Religion has not been a popular target for economic analysis. Yet the tools of economics can offer deep insights into how religious groups compete, deliver social services, and reach out to potential converts—how, in daily life, religions nurture and deploy market power. Sriya Iyer puts these tools to use in an expansive, creative study of India, one of the most religiously diverse countries in the world.
Iyer explores how growth, inequality, education, technology, and social trends both affect and are affected by religious groups. Her exceptionally rich data—drawn from ten years of research, including a survey of almost 600 religious organizations in seven states—reveal the many ways religions interact with social welfare and political conflict. After India's economy was liberalized in 1991, she shows, religious organizations substantially increased their provision of services, compensating for the retreat of the state.
Iyer's data also indicate that religious violence is more common where economic growth is higher, apparently because growth increases inequality, which sectarian politicians might exploit to encourage hostility toward other religions. As inequality leads to social polarization, religious doctrines become more extreme. But there are hopeful patterns in Iyer's data, too. Religious organizations, on balance, play a positive role in India's socioeconomic development, and women's participation in religious life is on the rise.
The Economics of Religion in India has much to teach us about India and other pluralistic societies the world over, and about the power of economics to illuminate some of societies' deepest beliefs and dynamics.
Domain of economics is dominated by men. That the “hysterical sex” should be able to deal coolly with finance is not a very popular idea. But scholars like Sriya Iyer are out to change this. In her this book, Iyer tackles not one but two prickly subjects, and she does so with controlled ease. And thankfully so. For in the light of India’s current (and perpetual) hyperbolical discourse on religious nationalism and prominent “economists” eating out of the government’s hands, we could use as many sane voices as there can be. She is clearly inspired by classicists like Adam Smith, who first studied the links between religion and economics, and sparked a long line of such analysis in the West. Iyer analyses major religious issues through economic lenses. But though her insights are valuable, her writing isn’t lucid for the lay reader. Written as an academic thesis, this work doesn’t make a good “book” where narratives are held together.
The book is based on the author’s research into the effects of competition on the provision of religious and non-religious services by religious organizations. This novel perspective brings fresh insights into the effects of income inequality on the growth of religion and fundamentalism. As a book, this is not a good read. As a review article, it would be excellent. Too much of the book reads like boilerplate academic jargon and “padding.” More general background on Hinduism would have been nice. The author does provide background, but this is in terms of a lit review. And the review is not insightful, just a potpourri of abstracts. Nevertheless, I recommend the book for adding to the debates on this important topic.