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Development and Religion

Summary and Keywords

The study of religion and development focuses on how the moral and ethical resources of the world’s major faith traditions such as Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism might tame the worst excesses of market civilization. Whereas states, corporations, and international development institutions often define “development” as economic growth and all of the adjustments required to achieve it, religious approaches consider the consequences of this conception of development and recommend that the achievement of material gain be tempered by compassion, conscience, a greater concern for social equity, and a responsible application of science and technology to both the social and natural worlds. The origins of the field of religion and development can be traced back to Max Weber's seminal investigations into the elective affinities between Protestantism and the spirit of capitalism. In the 1980s, the majority of scholarly literature grappled with the meaning and significance of Weber’s basic ideas in various contexts and locales as scholars examined whether, when, and how religious traditions enhance or inhibit development at the international, regional, national, or community levels of analysis. After a period of hibernation, the study of religion and development was reenergized in the late 1990s as religious leaders and faith-based organizations played a central role in challenging the policies and practices of international development institutions, especially the World Bank.

Keywords: religion, economic development, Max Weber, capitalism, Protestantism, international development institutions, World Bank


At the global level, scholars of religion and development often examine how the moral and ethical resources of the world’s major faith traditions such as Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism might tame the worst excesses of market civilization (Wilber and Jameson 1980; Sivaraksa and Ginsburg 1992; Marshall 2001; Knitter and Muzaffar 2003; Haynes 2007). States, corporations, and international development institutions often define “development” as economic growth and all of the adjustments required to achieve this such as privatization, increased consumption and production of material goods, and the rationalization of the economy based on the qualities needed for human societies to develop (acquisitiveness, entrepreneurship) and what they should value (things, money). Religious approaches consider the consequences of this conception of development and recommend that the achievement of material gain be tempered by compassion, conscience, a greater concern for social equity, and a responsible application of science and technology to both the social and natural worlds. Religious perspectives on development respect the need for societies to produce the material wealth required for the survival and improvement of cultural, medical, political, scientific, and educational institutions. Rather the concern is with how the global imperative of economic or material development often degenerates into a pursuit of wealth for wealth’s sake, which in turn unleashes a cycle wherein other human beings and nature itself come to be treated as mere means.

Scholars of religion and development are not alone in emphasizing the limitations and potential dangers of mainstream conceptions of development (Goulet 1971; Haq 1995; Sen 1999), yet their contributions are unique because the objects of their analysis are unique: religious traditions are not only collections of theological pronouncements that people approach with various levels of certainty. They are also systems of symbols, ways of cooking and eating, reading, talking, dressing, raising children, treating friends and enemies, making jokes, music, pictures, buildings, and much more. Given their durability as moral and ethical systems and their immanence in all dimensions of social life, the world’s better-known religious traditions and the transnational faith-based organizations rooted in them are important objects of analysis for scholars of religion and development because they may provide the resources to make development more holistic, inclusive, and humane.

Scholars also examine the relationship between religion and development at the level of states and civil society. Here, closer attention to local context reveals the multiple ways in which many religious entities such as local faith-based organizations, national churches, religious communities of monks, nuns, and popular religious leaders, or foreign faith-based organizations (such as missionary organizations) interact with the state, society, and each other, whether in conflict or cooperation (Haynes 2007). Scholars of religion and development harbor no illusions that religion will always and everywhere be a force for cooperation and peace. In fact, as this essay will highlight, some of the best work on religion and development explores the tensions between and among different religious institutions operating in the same country or region as each tries to serve its target communities and execute its development programs. Many scholars are quite critical of churches, mainstream religious traditions, or missionary activity (Berger 2003), or consider just how much religious ideas or organizations should really be allowed to define development agendas in the first place (Marshall 2005b).

This essay gives an overview of the literature on religion and development, not its empirical reality. Following a few preliminary considerations, it identifies patterns in the history of the literature and then some contemporary themes. The concluding section discusses some shortcomings in the literature and offers a few suggestions on where research on the topic should go in years to come.

Readers interested in empirical studies of religion and development have a wealth of material at their disposal. G. Clarke (2006) and Benedetti (2006) provide useful typologies of faith-based organizations and the variety of work they do. Sabina Alkire’s essay on religion and development and its excellent bibliography are also valuable in this regard (Alkire 2006). Scholars may also study Religion and Development in relation to various themes such as gender (Tripp 1999; Balchin 2003; Kennedy and Nowlan 2004) health (Byamugisha et al. 2002; Haynes 2007; see also the International Interfaith Network for Development and Reproductive Health 2005), ecology and the environment (Nasr 1996; Mitchell and Tanner 2002; Foltz et al. 2003; Palmer and Findlay 2003; see also Tucker and Grim 2001 and the rest of this 2001 special issue of Daedalus), or straight economics (Barro and McCleary 2003; Noland 2005; Pryor 2007). The most recent and comprehensive book on religion and development takes such a thematic approach (Haynes 2007). Scholars may also prefer to take a regional approach. Organized along these lines, the literature pools into work on religion and development in Africa (Turner 1980; Von Der Mehden 1980; Belshaw et al. 2001; Bornstein 2002; Marshall 2005a; Ter Haar and Ellis 2006), Asia (Ariyaratne 1978; 1980; Macy 1983; Phongphit 1988; Candland 2000; Iyer 2003; Kumar 2003), Latin America (Bruneau 1980; Ver Beek 2000), and the Middle East and North Africa (Neumayer 2003; Clark 2004; Murphy 2004).

