Is there a ‘God Problem’ in the West?

Is there a ‘God Problem’ in Western societies? Given the rise of the atheist movement, best exemplified by people such as Christopher Hitchens, Daniel C. Dennett, Richard Dawkins and other famous celebrities who make a living dissing religion; the question is: Do they have a point when they say that religion makes no sense and people are fools to believe in it? While this is a reasonable claim, it is not true. People are indeed rational when they speak of religion and they do this by speaking to others (and themselves) in ways that conforms to norms of reasonableness. This is the key argument that Robert Wuthnow, Princeton Sociology professor makes in his book The God Problem, which carries out a discourse analysis of how people talk about religion. He argues that given a chance to speak, and with enough attention and patience, we will discover that most people will speak about religion in very reasonable terms. The crazy right-wing talk is just that – crazy- and is carried out by a tiny fraction of the minority, for political and other reasons, while the vast majority of believers are normal, reasonable people.

Photo credit: UC Press
Photo credit: UC Press

The ‘God problem’ is not only about belief, but about its manifestation in the real world. When radical extremists demand death for homosexuals or seek to legislate in favor of believers and discriminate against others, who don’t look or believe as they do; this problem becomes real. Also, the reaction of atheists to this is often very strong, leading to a war of words, and other times a literal war. This is the gist of what Wuthnow calls the God problem and one can appreciate how this is indeed a complex topic, not just in the U.S. but anywhere in the world, where people take their religion seriously. I have written about this in my earlier post about Religion in the Public Sphere here. Another problem that he has highlighted is the notion of religion and democracy and freedom of speech. Since much of dogmatic religion suppresses dialogue, critical thinking, this is seen as harmful to democracy.

Wuthnow argues that a highly educated society like the U.S. is a paradox of sorts, given that rationality is not supposed to go hand in hand with religion. He says: “The best educated tend to tilt away from the pattern of devout religious conviction, apparently experiencing some of the tensions between faith and intellect that the critics argue is there. But this is only a slight tilt. For the most part, well-educated Americans seen to have found a way to continue to believe in God and praying regularly to this deity.” This, he says is not because of bad education, wishful thinking or other factors; but rather the need for these believers to have their cake and eat it too. In this way, he argues that language mediates between belief in god and rationality.

Wuthnow suggests that people of faith adopt strategies (six of them) to help balance this tension between faith and reality. They are:

  1. Schema alignment – Schema alignment frequently takes the form of anthropomorphizing god- imagining God behaves like a human person. Studies by Barrett and Frank C. Keil asked students to complete stories about God and then compare these with students’ answers to abstract theological questions. Their answers frequently suggested that God acted like a person even though these were inconsistent with the students’ formal theological views.
  2. Ontological assertion – Affirming the existence of God without necessarily attributing specific actions to God. It is possible to make statements that emphasize being without explicitly suggesting action. Prayers are often of this kind. They assert the existence of God without associating any other action with God. God is more of a reality, presence, or being and less of an agent who engages in action.
  3. Contingency referents – These are devices that makes divine action contingent on human action or circumstances, and thus provides an explanation for apparent failures of the divine. They are a kind of warrant or explanation for why something happens or does not happen. Warrants for trust are a good example. They stop short of asserting that they can influence God’s actions and hence Pat Robertson’s assertion that he could change the direction of Hurricane Gloria came across as a cultural Faux pas. As Wuthnow adds, “A Muslim doctor says she believes firmly in the Prophet’s teaching that you should ask God for what you need, even if it is a shoelace or some salt. “God is going to provide it,” she says. She adds “ It’s not that he is going to give it to me in my hand. I have to struggle to get it. “ Other people explain that God will help them realize their dreams in life, but only if they work hard, or that God will help them avoid serious illness, but only if they eat right and have regular medical check-ups.
  4. Domain juxtaposition – Is another device that emphasizes transgressions of basic cultural categories, or at least strong contrasts between them, and is thus expressed by this rubric. Prayer implies that the human realm can somehow communicate with a divine realm. The two realms are necessarily juxtaposed. However, a juxtaposition of this kind must be defined, and doing so involves the construction of a symbolic boundary that both distinguishes the two and brings them together.
  5. Code switching – This involves using words that in context would imply supernatural action, but then changing the terminology to make the meaning of those words metaphorical or ambiguous. He quotes a Muslim woman, with a bachelors in Economics as saying “ As a scientific, educated mind, I don’t think it is true that I relate to God, on a very personal basis. But I believe it is the spirituality inside you that says, ‘This is the God that has created me. He’s going to take care of me. “ What is she saying? “ Wuthnow asks, before answering that there are two parts to her – two aspects to her persona that reflect different speech communities. Speaking as an educated mind, she cannot say that she personally relates to God But switching into her inner spiritual self, she can say that there is indeed a connection.
  6. Performative Competence – Is slightly different from the other devices in that it suggests that the appropriate way to assess a prayer is by talking about how it was performed. An example would be saying that a heartfelt prayer is good or especially meaningful because the speaker was sincere. Another example would be saying that a liturgical recitation of the Lord’s prayer is good because the exact words of Jesus are being spoken. A competent prayer is one that conforms to these expectations.

The only weakness that I found in this book is that he did not give a background about discourse analysis to those who do not know what it is. DA is a highly technical and rich field, which takes some background in sociological theory, linguistics, political science to grasp fully and perhaps a short chapter or even an appendix with some references would have helped. This is a thoroughly researched book, with over 200 in-depth qualitative interviews, with people of all faiths in the U.S. To this extent, it is empirically grounded and rich in data.

