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Retailing religion

Print edition : Nov 23, 2018 T+T-
Hair offered by  pilgrims in fulfilment of vows being sorted at a godown at the Kalyana Katta building in Tirupati, Andhra Pradesh. Construction and maintenance of temples provide jobs and encourage ancillary cottage industries that sustain the local population.

Hair offered by pilgrims in fulfilment of vows being sorted at a godown at the Kalyana Katta building in Tirupati, Andhra Pradesh. Construction and maintenance of temples provide jobs and encourage ancillary cottage industries that sustain the local population.

An attempt to use economic theories and tools to understand the economics of religion.

T HE best way to introduce the book under review is to use the author Sriya Iyer’s own words taken from the last chapter. She writes: “The book argues that economic theories and empirical examples might be useful in evaluating the role of religion in society comprehensively, and that they contribute to the work on religion done over the centuries by philosophers, theologians, sociologists and historians. It also suggests that social scientists must never lose sight of the fact that they seek to understand real people in the real world, especially when we study real people in the real world. What do we really know about the economics of religion in India?” The book is her attempt to answer that question.

Gathering fruits from trees, production of grain from land, the division of labour in these processes, the distribution of the produce among the participants are primordial activities of human beings. These activities also give rise to dependence on nature and beliefs and speculation about forces beyond nature. If such questions are the basis of religion, they may also be considered an innate impulse of humans. However, the nature of the relationship between the two cannot be taken for granted.

Many scholars have undertaken professional inquiries on the relationship between religion and economics. Richard Tawney’s Religion and the Rise of Capitalism (1926) and Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1930) are noted examples of an earlier era. While they dealt with economics and religion, the economics of religion is a new branch of study started around the 1990s. It has picked up immensely as the 25-page bibliography in the present volume shows.

According to the author’s initial statement, it is an attempt to use economic theories and tools to understand religion.

Surely, it will not go unchallenged. Those who consider economics to be based on rational behaviour and treat religion as essentially emotional, if not irrational, will consider the two basically antithetical. The author’s approach is different. As a social scientist, she studies religion because it affects the organisation of society and hence economic life. At the same time, she also knows that there is a great deal of “marketing of religion” and hence economists’ tools of studying markets—competition, branding, advertising, dissemination of information—can be used to study religion empirically.

The author and her colleagues conducted a detailed field study of religious organisations of Hindus, Muslims, Christians and a few others in selected districts of seven States in India. The survey consisted of a series of sensitive questions on basic demographics, areas of operation, number of adherents, religious practices, provision of religious and non-religious services, sources of income and expenditure and perceptions of competitive intensity with other religious organisations. Those interested in the details of the survey method should study Chapter 3. The main findings follow.

Temples (and other centres of worship) are as much an economic site as a place of religious upliftment. Construction and maintenance of temples provide jobs and encourage ancillary cottage industries that sustain the local population. Providing education is seen to be an important service of religious organisations.

“Propagating the faith and religious education are key religious services, and technology and the media, including mobile phones, are used innovatively to promote religious services.” When poverty and economic inequality are high, religious organisations may even provide non-religious services such as food distribution. Compared to the period before 1991, organisations across the board have increased their provision of non-religious services, which also leads to competition among them. Individuals choose the organisation that gives them higher utility from among the competing units.

Non-religious service

The most common non-religious services are education, food distribution and health care. Child care and employment, drug rehabilitation centres and old-age homes are also among the activities that religious organisations undertake. Field studies undertaken by the author brought out the services that religious groups were more inclined to provide. “Hindu organisations are more likely to distribute food, while Muslim and Christian organisations are likely to provide education. Christian organisations are also more likely to provide health and child care services.”

Chapter 6 is devoted to a discussion on inequality, demography and the socio-economic status on which many studies have been done all over the world.

One of the major findings from the field studies is that higher fertility rates are more associated with low education and low income rather than religious belief. Chapter 7 has a detailed study on madrasas, both traditional ones that provide only religious education and modern ones that experiment with incorporating subjects such as English and mathematics. Chapter 9 deals more directly with the main theme of economics of religion. It begins with the statement: “Globally, there has been a growing concern about ‘retail religion’ or ‘commercial religion’.” An example given is that of a California (not surprising) pastor who described himself as a “religious retailer” and was in business for a while, flourishing, and then finally going bankrupt.

Other parts of the globe, including India, have also been witnessing this phenomenon providing an excellent opportunity to study the economics of religion. Consumer preference of the “brand” of religion then becomes important, followed by “market positioning”, “advertising”, “competition”, “asymmetry of information” and, indeed, “bankruptcy”. The media (broadcast) and modern technology play an important role in such religious organisations. All tools applied in the study of modern corporations become relevant too.

Interested readers will decide whether the book is the economics of religion or economics and religion. One of the findings of the book is that although the influence of religion is declining in some parts of the world, globally religion continues to play a significant role in the daily lives of the rapidly growing population and is likely to become even more important by the middle of the century. This book, although distractingly repetitive, will be required reading for anyone who wishes to explore the relationship between religion and economics.