From the outset it is important to recognize that both “religion” and “development” are contested concepts in the literature. Exactly what is meant by these terms is partly what is at issue in many contributions to the field. For Alkire, part of the difficulty in studying religion and development arises from “fuzzy boundaries: religion cannot be tidily isolated from other factors at work within and among people and groups” (Alkire 2006:508). To “religion” many scholars prefer alternative terms such as “faith” (G. Clarke 2006), “the sacred” (Kumar 2003), or “spirituality” (Ver Beek 2000). The World Faiths Development Dialogue (WFDD) prefers the term “faith communities,” arguing that according to such communities, development must be “based on moral values,” dedicated to “engagement with this world” (World Faiths Development Dialogue 1999:4). How one uses the term “religion” is important, as many large and influential “faith-based” NGOs active in the development arena do not necessarily understand themselves as “religious” (Berger 2003:21). Others adopt secular development models or, depending on one’s perspective, have been coopted into them (Taylor 1995). Cassandra Balchin points out that the fact that Muslim relief organizations work among Muslim communities does not necessarily mean they take a “faith perspective” to development (Balchin 2003:46). It has also been suggested that mainline Protestant groups are the most likely to draw sharp distinctions between religious and secular development activity, while evangelical organizations may be the most likely to blur the two categories in their discourse and behavior (Kniss and Campbell 1997). In many cases religious and secular approaches to development may overlap significantly (Daly 1996). Ultimately, at least as far as the study of religion and development is concerned, one often never really knows just how much “religion” has to do with the pronouncements or behavior of an individual, an organization, or a community. Scholars of religion and development must constantly be on guard against reifying the concept or applying it indiscriminately.

How one defines “religion” itself has concrete implications for development in practice. Leah Selinger argues that the notion of religion as private, inner experience is not only ethnocentric but is also precisely what underlies the common view that religion “gets in the way of helping the poor and promoting development” (Selinger 2004:535). According to Selinger, “the understanding of religion that has been expanded in the development discourse has focused on its use as a spiritual or institutional force, not as a cultural and social practice that […] can directly influence social and economic development” (Selinger 2004:539). Even the discourse of the WFDD “reinforces the idea that religion is something personal and private and that development can only be achieved once individuals have attained a more developed value system within themselves” (Selinger 2004:539). Such a privatized notion of religion should be replaced by an understanding of religion as a social construct (Thomas 2005). A social conception of religion may be more appropriate for understanding the role of faith-based communities and support networks in tempering the inequities and social disruptions often brought about by the expansion of economic globalization (Selinger 2004:536).

“Development” is also a term marked by contestation. For scholars and practitioners who work at the intersection of “religion” and “development,” the very definition of “development” is an important issue (Harcourt 2003; Loy 2003; Suwanbubbha 2003). Definitions of “development” often differ depending on the perspective of one’s faith tradition, whether Buddhist (Ariyaratne 1980; Sivaraksa and Ginsburg 1992; Loy 2003), Hindu (Oommen 1992; Kumar 2003), Jewish (Kliksberg 2003b), Muslim (Ragab 1980; Nasr 1996), or Christian (Taylor 2000; Reed 2001). Definitions of “development” from religious perspectives are nuanced by culture and geography as well (Ling 1980; Turner 1980; Von Der Mehden 1980; Candland 2000; Suwanbubbha 2003). Later this essay will provide a few examples of how “development” looks from the perspective of individual religious traditions.

Historical Survey

The origins of the field of religion and development lie in Max Weber’s seminal investigations into the elective affinities between Protestantism and the spirit of capitalism (Weber 1904–5/2003). In the 1980s, the majority of scholarly literature on the topic grappled with the meaning and significance of Weber’s basic ideas in various contexts and locales as scholars examined whether, when, and how religious traditions enhance or inhibit development – most often economic development – at the international, regional, national, or community levels of analysis. After a period of hibernation, the study of religion and development was reenergized in the late 1990s as religious leaders and faith-based organizations played a central role in challenging the policies and practices of international development institutions, especially the World Bank. In response, the Bank began to look seriously at its interpretations of crucial concepts such as poverty and development, and moved to include religious leaders and faith-based organizations in many development projects (Marshall and Van Saanen 2007).

Whatever its ultimate impact, the Bank’s involvement with religious organizations raised a host of new questions and issues that helped to revitalize the scholarly study of religion and development. Three of the most important of these are religious perspectives on the meaning of development and poverty, increased critical attention paid to the role of traditional religious hierarchies in determining the development agenda in various contexts, and the all-important question of exactly to what extent religious individuals and communities should play a role in setting and executing the development agenda in the first place. The following historical overview tells this story in more detail and gives special attention to these three contemporary themes.

