Current Affairs

An Economy of Souls

Jaideep A Prabhu

Jul 16, 2012, 05:18 AM | Updated Apr 29, 2016, 02:18 PM IST

Tweeter @hguptapolicy (HG) owes me a Sunday afternoon. I was about to take a quick nap before getting back to work when a chirp of his popped up on my twitter timeline. Basically, it said that if a person in Tamil Nadu wanted to become a Christian for $500, then that was sad, but also his right. At first, I thought that he was being flippant, particularly when I suggested a sales tax on the “purchase” of a soul by the Church and he just reminded me to allow states to vary the rate of a general sales tax (GST)! Intrigued, I looked up HG’s timeline, and lo and behold, I was in the middle of a culture war…okay, maybe a culture morcha.

The discussion is storified here for those interested. [Please note: @swaraj_india is now known as @harshgpolicy. This was not the case during the time of this discussion and Storify has thus captured @harshgpolicy by his erstwhile handle, @swaraj_india]

HG raises a few very good points, and I confess he has won me over to his side, if only because neither I nor the other discussants were able to provide a satisfactory counter to his assertions. Without summarising the debate, since the link is provided above), let us get to the salient issue (though universal healthcare as a right was raised, the debate did not centre on it. Therefore, I focus on the causa causans).

Simply put, the question before us was whether conversion should be allowed by way of material inducement. The context for this question is the missionary activities of Christianity and Islam in India, in a setting where the other existing religions – Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, and Judaism – forbid proselytism. While it is indeed true that many convert out of Hinduism to escape their lower caste status, there is a strong case to be made that the Church has not been above fraudulent (spiritually) means in seeking converts and material inducement has been given in the name of development. Nonetheless, there is a difference between inducement and coercion. Inducement is not illegal, whereas coercion (on any issue) is. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which India has ratified, makes this distinction.

Pia Skov’s documentary on Christian conversions in India

HG makes the case that if the Indian Right dropped their carping about beef-eating and religious conversions, they’d emerge a genuinely secular force. Hindutva, then, would merely be the preference of many of the cadre. Prohibiting conversion or proselytism would, furthermore, be a violation of Article 25 of the Indian constitution. HG makes the same distinction the ICCPR does between coercion and inducement, or lure. Amit Malviya, however, argues that it is difficult to distinguish between the two and recommends the banning of foreign funds to Christian organisations in India. I am not sure how this would bring any more light to bear on separating coercion from inducement, but it would certainly restrict the finances and therefore the activities of the Church.

HG was quite comfortable with the notion of foreign funding for religious activity provided that it was on a reciprocity basis. This meant that organisations in countries that allow proselytism, such as the United States or Britain, funded partially through foreign sources will be allowed to remit funds to their counterparts in India. Other countries, such as Saudi Arabia and Greece, will not be accorded the same privileges. This however, is unsatisfactory for Malviya and other discussants, who make the oft-stated argument that such reciprocity militates against the very nature of Hinduism, as it does not seek to proselytise. HG’s point, however, is that funds from private Indian entities can be remitted to Hindu cultural centres or temples worldwide as charitable donations. Clearly, the (secular) state cannot dispense funds for religious promotion. The issue that has been overlooked here, I think, is that because of decades of evangelism, Christian coffers are far more abundant than anything a poorer nation like India (assuming per capita wealth since we are talking about individual giving) can hope to accumulate. This gives a natural (and unfair) strategic advantage to Christianity and Islam over then extant belief systems in India.

No one seemed to be happy with foreign monies coming into the Church’s war chest. Malviya suggested that the Indian state has a duty towards protecting the social fabric of the country. This is a very contradictory statement, given that it had just been argued that the Indian state, as a secular entity, should not involve itself in religious issues. HG though does not seem to believe in a social fabric – instead, he makes a free-marketeer argument that if the price of someone’s souls was $500, then no law should restrict such a transaction. Clearly, the situation is packed with issues – extreme poverty, moral decay (not for converting but for selling), failure of religion to mean much in daily life – but none of these should restrict a person’s right to do a mutually consensual deal. In my view, if the Church is allowed to violate its own principles (all conversions must be based on belief) and a prospective convert is allowed to sell his soul, so to speak, it is only fair that this financial transaction be taxed! It would be akin to a sin tax or a sumptuariae leges, an idea supported by Adam Smith and the Church.

