(+94) 114 690 200

Religion, poverty and post-war Sri Lanka

Why, asks an article in the magazine The Humanist, are the poor more likely to be religious? The article references a 2014 study by Jason Beyers that looks at the effect that poverty has on religion and religious orientation. The Humanist article ends with a dismissal of the relationship between religion and poverty, suggesting, as many others do, that the reason why the poor are more religious is because the idea that discomfort is only for this material world, and that in the world that is to come, there will be liberation, paradise, reward. Certainly, it would seem that religion and poverty belong in opposite worlds. Poverty ties one directly to the material circumstances of this world, pinning one down to the grottiness of quotidian earthly existence.

Religion calls us to the transcendent, to the possibility of what is beyond not only this world, but even ourselves. And yet, we cannot say that the two are necessarily unrelated. In both Buddhist and Christian theologies, for example, we can note instruction on taking on poverty as a means of belonging to the noble community (Ratthapala Sutta) in the former, and as the path towards heavenly reward (Matthew 5:13) in the latter. More so than this, both religion and poverty are connected in their multidimensionality. Religion and religious voices, being simultaneously narratives of oppression and liberation, of suffering and wonderment, often trouble the analytical binaries between what is civilised and uncivilised, what is developed and undeveloped. Poverty, too, as research severally shows, has broad theological, sociological, ethnographical and phenemonological meanings. This is more so in poverty when poverty is not viewed only at the individual level, but manifests as entire nations of the poor, entire communities that are disempowered, deprived, often forced into being passive recipients of donor aid, whilst being made to pay the costs of global capitalism, as Vijay Prashad, amongst others, notes. It is in thinking through such multidimensionality that Olivia Rutazibwa argues for development studies to start seeing donor funding as not aid, but reparations. The ability of religious narratives to speak to the complexity of poverty, allow also for religion to be an analytical tool by which we can think in alternative ways about the “poorer nations”, and the myriad ways in which poverty manifests in post-war Sri Lanka.

Drawing from these considerations, this article would like to suggest the importance then, of embracing this conversation between religion and poverty as a serious point of research for those studying economic development in post-war Sri Lanka. Against the complexity of the current Sri Lankan economy, it is imperative to amplify and increase work that thinks beyond technical and monetarily driven analysis on poverty. Certainly, any time spent in ethnographic research in the country, especially outside of Colombo proper, can note that religion and faith-based motivators still surface as narratives of resistance, and we find this quite palpably in the crowd of voices that exist, argue and interrupt each other in South Asia. Religion resists, and religious voices especially resist being guided into a kind of ‘glib’ universalism. This resistance manifests even in the case of more “right-wing” religious voices. Such analytical resistance is necessary when we consider how programmatic the language of economic development and reconciliation has become in Sri Lanka. Those engaged in research on the informal challenges of reconciliation and transitional justice, especially, will note that current discourses and analytical interventions are framed too narrowly, and rarely take into account the motivation or lack thereof, of affected communities towards transformational change.

As new stakeholders and old political leaders come together in order to construct new identities in post-war Sri Lanka, a broader analytical framework becomes an urgent one. We live against and within heavy contestation by the rigorous identity politics created by religious, ethnic, economic and geographic throughout the island’s chequered history. Identity – of which religion is glaringly an economic, political and cultural factor-is simultaneously displaced in the struggle for a new Sri Lanka and yet, imposed upon – new meanings given to old ideas- by the insistence of the post- war development narrative.

(WALK the LINE is a monthly column for the Development Page of the Business Times contributed by CEPA, an independent, Sri Lankan think-tank promoting a better understanding of poverty related development issues. However the views expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the views of the organisation that the writer is affiliated to).