Colombo Telegraph

Reimagining The Relationship Between Development And Religion

By 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

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