The Weberian Approach and Its Legacy

The field of religion and development cannot be reduced to the study of themes raised by Weber’s work. Yet Weber had a profound influence on how scholars of religion and development approached their subject matter in the decades before the 1990s.

Prior to the 1990s most studies of religion and development grappled with various aspects of Max Weber’s model of the relationship between religion and economics. For Weber, Protestant (specifically Calvinist) virtues such as entrepreneurship, self-discipline, hard work, and saving for the future did not themselves cause but unintentionally promoted and nurtured the “spirit” of capitalism. Scholars of religion and development in the 1980s considered Weber’s theories in various religions and locales. When this was done, new questions arose. The problem was that as industrialization and market economy expanded to other contexts, particularly the developing world, capitalist development and the individualist virtues that underpinned it appeared increasingly out of step with the religious and moral codes found there. In a special 1980 issue of World Development devoted to the topic of religion and development, for example, Wilber and Jameson write that “in the context of Third-World development […] the moral base of society has religious roots, and that moral base has been undermined during the process of capitalist development since 1945” (Wilber and Jameson 1980:475). To counteract this process, the authors argue, “successful development can occur only if the economic processes of growth and structural change correspond with the social limits, or guidance, determined in the moral base” provided by local or indigenous religious values (Wilber and Jameson 1980:472). Considering Weber in comparative context led scholars to recognize the limitations of development conceived as economic growth. It appeared that preservation of the moral or religious traditions in a given society must itself be considered central to the development process.

Other work in the same period takes up different aspects of the Weberian legacy. In “Islam and Development,” Ibrahim Ragab argues against the notion that Islamic traditions inhibit development and attributes this view to “clearly outdated Weberian views on Islam,” such as that the belief system and behavior of Muslims are not conducive to modernization, or that persistent pre-Islamic elements can explain underdevelopment in Muslim societies (Ragab 1980:513–14). For Ragab, underdevelopment in Muslim societies has little to do with the theology or ethics of the Muslim tradition itself but rather with “truncated institutional development” resulting in large part from colonial intrusions (Ragab 1980:516). Given this, the Islamic tradition may instead act as a resource for more ethical and responsible social, political, and economic development. Similar insights were developed in other contexts, such as sub-Saharan Africa. For Harold Turner, African independent churches, far from being “reactionary obstacles to real development,” may instead “exhibit a loose parallel to the Protestant work ethic” and thus foster attitudes that prize scientific and educational achievement, break the hold of fear-inducing occult practices or local magic, and assist the “development of a sense of responsibility in the individual for his own welfare and his own fate,” all of which according to Turner are crucial for modern economic development (Turner 1980:526).

In his examination of the impact of Buddhism and Islam on development in Burma, Thailand, Indonesia, and Malaysia, Fred Von Der Mehden argues that much of the research on the relationship between religion and development in this region “has dwelled specifically upon the value of Weber’s analysis of religion for an understanding of the Afro-Asian situation” and as a consequence considers only the degree to which religions such as Islam and Theravada Buddhism inhibit economic and social development (Von Der Mehden 1980:546). If this is true, however, how can the Weberian perspective explain the presence of other members of the same religion “who are not apparently inhibited in their drive toward developmentally-oriented activities”? (Von Der Mehden 1980:547). The answer was to move beyond the exclusive consideration of religious doctrine as a force inimical to development and to look instead at the various ways in which religious leaders, symbols, or organizations foster local development programs (Von Der Mehden 1980:551). For Von Der Mehden, the most difficult overall research question for scholars of religion and development was at its heart a “Weberian” one: how to explain variations in economic activity among persons or communities professing the same religion.

Other contributions to this 1980 special issue of World Development explore the role of Buddhism in development, particularly in South Asia (Ariyaratne 1980; Ling 1980), the role of Christian communities in Latin America and the Caribbean (Bruneau 1980, Davis 1980), and Islam and development in Iran (Nash 1980) and West Africa (Creevey 1980). Implicitly or explicitly the majority of the contributions to this special issue grapple with what was perceived to be the fundamental question of the Weberian legacy: whether religion inhibits development or enhances it.

Modernization and Secularization Theory

These earlier “Weberian” investigations of the role of religion in development took place in a wider intellectual context. In the 1950s, modernization theory emerged as the most important interpretive paradigm in Anglo-American sociology and remained so for many years. The core assumptions of modernization theory were elaborated upon and reinforced by other social sciences, especially economics and political science, until modernization theory came to provide the dominant conceptual lens through which development was understood. There were always exceptions to modernization theory’s interpretation of development and the role of religion in it (see for example Goulet 1980:482–4). Generally, however, modernization theory’s popularity in Anglo-American social science meant that any sustained consideration of the role of religion in development from a standpoint outside of that theory would remain marginal. Some scholars claim that modernization theory and especially secularization theory are largely responsible for why the topic of religion was neglected for so long in the social sciences, and in political science and international relations in particular (Wuthnow 1991; Thomas 2005). All of this is important to understand because much of the scholarship on religion and development is a response to modernization or secularization theory in some way.