As Wuthnow points out in the conclusion, American religion has included parts of ‘spooky and weird’ behavior. From Evagelicals like Ted Haggard to other born-again Christians, there have been leaders who have preached things that would fall into that category. This ‘World rejection’ as Max Weber termed – has been a key feature of dominant religious philosophies in the U.S. He further points out that all these have been studied, but what has not been studied is the way reason manifests in this mix. That seems like a fair thing to say. We tend to hear only the crazy stories of healing or their ‘rational’ denouncements by atheists who can be equally extreme in their reactions. In between these two, we don’t hear the actual experiences of the people who believe, act out and affirm their faith, on a daily basis. This book does a good job of articulating and making sense of this belief. One of the ways that an act comes to be regarded as rational is through what Jurgen Habermas has called ‘Communicative Rationality,’ i.e., when something is deliberated in public, among all parties involved and a decision is reached.

This is a fascinating read, and if you have interests in religion, linguistics, and sociology or discourse analysis – The God Problem should definitely be on your reading list.

Saraswati in America?

“You know, each time I walk into the New York Public Library, I feel the presence of Saraswati, the goddess of learning.” That was Akumal Ramachander, a mentor and a dear friend, calling from Bangalore, to wish me for the New Year. We had spoken a few weeks ago when he was visiting. We spoke about several things, both mundane and profound, as our conversations go. But after I hung up the phone, I realized that he is actually right. Saraswati does live in America, and a brief visit to any university in the U.S. will demonstrate this. While the popular image of the U.S. is about Wall St., Fifth Avenue – all made popular thanks to Hollywood and the massive culture machine that is undeniably the most aggressive and sophisticated in the world, most people consider it only the land of Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth; but there is wisdom in realizing that Lakshmi, follows Saraswati not the other way around. Where there is no learning, there can be no real wealth.

             Between trying to convince me to become a vegetarian, a task he takes rather seriously, and enquiring about my health, we spoke about my upcoming exams, his health, philanthropy in India, recent elections in Delhi and upcoming national elections. Then, the conversation went back to Saraswati, or her manifestation in the American public sphere. The simple truth is that America is a super power because it is not only free and democratic, but also because there is free flow of knowledge, he added; and I couldn’t disagree. There is access to any form of knowledge, if people are willing to seek it out. Public libraries lend upwards of 25 books per patron, in fact, my school library lends 150 books at a time, to graduate students and I learnt that recently, when I reached the limit for number of books I could borrow. This is in some ways ‘exceptional’ if I may use the term, without its arrogant connotations. I doubt if any country in the world has such a well-established culture and infrastructure for knowledge dissemination.

             What about libraries in India? As a teenager wanting to read books, I remember struggling to find good books. My only choice, living in Bangalore, considered the most cosmopolitan city in India and the IT capital, was to go to the British Council Library ( one of the few decent ones in town) or to my college library. Suffice it to say that both did not measure up. The number and topics of books were limited, so was the availability of books. Nothing on the scale of Inter Library Loan (ILL) a national network of libraries, where one can order quite literally any book that one needs, free of charge. As one of my friends says in jest, if I had access to all the books I wanted in my teens, I would be orbiting Mars by now. Well, not really. My ambitions of being an Astronaut didn’t last more than a week. But on a serious note, the lack of access to books in India is shocking. Even in a big, developed city; with infrastructure, presence of big universities and billionaires who can make a difference, if they wish to.

            Contrary to the publicity that Indian philanthropists get for their generosity, I doubt if there is a genuine effort towards giving and philanthropy, towards the common good. There are a few exceptions, like the Infosys Foundation, Azeem Premji Foundation, Tata Foundation – but these are a few and do not represent the wealth that is present in India. There is not a single philanthropist who matches the vision or courage of Bill Gates of Warren Buffet, though they have wealth which is significant, perhaps not comparable. What is stopping them from committing half of their wealth towards education or healthcare for the poor? Why does an Ambani build an obscenely ostentatious house, estimated to be worth about a billion dollars, when half the city he lives in squalor? Is it a culture of greed that we are witnessing? Or one of callous disregard for learning, knowledge and human life itself? The less said about the government libraries, the better.

While there are incredible programs that are operating in India, to increase literacy, provide education scholarships and what not, the focus on higher education, providing resources to literate people to increase their knowledge and skills are few. However, here is an inspiring example of ingenuity, creativity and passion to make sure that kids have access to books. As Room to Read’s website points out : “Of all the world’s illiterate people, 35% live in India, and despite recent economic growth, India still lacks the basic resources to educate many of its people. Schooling is free and compulsory from ages 6-14, however inadequate facilities, lecture-based curriculum and gender bias cause 40% of students—mostly girls—to drop out before secondary school.” While that is a sobering statistic, and one that should be a call for everyone concerned to shake their inertia and do something about this, there seems to be little by way of effort from the Indian civil society itself to address this problem.