Oldtimer challenged the proposed trade in souls: “Is the right to run a business without restriction or regulation absolute?” he asked. If there are to be restrictions and regulations, who decides on them? he wanted to know. Oldtimer’s reference was to the idea of social approval behind the illegality of certain businesses, such as heroin sales. Furthermore, drugs were legislated or banned because they were, in principle, harmful to society. Since there was nothing intrinsically sacrosanct to the business of religious conversion, there was no reason it should not be banned, he argued. What Oldtimer disputed was, he said, that the right to convert had been granted under the guise of ‘freedom of religion’ but the sale of souls was argued as a tenet of laissez-faire capitalism! This was a shifting of goalposts, he said.

Oldtimer’s riposte to the proposition is an excellent one that had me almost run to my Hayek bible! Yet the issue, ultimately, was that religious conversion is a religious right by Article 25 (except in some states such as Madhya Pradesh – see Stanislaus vs. the Govt. of MP), and if the Church wished to make a business of it (what else does one call exchange of goods or services?), it ought to be regulated and taxed like any other. Societal approval is reductio ad populum and cannot be taken as a serious argument. Even if it were, it cannot surpass the weight of personal liberty to convert. Additionally, societal approval is a two-edged sword, because it can obstruct key social goals such as caste elimination, or as occurred in the US a few years ago, the refusal by pharmacies in the Bible Belt to sell contraceptives as it was against “God’s law.” It is not out of sacral piety that conversion by inducement should be allowed, but out of personal and economic liberty.

Malviya fears that the monetisation of souls would lead to the wiping out of non-proselytising cultures in poor countries. Drawn by financial inducements, hordes could abandon the ways of their ancestors for temporary relief. Without employment, education, and the elimination of caste bias, India’s poor are doomed to be victims to “predatory foreign missionaries.” Another discussant, Silver, makes a poor point that withholding monetary help to achieve conversion is blackmail – poor because the dictionary definition of blackmail is, as HG responds, a threat to do harm, whereas luring is merely the holding back of an enrichment opportunity. But a good observation Silver makes is that in cases of inducement, the issue is not enrichment but staving off starvation. This is true, but since the Church is not responsible for the pending starvation, withholding relief may be morally questionable but not legally actionable. This is, Silver returns, the argument for the legalisation of prostitution as well – since the customer did not cause prostitution, there should be no problem if s/he offers to alleviate financial need for services rendered. Clearly, Silver’s real point, and a good one, is the varying degrees of coercion in any exchange. Consistent in his logic though, HG agrees to the legalisation of prostitution (as do I, if for other reasons).

TRISH00L, however, remained unconvinced. Prostitution had social costs too, as does conversion; the issue is not simply about personal liberty. As Malviya observed, the debate had acquired the flavour of one between a libertarian (HG, and myself in the second round at midnight!) and a conservative (himself, TRISH00l, and Oldtimer perhaps). It must be remembered, however, that prostitution also serves a biological need, and no amount of punishment – the Medieval Christian Church or the repressive theocracies of Iran and Saudi Arabia – has been able to eradicate it. Chanakya, author of the Arthashastra, recognised this and advocated training (!), educating, licensing, protecting, and taxing prostitutes. Similarly, religion is a psychological need, and the urge to spread is strong in some faiths. Fighting it is not worth the social cost or public relations nightmare; it was more expedient to allow the commercialisation of souls (this would not apply to just Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, and Sikhs, but also Christian -> Muslim and Muslim -> Christian conversions).

