The Indian Economy Blog

March 24, 2007

Fanatics and Development

Filed under: Basic Questions — Atanu Dey @ 3:00 pm

Hopeless ignorant masses need some sort of refuge. In many materially and culturally impoverished parts of that world, religious fanaticism affords that refuge. Monotheistic intolerant faiths such as Christianity and Islam are a necessary but not a sufficient condition for evoking the fanatical response. Combine a dangerous belief in a homicidal cruel monomaniacal god with general cultural and material poverty, and you have the perfect recipe for generalized murderous violence. Although the advanced industrialized countries are nominally Christian, their general prosperity moderates their belief in the monotheistic Christian god. But in many parts of the globe, a combination of Islam and material deprivation invariably results in headline grabbing violence.

Extreme attachment to an ideology or cause can perhaps explain the violence associated with such seemingly diverse fields such as movies and cricket. I find it inconceivable that reasonable people would fly into a murderous rage killing people and vandalizing property at the death of a movie idol, as happened when a south Indian movie star (Rajkumar) died of old age. Or consider the murder and mayhem that followed the publication in Denmark of caricatures of another idol of the Islamic world, Mohammed. The operative word is “idol” and the worshipping by the unwashed masses is not restricted to just the traditional monotheistic religions. Cricket serves equally well.

My distaste for cricket (which I wrote about here) arises from the same apathy I have towards the mindless worshipping of idols by the masses. I am pondering this general phenomenon of fanatical worship because of the recent suspected (and most likely true) murder of the Pakistani cricket coach Woolmer in Jamaica. The team lost, some fans called for the murder of the coach, and within a day of the defeat, the coach was dead. Shocking? Not really considering the incredible fanaticism of the fans. That the word “fans” is derived from “fanatics” is instructive.

“Woolmer used to tell stories of the fanaticism of subcontinental fans who would wait at a train station at some dusty township at 3am just to see a train carrying Indian great Sachin Tendulkar flash by, in a land where every avenue of life is magnified in the extreme.” [Source.]

It’s the economics, stupid. Great masses of people follow the game on TV and radio. That attracts not just advertisers of soaps and sodas, but bookies and bureaucrats also. With millions of dollars at stake, match-fixing is a predictable outcome. Finally the meta-game of money and jingoism results in senseless murder and random acts of mob violence.

No, no, it’s the religious zeal, stupid. Rootless individual identity seeks to tie itself to some group with a large following, whether Scientology, Islam, cricket, movie star—the details are not important. It is primitive tribalism, a drive to be part of something that is much larger than oneself, a drive to belong to a group and thus inherit some of the power of that group.

No, no, it’s the combination of economics and religious fanaticism, stupid. Material poverty coupled with cultural poverty (which manifests itself as a fanatical devotion to an ideology) give rise to the observed phenomenon of violence. Take away either of the two ingredients, and you don’t get cooked. Civilized cultures (Jains and Buddhists, for example) no matter how materially deprived do not descend to mass murder. Similarly, materially rich but still nominally Christian societies do not indulge in generalized violence within their own societies.

I think that I like the last conjecture the best. Is there a way out?

It is trivially true that if you are too busy building stuff, you don’t have too much time to go around destroying things. Conversely, if you are fully invested in destroying stuff, you have little inclination to build things. Now if enough people in a society are busy breaking, not much stuff gets built. Lack of stuff leads to material deprivation and then if an evil ideology is handy, it leads to more destruction. Society is then locked into a low level equilibrium, or vicious cycle.

To nudge the system out of this trap of religious fanaticism and material poverty, there are three possible ways: 1) Get rid of intolerant religions; 2) Provide a way out of material poverty; 3) Get rid of both the intolerant religion and provide a way out of poverty.

You cannot get rid of intolerant religions. There are too many followers. So options 1 and 3 are ruled out. The middle option is the only one we have. I suspect that people who are comfortable at home rarely go out rioting in the streets. That option is also attractive because when people become rich, they have the means to fulfill the natural human desire to become educated, and when they are educated (in the broadest sense of the word), they naturally discard mindless ideologies. Another way to put it would be to say that people move up Maslow’s ladder.

I have an uncommon attachment to the notion that stuff matters. If you have stuff, you have the precondition for moving up the ladder. Given enough stuff, you can do whatever you want to do. If you don’t have stuff, you can’t do squat. (See “The Importance of Producing Stuff“.)

