The Homo Economicus and transnational religious networks in a post-secular society

A view of a minefield in front of an abandoned Catholic Church in Mandativu, Sri Lanka. Photo credit: E. Sebamalai.
A view of a minefield in front of an abandoned Catholic Church in Mandativu, Sri Lanka. Photo credit: E. Sebamalai.

Last week,  Prof. Manuel A. Vasquez gave a guest lecture on “Conceptualizing domination and resistance in transnational religious networks” at the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies in Groningen. Here Ella Sebamalai engages with the ideas he raised and applies them to practical contexts, in particular faith-based organisations in the contemporary Sri Lankan context.

In his lecture, Prof. Vasquez discussed the role of religion in the construction of the local and the global society by transnational religious networks that foster the transnational social infrastructure between migrants and their home country. In these settings, the dynamics of exclusion ad inclusion are constantly present in the migration regimes of states around the world. On the one hand, the state is reasserting itself and tending to discipline people and religion, thereby excluding certain minority groups such as migrants. On the other hand, the state’s attempts to exert discipline over its’ territories is challenged by religious actors who provide alternative structures of belonging and empowerment for the excluded population.

This interplay of the religious actors and states is not merely present in migration settings; religious actors can perform the same tasks to include a population in post-conflict settings. In my research on the role of Faith Based Organizations (FBOs) in the post-conflict reconstruction phase of Sri Lanka, I see the leverage of both transnational and national religious networks exemplified. As FBOs are mostly embedded in a transnational network of religious actors, their role illustrates the leverage of transnational religious networks in a post-conflict situation. The development projects of various FBOs create infrastructures through which individuals in the population are empowered to improve their living conditions, education, entrepreneurship and, thus, future outlooks. However, by focusing on the networks, the institutions and the organizations that foster the empowerment of individuals, there is less room to analyze the perspective of individuals in this process.

Considering the point of view from an individual migrant or internally displaced person (IDP), dynamics of insecurity, inequality, discrimination and exclusion interplay. Especially in those cases where the host-state or host-region problematizes the influx of migrants from a conflict region, these migrants may feel excluded or discarded. As prof. Vasquez illustrated during his lecture, these migrants may go looking for opportunities that would enable them to realize their envisaged goal: improved living conditions, education, and so on. More importantly, these individuals may search for an opening to be included in the host society, being abroad or elsewhere in the country. Where the host-state or the host-region cannot fulfill their needs in terms of inclusion, other non-state organizations such as FBOs and transnational religious networks step in. This illustrates that where the state is failing to include migrants, FBOs and transnational religious networks pose a challenge to the political boundaries of state sovereignty by fostering the inclusion of migrants through processes of meaning-making, integration, and so on. For example, religious actor may organize transition rituals to prelude processes of forgiveness and reconciliation between two conflict parties in a post-conflict setting.

Particularly in post-conflict societies, where individuals are more likely to feel excluded, FBOs and transnational religious networks from diverse religious backgrounds contribute to not only the development of the population but also the change in religious affiliation. However, whereas the FBOs attempt to control the lives of the population in a similar way as the state attempted this, it is still the individual person that is able to opt for a specific FBO, depending on the potential opportunities for empowerment that are offered.  This process can be illustrated by an example of a family living in the North- Eastern post-conflict society of Sri Lanka. In the period between 2003 and 2009, the father has turned to the support of the Methodist Church that paid for their new house after the tsunami in 2004 while the mother is still continuing to visit services of the Catholic Church that pays for the education of the youngest daughters. Besides, their eldest son has explicitly converted to Islam through a Faith Based Organization that fostered micro-credit for his shop, while one of the older daughters is practicing Buddhist rituals brought to her by a representative of a Buddhist FBO that pays for her pursuit of a degree in Political Science. Until 2003, as all family members describe, they all structurally visited the services of the catholic church in the far north of the region, before they fled to the Eastern part of the country during the civil war (1983-2009). So, although the FBO has endeavored to control the behavior of the individuals, individuals can utilize these regimes of control to maximize their own benefits in terms of empowerment. Additionally, this example illustrates that those individual choices within a family result in a spread of various family members to diverse religious networks that could contribute to their development.

But, for how long will individual migrants continue to rely on the empowerment potential by FBOs and transnational religious networks? Will they continue to be equally loyal to the organizations throughout their lives, also in less critical stadia that do not involve exclusion? Surely, the leverage of FBOs and transnational religious networks to the development of individual lives in a post conflict phase will not be easily forgotten. However, where FBOs and transnational religious networks refer to their followers in terms of newly/ newborn/ renewed religious followers, I cannot help but wonder to what extent these followers have made calculated utilitarian, and rational choices in turning to the support of the FBOs and transnational organizations. Actually, to what extent is the support-seeking individual then a Homo Economicus?

To conclude, my expectation is that individual migrants might look for other opportunities from other organizations, FBOs or transnational religious networks, once the former can no longer serve their needs. I therefore expect that, since individuals are able to make calculated choices, they will opt for another potentially religious organization from a different religious background after the critical stadium has passed by. Therewith, individuals will make rational choices in hopping from one religious affiliation, to another, and not ‘putting all their eggs in one basket’ over the long term.

To read the response from Manuel A. Vasquez, click here.

Ella Sebamalai is a Master student in Religion, Conflict and Globalization and Intern with the Centre for Religion, Conflict and the Public Domain at the Faculty for Theology and Religious Studies, University of Groningen. She is also pursuing a Masters in International Security at the Faculty of Arts. Her main research interest is the leverage of faith-based organizations to International Relations. More specifically, her research focus is the role of FBOs in the post-conflict reconstruction phase such as that of Sri Lanka.

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