Modernization theorists essentially argued that societies pass through similar stages of modernization until they arrive at the condition of modernity (Rostow 1960). Once modern, there is no going back. While the theory relied heavily on Weber’s and Durkheim’s distinction between modern and traditional societies, modernization theorists generally downplayed Weber’s own reservations about the spiritual and psychological costs of modern ways of life. Modernization theorists concentrated instead on the relative ability of a given society to produce modern personalities (literate, largely urban, socially mobile, and politically active) and social forms (industrialized and preferably capitalist, democratic, and secular). Rural and largely illiterate communities, for example, whose population is sheltered from exposure to mass media will be unable to successfully incubate the empathetic, urban, literate, socially mobile, and politically active modern personality (Lerner 1958).

If a given society lags behind or experiences difficulty in dealing with the inevitable arrival of the modern, the offending obstacles must be identified and then overcome through incorporation into modern institutions. Generally, for modernization theorists religion was such an obstacle. In “traditional” societies religions “sacralize” political and social life and reinforce age-old hierarchies by conditioning people to obey them and accept them as natural (Smith 1970:6). Such conditions are inhospitable to the development of mass participation in modern, secular, pluralist polities. Whatever the society or region under investigation, the verdict on religion was already in: “it is widely, and correctly, assumed that religion is in general an obstacle to modernization” (Smith 1970:xi). All that was needed was some fine-tuning to identify how and why “different religious systems present obstacles at different points” (Smith 1970:xi).

Such remarks on religion reflected the common belief among modernization theorists that the “old historical religions cannot survive the onslaught of the modern world” (Casanova 1994:18). Either religious belief will disappear altogether or religious institutions will be forced to surrender many of their traditional social, economic, or political functions. Some scholars argue that such notions – generally the core of secularization theory – acquired a “mythological” or “sacralized” function in Western social thought and policy making (Hadden 1987; Bellah 1991).

To early critics of this approach, the widespread success of modernization and secularization theory did not reflect the gradual accumulation of objective social scientific knowledge but rather represented something of an ethical or even moral failure on the part of the Western academic and policy community. For Denis Goulet, how development “experts” treat religion reveals more about themselves and the societies from which they come than it does about “religion” (Goulet 1980). Western attitudes toward religion are indicative of the extent to which modern, “developed” societies take seriously fundamental questions of value and meaning in human life. In this sense critics like Goulet attempted to recapture Weber’s original concerns about the loss of meaning that would inevitably accompany the arrival of secular modernity. According to Goulet, in contrast to modernization theory, religious values are “not to be viewed primarily as mere means – aids or obstacles – to the achievement of goals derived from sources outside the value systems in question” (Goulet 1980:483). Goulet was thus one of the first to point out that orthodox development policy and the social scientific assumptions that underpinned it blinded theorists and practitioners alike to the extent of their material, intellectual, and spiritual domination of less powerful societies. The very notion that there exists an orthodox development discourse inhospitable to perspectives that take meaning and fundamental questions of value seriously would emerge as a key theme in scholarship on religion and development from the 1990s onward.

The 1990s

The study of religion and development changed in the 1990s. Scholars began to take notice of the paucity of literature on the subject and to ask why this was the case. In 2000, Kurt Alan Ver Beek looked back on the previous fifteen years and noted “only scant reference to the topics of spirituality or religion” in three leading development journals, and noted that even the 1980 special issue of World Development discussed above “did not translate into sustained attention to the topic” (Ver Beek 2000:60). Moreover, according to Ver Beek, important international development organizations such as the US Agency for International Development, CARE, and Catholic Relief Services not only neglected the role of religion and spirituality in their development and relief work but when interviewed studiously avoided talking about it at all (Ver Beek 2000:68). In both theory and practice, religion and spirituality indeed appeared to be a “development taboo” (Ver Beek 2000).

For Ver Beek the possible reasons for this ranged from fear of imposing worldviews on outsiders, the historical tendency for social science literature to treat religion as ideology or myth, the assumption that religion is a private matter and hence not relevant to the public projects and activities often necessary for development, or fear of engendering conflict (Ver Beek 2000:71). Yet development theory and practice ignore religion and spirituality at some cost, as local religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices may be inseparable from important development arenas such as agriculture, health, and the environment, as Ver Beek himself shows in his analysis of the religious practices of indigenous peoples in Honduras.

By the mid to late 1990s, as Ver Beek and others continued to press for serious consideration of religion by development scholars, international development institutions such as the World Bank and others experienced widespread resistance from global civil society. Resistance from civil society spread as it became increasingly clear that development-related “mega-projects” had not only failed to address fundamental social and economic inequality in the world but in many cases exacerbated it. Religious institutions and communities had been active in international development since the 1960s, but by the 1990s faith-based organizations spearheaded the efforts for World Bank reform. Religious leaders became more vocal in their criticisms of structural adjustment, mounting developing country debt, the human and environmental costs of Bank sponsored mega-projects, and the privatization of services such as health provision, education, and water. Religious groups would figure prominently in the Jubilee 2000 campaign. The very concept of “jubilee” was taken from ancient Jewish and later Christian practices of a year in which debts were forgiven, slaves freed, and lands returned to their rightful owners (for the role of faith-based groups in Jubilee 2000, see Marshall and Keough 2004; G. Clarke 2006).

