Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Poverty Breeds Religion? Religion Breeds Poverty? Both?

Firstly, I must make it clear that I don't mean to appear biased, that I am just writing from my point of view. But this is hard for me. I have no problem questioning the motives of very powerful people like Bill Gates or the ethics of multinational industries, such as pharmaceuticals or biotechnology or even those of international institutions, such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) or UNAIDS. But when it comes to talking about the ordinary people that I meet and interact with every day, I realise I could sound like I'm making some pretty unwarranted assumptions.

I am trying to understand certain things here (in the world, but also in Kenya), that's partly why I'm here. I think that we in the Western world, people and institutions and practices and other entities, do a lot to impoverish people in developing countries. I have argued the point on many occasions and will do so in the future. My whole concept of 'Development by Omission' is based on many instances of this very phenomenon. But I also wonder why some people seem to choose certain kinds of impoverishment or choose not to do things that are well within their capability that may raise their living standards and those of their dependents.

Rather than giving lots of examples, though there are many, I'd like to concentrate on one. I wonder if people who see their situation as desperate turn to what can be a very extreme adherence to some religion. I'm thinking especially of Christianity, in particular the more evangelical ones, though they all seem to be evangelical here. Some people give money they can ill afford to a church, some give it to a pastor. Some even give everything they have got in the hope that a miracle will change their lives. Many pastors and churches encourage these beliefs, it's how they make their money. However, all churches depend on donations for most of their income (or wealth).

Belief in miracles seems to be very widespread, not that miracles can occur, but that anyone and everyone may well have their lives transformed if they just pray a lot and, of course, send lots of money to churches and pastors who claim to be able to make this a reality. Even if I believed that miracles can occur, I don't accept that you can simply wish them to occur, pray for them to occur and least of all pay for them to occur.

I don't see people's wish to have their lives transformed, even their wish to be very rich, as greed. I think if I had nothing I might be more likely to want a lot than I would be to want just enough. Perhaps it's because I've had enough for so long and generally find that fine, a lot would be great, but it's unlikely to feel that much better than enough. I don't wish to preach (God forbid!), I'd love to have an income or, at least, the guarantee that I will one day have an income. But for now, I'm getting by. But I'm not just talking about what people wish for, which can be indefinitely great; I'm talking about what some people seem to sincerely believe they may one day attain.

Greed is what we see in the pastors and churches themselves who extort money out of poor people with promises of great wealth. Greed is what we see in the people who spread misleading information about pyramid schemes and the like and thereby prey on poor people. Greed is the biotechnology multinationals, who want people to think they are getting a good deal when they are in fact entering a form of indentured slavery. Greed is the pharmaceutical companies who keep their prices artificially high and lobby governments of rich countries, who obligingly use public money to subsidise these products and call it aid.

Desperation could be one reason for turning to a religion, even believing quite irrational things or accepting irrational interpretations of the bible. But maybe there are many reasons. Many terrible things are being done every day in the name of religion but maybe only some of them are meant to be terrible. The people running a 'children's home' we came across recently may well believe they are following the word of the bible. They certainly say they are. True, they have stolen most of the donations to the home and put the lives of many children at risk, but it is vaguely possible they started out trying to do something good, while at the same time making enough money to keep their own households and send their children to (relatively expensive) schools.

Perhaps there is just a lot of religious fervour in Kenya, for various interpretations of the bible, for various different churches and for various different religious personalities, perhaps it's not desperation at all. But similarly irrational beliefs seem to be held about foreign people and how rich they all are and how they just come here to give out money. Ok, some foreigners do that, but several times every week, sometimes several times in the day, I am asked for money, often by people who have asked me many times before. And I know others who have had the same experience.

Some people seem to believe that if only they could get a scholarship or if only someone would sponsor them to go to Europe or the US (or somewhere else) or if someone would set them up in business, or if they would marry them, they would be ok, they would be very happy. Maybe people everywhere believe these things, I don't know, maybe people here are just more honest about it. But I think there is a difference between wishing for something and actually expecting it to happen.

Is it desperation that fuels this apparent devotion (or whatever it is)? Or does devotion to the belief that material wealth will be thrust upon all those who pray enough or give enough to pastors and churches or ask enough foreigners keep people from doing things to change their own circumstances? They could question preachers who keep promising them what is just material wealth. They could question where all the money they give goes to when they are poor and the preachers are wealthy, often staggeringly wealthy. I'm not saying there is work aplenty for everyone, sadly, there is not. And though there is wealth enough for everyone those who have most of it, and they are few, are not likely to part with it quickly.

I don't feel I'm much closer to understanding people's seemingly pathological attachment to religion, miracles, pastors and churches. Biased I may be, but I blame churches, not for poverty, but for influencing people in such a way that many people here behave quite irrationally. I blame religion for people's apparent belief that, although they can do nothing to change their own situation, someone, God, rich people, pastors or someone else, can make their lives better. I think the evidence is fairly clear that there is no one who will help most people except those people themselves. But then, when has evidence or experience ever had much impact on religion?


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