Religion and economics | Pakistan Today

Religion and economics

  • What does religion teach you?

Western liberals frequently highlight a curious phenomenon in the Christian world:

The fact that the Bible explicitly condemns homosexual behaviour has been the cornerstone of the Christian anti-queer movement for many decades. Leviticus 18:22 explicitly denounces homosexuality. Many biblical scholars have interpreted passages from the book of Genesis as being indicative of homosexual acts being the cause of destruction of the ancient cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. Indeed, the word ‘sodomy’ itself is derived from the religious interpretation of the story of Sodom.

That is not the only act that the bible condemns. Deutronomy 22:11 clearly prohibits believers from wearing polycotton blends. Deutronomy 14:9-10 prohibits consumption of prawns and lobsters. Exodus 35:2 clearly demands that those who work on Sunday be put to death.

How is it that the Christian world managed to generate a movement against gay people; a movement which persists to this day in the face of science and popular western culture that treats homosexuality as a normal alternative orientation? Why was a similar movement never launched for other sins like eating prawns and working on Sundays? Why do we see Christian radicals picketing the funerals of gay people, but not protesting outside seafood restaurants?

The answer involves lies in politics and economics. What you believe and how firmly you believe it, has more to do with your politico-economic environment – the set of worldly motivators and demotivators – than your personal comprehension of religion.

How is it that the Christian world managed to generate a movement against gay people; a movement which persists to this day in the face of science and popular western culture that treats homosexuality as a normal alternative orientation?

All religions set certain boundaries, determining the difference between good and bad; sin and virtue. However, the ‘weight’ of each sin or virtue, is entirely up to the human population to interpret according to its own needs. While scriptures do convey some notion of the seriousness of a sin though simple language, there is never an objective ‘sin-o-meter’ – so to speak – available to the believer to help analyse his devotion to the religion. There is no sanctioned inventory or scale that says, ‘If you score between 79-100, you may not be allowed to enter heaven’.

Consequently, we take it upon ourselves to assign each sin the value we think it deserves. A classroom full of cheating students reaches a rapid consensus that lying to the teacher isn’t that big a sin. Why so? They are socially and economically motivated to view cheating as a simple peccadillo that wouldn’t ensure their descent into hell, and can be easily compensated for through ordinary virtuous acts. The same room of sea-food lovers determined that shrimp – which we all eat from time to time – is probably not going to be the pivotal factor that makes or breaks our ‘aakhirat’. The sin was democratically normalised, and declared “not so bad”.

On the other hand, a room full of straight people is quickly able to decide that homosexual behaviour is an unforgivable sin. None of them have homosexual tendencies and therefore they’d personally never engage in such acts. So what difference does it make if they assign homosexuality a red-hot 10 on their self-made sin severity scale? They may then go about congratulating one another for not engaging in this sinful act, which by virtue of their coincidental heterosexual orientation, just happens naturally.

Say we ignore the need to have an objective sin-o-meter and rely on the language of the scripture itself to gauge the severity of certain sins. In Islam, there is an act so heinous that indulging it is has been compared to being at “war” with God in the Holy Scripture. What could it be? Alcohol? Haram food? Lewdness?

That passage in fact refers to ‘riba’, or the act of giving or receiving financial interest. However, our concern for this sin is hardly reflected in our everyday business. At the heart of capitalism, is the object of making money out of money. A government that is quick to ban alcohol, has no qualms allowing interest banking to flourish. The Muslim parent who hangs his head in shame on discovering that his ‘son’ is a transgender girl, would happily admit that his daughter is generating bumper interest on her bank savings.

A world run by a 99.7pc majority of cisgender people has decided that being transgender is utterly and completely intolerable, as far as religion is concerned. It is the same world which, dominated by a plutocratic class with obscene sums of money in non-Islamic or offshore banks, has decided that usury isn’t that big a deal.

What does religion teach you? Many things. It is however the winds of worldly power that determine what parts of it you consider supremely significant, and what parts you consider negotiable.

Why is it acceptable for a Punjabi popstar to sing about ogling a woman on GT road instead of “lowering his gaze”, as religiously mandated, but not acceptable for him to consider Ahmadis ‘Muslims’ worthy of the same rights and respect as other citizens?

What drives a cleric’s uncompromising position on maintaining a beard, while allowing him to detain a critically ill Muslim child in in a roadblock for hours until he dies?

When we accuse religious men of acting hypocritically, we are not necessarily insinuating that they do not know what’s good or bad. In their own minds, they are making economical religious choices that allow them to gain the greatest ‘sawab’ while accumulating the least ‘gunah’ possible.

But who told them that hating Ahmadis wins them more points than treating women with respect? Who told them that violently attacking ordinary Muslims on the streets is less sinful than quietly acknowledging a minority group to live according to its own religious beliefs? Who teaches them that cracking down on online blasphemy is a better use of federal resources than curbing infant mortality?

We must look beyond the dichotomy of ‘halal’ and ‘haram’, good or bad. We must re-assess the values we assign to different sinful or virtuous acts, and examine the political forces that shape our religious or cultural views.

Faraz Talat

Faraz Talat is a medical doctor from Rawalpindi and an ardent traveller who writes frequently about science, social politics and international relations.