So, does philanthropy – both at the level of society and the corporate level have any role in addressing this? I believe so, but there needs to be more education and awareness for there to be action. As a cynical friend pointed out recently, that there is no civil society in India, just society. This is one extreme perspective. The fact is that with growing awareness of social issues, involvement of youth in creating public discourses impacting society at large, there is a sense that things can change. So, does it mean that there is an anti-intellectual climate in India? Not at all. There are great centers of learning, many learned people and a vast reservoir of talented and creative youth. The problem, as I see it is that much of this is untapped. The sheer lack of resources, lackadaisical attitude of government and the common man towards equipping the towns and cities with good libraries and venues of intellectual discourse is an unfortunate. We need more libraries, theatres, art galleries and more to create a really intellectually vibrant society. A society that goes beyond reading self-help books – India is apparently the leading market for self-help books in the world – to reading things that actually matter. Self-help and Astrology books don’t build a nation or its intellectuals. They can, on the contrary, do much damage.

So, how do we encourage Saraswati’s presence in our libraries and colleges? The answer may not be simple or easy, but I am sure that as inheritors of a great intellectual tradition, I am sure we can figure that out. Until then, we can admire and learn from some great institutions of learning and libraries such as the New York Public Library or the Library of Congress – institutions that are incomparable, and supported by the common man and the state.


A New Year Wish – Charity and Justice for all

It is that time of the year when everyone is reaching out to everyone else, to seek support for their causes. Financial support, in-kind support, volunteer time, all of it is kosher. If you work in the nonprofit sector, you’d know. There are many things that are wrong with our world and activists, religious leaders, politicians are all working, in solving these- in their own way. That is not to say thIMG_0071 IMG_0205 IMG_0206at there aren’t others who are creating or adding to these problems. Surely, there are. But there is a growing awareness among people who are aware that one must align with people or organizations to seek justice for victims of violence and oppression.

On the other hand, there is a perspective that seeks to forgive, look at the grand scheme of things and realize that (as in some world religions) that this world is ephemeral or Maya – an illusion, that will soon pass. So, one’s role is to do one’s best karma and hope for the rewards in an afterlife or next life, depending on one’s belief system. Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism and Islam advocate one of these perspectives.

While these two approaches could be seen as two opposing views, with the first one being the radical activist one, and the latter a more pacifist, non-confrontational approach; the truth is that both are very active, engaged and conscious ways of living. The other extreme is to just not bother. To switch off what is going on around oneself, insulate oneself with one’s own pursuit of happiness, comfort for one’s family and live a life pursuing pleasure. This suits some of us, and more power to them. But to live the ‘good life’ as Aristotle taught and other great teachers demonstrated through their lives requires living an ‘examined life,’ one in which one’s actions, thoughts and ambitions are put under the microscope and examined for their impact.

I have been reading a lot about charity this year, since my research concerns looking at discourses of charity and how dominant discourses in America accommodate it or not. Also, I am interested in the religious dimensions of giving and how religious traditions shape our understanding of giving and if at all, it is changing. This seems like an innocuous question, but given the current debate in the American system about welfare reform, immigration and healthcare; they have proved to be an explosive mix. And there is the risk of losing track of what is significant, amidst all the noise one hears from pundits and news anchors. One of the most striking facts I realized is that ultimately, all of us (irrespective of party ideology) are seeking solutions to human problems – and this is based on the assumption that people are not entirely self-interested, in a zero-sum game way. Libertarianism is an entirely different story. I will deal with ‘enlightened self-interest’ in another blog. The way we may seek to arrive at the solution may be different – either government intervention or market mechanisms, but the higher goal is always to solve a problem and arrive at a solution to better others’ lives. And that is an admirable thing. The only caveat is that we must be guided by facts, not ideologies. As former New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said “You may be entitled to your own opinion, but not your own facts.” We must be watchful about this, as we formulate opinions on issues that we care about.

Reading the newspaper is a depressing act these days. Civil war in Syria, economic depression in Europe, sexual violence in India, Gangs going crazy in Central and South America and political instability in Africa; not to mention the crazy antics of Republicans and Tea Partiers in the U.S. This is the staple of our diet. On a daily basis. The daily dose of images coming our way has perhaps sensitized us. The other day I just read a headline about a certain number of people dying in the Middle East and I caught myself rushing to another story, as it just did not surprise me anymore. Ghastly images, news of dozens dying is so normal that we don’t even pause to think.

As the year is winding down and I am planning for the upcoming year, I wanted to jot down some ideas and ask myself and those who read this: Can our collective resolution in the New Year be to be more sensitive, aware and more charitable? Can we aspire for a more just world, where one person’s will does not decimate thousands and thousands of lives and the forces of greed, evil and hatred don’t work their way into people’s hearts- using words, labels and ideas that sound lofty? Can we all be more alert and vigilant against the use of words and ideas such as terrorism, welfare and realize that there is always more than one side to a story and how people deploy their narratives? Can we be more charitable and yet more firm in our resolve to not let politicians, our leaders and others bully or manipulate us?

I promise to at least try, this year. The year 2013 was very good for me. I traveled a lot, met wonderful people, read great books, had great conversations, and received much kindness from people I knew and from strangers. I hope this continues in the New Year and I hope that all of you have a great year and also make the effort to be kind to strangers, nice to people you like and don’t like, dignified in your anger and sensitive when dealing with those who are weaker than you are. And learn more. Read. Travel. Converse.