Back to this matter of religious fanaticism and poverty. I think that it is not surprising that they go hand in hand. The connection is well-understood by the “leaders,” whether they are called mullahs or politicians in a so-called “democracy.” In India, there is an unholy (sic) nexus between political power and the handing out of goodies to favored religious groups. Handouts are wonderful. They promote dependency and given sufficient time, impoverish the group so favored. Impoverished people are more easily manipulated. In neighboring Islamic republics of Pakistan and Bangladesh, they dispense with the pretense of democracy and go directly to guns and military dictatorships.

I began with “Hopeless ignorant masses need some sort of refuge.” What we need to do is to remove ignorance and promote hope among the masses. The key is education. Education inoculates the civilized person from the virus of fanaticism and despair. Education makes people productive and so stuff gets produced. When stuff gets produced, poverty is reduced. With material wealth, the necessary condition for development is satisfied. Educated people have a stake in the future and therefore have an interest in informing themselves about policies that are beneficial. They then make an informed choice among various leaders based on their policy prescriptions. This results in a peaceful and prosperous society.

Want to reduce the fanatical devotion to monotheistic religions, cricket, movie stars, and other mindless matters? Then educate the people.


  1. India is a vast country and majority of them are poor or lower middle class having limited or nill education. These poor people look upon movie stars,politicians, sports personality as demi-god and listen to what these idols speak and do. I think these idols should standup and take social responsibility to educate people.

    Few years back the same Rajkumar (Kannada superstar) in one of his movie “Jeevana Chaitra” influenced many poors in the villages of Karnataka to quit alchohol. There was a mini movement/revolution among the poor. It was certainly heartening to see its effect among the uneducated poor.

    Idols and celebrities do have a bigger role in educating people.

    Comment by Harish Babu — March 24, 2007 @ 11:39 pm

  2. Srilanka the land of Buddhist is one of the unrestful nations in the world. The current unrest was mainly due to their intolenrance towards the Tamils over there. By the way I am no sympathiser of the terrorist organisation over there but came to know of this fact when I started to read the history of Srilanka. A famous tamil novelist of the 1950′s ‘kalki ‘who has written historic novel based on chola , pallava dynasty has written the life of the people during that era and he has depicted both the Budhists and Jains as not very peace lovingpeople as we generally or atleast myself consider the religion to be.

    Comment by srihari — March 25, 2007 @ 2:50 am

  3. I am sorry Atanu.. I feel you are drawing simplistic and worn out conclusions.. I might need to write a lenghthy response to explain myself.. i can’t do that now.. I will point out only two things..1)you say fanaticism and poverty are realted.. how do you explain.. arab societies…2) you might fall back on education as the solution to answer point 1.. but you might find so many educated people who are fanatics.. loads and loads of RSS workers are very well educated.. rajju bhaiya and MM joshi both were physics professors.. and at the same time you might find ordinary poor people woh have a sane head on their shoulders..
    I expected a subtler analysis from you..

    Comment by abhay tiwari — March 25, 2007 @ 6:04 am

  4. You think that religious fanaticism is confined to the monotheistic faiths? or the poor?

    I agree with Abhay that an honest look at the nature and actions of the Sangh Parivar would quickly prove otherwise.

    Comment by Nandan Desai — March 25, 2007 @ 7:06 am

  5. Someone else said it more succinctly.

    “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people.”

    And, he was a monotheist by birth.

    Comment by Dave Barnes — March 25, 2007 @ 7:56 am

  6. Religious fanaticism is purely a monotheistic phenomenon. Monotheism accords special status to the ONE TRUE GOD(TM) and its followers the monopoly on truth and goodness.

    Abhay, I think it is not just poverty. You have to have poverty and nonotheism. That is why Islam has bloody borders right from the beginning.

    Dave, I think Marx was right in that one.

    Comment by Atanu Dey — March 25, 2007 @ 8:41 am

  7. Nandan, I am sorry to note that you are reading “Islam” as “Muslim.” Please re-read whatever I wrote making that distinction.

    Let’s try again. Islam is a violent creed. In general, when a sufficiently large number of people who are culturally and materially deprived have the support of a violent creed, then they exhibit violent behavior often unprovoked. The god of Islam is the Abrahamic god. Though the word “god” is also used for the non-Abrahamic deities, the objects the word refers to are not the same. Dawkins put it bluntly when he wrote that “”The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it, a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”

    Yes, Buddhists commit violence. But is Buddhism violent? Yes, there is Sangh Parivar and the Godhra riots, and of course the Babri masjid. So a few thousand years of history and that is all what you have to show to support your claim that (1) Indians who are largely non-monotheistic (that is, they are either polytheistic or atheistic) have been as violent as those who invaded India for a millennia and have wreaked havoc globally, (2) the violence that non-monotheists indulge in is instigated and inspired by the non-monotheistic creed, and (3) therefore that monotheistic and non-monotheistic creeds are equally violent.