The widespread criticism of the Bank and orthodox development policies occasioned a period of rethinking on the part of the Bank and other international financial institutions. This institutional reflection occurred in a wider intellectual context, in which scholars began to reflect on the effectiveness of current development policies and the very concepts of “development” and “poverty” themselves (Haq 1995; Sen 1999; Alkire 2002). In response, the World Bank joined with the Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey to convene a series of conferences and research programs in the late 1990s under the title of the “World Faiths Development Dialogue”. The WFDD focused on the challenge of poverty and the role of faith-based organizations in helping to define and combat it. The Bank defended its new engagement with religious actors mostly on the basis of its survey in Voices of the Poor, the results of which showed definitively that “no other organizations are more firmly rooted or have better networks in poor communities than the religious ones and that religious leaders are trusted more than any others” (Tyndale 2003). For its part, the WFDD contributed to the World Development Report on Poverty and launched interfaith programs to deal with food security in Ethiopia, peace and reconciliation in Guatemala, and social service delivery in Tanzania, and has since run a number of workshops in other countries including Ghana and Thailand. Subsequent meetings in 1999 and 2000 formalized the organization and broadened its goals. Important documents from this program include Poverty and Development: An Inter-faith Perspective, Cultures, Spirituality and Development, and A New Direction for World Development, a comment on the World Bank’s World Development Report 2000/1, all available on the WFDD’s website,

The collaborations between the World Bank and the WFDD were not without controversy. The Bank risked “mission creep” and ever deeper involvement in politically sensitive areas, which could only distract from its core mission (the Bank eventually withdrew from its formal relationship with the WFDD) while religious groups feared cooption into secular development agendas (on the work of the WFDD and the controversies surrounding it see Marshall 2005b). Moreover, the interest of the World Bank in actively promoting the role of religion in development may largely have been a function of the personal predilections of then bank president James Wolfensohn.

Nonetheless, the work done between the World Bank and the WFDD is important to note for scholars of religion and development, for it helped to create a favorable intellectual climate into which scholarly discussion about religion and development could reemerge. Indeed, after 2000, in large part because of the Bank’s increased involvement in faith matters, the topic of religion and development was pursued with new-found energy in scholarly circles.

Contemporary Research

The high-profile collaboration between the World Bank and the WFDD and the wider intellectual context in which it occurred sparked a new period of research on religion and development. From a scholarly perspective, the World Bank–WFDD collaborations are interesting less for their pronouncements than for the number of new questions they raised. These questions represented a fundamental departure from the Weberian problems (for concise analyses of Weber’s enduring legacy in the context of international development, see Goody 2003; Berger 2005). Scholars of religion and development themselves began to rethink poverty and development, offer critical appraisals of both global and local power structures and the role that traditional religious institutions often play in reinforcing them, and perhaps most importantly, think seriously about the extent to which religious leaders or faith-based organizations should really be allowed to define development agendas at all. Before discussing these contemporary themes it will be useful to provide examples of how development is understood from the perspective of two religious traditions.

Buddhism and Development

Scholars of religion and development often reflect critically on orthodox conceptions of development from the perspective of a particular religious tradition.

From a Buddhist perspective, even after many attempts to redefine development and poverty more holistically, lack of income still remains “the basic criterion of ill-being” used by development institutions (Loy 2003:9). Yet for Buddhism the solution to poverty is not primarily economic (a matter of having enough to consume) because the cause is not primarily economic (Loy 2003:13). Rather, for Buddhists the ultimate source of poverty is the unrestrained acquisitive drives of human beings. This implies that poverty cannot be overcome by constant proliferation of desires that can only be satisfied by consuming more and more goods and services. The consumption of goods and services may result in eradication of material poverty but “promote a different kind of poverty that is even more harmful” (Loy 2003:9). For this reason, development projects that “seek to end poverty by ‘developing’ a society into an economy focused on consumption […] end up creating more problems than they solve” (Loy 2003:9). Drawing on the work of Karl Polanyi, Loy writes that “a basic contradiction of the market is that it requires character traits such as honesty, trust, etc. in order to work efficiently, yet it is primarily motivated by a desire for profit that tends to erode such personal responsibility for others” (Loy 2003:12). This particular Buddhist conception thus seeks to re-embed the economy in social relations by inculcating a spirit of compassion for others and stressing the crucial social and moral role of the Buddhist principle of self-limitation. It is not that Buddhism denies the importance of basic material needs. Food, clothing, shelter, and health care certainly matter, but it is the absence of faith, moral conduct, development of character, and sacrifice of possessions for others’ well-being which constitutes true poverty. Far from recommending quietism or renunciation of worldly activity, engaged Buddhism of this sort can play an important role in development by helping societies to resist letting material achievement become the sole criterion of worth for human beings, even if this means active resistance to the state in their midst.