Here’s my wish list for the world, in no particular order of importance:


  1. End to violence in Syria – Yes, this tops my list. The sheer magnitude of violence and inhumanity that we are witnessing in Syria is unbelievable. What is even more unbelievable is how indifferent all of us are to it. I hope this violence ends, irrespective of whether Mr. Assad stays in power or not.
  2. Global economy picks up – Despite not being a huge fan of GDP driven model of growth, I do feel that the slump in global economic growth doesn’t portend well for billions of poor, around the world.
  3. Republicans in America realize the value of bi-partisanship – I am told that Republicans in the past were bi-partisan and could actually reason with their fellow Democrats. Apparently, those days are long gone. This should return and I hope 2014 is the year when there are more senators like Daniel Patrick Moynihan (though he was a democrat) he was a bi-partisan and perhaps the rare intellectual-politician that all countries so desperately need.
  4. Indian politicians (and bureaucrats) stop acting like little kids – And that our media grows up. This is in context of the recent incident involving the Deputy Consul General and the alleged ‘insults’ to India, when investigations into her misconduct were brought to fore. I also hope that Indian media learns that India is not the center of the world and is NOT a “super-power” as much as they would like it to be. It actually reminded me of this talk by Ramachandra Guha, on why India should not be a super-power.

5.  And above all, I wish that all of us rise above the walls that each one of us has built around us, consciously or unconsciously – walls of gender, race, religion, class consciousness, nationality or political affiliation. And this is possible, as some wise man said: “All prejudice begins in the head and that is where it should end.”


Religion in the Public Sphere – Good, Bad or Ugly?


With Christmas, ‘War on Christmas’ and ‘Creeping Shariah’ dominating our headlines, it looks like religion is making a comeback in  public discourse. Unfortunately, it seems to be for the wrong reasons – barring the Pope’s recent gestures of reconciliation with homosexuals and other minorities. But that doesn’t stop his critics from painting him as a ‘communist.’ Speaking of religion, it seems one is damned if you do take a position, or damned if you don’t take one. But in my case, I will take a position and point out (as others have) that religion can have a positive impact in the public sphere.

Image source :
Image source :

 The first time I had to deal with the issue of religion in public sphere was during my stint at Muslim Public Service Network (MPSN), an NGO that encouraged and trained young American Muslims to enter public service- broadly defined as anything from the nonprofit sector, media to the government. I served as its Executive Director for a year in 2012 and working in D.C. saw the implications of even mentioning Islam in public sphere. To be honest, for the most, things were ok. I would occasionally run into someone who would ask me absurd questions about our mission and who funds us, but other than that, things were ok. I saw these as ‘educational’opportunities and part of an adventure of working with a ‘hot button’ issue. With suspicions about our work and mission, the entire organization was on a watch, so as not to be perceived as something that we were not. Clearly, many of these fears were unfounded. It is only later that I started grappling with these issues at a theoretical level. Practice has informed my theoretical understanding, in this case.

Why are these issues so important? For one, because we are living in a diverse society and also with diverse claims made by various faith-based groups. With the (false) alarms of Shari’a creeping into the American system and some very real instances of the neoconservative influence on American policy (both domestic and foreign) in the recent past, religion and politics are inextricably tied in the policy debates and popular imagination in the U.S. The question that this gives rise to is: Should religion be part of the body politic? What role should –if any- Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and Hinduism or for that matter any religion have in shaping public laws and morality? These are deep questions that don’t have a simple answer. And the fact that these keep coming up, time and again, in various shapes and form, begs us to look at them carefully and examine them for what they are worth. Given the high levels of religiosity in the U.S. and despite decline in religiosity in some quarters (Evangelical Christianity for one) religion as a social and political force is still strong. So, in this short essay, I will point out the benefits and dangers of this trend of religion in the public sphere – using Faith-based organizations (FBOs) as an example. Talal Asad, Robert P. George and Jose Casanova have written about these issues and I will use their ideas to examine the topic at hand. This is an ongoing debate and while I will argue for greater inclusion of FBOs in the public sphere, the debate is still open and my own understanding of these issues is still being shaped. Before that, we also need a clearer understanding of ‘secularism’ and ‘secularization’ processes and our assumptions about them.

Religion in the public sphere: Challenge to modernity and secularism? 

Robert P.George, considered one of the leading conservative intellectual has argued that there is nothing in the U.S. constitution that demands that religion not be part of the public space in politics. In this short video, he points out that separation of church and state don’t actually appear in the constitution. The establishment clause gives freedom to people from interference from the federal government. He argues that a robust polity in which all people with their values, drawn from their religious norms, should be able to participate to shape policies that they think are right and just. He goes on to point out: “Since its establishment by Congress, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom has stood for religious freedom in its most robust sense. It has recognized that the right to religious freedom is far more than a mere “right to worship.”

It is a right that pertains not only to what the believer does in the synagogue, church, or mosque, or in the home at mealtimes or before bed; it is the right to express one’s faith in the public as well as private sphere and to act on one’s religiously informed convictions about justice and the common good in carrying out the duties of citizenship.” This may seem all good in theory, but are there problems with this perspective? There are quite a few, and one of the key ones is that this could be extremely distorted when a majority wants to enforce its will on others, through policy measures or other means. The pro-choice discourse is a classic case – and one that is not settled, yet.

Along similar lines, in his most popular and important book, Public Religions in the Modern World Jose Casanova, talks about religion and how it interacts with politics and culture in the public space. He has argued that the Secularization hypothesis has proved to be wrong and the growth of religion across the world is proof of this. “Secularization” as the end of mankind’s evolution and is a normative condition – and precondition for modern politics (through privatization of religion) and understood as emancipation from religious norms. He also points out the plural character of secularization processes. “We are in a ‘post-secular’ society,” Casanova points out.

