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Rohit Singh
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Fri, 20 Jul 2007

Religion and Individualism

I've been reading Edward Luce's "Inspite of the Gods: The Strange Rise of Modern India". It's a really good book, though I'll hold a full-fledged rave for later. For now, suffice to say that I even like the parts I don't agree with (and there's a fair bit in the book that I disagree with).

In the book, Luce describes his visits to VHP's National Office and to the Deoband Madrasa. Both places--- bastions of Hindu and Muslim right-wing thought, respectively--- have their fair share of kooky characters with crazy theories. Luce is struck by how similar in their craziness the two places are. Both believe quite literally in treatises and religious texts which probably were never meant to be taken literally. In this, of course, they are not alone. The Christian right is just as cuckoo. BTW, my issue here is not with right-wing politics (I hate the left, particularly Indian communists) but with the religious right.

On reading this, I was reminded of a David Brooks op-ed that I'd liked. He talked about how Catholics are starting to become richer and more influential and traces it to the new generation of Catholics who are slightly more individualistic and slightly less religious (but they still *are* religious, and this is key!). He goes on to talk about such quasi-religious people:

"Quasi-religious people attend services, but they're bored much of the time. They read the Bible, but find large parts of it odd and irrelevant. They find themselves inextricably bound to their faith, but think some of the people who define it are nuts."

Bingo! This is the crucial thing: being in the sweet-spot of having a spiritual anchor and, at the same time, religious convictions weak enough that you can stray a fair distance from the more confining rituals and thoughts of your religion. As Brooks goes on about the current generation of quasi-religious Catholics...

"On the one hand, modern Catholics have retained many of the traditional patterns of their ancestors' high marriage rates, high family stability rates, low divorce rates. Catholic investors save a lot and favor low-risk investment portfolios. On the other hand, they have also become more individualistic, more future-oriented and less bound by neighborhood and extended family. They are now much better educated than their parents or grandparents, and much better educated than their family histories would lead you to predict.

This embodies the social gospel annex to the quasi-religious creed: Always try to be the least believing member of one of the more observant sects. Participate in organized religion, but be a friendly dissident inside. Ensconce yourself in traditional moral practice, but champion piecemeal modernization. Submit to the wisdom of the ages, but with one eye open."

Well said.

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