Particularly innovative in Loy’s approach is his use of the Buddhist critique of duality in the context of development. Buddhism requires one to think critically about the dualisms in play in orthodox development discourse. The concern for “attacking poverty” may only be “the flip side of our aggressive preoccupation with wealthcreation,” leading us to rationalize a lifestyle preoccupied with economic growth (Loy 2003:10). In this way we preserve the concept of the poor insofar as “global poverty is thus conceptually necessary if the world is to be completely commodified and monetarized” (Loy 2003:11). Because poverty and wealth need each other, we not only need to be concerned with the poverty side, “but also about the wealth side – the personal, social, and environmental costs of our obsession with wealth creation and collective growth” (Loy 2003:11).

Loy’s interpretation of the role of Buddhism in development is one of many. Susan Darlington focuses on how “environmentalist monks” in Thailand reject the Thai state’s notion of development and concentrate their efforts on issues such as deforestation, mass transportation projects, and the construction of large dams (Darlington 2000). Somboon Suksamran and Seri Phongphit examine the role of Buddhist monks in development in Thailand in relation to a variety of development themes (Suksamran 1988; Phongphit 1988). Perhaps the most interesting work on Buddhism and development examines the relationship between Buddhist perspectives and issues of nature, ecology, and the environment (Demaine 1986; Schmithausen 1997). Scholars interested in pursuing the topic of Buddhism and development can do no better than to first get a feel for the wider tradition of engaged Buddhism (Sivaraksa and Ginsburg 1992; Queen and King 1996; see also the online Journal of Buddhist Ethics). Though composed of many strands, engaged Buddhism holds generally that development consists in the removal of human suffering through courage and compassion. For some, this can be achieved by responsible application of traditional Buddhist principles such as right action, speech, behavior, and livelihood. Others underscore the cultivation of a critical faculty that will help individuals to recognize the proper balance between what to take from tradition and what to admire about modernity (Haynes 2007:19). For many engaged Buddhists development often requires that human beings acknowledge their responsibility to courageously but peacefully confront – not cause, enable, or exacerbate – social, political, economic, and ecological forms of suffering and injustice.

Islam and Development

Scholarship on Islam and development follows a trajectory not very different from scholarship on religion and development generally. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s a variety of scholars grappled with Weber’s suggestive but scattered interpretations of Islam and its relationship to economic and political development. In his seminal Weber and Islam, Bryan Turner argued that Weber’s interpretation of Islam exhibited a host of nineteenth century ideological prejudices, including the notion that Islam embodies a “warrior ethic” or encourages a fatalist attitude toward worldly activity (Turner 1974). Yet Turner generally maintained Weber’s notion that Islam is inimical to the development of industrial capitalism. For Turner this was largely because property rights and other elements conducive to capitalism were made unstable by the patrimonial tendencies in Islamic religion, culture, and society. Other scholars, such as Maxime Rodinson (1978), challenged the fundamentally Weberian notion that Islam is ill suited to modern capitalism and argued instead that Islamic societies are amenable to either capitalism or socialism. Ultimately, however, because religion is understood as ideology in Rodinson’s approach, it is not possible for Islam to serve as a viable alternative model of development. Thus Muslim societies were left with the developmental choice between capitalism and socialism. In contrast, Cummings et al. (1980) examined how various aspects of economic behavior such as taxation, interest, and income distribution had always been subject to Islamic ethical norms. They concluded that Islam indeed represented a viable alternative approach to both socialism and free market capitalism. Later, Leonard Binder searched Islam for a liberal tradition that would allow for the development of bourgeois capitalism if only Islamic philosophical liberalism could prevail against extremist tendencies (Binder 1988).

In the 1990s, scholarship on Islam and development began to change as new themes arose alongside older ones. Foremost among these was the relationship between gender and development in Islam. A variety of new empirical work revealed the contestations over the role of women in development in Muslim societies. In Bangladesh for example, both secular and religious NGOs have met a variety of successes in helping to generate income and economic growth to benefit women, the poor, and other underprivileged sectors of society. Yet such NGOs are often attacked by conservative Muslims, who look upon them as “cultural adversaries” who “tinker with traditional values” and sometimes use fatwas to discourage employment or education programs that foster women’s independence (Rashiduzzaman 1997:239). Thus the real challenge for Bangladesh is to “reconcile the differences between religious leaders and NGOs” (Rashiduzzaman 1997:239). In Somalia, Sadia Ahmed highlights how communities may become more susceptible to the influence of groups that use religious means to gain power when social or economic crises become particularly acute (Ahmed 1999:69). Ahmed argues that though “extremist” groups may create business and employment opportunities for their followers, they may also defend patriarchal structures and employ political power to exclude women from participation in politics and in development arenas especially. For Cassandra Balchin discourses about religion and development often overlook how both women and men in Muslim contexts actually experience and regard development challenges and opportunities (Balchin 2003).

An increasing amount of contemporary research is also under way on the role of Islamic charities in the development process. Islamic charities do a variety of development work such as providing affordable health care, education, and cultural events. Whether it is true or not that Islamic charities succeed in this regard (White 2002; Clark 2004; Salih 2004), it is certainly the case that the climate for Muslim charity work is more difficult now than before. Since September 11, 2001 Islamic charities have been prone to surveillance or interruption by suspicious political regimes and their intelligence services.