In Europe, Casanova argues that since the Reformation, all great revolutions and changes, have been lead by secularists. Europe has had tensions between church and capitalists. In the U.S., there has been no tension between religion and capitalists as in Europe and hence, progressive movements appeal to religious values, not secular ones. “The U.S. has always been a paradigmatic case and the secular came aided by the religious,” he points out. It would be ludicrous to point out that the U.S. is less modern than Europe, since there is less differentiation in the U.S. The European category of Secularism is not relevant for the U.S. as it did not have a church to be disestablished. This analytic conceptualization is key, he further argues.

Casanova is pointing out here that there are different types of Secularisms, as much as there are different types of “modernities” as Charles Taylor has argued. To just think of one model of secularism, as it has occurred in the West is not fair and perhaps he goes on to point out that even within the West, there are significant differences. The way secularism is understood in the U.S. is not the same as it is understood in Europe. In the U.S. people are generally proud to be religious, whereas in continental Europe, much the opposite is true. “Even if people are religious, they will lie, saying they are nonbelievers,” he adds.

Talal Asad addresses these questions through addressing the discourse of Secularism. Asad also starts saying that “If anything is agreed upon, it is that a straightforward narrative of progress from the religious to the secular is no longer acceptable. But does it follow that secularism is not universally valid?” He further argues that the fact that secularism emerged in a certain western context, under certain circumstances and relationships of the state, with that of religion, it cannot be considered universally valid, for all times. The rise of secularism with the modern nation-state is undisputed and he cites Charles Taylor as another eminent thinker who has mentioned this idea.

            He further argues that the notion of secularism as used to denote a very clear set of ideals is also problematic, as in the west also there are several models of secularism for example that in England, where the Church has a prominent role to play in the affairs of the state, although indirectly. The definition of secularism and that of secular societies has scope to accommodate enough contradictions, he points out. The repeated intolerance in the United States, a largely Christian country with a secular constitution can still be understood as part of the characteristic that defines a ‘modern secular state,’ he says.


FBOs as a paradigmatic case

Faith-based organizations are unique in their reach and scope of services. With the growth of Catholic Church and increased diversity in the U.S. and also growth of other faith denominations in the country, the debate about the role of FBOs has become salient. Bill Clinton’s passage of the Charitable Choice and George W.Bush’s further championing of these initiatives in opening the Office of Faith-based Initiatives at the White House is seen widely as pushing a religious agenda in politics.

While this is partly true, the other side of the story is that the state has retrenched from its provision of social services. In a marketized economy, where these services were ‘outsourced’ to FBOs’, these organizations came to fill in the service. Though they have not been able to and possibly can never replace the government agencies, in terms of scope of work or their reach; they still exist and continue to provide important services.

FBOs can be seen as this bridge between religious institutions and the state – and in this sense, they are also controversial. Charitable choice provisions did make it possible for congregations to receive funds from the state directly. So, where does this leave us with? Are FBOs just proxies for the state and have the freedom to do their work, as long as they donot proselytize?

One of the ways to think of them is how Robert Wuthnow has argued – that is to look at them as organizations, who just have a different mission; but for all practical purposes, function as other secular organizations. A much deeper examination of organizational theory and dynamics is warranted here, and I will deal with that in another blog post. For now, suffice it to say that though there are different degrees of how much faith informs the mission of an FBO, not all are out to push their ‘religious’ agenda, as one would fear. There is some evidence that

So, in conclusion, I think there is space for FBOs in the public sphere and by extrapolation, for the expression of religion in the public sphere. Much good has come from religious expression too. Beyond the psychological explanation that Carl Jung pointed out. And for practical reasons – both at the level of individual and group identity, they are playing a key role in American society. When it comes to issues of social justice, equality and taking care of the vulnerable, FBOs are known to do a good job-infact, a better job than government agencies, as Robert Wuthnow and Ram Cnaan have pointed out in their research. FBOs can be helpful in solving many of our problems, but only if they do not end up promoting their own brand of religion/ sectarian ideology. This is critical for those recipients of their services, who do not agree with their ideology, to feel they are not being pressured.  

New Year Reading List – Top 12 books in Charity and Philanthropy

Keeping up the tradition of recommending books to read in the upcoming New Year, here is my list of top twelve books for 2014– all focused on Charity and Philanthropy. For starters, the two words don’t mean the same. Hopefully, by the time you are done with the 12 books, you will know the difference. If you are slow reader, read a book a month; if you read fast, aim for one a week. The books are not ranked in any order, so feel free to pick up any title you choose. And yes, some of them are online (for free download) at Project Gutenberg or other sites. So, here goes:

Photo courtesy:
Photo courtesy:

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  1. Alexis De Tocqueville’s Democracy in America – Perhaps the most cited (and sometimes cited simply because they have to) this book is a classic. Written by a French Aristocrat, who spent a few years in the U.S. documenting the norms of civil society, Democracy in America is a must read for anyone wanting to understand how ‘civil association’ came to be so dominant in the U.S., its moral philosophy and political dimensions. Tocqueville does a great job of illustrating the development of legal systems, relationship of federal government with the states, among other things. But the genius of the book lies in finding how civil society came about in the U.S. and how it is unique in so many respects. If you don’t have this book, buy it. Today.
  2. Bishop, M., and Green, M. Philanthrocapitalism: How the Rich can save the World – With the discourse of ‘business can save the world’ gaining traction by the day, it is important to be aware of this trend and analysis. While I completely do not agree with the arguments presented here, it is a book worth your time. With Bill Gates and Warren Buffet pledging almost half of their fortunes to philanthropy, will the sector be in a position to transform the lives of millions of poor? Will other HNW individuals follow suit? What are the prospects of this move for philanthropy generally? These are some of the questions Greene and Bishop have dealt with, in this book.
  3. Robert Wuthnow. Saving America?  Faith based services and the future of Civil Society – I am biased towards Wuthnow. He is my favorite Sociologist of Religion and also the most perceptive one. So, his book makes it among the most important ones to read. Infact, any book written by him is an eye opener (and there are quite a few to read). At last count, he had authored over 38 books (I counted that many, not sure if I missed a few). Nevertheless, Saving America offers an in-depth analysis of faith-based services and if they should be supported with tax dollars. Both incisive and perceptive, Wuthnow writes with compassion and a sense of duty towards those who are at the receiving end of the social services. He is a kind soul who is sympathetic with the benefits that these organizations provide to the recipients, but is also scholarly in his approach.
  4. Kass Amy, ed.,Giving Well, Doing Good: Readings for Thoughtful Philanthropists. This brings together the best of essays from various cultures, thinkers and ideologies to reflect on charity and philanthropy. There is WEB Dubois, Pope Benedict, Tom Paine and Rabbi Maimonides, among others.  Here is a sample of what is in this book: Eight levels of Giving by Rabbi Maimonides :

There are eight levels of giving:

1. Helping someone find employment or forming partnerships, so they don’t need your help again

2. Giving to the poor, knowing that no one gives to them

Below this, the giver knows to whom he gives and the poor person does not know from whom he takes

4. Below this, the poor person knows from whom he takes, and the giver does not know.

5. Below this, one puts into another’s hand before the latter asks

6. Below this one gives another after the latter asks

7. Below this, one gives another less than is appropriate, in a pleasant manner

8. Below this, one gives begrudgingly

  1. Kass, Amy. ed., The Perfect Gift: The Philanthropic Imagination in Poetry and Prose – Another interesting book by Amy Kass. This brings together some interesting perspectives on philanthropy from various authors, poets and thinkers.
  2. Peter Frumkin’s Strategic Giving – While many people are trying to leave a mark with their philanthropy, they don’t have a blue print of how to do this. Frumkin, who is at Upenn provides a concise, clear roadmap for those who want to do this. A very well written book, one that is indispensable for those who want to go beyond just writing checks.
  3. William Jackson. The Wisdom of Generosity: A Reader in American Philanthropy – This is a quintessentially American philanthropy book. Using folklores, stories, parables drawn from America’s rich past, Jackson offers us an idea of what philanthropy looks and feels like in the U.S. A rich book, that will make you appreciate the richness of American traditions of giving. I realized that between me and the author, there is a small coincidence:  that the author spent his youth in Bangalore, working with NGOs’ (my hometown) and I was sitting in Indianapolis at the Philanthropy Library, IUPUI, many years later and reading his book on philanthropy. Small world, indeed.
  4. Warren Ilchman and Stanley Katz, Philanthropy in the World’s Traditions – This book looks for expressions of philanthropy across various traditions and religions around the world. This again, brings together various writers from varying backgrounds to offer us a rich compendium of ideas and perceptions.
  5. Elayne Clift. Ed. Women, Philanthropy, and Social Change: Visions for a Just Society – As the role of women is being increasingly recognized in our world, works of scholarship are also being produced. This is an interesting book that chronicles the struggles of women who are philanthropists, in everyday life.
  6. Singer, Amy. Charity in Islamic Societies – This is perhaps the ONLY book length treatment of charity in Islamic societies. And perhaps the book that spurred me to decide on my dissertation topic. And yes, she writes well. I have a deep respect for historians who do their job well and she does a remarkable job of grounding the norms, aesthetic dimensions and values of zakat, sadaqa and Waqf in Ottoman Empire and brings back the narrative to current day. A great book that should be in your possession. A review of the book is here.
  7.  David Wagner. What’s Love got to do with it? A Critical Look at American Charity. – This one is for the critical theorists out there. Wagner is not entirely convinced that charity, as we practice it, makes an enormous difference in society. He offers a well argued, indepth analysis for why things are as they are. A good read.
  8. Olivier Zunz. Philanthropy in America: A History. – This book is a historic look at the emergence of philanthropy and makes a case for its use in public good. Zunz is a historian and brings his skills to fore here. Starting with philanthropists such as Andrew Carnegie, Rockefeller and others, the book traces the history of philanthropy in the U.S., offering a great narrative of how public good has come to be associated with giving. A good read and I enjoyed this book.

Additional recommendations:

Alright, if that hasn’t satisfied your curiosity, here are a few more (keeping in tune with what one of my favorite professors does – All his syllabus has three reading lists. Required, Recommended and Supplementary).

  1. Robert Wuthnow’s  Red State Nation
  2. Barbara Ibrahim and Dina Sherif, From Charity to Social Change: Trends in Arab Philanthropy
  3. David Hammack and Steven Heydemann eds., Globalization, Philanthropy and Civil Society
  4.  Helmut Anheier and David Hammack, eds,  American Foundations; Roles and Contributions.
  5. Arnove et al. Philanthropy and Cultural Imperialism

If you enjoyed this list, share it with others and if you find a book that you think I should read, please write to me! Happy holidays!


