Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
From the publishers of THE HINDU on indiaserver.com
Faith : September 23, 2001
Homo religiosus vs homo economicus
The writer, who is based in Tokyo, is a scholar and activist whose work has engaged with such key figures in contemporary religious and political discussions as Mahatma Gandhi and Thomas Merton.
"Religion . . . is not simply a means for understanding one's self, or even of contemplating the nature of the universe, or existence, or of anything else. A religion is, at its heart, a way of denying the authority of the rest of the world; it is a way of saying to fellow human beings and to the state those fellow humans have erected, 'No, I will not accede to your will.' This is a radically destabilising proposition ..."
- Stephen L. Carter, The Culture of Disbelief,1993, p.19.
Every age throws up challenges to life, and the new millennium is no different. The "remarkable changes" that have occurred during our life-span can, probably, be traced from "the invention of the transistor, more than fifty years ago, to the microprocessor, computer, satellites, and the joining of laser and fiber-optic technologies". These and other important inventions in their applied forms undoubtedly facilitate not only the process of communication, both in terms of speed and cost, not to forget the admirable advances in the quality of technology itself, but they also enhance the very quality of life. At the same they also pose challenges in the manner in which these technologies enter our lives and what they do to us as human beings.
Many of these inventions are now readily available, for all those who can afford them, in differing forms, both in the countries of the North and South, through the ubiquitous "market." This is the principal mechanism through which these technologies enter our lives. Their pathway has been uncritically facilitated by what is popularly called as "globalisation" and by the State. Today, whether we like it or not, we are all participants in a global economy. Some learned economists and informed politicians unceasingly tell us that we necessarily need to participate in such an economy, if we are to better our lives. The persuasive argument put forward is that by participating in such an economy the millions who are unemployed will not only have jobs and employment, but there will be a rise in incomes and standards of living for all, especially for those who have talents and marketable skills. This may be true to some extent, but what is also equally valid (though most insidiously unsaid) is that an economy which assures jobs and measures of security depends on over-production for over-consumption, very often geared to the global market.
This attitude of mindless consumption or pleonexia (a passion for more, as described by John Haughey, the author of Virtue and Affluence) fostered by the "market" can be characterised in the telling Hinglish jingle "ye dil mange more" or its English variant, "shop till you drop." What needs to be asked is: Ye dil mange more kiske liye aur kiske sir pe? Or: Why do you shop and who pays the real price? Allan Durning writes (in a perceptive article entitled "Asking How Much is Enough", in the State of the World, 1991) on the insatiable thirst for more material goods among Indians. He comments, "In India the emergence of a middle class with perhaps 100 (this estimate has since rapidly increased) million members, along with liberalisation of the consumer market and the introduction of buying on credit, has led to explosive growth in sales of everything from automobiles to televisions and frozen dinners. The Wall Street Journal gloats: "The traditional conservative Indian who believes in modesty and savings is gradually giving way to a new generation that thinks as freely as it spends."
These mindsets are advanced, in the form of so-called elaborate market strategies, mostly by selfish advertising agencies and daily newspapers (which thrive and survive on vast revenues from glossy ads at the cost of real news). As such, these mindsets are unambiguous moral and ethical challenges to those who are adherents of a religion or draw deep sustenance from an ethical code and/or beliefs. The dilemma faced by these faith-based individuals, groups, and communities is principally in the area of the conflict between God and Mammon.
Most religions call upon their congregations to eschew the snares of Mammon and to lead lives which cultivate the virtues of faith, hope and charity. Some religions even explicitly call upon the faithful to strictly adhere to the ways of God and denounce Mammon. If Mammon is the force that draws us away from God and Her/His creation and works, then the market certainly falls in the category of Mammon's effective tool. That the market and its forces are not neutral is a well-known fact. That it divides us amongst ourselves in the form of rich and poor, while creating bitter enmity between those who have money to buy goods and services and those who don't, is also common knowledge.
What is less known is that, in this age of globalisation and instant gratification, the market allocates scarce and precious resources to the production of goods and the provision of services to those few who can afford them and which these few really do not need. This latter characteristic is defined as over-consumption, which is so conspicuous in India's large metropolitan centres and now even in its major towns. Like the market, it too is all-pervasive. As a consequence, many put their faith in the market, hope that it will soar, enhance their material pursuits and give charity when it doesn't hurt the purse in the least.
Our wants may be infinite and, like Pavlovian primates, we will be conditioned and salivate before Madison Avenue's effective "sale" stratagems, but do we need these baubles to live simple lives in love and harmony with God's creation and each other, irrespective of our individual faiths? It is here that Stephen L. Carter's valuable insights into the role that religion can play in our lives, as evidenced in the quotation at the outset of this article, come into effective use. Religion is for many, if not most, a source of identity and meaning in life. It provides ethical values to its adherents and a "set of understandings often quite different from the understandings of the dominant forces in the culture." Few will contest the view that our secular culture is soaked in money, self-seeking, alcohol, drugs and unbridled lust for goods.
This lifestyle is promoted by the State and its numerous agencies. What can religion and faith effectively do to help its adherents in the face of this formidable challenge is a question which many theologians and philosophers are seeking creative responses.
The problem to a certain extent is exacerbated, as many who lead religious congregations are themselves mired and caught in Mammon's nets. Their unethical lifestyles, values and undemocratic leadership, not to forget their involvement in sordid communal and divisive politics, betray their publicly and oft-proclaimed religious ethics and ideals. Further, their nexus with the State and its agencies shows how deeply they are compromised: it shows them as individuals for whom faith is another means of achieving upward mobility and exercising temporal power. This does shock the faithful when it becomes public knowledge, and it then becomes the duty of the informed laity to seek and search for solutions independently of the clergy.
Can an informed laity deliver homo religiosus from homo economicus? This is one of the prime questions of our millennium. The laity which commits itself to the formidable task of seeking cogent, creative and realistic responses starts with an overwhelming disadvantage, in that the institutions where it worships are securely in the hands of its religious leaders. Dialogue is possible, but more often than not, it becomes a subterfuge for re-establishing ecclesiastical authority. This obstacle has been overcome, in very few cases, by forming Basic Religious Communities or alternate sites outside the purview of ecclesia and State. In these communities, charismatic women and men undertake rigorous re-reading of scripture, adhere to democratic and transparent norms in conducting their religious affairs, and give equal value to the male and female of the species in decision-making and ministry.
What these communities seek to achieve is practical solidarity in ethically confronting the problems of life: whether it is the forces of the market which make nonsense of humanity, or simply getting a water connection for a group of tenants in a slum whose landlord is not concerned about their welfare and interested only in displacing them at the earliest with the help of the police and para-military forces, or increasing the already high rent. Over a period of time, the goal is to transmit and ground religious values of faith, solidarity, co-operation, frugality, hope, reverence for all life and creation and avowed resistance to Mammon.
To speculate on whether such communities will succeed or whether they will succumb is beyond the purview of this essay, but what is clear is that human beings the world over have a deep need to make sense of their lives, to transcend the dynamics of individualism and selfishness that predominate in a competitive market society and to find a way to place their lives in a context of meaning and purpose. What is also manifest is that "religions that surrender to the world lose their souls as they lose the power of prophetic witness. A religion cannot call the world to account once it has decided that its own traditions are wrong and the world is right."
Table of Contents
Copyright © 2001, The Hindu.
Republication or redissemination ofthe contents of this screen are expressly prohibited
without the written consent of The Hindu.