Finally, Islamic thought itself has a long and complex tradition of thinking about development. One could argue that from the perspective of Islam, “development” often means the development of each individual’s capability to realize their own dignity and worth and to achieve intellectual, spiritual, and emotional maturity (Inani 1990). Islamic thinkers who reflect on matters of development often teach trust and confidence in the God-given ability of human beings to find the proper balance between obedience and freedom, scientific rationality and faith, and spiritual and material reality (Nasr 1975).

Islamic liberation theology combines these themes with that of the obligation to assist one’s community while acknowledging the tensions this may generate in the political arena (Akhtar 1991).

It is impossible to discuss here how development looks from the perspective of every major religious tradition, but a few words about Judeo-Christianity and Hinduism will be useful. For Bernardo Kliksberg, Christianity and Judaism provide a set of norms that could be recovered to facilitate the responsibility that human beings have to help each other. The Judeo-Christian tradition can also be used to support volunteerism as an ethical obligation, the responsibility to respond to basic issues of distributive injustice, resistance to child labor, debt relief, and general reflection on the nature and purpose of the global economy and the ends it is meant to serve (Kliksberg 2003a:60). Other important works that draw on this tradition include Beckmann (1981) and Reed (2001).

Scholarship on Hinduism and development exhibits a similar progression from engagement with Weber (Mishra 1962; Kapp 1963; Gupta 1971) to approaches that underscore Hinduism’s ability to temper the “ruthless application” of science and technology and foster sustainable human and environmental development (Oommen 1992; Narayan 2001). Satish Kumar focuses on small-scale attempts at development informed by religious and spiritual values such as community work inspired by Gandhi’s concept of Gram Seva, or village service (Kumar 2003). Gram Seva urges people “to offer service to others irrespective of religious affiliation, caste or class distinctions” and is based on the principle that “there is no duality nor separation between the one serving and the one served,” nor any distinction between providers and recipients of development (Kumar 2003:17). From this perspective, the problem is not so much poverty itself, for material need can be dealt with, but rather affluence and injustice. Affluence erodes the human being’s ability and willingness to engage in compassionate sacrifice, and when this happens injustice is reproduced habitually, needlessly, mindlessly.

Power, Religion, Development

At its best, contemporary scholarship on religion and development critiques global and local power structures and especially the role that traditional religious institutions often play in reinforcing them. Wendy Tyndale writes of how for many scholars of religion and development “the usual division between ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ countries (and peoples) is a false one” (Tyndale 2003:23). All human beings are related to each other by a spiritual dimension of our lives, and if this is true then “the notion that experts from the ‘developed countries’, or even from the elite of the ‘developing’ ones, somehow know better than others how to define the ‘good life’ (let alone how to reach it) is out of place” (Tyndale 2003:24). Religious groups and development agencies undoubtedly share a genuine commitment to what they do. Yet unless the very terms of development are made the subject of more open debate, “joint action” between them “might well end in development agencies hoping merely to use religious organizations as a new tool to advance the attainment of material well-being” (Tyndale 2003:27).

Tyndale’s remarks and others illustrate just how much concerns over questions of power have come to the forefront of thinking about religion and development. Sometimes this sentiment manifests as forthright skepticism about the activities of conservative religious groups in all traditions. For Wendy Harcourt, development often claims to be secular yet in practice what actually happens is that development projects are influenced “all too often by the lobbying, funding, and pressure of fundamentalist and conservative religious positions,” evident in the way conservative religious beliefs around the family, women’s choice, poverty, and health are deeply embedded in many development policies (Harcourt 2003:3). Satish Kumar argues that missionary activity often “never challenges the unjust, inequitable social order which causes poverty in the first place” (Kumar 2003:19). In Muslim contexts, entrenched power elites – especially religious ones – often determine who is a “legitimate” Muslim and this only reinforces “hegemonic claims to legitimate representation of ‘the community’ and the right to define religious practice and the parameters of women’s development” (Balchin 2003:43). In short, when prioritizing a category like “Islamic feminism” as the main development issue, “donors may propound the most conservative version of Islam” (Balchin 2003:43).

Parichart Suwanbubbha highlights similar issues of power and authority in her examination of Mae Chees in Thailand. Mae Chees are lay Buddhist nuns who do not have legal status as ordained women yet are engaged in many aspects of social work such as education and health care (Suwanbubbha 2003:70). Suwanbubbha argues that the problems faced by Mae Chees are related directly to discrimination by the Thai government and the male Sangha and more generally to “traditional hierarchy and gender bias in religious and secular society” (Suwanbubbha 2003:72). Finally, in another variation on this theme, Gerard Clarke stresses the extent to which donors have focused disproportionately on the activities of faith-based organizations from mainstream Christian churches (G. Clarke 2006:836). Contemporary scholars of religion and development often work to uncover the “powerful alliances” between religious groups and development institutions at both the local and global levels (Harcourt 2003:4). For these scholars, such alliances often inhibit human development rather than enhance it.

