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Home / Opinion / Columns /  Today’s dichotomy between religious identity and faith

In many countries around the world, a paradoxical behaviour trend is underway. Even in countries where religiosity scores are low, religion is making its presence felt strongly. This is most evident in Europe.

Religiosity, a score that denotes feelings for or devotion to a religion, has been on the decline in many European countries for a long time. According to Pew Research Center, which has been studying religiosity across Europe for many years, non-practising Christians (defined as people who identify as Christians but attend church services no more than a few times per year) make up the biggest share of the population across the region. In every country except Italy, they are more numerous than church-attending Christians (those who attend religious services at least once a month). The declining importance of religion has been corroborated by a study by the Benedict XVI Centre for Religion and Society at St. Mary’s University, London. According to this study, the proportion of young adults (aged 16-29) with no religious affiliation is as high as 91% in the Czech Republic, 80% in Estonia and 75% in Sweden. In the UK and France, the proportions are 70% and 64% respectively. This declining trend of religiosity has been on for a very long time.

But the Olivier Roy-edited book Saving the People: How Populists Hijack Religion highlights an opposite trend. According to it, in recent years religion has found assertion in politics, media and everyday life in many countries. One can understand the emergence of religion-oriented populists in such countries as Poland, the US and Israel, where religiosity scores are relatively high. But how do we explain the heightened role of religion in countries like Britain, France, Italy, Austria and the Netherlands where those scores are abysmally low? This suggests that religion is a significant factor of influence even among agnostics.

Several countries around the world are experiencing a new wave of right-wing populism that seeks to mobilize religion for its own ends. The core strategy of populists is to use religion to segregate the population into the good ‘us’ and evil ‘them’. These political parties paint a picture of an idyllic past that they want to restore. They indulge in intense evaluations of the past: What went wrong? Who is to be blamed? And what must be done to reverse the situation?. The call for a restoration of the past is often accompanied by a call for a ‘battle’ to be waged. This battle is plainly against evil ‘others’, members of other religions.

What these populists are playing is an age- old tribal game. To consolidate an in-group, they create a surcharged environment with the fear of an outsider. In Europe, populist political parties have thrived among majority Christian populations by creating a fear of Muslim immigrants. In charged situations, core teachings of Christianity about love not just for one’s neighbour but even enemies are conveniently forgotten. Religion is used only as a marker of identity. These attempts to use religious identity to differentiate oneself from people belonging to other religious groups can have significant consequences for an economy no less than a society.

Trust, more so of strangers, is at the core of many an economic activity. Social interaction and exchange would be virtually impossible without at least a minimum amount of trust. Without trust, a reservoir of social capital cannot be built. Gittell Ross and Vidal Avis, authors of Community Organizing: Building Social Capital as a Development Strategy, remind us that social capital consists of both Bonding Social Capital and Bridging Social Capital. The former kind is within a group or community, while the latter is between social groups, religions or classes defined by other important sociodemographic or socioeconomic characteristics. Bonding capital supports us in maintaining our current position, whereas bridging social capital is linked to the actual advancement of one’s position.

When religion is used solely as an identity marker, bonding social capital within an in-group might improve. But differentiating oneself based on one’s religious identity will affect relationships with followers of other religions, and so one would need bridging social capital to make progress beyond a point.

This aspect has significance for a country like India. Several religions were born in India, while other faiths have been well entrenched for thousands of years. Religion has smoothly been interwoven into every aspect of Indian life. Any attempt at differentiation based on religious identity will only weaken India by drastically reducing the bridging social capital of the country.

Attempts to use religion solely as an identity marker, with its resultant reduction in the bridging capital of a society, can best be countered by religion itself. Playing up the core beliefs of the religion will go a long way in building better relationships with members of other religions. A good example of this strategy comes from Pope Francis. When populist political leaders in Europe were using the Christian religious identity to set people apart from Muslim immigrants from Syria, Pope Francis released an encyclical, Fratelli Tutti (All Brothers), which reminded Christians of the religion’s core teachings of love for the neighbour, more so the need for fraternity and social friendship.

Religion is a powerful tool for social change. Whether it’s used as a badge to divide society or as a bridge to increase the social capital of a country, is a choice that will determine the quality of our future.

Biju Dominic is the chief evangelist, Fractal Analytics and chairman, FinalMile Consulting

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