I confess that I wasn’t all that excited about David Brooks’ 2003 op-ed in the Atlantic Monthly, entitled “Kicking the Secularist Habit.” While on one hand fully cognizant of religion as a part of the fabric and backdrop of many, perhaps most participants in the aid relationship, it has been relatively easy to mentally relegate religion to just that: backdrop. Not foreground. Neither integral nor crucial.
Not that I hadn’t paid attention to religion. I’d always found it interesting, but more as a curiosity, part of the “exotic factor.” But while I was extremely interested in it, religion seemed largely irrelevant to the “real” development and relief process. In fact, very often if anything, it was a detractor: At times it became the catch-word for those pesky challenges or obstacles to what development programs in the field hoped to accomplish: beliefs and practices that needed to be somehow changed in order for development gains to happen, Other times “religion” was simply an excuse written in different ways into proposals or reports for interventions that needed to be gotten out of doing, or targets that for some reason were not achieved. At best religion seemed to provide little more than somewhat arbitrary lists of aid-work dos and don’ts (don’t pat children on the head, do schedule training workshops around Ramadan…).
The past twenty or so years of relief and development work have been about making it all more business-like, more scientific, more evidence-based. It’s increasingly about the numbers and the logic. We apply social science and economic and political science theory; we measure and survey; we randomize and disaggregate by age and gender; we do commodity tracking and use satellite photographs and run regressions. And I have been a devout believer in those things. I have fully participated in those same years of the aid-industry trying to scientific-ize and make more systematic and predictable what it is that we do.
I like to believe that I am reasonably perceptive and that I can grasp much of what’s going on with people in those areas of the world where I have experience as well as perhaps language ability and cultural knowledge. And so Mr. Brooks’ suggestion that I have somehow missed a key element – maybe the key element – didn’t sit all that well with me.
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In the past few years I’ve come increasingly in contact with a statistic to the effect that something like 85 percent of the population of the world claim some religious affiliation, believe in God or a god, practice some form of worship and/or actively engage what they believe to be the spiritual realm. There are several iterations of this approximate proportion (85 or 86 percent) that come up when you search in Google. Here, for example, or here. Bill Maher mentions this statistic in his 2008 Lions Gate release, “Religulous.”
The fact that 85 percent of the world’s population believes in things spiritual is actually a key point in the movie “Contact” (2007, Jodie Foster, Matthew McConaughey). For those who have not seen it, the plot of “Contact” comes to a point where decisions must be made in the selection of a team of people who will represent “humanity” in a mission to outer space in which an encounter with extra-terrestrial intelligent life seems very probable. The question is, who is more competent to represent humanity? Someone who represents the overwhelming 85 percent majority, who him or herself believes in “God”? Or someone who is fluent in “the language of science” but thinks (as one character in the movie puts it) “that the rest [of us] suffer from some form of delusion”?
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I have a hard time accepting that the existence or non-existence of God or anything else about things spiritual could ever come down to essentially a voting matter. 85 percent of the population believing in some form of “God” doesn’t prove that there is, in fact, a God.
But it does make a compelling argument for why we, as international humanitarian workers, must take religion seriously. And beyond taking it seriously, we need to see it as a central issue; we need to understand better it’s power in the lives of our beneficiaries and partners and counterparts and colleagues.
Don’t misunderstand: I am absolutely not arguing that we should promote religion or somehow mix aid work with proselytizing. I do not suggest that we attempt to persuade anyone to either adopt new or change existing religious beliefs. I am not suggesting objectives and indicators and budget lines tied to religious understanding.
I am saying that we need to see religion as more than a curiosity or a barrier. I am saying that I see significant room in the aid industry to expand our understanding of the ways in which Religion affects people, broadly speaking, and the ways in which religions are powerful forces in the communities where we work. If the statistic is right and 85 percent of the recipients of aid that we deliver are religious (it’s actually probably higher than 85 percent), then we see a necessarily incomplete picture by sticking with the concrete, the tangible, the scientific. I’m not saying that we should all embrace religion (this is a very personal choice for everyone), but I am suggesting that we need to move beyond arm’s-length tolerance: It is not enough to simply know intellectually that communities in southern Laos are Theravada Buddhist: we need to know what that means specifically in the life of that community and in the lives of those who are to benefit from what we do there. It is not sufficient simply to know that recipients of aid in rural Afghanistan are Muslim; it’s not even enough to overtly make the link between that fact and what it means for us and how we structure and run programs there…
The aid programs that we design and implement and monitor and evaluate nearly always take place in contexts where religion is a central part of peoples lives. For us to be less than complete in our understanding of what that means necessarily limits our ability to fully comprehend the impact of those aid programs.
To borrow from “Contact”, if we insist on the language of science but fail in our ability to understand the language of religion (regardless of our own individual faith-status or the philosophical underpinnings of our employers), we will also fail to understand a very central part of the lives of those communities where we work and our aid will be less effective and sustainable as a result.