SMOKERS’ CORNER: THE MARKETPLACE OF FAITHS

Published March 3, 2024
Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

In 1987, the American sociologists Rodney Stark and William S. Bainbridge formulated a ‘Religious Market Theory.’ The theory is a critique of the ‘Secularisation Thesis.’ The secularisation thesis was initially developed by the  German sociologist Max Weber in the early 20th century. In the next five decades, it was further evolved by numerous scholars.

To Weber, due to modernisation, especially from the late 18th century onwards, societies entered a process of ‘spiritual disenchantment.’ Space for ‘pre-modern’ beliefs in magic, faith and superstition shrank and people began to adopt more rational modes of thinking. 

Even non-Western societies started to adopt models of modernisation and, indeed, here as well, the traditional variants of religion began to decline. They were replaced by secularised formations of traditional faiths, framed and monopolised by the state.

But the secularisation thesis came into question when, from the mid-1970s onwards, the exhibition of religiosity, especially in modernised Muslim-majority nation-states, began to grow.

The rise of the middle class has resulted in an increased exhibition of religiosity, on both sides of the Indo-Pak border. Some problematic variants of faith use this unregulated, privatised space to ‘theologically’ validate violence

In the 1980s, when religiosity saw an increase in the US as well, Stark and Bainbridge formulated their religious market theory, challenging the secularisation thesis. The religious market theory suggests that when religiosity declines, it eventually revives itself, because the decline opens up spaces for new faiths and modified versions of the old faiths to emerge. 

Stark and Bainbridge saw the rise and decline of religiosity as a cycle, which moves like markets do in capitalist settings. Religions which fail to adjust to the needs of changing conditions, fall by the wayside and lose followers. Readjusted religions and new faiths begin to emerge in a scenario where religiosity seems to be receding.

Gradually, though, new and readjusted variants are able to revive interest in faith, by providing services and products that are better suited to meet the needs of changing conditions. 

According to Stark and Bainbridge, this cycle produces a diverse collection of faiths, cults, sects and subsects, which compete against each other in the ‘marketplace of faiths’ and improve to attract followers. The religious market theory posits that this renews an interest in faith and religiosity. 

In 19th century India, during the complete fall of the Mughal Empire and the mushrooming of British colonialism, the established variants of Islam began to struggle to keep pace with the changing conditions. It seemed that the modernity introduced by the British was rapidly secularising the polity. But as the old religious ethos dwindled, new variants emerged to address the changing needs of India’s Muslims. 

On the one hand, new Sunni sects such as Deobandi, Barelvi and Ahl-i-Hadith sprang up and, on the other, the Ahmadiyya, the Ahl-i-Quran and Muslim Modernism emerged. They competed against each other, promising the most suitable narratives to India’s ‘depressed’ Muslims and, in the process, gathering followers — more importantly, followers who had political and economic clout. 

From the mid-19th century till the 1920s, the marketplace of faiths in South Asia flourished with new variations of Islam and Hinduism. The variants were products/brands, and their followers were consumers. This indeed witnessed a renewed interest in religion and religiosity.

However, from the late 1940s, when India split into two nation-states, Bharat and Pakistan, the state in both countries decided to monopolise the marketplace of faiths, through an overarching meta-narrative. 

India formulated a nationalist secularism that sought to build a socialist democracy. It was to provide economic services that religious organisations had been offering to attract followers. The state in Pakistan began to shape a nationalist-modernist variant of Islam and it regulated the marketplace of faiths by bringing its shops and products under the state’s control. 

According to some contemporary proponents of the religious market theory, the presence of a centralised and ‘official’ faith eschews religious diversity. It nationalises the marketplace of faiths. This causes a decline in religiosity, as has been the case in various Scandinavian countries and in Britain. 

The state in India (through nationalist-secularism) and Pakistan (through modernist-nationalist Islam) attempted to do this. Religion did not decline as such, but religiosity did. 

In the 1970s, new economic and political challenges emerged in Pakistan and India. These also challenged the nationalisation of the marketplace of faiths. In Pakistan, political elites tried to absorb the alternatives offered by Sunni and Shia sects and subsects. They privatised the marketplace and began to gather fresh followers, who could not find remedies anymore in the centralised state-approved variant. 

By the 1980s, the marketplace of faiths was once again booming. In Pakistan, the state continued to try absorbing the new variants by discarding the old modernist variant. But, as the middle class and the lower-middle class segments expanded, they became the most active consumers of new variants, thereby re-energising the marketplace of faiths. 

These variants ranged from renewed and modified versions of evangelical Islam, to the more radical versions of Sunni and Shia sects and subsects. Religiosity revived itself. 

In India, economic liberalisation weakened the monopoly of the nationalist-secular narrative in the marketplace of faiths. The Indian historian Meera Nanda, in her book The God Market, has closely tracked the trajectory of the expanding elite and middle-income groups in India, from being consumers of the nationalist-secular narrative, to becoming the most prominent consumers of Hindu nationalism — especially after benefitting from the post-1980s ‘neo-liberal’ economic policies. 

According to Nanda, these segments, who now exercise increasing economic influence, “re-ritualised and re-enchanted Hinduism.” They now view Hinduism as being inherently compatible with modern economic ideas that guarantee profitability and prosperity. This, too, is how the renewed evangelical variants of Islam peddled their narrative to the elite and middle-income groups in Pakistan. 

Consequently, exhibitions of religiosity have witnessed a manifold increase in both the countries. However, within the marketplace of faiths are also variants that are problematic. These include the more reactionary manifestations of faiths. For example, those looking to undermine Muslims in India in a violent manner will shop for variants that aid the consumer to theologically justify acts of violence. 

This is also true in Pakistan. There are sectarian and sub-sectarian variants in the marketplace of faiths, which ‘theologically’ validate actions of those who want to use or instigate violence against an opponent in the name of faith. 

More worrying is the fact that many urban, ‘educated’ folk, too, buy these variants, especially products (in the shape of narratives) that justify or instigate violence. These are often used to demonise perceived enemies as ‘Ahmadiyya sympathisers,’ or ‘anti-Islam’. 

The marketplace of faiths is now almost entirely unregulated. And the state and governments whose job it was to regulate it, too, have become consumers in the marketplace of faiths to justify their own existence.

Published in Dawn, EOS, March 3rd, 2024

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