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An Appreciative View of Religion and Development

With over 80 per cent of the world’s population professing religious belief, holding such belief must be considered a common human characteristic. Moreover, religious belief is relevant to both social and private realms. Religious belief systems provide a meaning for existence through which adherents interpret their own circumstances and make decisions on how to act and interact in wider society. The values and attitudes associated with religious beliefs within countries therefore affect both public policy settings as well as social behaviours (with both positive and harmful consequences possible).

Yet, the importance of religious beliefs to individuals’ understanding of and reaction to poverty and the effect on social mores and public policies concerning poverty and wealth remain ‘invisible’ or ‘taboo’ within mainstream development debate. The common understandings of the interplay between religion and development have not changed significantly over the past few decades. According to these stereotypes, religion is:

  1. an instrumental tool that can be used to further the aims of development interventions; or
  2. part of a society’s culture that is often considered an impediment to development; or
  3. a private pursuit that can assist in furthering development – but only in certain forms (those linked to Protestantism); or finally
  4. a factor that is included in vague non-economic considerations of ‘culture’.

Not one of these understandings is particularly positive or cause enough to challenge the long-standing general exclusion of religion from development studies. While the negative consequences of religion should not be overlooked, it is important to recognize that religious beliefs, religious institutions and religious leaders can be integral to the development process. As such, an alternative view of religion and development is now overdue – something which I have addressed in my recent publication: Handbook Of Research On Development And Religion.

Judgements based on religious teachings that contain precepts on how to live a righteous life, including how to respond to those who are materially poor, are particularly important when we consider that (using the most common World Bank measure of poverty), over 1 billion of the world’s population live in poverty and exist on less than US$1 a day (and nearly 3 billion live on less than US$2 a day). More than 1 billion people around the globe do not have access to clean water, 115 million children do not attend primary school and 10 million children die each year of preventable illness (World Bank 2010). The response by religious organisations and those motivated by religious faith to those experiencing poverty has a long history. Religious groups have long provided education and health facilities not only in their home countries but also in mission countries – often long before nation states provided such institutions.

There is little doubt that religion, religious institutions, religious beliefs and religious faith can be viewed in a negative light. For example, the negative impacts of religion on world conflict, security issues and extremism in international politics have all been examined recently. Moreover, there is of course substantial literature on the implausibility of religious deities entirely. These critiques should not be ignored. Indeed, persuasive arguments can be made that religion has exacerbated poverty in various ways, including gender inequity, the doctrine of predestination, religious spending on temples, an emphasis on non-temporal salvation, the protection of vested interests by those in authorities, and so on. However, while not denying these problematic issues, this article holds the view that religion must also be considered as an important constitutive force that requires proper consideration (see Barr 2010 for this use of religion in international politics). In this sense religion should not be considered ‘exotic’ but a normal part of the social context, to be considered when investigating ‘development’.

The relevance of religion to development is based upon a number of issues.

  • First, there has been a growth in the roles that religious groups and religion have assumed in social movements. For example, the global Jubilee 2000 and the subsequent Make Poverty History campaigns had religious geneses.
  • Secondly, religion has grown in prominence in terms of civic culture; religious groups are becoming increasingly important in providing ‘identities’ for people and communities.
  • Thirdly, the process of globalisation has enhanced the reach of religion and religious groups. Religious groups are able to connect across the globe in ways that were not possible until recently, resulting in a stronger sense of identity and wielding a greater sense of influence.
  • Finally, participation in religion and commitment to religious values are seen as rational choices, with many religious groups actively seeking to ‘grow’ their congregations.

Politics and religion continue to be closely entwined in many environments (both north and south). While development actors are largely secular, this secularism causes tensions when dealing with constituents or communities that are linked to religious groups.

Set against the silence of religion or its discussion in largely negative tones, it is appropriate that an appreciative view of religion in development is adopted to counter existing biases. Such an appreciative view of religion highlights its strengths and opportunities to enhance our understanding of development and development outcomes. Of course, it is important to acknowledge that such views by no means are made to develop an argument that religion is the solution that will deliver better development outcomes for those who are most marginalised and at risk in our societies. However, the case is made for a realistic appreciation of the centrality that religion holds in certain communities and for some individuals. Failure to be cognisant of this constrains efforts to engage with communities. Religion should not be considered, however, as something that might aid development outcomes if appropriately understood by development actors. Rather, religion has an inherent dynamism that informs both people’s perception of the concept of development and their response to circumstances of poverty or deprivation. In this regard, religion is a lens through which to understand the world, and also a catalyst that changes the world. To be clear therefore, consideration of religion in development does not equate to testing the claims of ‘authenticity’ of religious belief or tenets of faith in the religious sense, but rather, it is interested in developing an authentic understanding of religion by development scholars, practitioners and policymakers that may aid those actors in achieving more effective development outcomes.

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