Friday, March 05, 2010

On religion and class

[Just re-discovered this, which I wrote on a discussion forum a couple of months back and then forgot about. Think its worth reposting here, to continue the Adam Smith theme]

The main theme of religious debate these past ten years seems to be the criticisms made by Western liberal secularists (often though not always atheists) against religious intolerance and backwardness as manifested principally in two places: the United States and the Muslim world.

I've been reading a bit about Adam Smith recently, and what he has to say about the sociology of religious belief seems relevant to this.

Smith observed that public morality manifested itself in "austere" and "loose" forms, broadly speaking, and that these corresponded to the socio-economic status of the people practising the particular form of morality. The poor were more likely to adhere to an austere form of religiousity, while the wealthy were more likely to deviate from religious teachings and embrace more liberal behaviour.

Why was this? Smith explained that

"The vices of levity are always ruinous to the common people, and a single week's thoughtlessness and dissipation is often sufficient to undo a poor workman for ever.... The wiser and better sort of common people therefore, have always the utmost abhorrence and detestation of such excesses, which their experience tells them are so immediately fatal to people of their condition" (Wealth of Nations, Book V, Chapter i, cited here, p34-5)

In other words, the strict social mores of religion offered the poor security against the dangers inherent in their condition. Members of wealthier social classes by contrast had less need of temperance, chastity, and so on. From their comfortable and secure position, they could afford to dispense with religious conservatism and breach the boundaries of social behaviour.

Now though there are of course exceptions, it is still fair to say that a broad correlation exists between the extent and strength of religiousity in a society and its material wealth. The most developed societies are the least religious, and vice versa. The United States which is notably more religious than Europe, is also the society whose poor are the least socially and financially secure in the developed world. The most economically backward countries, like Sudan and Afghanistan, are also those where ultra-conservative religion flourishes.

So when liberal atheists and secularists (I'm one of these btw.) extol the superiority of their liberal values over those of of right-wing American Christians and patriarchal Muslim societies, they may in fact be eulogising nothing more than a symptom of their superior bank balances.

Challenging superstition and dogma is fine of course. How many liberals, post credit crunch, still maintain their own little dogmas about the wonders of the free-market? Or about the benign nature of Western power, despite the experience of Iraq? But in the case of religion, would a more productive course of action be to engage our energies in promoting economic development, justice and security, both as an end in itself, and also in the knowledge that this would likely lead to a natural withering away of religious conservatism and perhaps even of religious belief itself? Why after all, on top of the economic and political hardships that many of them face, would religious conservatives be receptive to attacks from militant atheists on the faiths that they believe sustain them?

There's certainly a place for challenging religious superstition, and defending a secular public sphere. But perhaps there are more intelligent and productive ways of going about it. In that respect, Smith's observations provides a possible suggestion.

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