Tuesday, November 27, 2007


A couple of weeks ago, The Economist published a series of articles detailing the rise of religion at various places in the world. While all that was said in those articles was depressing by any standard, there was one particular article on India whose title I found a little irritating; according to The Economist, India was the "most religious country in the world". Later, I also heard this phrase enunciated in some other references, and it again struck me as strange. The Western media in my opinion has rarely demonstrated a mature and insighftul understanding of Indian culture, let alone the Hindu religion, but this belief about India being the "most religious country in the world" seems to persist like a stain of turmeric on a smart white shirt.

Let me give The Economist the benefit of doubt and assume that they simply meant that India with its billion plus population and with most of them Hindus, by sheer number can be called the most religious country in the world. But in other places, the epithet did not simply seem to relate to number. To me it seemed to be a polite euphemism for saying that India is the most superstitious country in the world. Even now, images of India in the minds of Westerners inevitably include those of sadhus, tantriks, astrology, horoscope-matching, "red dots on women's foreheads" and a multitude of other things which may or may not have to do with superstition, which nonethless are dumped into the common category of superstition by the Western press. Somehow India with its myriad gods, festivals, and festival-related elements of culture gives that impression.

But is this impression really true? First let us admit that some famous Indians don't seem to exactly help dispelling our image as a superstitious country. Holding yagnas before cricket matches and people marrying trees doesn't exactly conjure images of India as a progressive nation. But is the situation really limited to India? And is it really not prevalent in other countries?

Let's consider another country half a world away, founded on secular principles, forged in the furnace of democratic thought and freedom and ostensibly the most technologically advanced country in the world today. In this country:

45% people believe that God created the earth as it looks today about 10,000 years ago
37% believe that while evolution did happen, it was orchestrated by God
52% believe in Astrology
22% believe that aliens have landed on earth at some point in the past
33% believe that dinosaurs and humans lived simultaneously on Earth
67% genuinely think they had a bonafide psychic experience sometime in their life
35% believe in ghosts

(Source: Michael Shermer, "Why people believe weird things", Freeman, 2002)

Now perhaps we can ask the question again; which is the most superstitious country in the world? Which is the most religious country in the world?

I do agree that the influence of such opinions of people as listed above has been largely kept out of the political sphere quite effectively in the US. But given the current atmosphere, I see no guarantee of this continuing to happen. Also, my thoughts are really a response to people who are either simply ignorant or who try to distance themselves by announcing Third World countries as especially religious or superstitious. But to me this conclusion is by no means assured; at the very least it depends on how you look at the issue. By many standards and especially if we include the influence of religion on political discourse and action, I think that in the developed world, it is clear that the United States is the most religious country around.

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Blogger Parag Waknis said...

This is an interesting issue and I am surprised by the statements in the 'Economist'. If you want a better perspective on what some level headed Economists have to say on this, you should read Robert Barro's papers on religion and economic growth available on his website.
I did a summer project on the relation between state and religion and had a somewhat difficult time explaining the dynamics of religion in India and how it is different from the eurocentric view of what constitutes 'religion and religiousness' to people here . A couple of Romila Thapar's articles came to my rescue!

4:52 AM  

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