    I think it may be useful to distinguish between the religion or the ideology, understand whether it inspires hatred of the ‘other’, and see under what conditions that inspiration is translated into actions. My claim is that poverty and an intolerant creed is sufficient for violence.

    Comment by Atanu Dey — March 25, 2007 @ 9:09 am

  8. “My claim is that poverty and an intolerant creed is sufficient for violence.”

    You’re not claiming that at all in your post. You are claiming that poverty and specific religions (monotheistic) or specific ideologies (based in monotheism) are responsible for violence. This extremely specious argument is superficial, dangerous, and naive.

    First, it’s based on after the fact conclusions along the lines of “X committed an act of violence. X was poor. X was a follower of Y ideology/religion (which by the way I’ll label as “intolerant.”) Therefore, only X and Y could be the cause of violence.

    There are an infinite number of reasons for why violence has occurred throughout history. To attempt a reductionist approach and try and boil it down to religion/ideology + poverty only sees part of the picture. First, it’s rarely the poorest of the poor who initiate violence. More often it’s those with some education and some “stuff” —- Subhas Chandra Bose was no pauper, nor were the leaders of the French Revolution, Osama Bin Laden, Mohammed Atta, Thomas Jefferson and other American Founding Fathers. Some of these exhorted others to violence and most picked up weapons themselves and participated in destruction of “the other.”

    Second, Hinduism, Buddhism, Communism, Socialism — religion or ideology all contain the “potential justifications” for violence. Like it or not, the “interpretations” of Hinduism that enabled the rise of the caste system is itself a good example of the way an ideology begets violence.

    I generally enjoy the posts on this blog as being well-informed, but I’m dismayed that you’d make such a shallow argument.

    Comment by rakesh — March 25, 2007 @ 3:34 pm

  9. If education innoculates people from despair, why do so many educated people take antidepressants?

    Comment by alphie — March 25, 2007 @ 3:47 pm

  10. I like your argument. It may be a bit simplistic, but it’s also straightforward and rational.

    Fanaticism plays a part, but I think the media does, as well. Even if those that do not have a TV at home, it is reasonable to conclude that they still have access to it, along eye-catching billboards and public advertisements. They are tantalized with things that they supposedly HAVE to have but cannot afford it. I think this, in part, leads to the dependency on handouts and the state of desperation. It’s a huge influence.

    “That option is also attractive because when people become rich, they have the means to fulfill the natural human desire to become educated, and when they are educated (in the broadest sense of the word), they naturally discard mindless ideologies.”

    This is broadly disproved through the examples of the key 9/11 hijackers. These people were well-educated and did not come from a extreme-fundamentalist household. They were fairly normal people that had were recruited into al-Qaeda *after* they moved to Europe.

    This conversion also has to do with media influence. They may have been brought up to believe that Islam is the single-greatest monotheistic religion, but if this is true, why are some of the Muslim countries so decrepit? But after living in Europe, they are forced to see what others have and what they don’t, and some of them are pushed to extremism.

    While education is still monumental, I am not sure if it will be as effective as you claim.

    Comment by Vi — March 25, 2007 @ 8:32 pm

  11. “Nandan, I am sorry to note that you are reading “Islam” as “Muslim.” Please re-read whatever I wrote making that distinction… Islam is a violent creed.”

    I understood that initially. You’re pointing to the coexistence of Islamic ideology and violence over eons to draw the conclusion that “Monotheistic intolerant faiths such as Christianity and Islam are a necessary but not a sufficient condition for evoking the fanatical response.” I agree with you that, currently, monotheistic religious leaders seem more prone to using scripture to justify violence. But to extrapolate that this has been the case throughout the past 2000 years is a transparently simplistic (and more importantly self-serving) reading of history. In my view, people turn to violence because of their survival instincts – not because they are brainwashed by the old testament’s god.

    Like with the Gujarat riots, you ignore all other data points which contradict your general argument. What about WW1 and WW2? Spanish-American war? American aggression in Iraq? Vietnam? India’s war with China? Russian and Japanese aggression? What of all the civil wars (the current one in Iraq notwithstanding)? And tribal violence in sub-saharan Africa? or South Africa during apartheid?

    All these conflicts challenge one or more of the notions put forward in your post. In fact, there are only a few conflicts in history which support it. But that is largely ignored because your argument is purely ‘philosophical’.

    It is a pleasant fiction that the violence and problems the world faces today are born out of simple things like monotheism or poverty. While that may be partially true in some select instances, broadly, the motivating force behind fanatical violence is far more complex.

