Is Faith Necessary for Progress?

The loss of religious faith (or deviation from the true path) is amongst the commonly cited reasons for the absence of economic or social progress in Pakistan. Is this another easy answer, a gross simplification of a complex reality, or does it capture some aspect of our predicament?

There are two components of this claim: faith and progress. Taken separately, they are relatively unproblematic. Most people consider progress to be good and a laudable goal for both individuals and societies. Faith is a matter of individual choice exercised freely.

It is the link between faith and progress that is controversial and in need of examination. I doubt if even diehard believers would suggest a one-to-one correspondence between the two because that would result in odd contradictions and unacceptable conclusions. Western countries are all more developed than Pakistan. Does that mean that their citizens are all more religiously upright than ours? If so, what then is the basis for condemning the West for its rejection of religion and its alleged loose morality?

There is also no logical reason for restricting the relationship between faith and progress to countries. It should apply just as well to individuals and regions within countries. Both applications would cast doubt on the proposition. In the case of individuals it is often lamented that success is inversely related to religious devotion. Within countries, some regions are more prosperous than others and cities are always more developed than rural areas. It would be absurd to claim that the people of Karachi are reaping the benefits of adhering to the true faith while Kohistanis are suffering because of a loss of faith. On the contrary, the believers of the theory are quite as likely to argue that cities are the seats of evil while rural areas remain the founts of faith.

Going even further, why should the equation not be applicable to activities like sports? Simply because it would be impossible to argue that the World Cup would be won by the team with the most religiously committed members. Pakistan’s rise and decline in cricket cannot be matched with any similar graph of religious purity. And the phenomenal improvement in China’s Olympic performance cannot be tied credibly to a concomitant increase in religious faith.

Such contradictions are not sufficient to challenge the veracity of the claim linking progress to faith. A more nuanced argument could be implied. Perhaps what is being stressed is that deviation from the true path alters our individual attitudes and behaviors and these in turn have negative effects on our collective output. For example, the weakening of religious belief could lead to increased corruption that could impede social and economic progress.

This is a serious proposition seemingly along the lines of Max Weber who argued that the Protestant work ethic was the major contributor to the rise and location of capitalist development. But Weber’s stress was on the work ethic implicit in Protestantism and not on the degree of religious belief in general. Thus, Weber could be interpreted to imply that Catholics, no matter how devout, would not have progressed as much because Catholicism lacked the work ethic of the Protestant faith.

By now it is more than obvious that corruption has an uneven relation to economic development and that the work ethic is independent of religious belief. It is commonly remarked that South Asians work much harder and more conscientiously in the Middle East and in the US than they do at home. The change does not arise from any sudden variation in the degree of faith. Rather, it is tied to the incentives that determine the nature of the effort offered by an individual and the accountability that ensures that what is promised is actually delivered.

A social and economic system that promotes productive activities and rewards effort would elicit a good work ethic and make progress possible. Perhaps we should interpret faith not in religious terms but as faith in the justness of social and economic arrangements. If people believe them to be fair, they would work hard to earn their rewards on earth. If they don’t, they would expect to be exploited and wait to go to heaven to find justice and equality.

It is reasonable to conclude that being the most devout competitor would not result in a gold medal. Being the best prepared, regardless of faith, would give one a fighting chance. The assurance that the judging would be fair would give one the motivation to try and the rewards of winning would provide the incentive. To the extent that a strong religious belief increases motivation and preparation, it can contribute to progress and achievement. But it is not essential to the equation. In theory, any arrangement with the right mix of incentives, equity and accountability should suffice.

The search for the causes of our underdevelopment in South Asia needs to continue.

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