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Building Social Capital for Development: The Role of Religious Values and Virtues
Jul 1, 2012

This paper investigates the benefits that religious values and virtues can bring to bear on building social capital for societal development. From the outset, it has to be acknowledged that the majority of world's religious beliefs and practices are resting largely on an appreciable amount of values and virtues. Religious teachings such as respect for human life, the elderly, women, care for children, the destitute, etc. are fundamental virtues and values underpinning the articles of faith of almost all the world's religions including the so-called primitive religions. With that in mind, the paper sets out to examine the benefits of religion-as an embodiment of values and virtues-to society in terms of how people are galvanised into a cohesive and integrated group conducive for building social capital through social contacts and networking. Although religion can be a source of discord in society, it is the belief of this paper that through such peaceful social contacts and networking, opportunities and chances are generated to support the cause of social and economic progress aside from the spiritual fulfilments. In fact, religion has been an important force in moulding and shaping societies. Religious value and virtues carried forward through religious teachings can aid social interactions and relations at the local, national and global levels; thereby serving as the source of harmony and unity within society. Through such peaceful relations or interactions, the peaceful and tranquil milieu that binds society together for progress can be ensured.

Definition of concepts

Religion: It seems proper to begin this section with a brief overview of what religion is and what it stands for. There are many definitions of religion classified broadly into two main domains, i.e. (1) Subjective and (2) Functional perspectives. The subjective definitions of religion relate to beliefs and belief systems in supra-natural beings, whereas the functional definitions of religion relate to the binding and unifying forces of religions. Nevertheless, just a few of such definitions would be highlighted here. To begin with a dictionary definition on the subjective perspective, the Webster's New Twentieth Century Dictionary (1983) defines religion as "The personal commitment to and serving of God or a god with worshipful devotion."

Edward Taylor (1903) made an early attempt to define religion—a definition he considered as a "minimum definition." This minimum definition has been given as the "belief in spiritual beings." In this definition, Taylor stressed that "all things, organic and inorganic, contain a soul or spirit which gives them their particular nature and characteristics." According to Furseth and Repstad (2006), the definition of religion offered by Taylor seems to underscore the belief that all human beings have souls; a stand-point which transforms to the belief in spirits, gods, devils and other spiritual beings. Though an early attempt, the definition of religion given by Taylor has attracted a number of criticisms. One critic has seen Taylor's definition of religion as being "naively evolutionary and ethnocentric."

Another sociologist of religion, Roland Robertson (1982:1912) considers religion as being above the empirical. Religion to Robertson is "supra-empirical." Robertson (1982) argues that there is a difference between "an empirical and a supra-empirical, transcendental reality," and religious culture and activities came out of this distinction. Giving a full definition of religion, partly given by Robertson, Michael Hill (1973:42-3) has defined religion in his "Introduction to Religion" as:

The set of beliefs which postulate and seek to regulate the distinction between an empirical reality and a related and significant supra-empirical segment of reality; the language and symbols which are used in relation to this distinction; and the activities and institutions which are concerned with its regulation.

Finally on the subjective perspective, Emile Durkheim (1982/1921:47) has referred to religion as systems of beliefs, practices, and sacred things set aside and are forbidden, and a church.

On the functional perspective, a definition of religion has been given by Durkheim (1982/1921:47) in which he notes that religion is a powerful force that produces integration in a moral community. And according to Thomas Luckman-a German sociologist-religious process is the formation of self, where "human beings develop their understanding of self by placing themselves in a meaningful totality where they are creating a frame of reference for interpreting reality."

Social capital: Social capital refers to networks, contacts, connections, socialisation, opportunities, etc. The social capital theoretical perspective-the proponents being the French sociologist Pierre Bourdier and the American Sociologist Robert Putnam-has gained wider acceptance in the literature. This is perhaps due to the ability of this perspective to undertake and predict the norms and social relationships that enable people to coordinate action to achieve desired goals (Putnam, 1993; Narayan and Cassidy, 2001, p. 59).

The proponents of social capital perspective have argued that while economic capital is in people's bank accounts and human capital in their heads (or brains), social capital inheres in social interaction. In other words, social capital is relational. It is obvious here why efforts to identify and overcome the likely factors that inhibit interaction, most especially inter-group interaction, are worth mustering. And religious values are formidable in that direction.

Social capital and development

Social capital, as earlier noted, is built upon social contacts and networks. Therefore, social interactions and relations are paramount to building social capital; as interactions and relations could serve as a pool of development opportunities and chances. A number of studies (Narayan and Cassidy, 2001; Woolley, 1998) support the hypothesis that frequent social contacts through interactions are more likely to yield high resultant outcomes-be it solidarity, integration, cohesion or goal-attainment. The mobilisation of resources for development of the society can be made more feasible through establishing frequent social contacts and networks in a number of ways. The ways which are crucial to building social capital essential for societal development have been outlined, though not exhaustive, below:

Group characteristics: This concerns the active and frequent participation of people in activities that concern their collective, developmental interests and goals. Group characteristics constitute a crucial element of building social capital for societal development both at the micro and macro levels. Religion appears so relevant in this direction, as religious activities and practices entail frequent group participation.

