessness, compassion etc. happens. This is counter to development.

    • 3
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      Dear Rasika Sumudhu Jayasinghe,

      Thank you. It is the conflict of the two different Worldviews, and what the goal of human being ought to be. Religion does not deliver progress, but organizers people for better or for worse. You well summarized it below.

      “Development as we know it, owing to its roots in the rational scientific method is often at loggerheads with religion.” Yes, the Earth goes around the Sun, and humans evolved, the data is in the DNA.

      “Therefore, technological development and the application of science to overcome persistent social problems of poverty, hunger and disease, soon replaced any room for religion in development discourses. In the South Asian region, this leaning towards a ‘material’ and ‘rational’ development idea seems to have been further compounded by concerns over rising levels of religious fundamentalism; whether Buddhist, Evangelical, Hindu, Islamic, or other. However, too much emphasis appears to be placed on the ways in which religion can stymie the process of development (a point which is acknowledged, but not the one focused on, for the purpose of this article), rather than on how, when and why development antagonizes religious thought and beliefs.”

      Well, well, the issues in the conflict. Revelation vs. Reason and Observation coupled with the interpretation by the Priests, Mullahs and Monks.

      If you plot the literacy rate, and income per capita income against the Percentage of Muslims in a country, there is a pretty good correlation. The Culprits? Christians overcame the problem with the Enlightenment and the marginalization of religion by the scientists and philosophers. There was no Muslim Enlightenment because of the Ulemas and the Clerics.

      1. The above are today’s Muslim facts, 1,400 years after Islam. Why, because the Muslims are in the Dark Ages, Now, under the leadership of the Mullahs and Ulema, who wanted to maintain their hegemony, and they prevent by their edicts and Fatwas on the masses.

      2. However, within the first 400 years of Islam, this was not the case. It took that long for the Ulema and Clerics to establish their hegemony, and interpret Islam for the masses. One of the Early Culprits. Hamid Al Ghazali, who lived around 1,200 AD, and the downgrading of the Islamic Natural Philosophers. Mathematics was the work of the devil. These Ulema and Tribals have prevented Polio to be eradicated from the Tribal Areas of Pakistan tan and from Nigeria. However, there were reform movements, Turkey Kamal Ataturk. and many others.

      How many Muslim Nobel prize winners are there in Science? One- a Pakistani. Listen to What the American Astrophysicist Neil de Grasse had to say. Neil DeGrasse Tyson – The Islamic Golden Age: Naming Rights

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fDAT98eEN5Q

      Published on Mar 18, 2012 Neil deGrasse Tyson, an American astrophysicist and Director of the Hayden Planetarium, discusses how Islamic scholars contributed to the Islamic Golden Age and how over time independent reasoning (ijthad) lost out to modern institutionalized imitation (taqleed) present in the wider Islamic society today.

      Deja Vu, have seen it before…

      • 1
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        Dear Rasika Sumudhu Jayasinghe,

        “It is the conflict of the two different Worldviews, and what the goal of human being ought to be. Religion does not deliver progress, but organizers people for better or for worse.”

        Even though I summarized and simplified as religious and non-religious Worldviews, there is more to it. One set is based on belief, and the other set based on reason,, observation and data. Those who be;love, are brainwashed from childhood, and end up being belief-brainwashed adults.

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_view

        A comprehensive world view (or worldview) is the fundamental cognitive orientation of an individual or society encompassing the entirety of the individual or society’s knowledge and point-of-view. A world view can include natural philosophy; fundamental, existential, and normative postulates; or themes, values, emotions, and ethics.[1] The term is a calque of the German word Weltanschauung [ˈvɛlt.ʔanˌʃaʊ.ʊŋ] ( listen), composed of Welt (‘world’) and Anschauung (‘view’ or ‘outlook’).[2] It is a concept fundamental to German philosophy and epistemology and refers to a wide world perception. Additionally, it refers to the framework of ideas and beliefs forming a global description through which an individual, group or culture watches and interprets the world and interacts with it.[3]

  • 4
    0

    The contradiction between development and religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism, and development comes arises because these religions preach a doctrine based on negation of desires, while modern capitalist development is founded on proliferating desire and greed. This is an unbridgeable contradiction. The whole concept of development must be redefined in countries such as ours. What we need is not what we want because it is promoted as a necessity.
    In a future where resources become scarce and whatever available has to be shared among ever increasing populations, development must be based on reducing wants- controlling desires and meeting needs. The religions we believe in and development can march hand in hand then. The consumerism inherent in modern day development and concept of ‘ comforts’ that is defined for us by commercial greed, are also contradictory to the dictates of nature. These contradictions, leads to the hypocrisy that is rampant in our society.

    Dr.Rajasingham Barendran

    • 2
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      Dr RN,
      I agree on all what you have written here.

  • 0
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    Correction : The first line should read : The contradiction religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism, and development—–

    Dr.RN

  • 0
    1

    Rasika,
    What is your take on tooth paste and tooth brush? Aren’t they development? 100 years back, how many people over the age of 40s or even 30s had toothaches and difficulties having daily meals? What about now? How often a commoner in England or China/Korea take a bath or proper wash in winter? What about now? Are these exclusive developments? I can go on comparing life of a peasants lived 200 years back and today… How much information I (village man in SL) have access today?..

  • 1
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    Thank you Rasika for bringing in a refreshing perspective of development which is far removed from the convention!

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