Rama Setu: religion and economics

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Religion, rationality & development

The ‘Ram sethu’ controversy was highly avoidable. An issue, which should have been a simple one of a conflict between environment and economic development somehow got converted into one of religion versus development. Even more alarming, the central issue became one of the existence of a Hindu god! The government must be faulted for allowing such a strange turn of events especially as the last issue is still with the courts and (rightly so) unlikely to be resolved in my lifetime at least. Though the government did the right damage control, it is useful to consider some of the questions which were thrown up. Are religious beliefs rational? Is the “scientific” Sethusamudram project crucial for development? What happens if the two are in conflict? Let us look at these in turn. There is now a wealth of material on how to “objectivise” religion (The Probability of God – Stephen Unwin, Crown Forum, NY, 2003). The main theme seems to be the old one of science versus religion. Thus, can science explain all events? In particular, can science explain many of the “knife edge” observations on real life experiences? For example, why is water the only liquid whose density does not fall continuously as temperature increases? (If it did all sea life would cease to exist). There are many other “knife edge” problems. The answer seems to be not that science cannot explain such phenomena but that at this point we “do not know”. Herein lies the clue to why faith in religion transcends all social, economic and geographical barriers. Economics defines “individual rationality” as the attempt to reach the highest level of satisfaction given existing knowledge. So, for an individual for whom life is coming crashing down around him (for example, due to poverty or a terminal illness) belief in something he cannot explain (and which will somehow get him through the crisis) may be an extremely “rational” calculus. In fact, given the imperfect world we live in, this “blind faith” may be crucial to social order. This is really the sense in which John Lennon sings the line paraphrased at the beginning of this article. As he implied, an individual may not have all the trappings of a religion and yet have faith in the unknown. Mr Karunanidhi’s attempt to trivialise the “existence of Ram” debate was obviously an attempt to cater to the “Periyar lobby”. But it raises the issue of what happens when faith and development conflict. But can we seriously “rationalise” something which is a matter of individual faith? Consider the two crucial events in the Christian calendar: Christmas and Easter. The first celebrates the birth of Christ: a perfectly rational scientific event. Yet the Christian faith itself is based on the second of the two events which symbolises the “resurrection” of Christ. We all know that India is a country with an excessive number of holidays. Can one then rationally argue that while Christmas is an understandable holiday, “good Friday” should be dropped since it derives its importance from the resurrection of Easter Sunday? This is a valid question when posed as a scientific query (how can the dead come to life?) but a foolish one when applied to the touchstone of faith in a religion. The reader can come up with any number of such arguments which can be advanced (a la Mr Karunanidhi) in the context of other religions and faiths. Yet, the celebration which a holiday symbolises is based on acceptance of the faith rather than the scientific validity of an associated event. And faith, as one has argued, is perfectly rational. How crucial is the Sethusamudram project? The main argument seems to be the time saving for ships which will no longer have to go around Sri Lanka in moving from the east coast to the west. While the ecological problems are still not clearly defined, the economic gains of the canal are not likely to be high. A look at maritime statistics indicates that shipping costs are now such a small part of the final price of most products that tariff barriers between countries (and within countries) are a greater deterrence to trade. The one month time saving is thus not likely to translate into substantial price advantages. The bottom line? If economic development is the objective then it is wisest to pose trade offs that we are familiar with: is the canal cost-effective and what are the environmental concerns? Yet, politicians seem to pitch the issue as one of ‘scientific’ rationality versus faith. This is a dangerous trend as faith is non-negotiable and the only casualty would be much needed development. Let us stay off what we only imperfectly comprehend. ( The author is professor, Centre for International Trade and Development, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University )



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