Daniel Sewell: Development and the death of religion. Is India next?

Arguably the most tangible difference between India and New Zealand is the prevalence of religious practice. From Hindus to Muslims, to Sikhs and Christians, religion pervades everyday society in India. New Zealand too is diverse although, unlike India, New Zealand boasts a staggering 48.6% majority identity linked to no religion at all – irreligion in India, on the other hand, is only represented by 0.27% of the population. Compare this to 1901 New Zealand, the majority religion being Anglican (42%) with irreligion only represented by 3.3% of the population.

However, the transition to disbelief is not limited to New Zealand but to almost the entirety of the developed world. Countries such as the USA, Australia, and Canada have too seen a decline in religious affiliation. Between 1947 and 2001, Sweden saw a decline in the belief in God by 33.6%.

These statistics quite clearly have much to say about the correlation between economic development and religious decline. From this a few questions arise in relation to India:

As India is on track to become the next big global economic powerhouse, will religious practice suffer? Or is religion so ingrained in the culture and Indian way of life that it will remain unaffected?

There is much to be said about countries that are indeed both developed and remain strongly religious. Many middle eastern nations keep a Muslim majority despite being some of the most economically developed countries in the world (e.g. UAE 72% Islamic majority). One could argue, however, that the relevance of this statistic would change depending on how one defines the word “developed” – for example, if factors such as human rights were considered, the UAE wouldn’t be a supported example for the coexistence of development and religion.

A better example may then be Italy, a developed nation in arguably all senses of the word, boasting a 71.4% Christian dominance. As to why this has occurred, I don’t know. Perhaps it is due to the Catholic church being so ingrained in Italian society, more so than the once pervading faiths in countries like New Zealand and Australia, that it won the battle with development. Or perhaps it is for some other reason. Regardless, I think nations like Italy give hope to countries like India.

A further note on this topic surrounds that of culture. In recent years, a close friend, having been born into a Jewish family, has begun calling himself a “cultural Jew”. An interesting phrase, serving to describe the way in which he still subscribes to many of the Jewish traditions, practices, and, to the annoyance of many a schoolteacher, holidays, despite not believing in God.

Could development in India, instead of causing the death of religion, give birth to a new wave of “cultural Hinduism”? Who knows? I myself hope that the rich history and culture I recently experienced in India stay strong for years to come.

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