Of Fundamentalism(s) and Mangoes – Review of Andrew Sullivan’s The Conservative Soul


I finally read The Conservative Soul. I had borrowed this book more than three months ago from the library and it was sitting on my book shelf, before I decided to dig into it, to write a white paper on political theory. Given that most of my professors are Marxists, ex-Marxists or Liberals of some stripe, I rarely read any conservative writers. And given my own political leanings, which are somewhat liberal and thanks to Sullivan, I realize now, partly ‘conservative’, I have not been too attracted with screeds from conservatives. I must confess to having read my fair share of libertarians including Hayek, Mises and others of the Austrian School of Economics. This book is a good introduction to conservative thought.

What is the core argument here? Sullivan seems to be arguing that in our tech savvy, ever changing world, where uncertainty, destruction and change are the only norm, conservatism is a call for some stability. As a political philosophy, it roots people in something that is unchanging, traditional and for the lack of a better term ‘real.’ He does a pretty good job of tracing the history of the conservative movement in the U.K. (where he is from, originally) and the U.S. Given his personal background (A gay Catholic) and someone who has lived in the Western world all his life, there are a few good insights that inform his work. His take on how we are all away from home, displaced, anxious and in alien environments seems spot-on.

At the same time, he makes some fundamental errors when speaking of Islamic fundamentalism. He seems to be painting the Shii Fundamentalism of Iran in the same brush as the fundamentalism of Wahhabis. For someone who studied Political theory at Harvard, this is too great an error to conflate the two – but he does exactly this. His analysis of fundamentalism and linking it to extremism is also somewhat not fully developed. Though he does point out that there is little room for accommodation in any fundamentalist creed, is a somewhat flawed and superficial reading of the situation.

This analogy of painting all Islamic fundamentalisms in the same brush, while at the same time completely ignoring Orthodox Jewish fundamentalism – I don’t think there is a single line in the book that talks about it- smacks of either selective analysis or at worst bias. Not good in any case. Nevertheless, his analogy of different fundamentalisms is similar to an American’s concept of a mango. When Americans speak of mangoes, they usually speak of one or at best two varieties of mangoes, that are terrible, tasteless and bland (with due apologies to my Latin American friends). If one has lived in India or visited the country during the Mango season, one will realize that there are literally thousands of varieties of mangoes, each unique in its flavor, fragrance and color. Mango is considered the king of fruits in India – and with good reason. So, the concept of Mango for an American and an Indian is totally different. The same is the case with Sullivan – for whom anything with ‘Islamic’ seems uni-dimensional and reductionist. He does show some nuance with Christianity (not my specialty) so I will give him credit where it is due.

Looking at some of his other arguments, one sees that he does a good job of tracking how America became a ‘churched’ nation, as he quotes Roger Finke and Rodney Stark’s The Churching of America 1776-1990, a study that points out that prerevolutionary America had just 17 percent of the population was ‘churched’, while it grew to 30 percent in mid-nineteenth century and in 1980 was around 62 percent. This trend seems to be shifting, though slowly. As of 20013, Evangelism is on the decline, with the rise of Catholicism and other religions such as Islam, according to this insightful article in The American Scholar.

He sounds more like a pragmatist than a conservative when he says “And so contemporary conservatives accept this changed world and adapt themselves to it. May be they will try and restrain some of its worst impulses, or seize some new opportunities for growth and development. But they will start from where they are. Because there is no other place for a conservative to start.” While he supports basic healthcare for the poor and public education, he is all about small government. While Sullivan opposes progressive taxation, he offers no solution for how the government – small as it might be- should finance these very ventures that are it’s responsibility.

He also explicitly shies away from making any policy recommendations and offers a quasi-philosophical framework for analysis. His foreign policy analysis seems naïve at best, with all the cheering for Iraq war and espousing of a neoconservative line of thinking. While his support for minimal social welfare is laudable, and this is where I think he is a pragmatist, I don’t think his analysis of the securitization discourse is accurate at all. He seems to have bought into it, in total; with no doubt. When he says that international terrorism (and we know what he is referring to) is the greatest threat before us, this seems to ally with much of the discourse that came out of GW Bush’s administration. More fear mongering, so one can keep the security apparatus at an all-time alert – all to secure our borders from the ‘enemy’. Apparently, the international order, laws and conventions mean nothing to Sullivan – who lives in a world of his own making – a very dark one, indeed.

Overall, not a bad read. This book definitely provides insights into the challenges that many ‘progressive’ minded conservatives think. An easy read, but with a few gaps and undeveloped ideas. I would still recommend this book.



Sullivan, A. (2006).The Conservative Soul. Harper Collins. New York.

Do we really need nonprofits in America? : Five arguments for the sector’s existence


Are nonprofit organizations redundant? Can the for-profit sector solve all our problems and usher in a world where poverty, disease and deprivation are things of the past? I read an article on the Forbes website yesterday that argued for dismantling of the nonprofit sector. This piece by Mr. Freedman sought to show, using two elite universities as examples, of how the entire sector is not really contributing to our lives and at best, it is a benefit that the sector does not deserve. I believe that in the U.S. (and many parts of the world) the nonprofit sector plays a key role in society and holds together social bonds, provides opportunities to those who cannot be part of the for-profit sector and finally, offers an opportunity in democratic participation.

