Book Review: Religion and Development in the Global South


With an estimated 84% of the world’s population being religiously affiliated, Rumy Hasan’s analysis of the nexus between religion and development was long overdue.  Hasan takes as his starting point Max Weber’s foundational argument for why capitalism originated among Protestants in Western Europe, a link propounded in his famous 1904 work, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.  Hasan asks whether Weber’s thesis might provide helpful insights for the present that could explain why development has been stagnant in large tracts of the post-colonial world and whether the culture and religion of the global south militates against an ethic akin to that of the Protestant work ethic.  The Weberian thesis is that religions and cultures that stress “other-worldliness” and spiritualism (Catholicism, Hinduism and Buddhism) act as a brake on economic development. Hasan makes the case that a similar reasoning can be applied to Muslim-majority countries that congregate at the lower end of the global socio-economic ladder (as evidenced in the Human Development Index, for example).

Consistent with Arthur Schopenhauer and historian Owen Chadwick, Hasan notes that Protestantism’s unintentional effect was to sow the kernel of secularisation in the nineteenth century that permeated the working classes and coincided with a more widespread resistance to religious authoritarianism. This, as well as Europe’s industrialisation, the expansion of print media and a set of philosophical ideas infused with universal principles coincided to advance education, human welfare and economic growth.

Hasan does not overlook the downsides of the rise of capitalism in Europe. The darkest hour of European modernity spawned colonialism and slavery and the unprecedented savagery of the Second World War. In a 1930 essay, Keynes made clear his own moral reservations against unbridled capitalism. He argued that, when the accumulation of wealth comes unhinged from its purpose as a means to the enjoyments of the realities of life, and instead becomes loved as a possession in itself, it becomes a semi-pathological propensity.

Nevertheless Hasan underscores Weber’s prescience in discerning that certain cultural values like trust, respect for others, individual effort, merit and a government that protects and facilitates these social traits correlated with higher per capita output and accelerated growth rates. The current that runs beneath Hasan’s trenchant study of this nexus in present-day Islam, Hinduism, Christianity, and Confucianism is that culture matters because it shapes human progress.  Ample evidence suggests an iron law: that as societies develop, education levels and living standards rise, and concomitantly, the influence of religion declines. Hasan’s book is nothing less than incontrovertible proof of the profound link between religion and work ethic at both the individual and societal level. 

First, at the individual level, Hasan notes that in most countries and notably in the developing world, religion is imposed on children to the extent that pressure to conform results in the individual’s primary identity being that of religion.  This limits the likelihood of conversions taking place.  The Jesuit motto, “Give me a child until the age of seven and I will give you the man” reflects the extent to which systematic indoctrination moulds individuals in conformity with the beliefs of parents, community and the wider society.  There is abundant evidence that poverty outcomes are greatly affected by social norms and customs that lead to – inter alia – the exclusion of women, and that religion is the main determining factor of said social norms and customs.  Despite this, there has been conspicuous silence in  government-funded national and international scholarly studies of development as to whether religion might be a limiting factor for development and economic growth. Hasan’s book therefore represents a historic breakthrough, in so far as it provides the first large-scale effort to redress this glaring omission.

There are many possible explanations as to why this deficiency exists.  One is that the prioritisation of diversity and differences (a manifestation of cultural relativism) sidesteps the question of whether some beliefs and cultures are more or less conducive to development. Moreover, the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted in 2015 glossed over the issue with question-begging in Goal 9, where they state without evidence that “all cultures and civilizations can contribute to sustainable development.” This tautology is far less important than whether they actually do. Moreover, Hasan points out that their Goal 5 (which ostensibly supports the aim of achieving gender equality and empowering women and girls) leaves a glaring contradiction between these objectives and the cultural relativism implicit in Goal 9. Since much of the harm done to women and girls stems directly from certain cultures and especially religion, Goal 5’s objectives are obliterated by Goal 9’s.    

In the absence of a secular state, religion takes on a totalitarian form so that critical engagement with the central tenets, doctrines and customs is precluded.  Without secular institutions and laws, religion and its cultural accoutrements permeate every vestige of society and profoundly impact the determinants of development and growth.  This is particularly damaging with respect to women, since none of the major religions has a commitment to genuine gender equality. Hasan quotes John Stuart Mill’s famous essay of 1869 titled ‘The Subjection of Women’: “the principle which regulates the existing social relations between the sexes  – the legal subordination of one sex to the other – is wrong in itself, and now one of the chief hindrances to human improvement . . .”.  Indeed, in most of the Global South, the  legal and extra-legal subordination of women remains the norm, a situation in which religion is centrally implicated. Hasan has usefully completed the analysis by amassing detailed evidence that gender inequality hinders growth and development.   

Moreover, new research on corruption suggests that policies promoting gender equality can help clean up governments and businesses too (Engendering Development through Gender Equality in Rights, Resources, and Voice, World Bank 2001 report, pp. 73-74). Governments are less corrupt when women are more active in politics and the labour force. Likewise, household studies provide evidence that fertility reduction is one consequence of improvements in female education and consequent changes in women’s autonomy. Better educated women tend to have fewer children than less educated women  — a consequence of later marriages, better knowledge of birth control and the ability to make decisions about their own fertility and family planning. At the same time, there is little evidence that factors other than religion (or its attenuation) produce these key differences in women’s autonomy. Yet the World Bank’s major reports systematically fail to acknowledge any correlation between patterns of women’s autonomy and the degrees of religious belief in a culture.  It looks like a whitewash.

Varieties of Christianity, Islam and Hinduism are adhered to by some two-thirds of the Global South.  While their influence on development varies, Hasan’s overarching conclusion is that for Islam and Hinduism, it is almost entirely negative; for Christianity, it is a mixed picture though tending towards the negative with the proviso that aspects of Protestantism may have a positive influence. Confucianism, by contrast, given its human-centred and non-dogmatic doctrines, can realise a constructive impact.  In the Global South religion is the primary mark of identity and it profoundly shapes morals, values and folkways. From the evidence presented, two facts are unmistakeable. First, as countries develop the importance of religion the population-at-large declines. Secondly, in all the socio-economic indicators, developed countries occupy the highest rank.  Research also suggests, contrary to widely-held perceptions,  that high levels of religiosity also have a negative impact on morality.  In one survey (conducted across six countries) it was found that children from religious backgrounds were less altruistic and more punitive (Decety 2015).  Another survey by Gregory Paul found that, in general, higher rates of religious belief and worship correlate with higher rates of homicide, juvenile and early adult mortality, sexually transmitted disease infection rates, teen pregnancy, and abortion in the prosperous democracies. 

Study after study has shown that secularising culture and society is not only essential for the cognitive development of children but is also necessary for economic development and modernisation. This book provides compelling evidence to think that the environment in societies where religion plays an important role is a crucial determinant of the capacities, capabilities and skill formation of a population and that very high levels of religious beliefs in the Global South have suppressed the dynamic of growth, development and human flourishing.     

Rumy Hasan’s book “Religion and Development in the Global South” is available on Amazon online stores.

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