HG’s counter to Malviya, however, is quite interesting: since it has already been accepted that voluntary conversion – out of genuine belief –  should be allowed, and that coercion is illegal, the scope of the inquiry is those who are converting for purely pecuniary or social gains. If these people can leave their religions once, they can do so again – after all, it is not out of conviction and if the reasons for their conversion are removed, they would in all probability lapse back. HG’s strategy, therefore, is a secular proselytism offering not salvation but civil services; by providing social equality, employment, education, sanitation, drinking water, etc., there is a strong chance that less people will be tempted to convert and those who have revert. Furthermore, it is not as if India does not need to provide such services to its people anyway, and since there is no religious undertone to such work, funding can be applied sought from the state too.

There is a practical element to Malviya’s worries – with a predatory administration, low literacy, and high poverty, HG’s policy would whittle down India’s non-Islamic/Christian culture. Nonetheless, HG’s point cannot be denied in principle, that while liberty in India is de facto subject to all sorts of violation, de jure, at least, liberty should remain sacrosanct. Laws are the self0image of a nation’s values, not a tool of convenience, and as such, should uphold only the highest principles. Remedy for de facto problems must be sought elsewhere.

Malviya also makes the case that while HG dismissed social fabric unfairly, it was indeed the government’s responsibility to maintain such an idea because the failure to do so could result in social conflict in the future. This is a very complex issue: a similar argument could be made – was made – about the Roman Empire, that the acceptance of Christianity weakened the Empire and Theodosius I dealt the coup de grace. However, in India, like the Roman Empire, there are many reasons for social unrest – unemployment, poverty, illiteracy, overpopulation, an unresponsive government, endemic corruption, lack of infrastructure, pollution – all these factors contribute to making life unpleasant in the political union, and to put the blame squarely on religion is unfair. To be fair to Malviya, sociological studies (such as Joseph Troisi’s study of the Santals) have indeed shown that the introduction of Christianity or Islam into an animist tribe has created conflict within the tribe, whereas, Buddhism did not have the same violent reaction. One wonders, however, if proper law and order combined with educational and economic opportunities would not have mitigated the conflict.

While life intruded on the debate at this juncture, it certainly raised some excellent points. I have to admit that my aversion to conversion was based on my intellectual distaste for the concept of conversion, but HG has made me think otherwise. While I still find conversion theoretically and spiritually shallow, a constant need for the reaffirmation of one’s own faith, to prohibit it would be a greater wrong because it denies others to make that choice. On the key question of inducement, HG makes an often-overlooked point that inducement is not real conversion from the heart. In fact, such events hold a mirror to our society and highlight the social problems. This is a useful measure of social development and should be used in the right spirit, not opposed. What HG proposes in affairs of religion finds a parallel in the world of nationalism: unlike German or Israeli nationalism, French nationalism emphasises jus soli, the primacy of land and laws over blood and heritage (jus sanguinis). It is a civic nationalism as opposed to the ethnic nationalism shown by Germany and Israel. Similarly, HG defangs the conversion question by making it about a reflection of social equity and not faith.

This does not mean that there are no problems with it. For example, given the experience of social fractures between new converts and their old fellows in faith, what happens if only part of a family converts? How does one ensure an honest collection of taxes (I wan’t joking!)? What happens if social development is (as it probably will be) very slow and a generation passes? The next generation may not even remember their ancestry (or care about it). What message does it send to future generations that their parents’ core beliefs can be bought and sold? In short, Malviya and Oldtimer score some excellent points, but ultimately fail (in my view) to adapt to new strategies of fighting back. This does not mean that the debate is closed – I, for one, shall be spending many a waking hour poring over philosophical works and tinkering with the arguments of both sides.

Nonetheless, the new battlefront for religious wars has to be the archives, libraries, and conference halls rather than the pulpit. Ideas of Hindu philosophy, or any philosophy, are far better served by stringent scrutiny and dissemination through philosophy syllabi worldwide than by dogmatic priests; they will certainly reach a wider audience. This will weaken the hold of the dogmatists, the superstitious, and the ritualists, basing Hinduism on logic and rationality than blind faith. Hindus claim that this is the default position of their beliefs, and Hindusim has shown the remarkable ability to reform itself in the past. So what is stopping the chanters and circumambulators now?