Photo courtesy :
Photo courtesy :

Let us look at some of the arguments that are made in the Forbes piece, before we move on to analyze why I think the nonprofit sector is so important to America. While pointing out that most students at Harvard and Stanford, two institutions Mr.Freedman picks for analysis – are rich, isn’t it a total waste of tax payers dollars to subsidize them? He says: “But Harvard’s philanthropy is clearly questionable. Most of Harvard’s students are rich. (For that matter,all on average four year nonprofit schools skew upward in the wealth distribution, although not as much as many of the most elite).” But it would help to remind Mr.Freedman that most students in America don’t go to Harvard and Stanford. They actually go to community colleges, for a start. As this recent U.S. News article points out, there are over eight million students enrolled in community colleges. And from a recent lecture at Virginia Tech, I learnt that as many as 40% of graduate students have spent some time at a community college, before moving onto graduate level study.

Here are a few arguments, spanning various sectors for why we need the nonprofit sector and how it enriches our lives, in concrete ways.

  1. Incentivizing community action – As Alexis De Tocqueville, the French Aristocrat keenly observed in Democracy in America, the form of association is key to progress in America. “ In democratic countries, the science of association is the mother of science. The progress of all the rest depends on the progress it has made.” Tocqueville, 1845 [1945]:1. Lester Salamon of Johns Hopkins University contextualizes this development in the ideology of voluntary action that existed since the founding of the country. Voluntary action in the 19th century was seen as a middle way between rampant individualism and monarchial tyranny. The arrival of immigrants around this time also led to the development of self-help societies and voluntary groups, that provided crucial services to the newly arrived immigrants, he points out. This continues, to this day and one sees that the nonprofit sector benefits people from across all segments of society – the very poor, the middle class to the rich ( The National Football League (NFL) is an egregious example of a nonprofit that ‘serves’ some very wealthy interests).

At the heart of this associationalism was a distrust of state authority and a belief that people are able to take care of their own needs, if left to their own devises. The legal status that nonprofits enjoy and the tax exemptions that they get is in part incentivization for this sort of associationalism.

2.Community Colleges – The surprisingly large number of students who attend community colleges is not well known. Their crucial role in preparing students for future education or work should not be discounted, nor is their funding mechanism, much of it modelled so that the fees don’t leave a big debt on those attending these institutions. As I have pointed out above, the sheer number of students who attend them is testimony to their continued relevance.

3. Employment in the nonprofit sector – As this recent article points out, millions of people are employed in the nonprofit sector and it contributes roughly five percent of the American GDP, every year. A recent report from the John Hopkins University’s Center on Nonprofits points out that about 10.1% of total America’s workforce is employed in the nonprofit sector. This is third in line, behind retail and manufacturing.

4. Democracy and philanthropy – Anyone familiar with American history will acknowledge the key role that civil society institutions have played in forming American democracy and sustaining it. Payton and Moody further argue that Philanthropy is crucial for Democracy. “The future of a free, vibrant society is linked to vitality of the philanthropic tradition,” they point out. (Payton and Moody, 2008. Pg.88). The advocacy and civic role of philanthropy are clearly essential in democracies, but other activities – helping to meet public needs and responding to human problems, shaping the moral agenda, and expressing cultural values are all part of building a stable democracy, they say. The notion that culturally, Philanthropy fosters democracy is an idea that has persisted since Alexis de Tocqueville pointed this out in his classic work Democracy in America. Payton and Moody build on Tocqueville’s argument in that Democracy needs philanthropy as it is also a cultural value, fostered by civic institutions


5.Cultural argument – One must also remember that individualism and freedom are at the heart of the American character, as Robert Bellah et al have argued in their book Habits of the Heart. In this book, they start off with case studies of four distinct individuals, leading very different lives. But what ties them together is how they make sense of their lives. As they say: “Brian Palmer finds meaning in marriage and family; Margaret in therapy. Thus both of them are primarily concerned with family life. Joe gives his life coherence his active concern for the life of his town; Wayne Bauer finds similar coherence in his involvement in political activism. Whether chiefly concerned with private or public life, all four are involved in caring for others. They are responsible and, in many ways, admirable adults. Yet when each of them uses the moral discourse they share, what we call the first language of individualism, they have difficulty articulating the richness of their commitments. In the language they use, their lives sound more isolated and arbitrary than as we have observed them, they actually are.”

As many keen observers of American society, from Alexis De Tocqueville to Robert Bellah and more currently Robert Wuthnow, have pointed out, civil society and its functioning is crucial for American democracy. The way in which individual agency has shaped American ethos is quite unique and offers all of us – should we choose to, to participate in making our ‘own world’ in our communities, both locally and at the national level; with limited interference from the state apparatus.


The libertarian argument against nonprofits in general is predicated on cutting back on any subsidies to those who ‘do not produce’. This is fallacious, as it defines productivity in a very narrow sense. Are the services of an NGO engaged in employment generation not valuable? What of the local community college or research institution? And I am not even bringing up the soup kitchens and other self-help groups that save lives, provide shelter and provide social services that many welfare states do. How does one quantify the results of some of the intangibles such as community action and mobilization, that several NGOs’ work towards?

Taking a cue from this, the discourse of ‘fixing the world’ through for-profits alone misses out on this sense of commitment, social bonding and cohesion that seems to exist in American society; and much of this exists in the nonprofit sector, where the motive to serve exists, even if in a flawed way. This social capital is the basis of how civil society has evolved in the U.S. Taking this away would mean taking away something at the heart of the American ethos. And unfortunately, much of this social capital is not “for-profit”.