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Economic growth should not mean disdain for faith

analysis Updated: Jul 19, 2015 09:30 IST

I spent the last month in London and while there I became acutely aware of the decline of the national religion Christianity and the advance of secularisation, an advance I feel poses a threat in India too. By secularisation I don’t mean the secularism that respects all faiths but the aggressive secularism that at best has no time for religion and at worst is positively hostile.

In London I found only a handful of worshippers in the Church I attended. Spectator magazine published an article called Crisis of faith. It contained a projection that if the number of Christians born in Britain continued to decline at the rate it has over the last 10 years, by 2067 there would be no Christian births. I was reminded that the former archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, had warned that the Church of England was only a generation away from extinction. On top of all this, chancellor George Osborne dealt another blow to the churches by weakening the already feeble sanctions protecting Sunday as a day of rest.

Why should this concern India, where faith appears to be doing very good business? It should concern India because all the evidence goes to suggest that one of the main reasons for the decline of religion in Britain is secularisation brought on by the neo-liberal economic policies that are recommended for India too.

It’s not as though this secularisation is a sort of placebo that keeps people happy by supplying their material needs. It creates hostility to religion. While he was archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams spoke of hostility to faith and religion in public life. The Pakistani-British peer Baroness Warsi, who served in David Cameron’s government until she resigned over his policy on the crisis in the Gaza strip, has said, “The nation is under threat from a rising tide of militant secularisation.” Following the Liberal’s rout in the recent British general election, the party is searching for a new leader. It has been widely reported that one of the candidates is disadvantaged because he openly professes Christianity. This hostility to religion is not limited to Britain. In a UN Report on Freedom of Speech in Europe the rapporteur maintained that ‘christophobia’ was widespread in the continent.

Some might argue that what happens in Britain and indeed throughout Europe doesn’t matter; it is America’s culture which influences India. There is a general impression that religion is doing fine in that country. Well, it isn’t. Figures show that religion, while doing much better than in Europe, is declining there and many of the churches still doing well are fundamentalist.

It’s fundamentalism which is the threat that secularisation poses in India and other countries where religion is still powerful. Because secularisation is inherently hostile to religion, it frightens religious people and the aggression leads them to adopt aggressive fundamentalism. The renowned religious scholar and writer Karen Armstrong has said, “Fundamentalism exists in a symbiotic relationship with an aggressive liberalism or secularism ...” Because the essence of fundamentalism is accepting tenets without questioning, it is easy for those who preach hatred to convince their followers.

Religion is still a powerful force in this country but secularisation is also becoming more and more influential. India needs economic growth but the more it follows the neo-liberal economic model to achieve growth, the greater is the danger of secularisation clashing with religion. Consumerism is the engine of economic growth, but it is also the engine of secularisation’s growth. With the spread of shopping malls and the ubiquity of advertisements, it is clear that western consumerism is growing and so secularisation will grow too. Because secularisation comes with consumerism there is a danger that, as Armstrong warned, religion in India will become “more bitter, excessive, and extreme”.

Armstrong is warning against allowing what she calls aggressive secularism, which makes religion appear disreputable. So the economists advocating a neo-liberal thought-frame for India should demonstrate that there is a place for religion in that frame. And politicians should make it clear that they are not advocating secularisation, they should show respect for religion.

The views expressed are personal.