The contemporary concern with matters of power in the study of religion and development thus takes many forms. As local-level empirical studies continue to accumulate, scholars find increasingly that local alliances between governments and official or state-sponsored religious personnel or institutions may dominate the content of development projects on the ground and who gets to participate in them. Such alliances often marry development projects to orthodox or conservative brands of religious thought and practice, for good or ill. This is why contemporary research often highlights the importance of critiques of hierarchy at the local level. Scholars of religion and development have learned to listen carefully when religious leaders involved in development projects speak on behalf of their faith communities.

Contemporary scholars are aware that development institutions are inevitably forced to pick and choose among various religious groups they wish to work with. In many cases the groups that have the resources and transnational organization to represent themselves to rich donors advance quite conservative versions of a given religion. Interestingly enough, for local religious communities, development often requires freedom from local and international power alliances that reinforce the most conservative versions of their faith.

The greater attention paid to issues of power and hierarchy that this essay argues distinguishes the contemporary study of religion and development moves contemporary scholarship quite close to themes expounded in post-development literature (Rahnema and Bawtree 1997). Contemporary scholars of religion and development share with post-development scholars a skepticism toward development “experts” and the alliances they make, and look instead to local sites where alternative values are often found. Such sensitivity to power formations helps religion and development scholars to avoid romanticizing the emancipatory potential of religion with regards to development, especially at the local or grassroots level. Contemporary scholarship on religion and development also shares with post-development scholarship a heightened sensitivity to the power of development discourse, be it secular or religious. Finally, post-development scholars looking for new ways to meet criticisms that their approach “fails to notice the ongoing contestation of development on the ground” might consider incorporating into their approach the evidence emerging from contemporary studies of religion and development (Escobar 2006:448). As this essay has argued, contestation over who defines both development and religion on the ground has emerged as the most important theme in contemporary research in this area.

The scholarly study on religion and development began by thinking through Weberian themes in comparative contexts. After a brief lull for most of the 1980s and 1990s, the field was reinvigorated by empirical developments such as the increasing role religious groups played in criticizing the development policies of international financial institutions and the resulting attempts by those institutions to partner more with faith-based organizations and include religious perspectives in their work. A new literature on religion and development arose, and important new themes surfaced. The very meaning of “development” itself came to be discussed more openly and explicitly among development agencies and religious organizations, and in the scholarly literature, scholars of religion and development became more sensitive to the question of power in this field, especially the ways in which traditional religious hierarchies may exist in tension with other religious communities vying to participate in the development arena, and the related problem of exactly what these tensions implied about the dangers of allowing traditional religious hierarchies to gain too much control over development agendas.


The study of religion and development has changed over time. Looking back over the history of the field, one sees a clear shift from the Weberian theme of whether religious traditions impede or nurture economic development to a recognition of how religions are resources that provide comfort and support for the economically vulnerable, a structure of hierarchy that can exist in tension with other individuals or groups in the same community, or systems that can provide ethical or moral limits on the continuous and global expansion of free market capitalism and its many underpinning ideologies.

There is more work to be done, however. Scholarship in the future might concentrate on how the global and local levels of analysis interact. For example, the world’s major faith traditions have representatives who are interlocutors between the religion and various “developed” country governments and official development and financial institutions. These representatives speak on behalf of their communities at international conferences on development and are often the ones called upon to consult international development institutions on religious matters. Their interpretations of their faith, their interests, and their connections may differ profoundly from the faiths, interests, and relative power of religious communities on the ground. Local religious communities may rebel as much against traditional religious hierarchies in their midst as they do against the vulgarities of “the market.” In such cases, “development” comes to mean freedom from traditional or established religious hierarchies. Future research on religion and development must explore further how this theme plays out in both local and international contexts.

Second, there is virtually no literature that treats the relationship between religion and development in Central and Eastern Europe. Faith-based organizations are very active in the former republics of Russia as well as in the former Yugoslavia, Romania, Moldova, Bulgaria, the Ukraine, and elsewhere. These regions are important, as here Orthodox Christian, Muslim, Roman Catholic, and local traditions exist in both conflict and cooperation in the development arena. A literature on religion and development in this region would fill an important gap in current research.

Third, religion and development should be open to exploring the various ways in which development processes may influence religion in addition to how religion influences development. Most of the literature in the field, even if only implicitly, tends to treat religion as an explanatory variable in development. Yet development may be an explanatory variable with regard to religion. Concerns about the environment and ecology, more holistic visions of human health and the human body, gender, and the recovery of local and indigenous knowledges may all lead to the development of new religious practices, or even new religions (Grey 2003; Introvigne 2004; P. Clarke 2006; Boff 2007). Many new religions tend to be engaged ones, emphasizing service to community as much if not more than theological or doctrinal content. New thematic concerns in civil society may influence the creation of new religions, which in turn impact the development scene of the community. For their perceived strangeness and activism new religions are often regulated and come into conflict with states and traditional religions alike. If religion and development can continue its various macro-, micro-, and regional-level studies and incorporate these three elements as well, the field will perhaps be better prepared to anticipate future battlegrounds over the role of religion in development.


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                                                                                                                                                                                                        The author thanks Salvatore Babones, Bob Denemark, Jeffrey Haynes, Ganul Tol, and the anonymous reviewers for their comments and encouragement in the preparation of this essay.