Does Religion have a Role in Influencing Economics?

The world in its evolution has witnessed the birth of a number of religions, some of which have moulded the course of history, and in turn have emerged as globally prominent ones. Religions like Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Sikhism, to name a few, have been powerful driving forces in the unfolding of history. For centuries at length, religion was the most crucial institution, omnipotent in determining the political, social and economic realities. Religious leaders were continually at the helm of all affairs. This kind of an elevated status for religion was possible as the religious sphere was able to enforce its superiority over political leadership.

It barely allowed any distinction between the religious and the secular realms. In fact, the very concept of a distinction existing between the divine and the political was absent until the end of the medieval era.

The age of Renaissance was a revolutionary period in history that, equipped with elements of artistic creativity, instruments of reason, scientific vigour and a quest to debate, ushered in an era that was monumental is changing the hegemonistic role of religion. As the world grew under the influence of ideas brought in later by the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, concepts like reason, empiricism, individualism, secularism, democracy, amongst others, came to be widely accepted as modern and rational. These were the periods that facilitated a demarcation of territory between the religious sphere and other spheres involving politics.

Thus, as societies progressed, there was a transition in the areas that religion was now expected to operate in. Its role in the political realm diminished and it came to be effectively associated with the private and spiritual spheres of an individual’s life. This is also roughly the time when social sciences emerged as an area worth studying. The general perception around this time held that religion was a complex social construct that was primarily concerned with social norms and values, community ethics and rituals and religious solidarity in faith. On these grounds, religion became a vital subject matter of the discipline ‘Sociology’. While certainly not negating that religion as an institution has its foundation in the social, all these ideas suggest a unidirectional emphasis on a limited social role, a notion that was challenged soon.

Having discussed the overwhelming presence of religion in politics of the ancient and medieval ages, let us now move ahead to analyse its role in influencing economics in the past and present.

It would be interesting to begin this analysis by referring to the works of an eminent scholar in sociology, Max Weber. Weber, in his work ‘The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism’, drew a parallel between the rise of the Protestant sect of Christianity and a simultaneous growth in Capitalism in the western society. He highlighted that an intense economic orientation was characteristic of Capitalism, and that, such a capitalist system in order to thrive, required people to develop an urge to work for monetary benefits. In his opinion, this attitudinal orientation was provided by the norms forwarded by Protestantism, a reactionary force against the Roman Catholic Church that emerged roughly in the 16th century and developed into a popular wing of Christianity around the world. Weber began by talking about Calvinism as a faith that promoted the economic spirit, and later correlated it with people’s increasing inclination towards engaging in trade, developing enterprise, making investments in further multiplying capital and a rise in competitive spirit amongst people who essentially belonged to the Protestant sect.

Weber further studied various prominent religions around the world and explained why Capitalism was flourishing at a rapid rate in Europe. In his analysis of the religions predominant in the Asian countries, he pointed out that religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Confucianism, etc. were principally based on elevating other-worldliness and spiritualism in a manner that undermined the importance of engaging in worldly, materialistic pursuits. This projected a focus on economic development as shallow. The ideological sanctions against economic inquisitiveness indirectly served as demotivation for followers of such religions. Similar ideas were also put forth by several native nationalist thinkers and scholars from colonised third world countries. Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, for instance, was an Indian nationalist political thinker who wrote at a time when India was subjugated under British rule. In his works, he highlighted a cultural distinction between the Orient and the Occident. For him, this difference could be owed to the distinction in the religious principles of Christianity and Hinduism. While on the one hand, Christianity encouraged accumulation of power, resources, materialistic development etc., on the other, Hinduism and its ideals were more passive in their approach even to colonial suppression. Christianity had become an instrument that was constantly used to bring the colonised masses into accepting their own plight and to highlight the white man’s burden of civilising them.

Having had an overview of the historical role and status of religion and how it has influenced economics in the past, let us now move into understanding the general perception of the role of religion in the modern era. As societies began modernising, most political and social scholars around the world had been predicting a diminishing significance of religion, and its norms and rituals. An advancement in technology and communication was believed to simultaneously cause a shift in faith and a consequent decrease in the relevance of religion in modern societies. Religion was to be relegated to an individual’s private sphere, ceasing to command force in the public spheres of life. While this trend could be deduced for a short period amongst a limited section of the population, the scenario has undergone an absolute reversal after that. Beginning in the last decade of the 20th century and progressing throughout the 21st century, there has been a resurgence of religion as a dominant factor affecting public life, influencing the political and economic arenas in several modern liberal democratic societies like the USA, Brazil and India, to name a few.

Modern societies, today, thrive on the bedrock of trade, commerce and economics. The political and diplomatic exercises are events largely intended to advance better trade negotiations and partnerships with various powers on the international platform and ultimately attain global prominence. At a time like this when states tend to prioritise goals like growth, development, modernisation, welfare, human development, advancement of scientific knowledge and climate preservation, the fact that religious conservatism is resurfacing on such a massive scale is not simply surprising, but also concerning. Religious fanaticism is inflicting multiple societies in an infectious manner where communal vote bank politics is further igniting the differences and conflicts existing amongst certain groups. These upsurges more often than not are receiving support from the governmental authorities and people commanding positions within the corridors of power. Frequently coming to the limelight through acts of violence and obsessive behaviour, such forces emerging or growing in any modern society attack at its very roots by causing disharmony and instability while disrupting focus on constructive work. It has a dual effect that hampers policy and action of the authorities by shifting focus from development to propaganda and power politics, while also engaging the masses in othering certain communities, intensifying hatred and chaos and disturbing the healthy flow of productive work.

Religion, thus, has always been a crucial factor in not just affecting the social realm, but equally in determining the political and the economic aspects of societies across time periods. The concerning idea that I intend to highlight through this article, however, is the increasingly negative role that this institution has been limited to in the recent years, where instead of enriching lives through culture and solidarity, it has become an active source of division, violence and disharmony. What is interesting about faith is that its power is beyond much rational explanation. Therefore, it becomes all the more essential to harness its abilities for furthering the right motives. At a time when the world is witnessing atrocities in the name of religion every alternate day, the responsibility of interpreting and implementing religious principles in an effectively positive manner is on individual intellect.

Picture Courtesy- Spontaneous Order

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