Continuum (July 15, 2012):

Needless to say, HG’s proposition makes for a very restless night. This morning, thankfully, I have an observation to make that may have significant impact on the notion of conversion through inducement.

Yesterday’s discussions were centred on materialist attempts to discredit the principle of free choice. However, religion is, in no sense of the term, material. Religion must be seen in the same way as liberty – inviolable and an intrinsic good. It is held that a person’s liberty is of paramount importance that cannot be bartered away. Therefore, it is illegal to sell oneself into slavery, even at the risk of starvation; liberty is a good unto itself, the exercise of which allows one to lead a content life. Similarly, it can be argued that a man lives not by bread alone but also by hope; religion is that hope, of justice in this life or the next, of salvation, and the reassurance that the world will not descend into anarchy. Society is neither a business enterprise to maximise wealth nor an association to promote liberty and equality. Instead, as Aristotle argues, “the good life is the end of the city-state,” ie, a life consisting of noble actions (1280b39–1281a4). From this perspective, conversion without faith is an impediment to the good life.

Yet people who are induced to convert may not be religious, and therefore, the question of hope does not arise. This is only partly true – an atheist, if categorised as a Muslim or a Christian, will militate against the label. Atheism gives that person a certain sense of liberty, of humanism. By even ascribing a religious label, that sense is reduced. Those open to inducement may not have such strong convictions, for or against religion. Their sole belief  might be in two square meals a day. Swami Vivekananda is often credited for arguing that a hungry man has no religion but bread. There is merit in that idea, but as discussed above, society feels that liberty trumps bread. A hungry man is not capable of thinking properly about liberty (or religion) and should, therefore, not be allowed to make a rash decision. This is a principle upheld by law courts everywhere, that all deals must be entered into by person of sound mental faculties; in fact, reduced capability is even a mitigating factor in crime. Can one truly argue that poverty does not reduce capability? If not, should conversion by inducement be allowed?

Conclusion (July 17, 2012)

HG responds to the slavery argument (Mill paradox) that selling oneself into slavery is irreversible, whereas conversion to a religion can experience relapse or yet another conversion. This is a fair point, but since HG’s tone has been libertarian throughout the debate, I thought it only fair to remind him of the libertarian defence of slavery. Because of the bad connotations (because the Americans mucked up the word), it is usually referred to as warranteeism. In essence, it argues that the individual is inviolable and not subject to contract, but the labour that can be done by the individual is a commodity like any other. Rather than wage labour, which is like renting labour, it is possible to conceive of a contract that purchases labour outright in units of lifetimes. In some senses, this resembles slavery during the Roman Empire, wherein a slave had rights and could even drag his master to court for excessive punishment. This might seem anachronistic to some, but in feudalesque systems in the interiors of India (and many other places worldwide), mai-baap raj is still prevalent. HG accepts the logic of the argument but reserves his approval.

In closing (at least for me, for now…finally!), I suppose I shall take a page out of HG’s book after all – I find the concept of proselytism intellectually bankrupt (that’s almost the worst thing I can say about something) and yet I do not oppose it for the greater principle of free speech; my personal views on religion cause me to only be confused and bemused by conversion, but I do not oppose it for the greater principle of freedom of religion. Conversion by inducement is something that I find morally repugnant – for the intellectual dishonesty more than the spiritual dimension – and since I reject the notion of ethnic nationalism, I would prefer to find solutions to the very valid points Oldtimer, Malviya, and TRISH00L raise under different ambits of existing laws. In sum, HG has convinced me that there is enough ground to not make conversion by inducement illegal. Immoral and illegal are distinct concepts, and we should not conflate the two, however much we are tempted.

Jaideep A. Prabhu is a specialist in foreign and nuclear policy; he also pokes his nose in energy and defence related matters.

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