    Comment by Nandan Desai — March 25, 2007 @ 9:25 pm

  12. Hitchens on monotheism and free speech is required viewing in this context.

    See this

    Comment by Atanu Dey — March 25, 2007 @ 10:04 pm

  13. Anatu, all idealism of any kind is flawed, whether religious or secular, fanatic or pragmatic.

    Your argument is idealistic itself, just like the idealism of the masses that you deride.

    One can only live by their own rules.

    And I dont mean in the Nietzchean sense of creating new ideals for themselves to fanatically follow, but rather in the nihilistic sense ‘it simply dosent matter’.

    Common interest is the only law, and when one rises above it, they can do what they want.

    Thus economic development and enforcing legality, are probably the best way to keep people safe, like you said.

    Comment by Kalki Avatar — March 25, 2007 @ 11:27 pm

  14. Nandan, but you’re conflating fanatical violence and violence in general.

    Even otherwise though, Atanu’s point — that it takes both cultural and material poverty to lead to fanatical violence — needs to be made more nuanced.

    Many of the Islamic terrorists are actually middle class or above, with a good education.
    Clearly then material poverty is not a necessary condition.

    What about cultural poverty — here too, and Camus’d agree with me here, truly dangerous fanatical violence stems from highly educated rebels.

    I think what Atanu wanted to get at was that while the “source” of the dangerous fanatical violence can — and perhaps, can only — stem from materially and culturally enriched peoples, the spread of such violence requires a large set of peoples who are materially and culturally deprived — and hence who are easy pawns for the deranged, yet materially and culturally non-deprived “elite”.

    Comment by seven_times_six — March 26, 2007 @ 3:08 am

  15. Atanu wrote: “The key is education. Education inoculates the civilized person from the virus of fanaticism and despair. Education makes people productive and so stuff gets produced. When stuff gets produced, poverty is reduced. With material wealth, the necessary condition for development is satisfied. Educated people have a stake in the future and therefore have an interest in informing themselves about policies that are beneficial. They then make an informed choice among various leaders based on their policy prescriptions. This results in a peaceful and prosperous society.”


    I didn’t know where you were going with your rather cosmic, guru-like pontification in the first few paras, but you sure brought it home.

    If one compares the so-called advanced nations with, in politically correct speak, the “developing” nations, the only difference seems to be education and prosperity. Both societies have extremist philosophies in equal force. But the educated and prosperous society embraces its extremism through talk radio and Sunday congregations. The less educated and poor ones burn down their cities over cricket and movie idols.

    Free market capitalism, anyone?

    Comment by Sarat — March 26, 2007 @ 6:16 am

  16. You sure about that Sarat? We’ve got a “sunday congregation” fellow in the White House here. Of course, I’m not trying to argue against education – it should clearly be priority #1. Just don’t expect it to completely solve religious fanaticism.

    Frankly, I think the sources of religious fanaticism are far more instrinsic – the diversity of religions, ethnicities…; the amount of natural resources available (“dutch disease”) to buy off the people; the political system; socio-cultural antecedents; etc.

    It is unpleasant to acknowledge those factors because they are notoriously hard to change. Education is just one key to starting that process. Having a basic respect for the culture/religion/ideology of the people whom you are trying to change, perhaps, is another.

    Comment by Nandan Desai — March 26, 2007 @ 12:08 pm

  17. How come no one has evoked the great political parties that give hand outs to the poor in exchang for violent behaviour just to create a loyal vote bank? The recent statement by Rahul Gandhi is just an example of how desperate politicians can get to remain in power. What about the thousands of guys who blocked the traffic on the day that Saddam was hanged? Was it really a spontaneous relegious fervor?

    Comment by Revathi — March 26, 2007 @ 12:50 pm

  18. In Hinduisim, caste conflicts and oppression exists even though
    hinduisim is not monotheistic. Castesism is a product of feudal
    oppression. Turkey, a nation of muslims is far more liberal and
    forward looking with no traces of jihadi elements. And in Malayasia
    and Singapore, many religions co-exist peacefully. It is obvious
    that such matters and motives are very complex and vary with local
    conditions and values..

    It is my guess that, if and when Palestine and Kashmir issue
    gets relsoved peacefully and fairly and if US and Israel are rational
    and fair in their foreign polices, this current phase of islaimic
    jihadis will be reduced drastically. A war for national liberation
    and against oppression of basic rights will always exist whenever there is oppression by the might. And in Sudan, the genocide is
    basically a drive for better lands and pasture, as the lands of
    Arabic people has turned infertile and dry, while the blacks have
    better lands. So greed is also an element cloaked amidst rhetotic.
    I guess the middle east violence and jihadisim will die in the comming
    century, when petroloeum reserves get exhausted and the Arabs loose
    their strategic and economic importance.

