Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Religion/ Capitalism

Well, Ramadan is nearly over (or actually over, depending on when this column gets to ruin another Sunday’s fun). The fasting month is a time for introspection, meditation and spiritual contemplation. However, there were precious little of these qualities in evidence down the shops last weekend. It was so crowded that I started to feel slightly claustrophobic and when it came time to break the fast the rice was flying around the food court like I don't know what.

Of course, everyone was preparing for the holiday by shopping, shopping and shopping some more. According to a story in last week's paper, crime has also been on the rise in this third week of Ramadan as people struggle to scrape enough cash together for a decent celebration. This is the other side of the holy month. An orgy of capitalist consumption only matched by Christmas in the developed West; a holiday during which we celebrate the birth of Christ, who died for our sins, by buying expensive video game consoles for the kids and eating colon stretching amounts of rich food.

There is nothing new in all of this though. Religion and money have always been bedfellows ever since medieval monks in Europe started selling absolution and bogus holy relics to kings and the rich and powerful at knockdown prices or since Islam was first spread across Asia by hard bargaining merchants. Nevertheless, Religion and capitalism are, at heart, two fundamentally opposed beasts.

Ethically, religion holds to altruism and self-sacrifice. Religious texts promote sacrifice for the public good and collectivism. The Bible and the Koran both stress the immoralities involved in the pursuit of profit margins. Ironically, in this ethical respect, religions mirror the views of Marxist atheists who also believe in social conscience, collectivist action and anti-capitalist politics. In the world of capitalism, however, the individual and his or her liberty and pursuit of happiness reigns supreme and religion is neither supported or opposed so long as its practice does not violate the civil rights of others.

America, the supreme example of a capitalist society, was not, as the George Bushes and Fox Newses of this world would have us believe, founded on the Christian faith. Its constitution is quite clearly secular and its founders were well aware of the dangers of religious dogma and of the need to protect the individual’s rights. Thomas Jefferson said of religion that, "It does me no injury for my neighbor to say that there are 20 gods, or no gods. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg." He also declared that America was to, "Keep within the mantle of its protection the Jew, the Gentile, the Christian and the Mohammedan, the Hindu and the infidel of every denomination."

When the dominant religion makes inroads into capitalist, secular politics though, it manifests itself in greater government control of society. Examples of this are the Patriot Act and various other Big Brother imperatives currently being pushed by Bush and his disciples. In Indonesia, individual liberty is also under attack from religion’s push into politics. Those who would turn the country into one in which there are strong limits on personal freedoms, such as Saudi Arabia, are in the ascendancy.

Religion and capitalism are incompatible, both in theory and practice. On the plus side, religion strives for social equality and for a social conscience but is, by definition, socially authoritarian and repressive. Capitalism on the other hand is the complete opposite. The individual is socially free to pursue his own dreams and wealth but the system makes little provision for those who fall through the cracks in society's pavement as they struggle to make ends meet. When Religion and capitalism collide in the political realm, they only serve to pervert each other and the masses get to live in the worst of both possible worlds, i.e. no money and no social freedom.

If politicians here were really people of faith, they would be addressing the fact that, according to a recent Economist report, 18 percent and rising of Indonesia's population live in total poverty. In fact, the real figure is probably a lot more than this because, instead of trying to genuinely attack the huge wealth gap in this country's society, the politicians have instead massaged the figures and have moved the poverty definition goalposts to a mere Rp.152,874 a month. This is well below the widely used global benchmark of a dollar a day. In fact, it's estimated that 80 million Indonesians live in abject poverty, a figure more astonishing than if either George Bush or Yusaf Kalla were to pass through the eye of a needle.

Simon Pitchforth