    Cricket : as huge stakes are invloved, what if betting is legalised
    and online ? can it be led out in the open, so everyone is aware of
    the bids and trends.

    And BCCI is mired in corruption and cronyism. So why not abolish it and privatise it : let there be hundreds of private teams (like Reliance team, Tata team, etc) and there should be a knock-out match every year among the teams. the winning team shall be the national team for 2 years. And players can move to teams paying them best. Like in US basket ball teams or football clubs in europe. Free market competition will eliminate the worst and let the best man/team win…

    Comment by K.R.Athiyaman — March 26, 2007 @ 1:31 pm

  19. and reg Bangalore riots over Rajkumar’s death ; there is a vested
    interst lobby, whipping up orgamised terror thru paid merceneris.
    they have political ambitions and also settle personal scores
    during such riots…

    Former Railway mnister Jaffer Sherief used a meeting in Bangalore to condemn the execution of Saddam Husein, to whip up communal frenzy
    to consloidate his muslim vote banks. BJP uses VHP for same.
    there are no spontaneous riots. carefully calculated strategies to
    acheive narrow partisan ends. Like the Ram temple movement to consolidate the hindu vote bank in the 90s.

    Bal thankray of shiv Sena has defined Hindutva accurately :
    “Hindutva means all Hindus should always vote for BJP & Co only..”

    Comment by K.R.Athiyaman — March 26, 2007 @ 2:19 pm

  20. I do think it is lack of education and wealth is the cause of Idol worship. And of course the system plays a major part.

    Just think that for a country of billion, there are 11 sports heroes. We should stop playing international games (except probably the world cup) and promote the Cricket league (like the European/us clubs). Those cricket league should permit players from all over the world. Then we would be talking about a game between Chennai (with players from Mumbai) Vs Mumbai (with players from Chennai). Those teams will go to all lengths to find the talent to win. The free market competition will eliminate the worst (corruption and cronyism) and the true talent will win. The Media will not concentrate on just 11 players and instead every town will have 11 guys and the cricket money would be split up evenly. But I know the current system would fight all the way to keep the current system.

    Comment by Niranjan — March 28, 2007 @ 1:16 am

  21. This is such simple reasoning I don’t even know where to begin. Atanu, you are buddhist? Being of a buddhist background myself (Sri Lankan), I will say that after reading your post here and your comments and post on your site, I suggest you be well embarrassed with the manner you treat your readers and critics. Your intolerance is similar to those you decry and your belligerence is antithetical to your post.
    If you believe that monothiesm is what propagated invaders to wreak havoc in India, then you may well study a more objective history text. They justified their invasion and exploitation with religion; it didn’t fuel it. Nor did many of their architects believe it. Religion typically serves as the justification…it hides the more callous view that money and influence are primary interests. Do you believe anyone will invade a country only to grow poor?
    I will agree that economic prosperity can hide one’s most radical inclinations. But there is a disconnect in your reasoning. Such WIDESPREAD fanaticism, not fanaticism itself, is relatively new. There are and have been many societies that have resisted fanaticism in spite of their poverty. What pushes SOME impoverished societies to accept fanaticism when they do is the degree and level of exploitation they are taught they are the victims of. Exploitation is now the principal cause of widespread fanaticism. It happens between countries, it happens in countries among the same people, and exploitation will continue to grow as long as wealth and power are increased with such rapidity and disparity. Of course I cannot explain all fanaticism. What about Malawi and Zimbabwe? Your malevolent monothiests rarely take up arms there. The fact is that exploitation can only explain so much. There are incredible cultural forces at play that I am ignorant of and that you are too orotund to admit to.
    Have you any experience with the more radical elements within this world? Your reasoning speaks of none.

    Comment by Vishaan — April 7, 2007 @ 12:17 am

  22. This is very simplistic reasonong for a very complicated problem.

    Comment by Denis O'Leary — April 10, 2007 @ 5:21 pm

  23. A serious question because I am interested in education.

    What would you educate the people on and how would you do it?

    Comment by Graham Stewart — April 17, 2007 @ 6:52 pm

  24. Atanu’s post is typical of shallow understanding of right wing intellectuals about complexities of human life. The funny part is that his analysis does not even pass the test for his most hated enemy viz. Islam. Whatever else you may call Islamic history, it is no way culturally poor.

    Comment by Manish Saxena — April 21, 2008 @ 1:42 am

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