Generalised norms: Trustworthiness and fairness of the people in their dealings, interactions with others are essential elements not only in building social capital, but also in charting the path for societal development. Again, religious values, virtues and belief systems embody these generalised norms.

Everyday sociability: This refers to friendly connections, relationships and the approachability of the people one lives with. Everyday sociability creates the friendly atmosphere in which people are keepers of one another-an ingredient that can serve the cause of societal development. Religious values and virtues encompass everyday sociability.

Togetherness: This dimension requires that people are happy in their interactions and relationships with others. The feeling of togetherness easily binds people towards collective goal-attainments. Similarly, religious belief systems do not coerce allegiance from their adherents. This suggests that religious followers are happy with their religious belief systems, as they could easily abandon their faiths if unhappy. Constantly attached to the religious belief system may constitute a potential source of manpower for societal development.

Rewards and costs: This refers to the consequences as perceived by the interacting people. Thibaut and Kelly describe the consequences of interaction as "rewards and costs." In every interaction or relationship, while some aspects may appear enjoyable, pleasing and gratifying, other aspects may be unpleasant, less enjoyable and unrewarding. Rewards and costs, therefore, refer to the former and latter respectively. This seems to suggest that any meaningful societal development process should engender more rewards (benefits) than costs (disappointment). However, religion teaches people to see disappointments as a wake-up call, and must live up to the challenges posed to them-a value which is essential in overcoming development obstacles.

Social capital and religion: theoretical and empirical perspectives

Theoretical perspective: The assumptions underlying social capital theoretical perspective are that social contacts, connections and networks both at the micro and macro levels can lead to social solidarity, integration essential for goal-attainment. The prowess of religion in binding people together through promoting interactions and relationships at local, national and international levels makes it indispensable in building social capital. Religious belief systems have been identified largely as the prime source of social cohesion, integration and solidarity. According to Emile Durkheim (1858-1917), human society has long been viewed as an integrated unity, which in some cases is compared to living organisms in the functional perspective. For this reason, all efforts must be made to keep society in its integrated unity. Of course, there may be many forces that work to destabilize the social unity, cohesion and integration. Equally, there are other forces that work to keep societies integrated and unified, and religious beliefs and values have been identified by Durkheim as a powerful force that binds people and societies into a unified, moral community.

Furthermore, the collective consciousness that connects the individual to the total society and also gives the society a strong moral strength, according to Durkheim, is reinforced by religious beliefs. However, the unifying force of religions may vary from one religion to another. This has been proved by Durkheim in his study on Suicide. He found in this study that suicide rates were higher among the Protestants than among the Catholics, the reason of which has been traced to the level of religious integration. Durkheim argued in this study that the Protestants were largely left alone before God by their belief system, while the Catholics had been integrated into a set of social practices such as confession, mass, communion, etc. which integrated them more than the Protestants.

For this reason, according to Durkheim "religion is in every essence social." Religious rites, collective behavior, relating the individual to the larger social group, and all religious beliefs are collective representations (Durkheim, 1915/1956, p. 22; McGuire, 2002, p. 197). Although Durkheim has been criticized for his analysis on suicide and religious integration, the fact remains that religion really helps the course of social cohesion, unity and integration through the common belief systems and values holding the people, societies, and civilizations together, as these categories interact over time.

From the functionalist perspective, religion integrates members of the society to ensure social progress or maintenance (Chalfant, Beckley and Palmer, 1994, p. 40). Even the conflict theorists-its proponent being Karl Marx-acknowledge the soothing impact of religion on the majority of the people. Marx attributed the inability of the Proletariat to revolt against the bourgeoisie to religious belief system, which he believed, had hypnotized the poor working class to seek their rewards in the Hereafter. Marx then labeled religion as the "opium of the people" (Johnstone, 1992).

Empirical perspective: The socio-economic and political significance of religion is tremendous. Historically, it has been acknowledged that religious belief systems have played a significant role in the development of national life in North America. According to Chalfant, Beckley and Palmer (1994), the first immigrants to the New World did so for religious reasons. With particular reference to the Calvinist Faith, more than one-third of the states that constitute the present-day USA were formed around particular interpretations of religion-the Christian faith.

Socially, religious belief systems "provide us with both self-identification and self- placement in a heterogeneous society" (Herbert, 1955; Chalfant, Beckley and Palmer, 1994). Religion is a way of belonging. It serves as a point of reference for man to acquire a religious self or the "generalized other." Also, as religions set aside things forbidden and emphasize the sacred, religion serves as the watchdog. And any forces that seem to threaten the status quo are strongly challenged by religious groups or bodies.

Many examples have been given about the unity that religion brings to human societies. Particularly in the West, many solidarity and human rights movements have all been influenced by religious beliefs that seek to correct some anomalies in order to strengthen social solidarity, integration and unity. Because religious groups transcend national boundaries to bring people, societies and civilizations into close proximity, the tendency of religion to enforce is very high.

Economically, the religious belief system, although arguably, has been associated with the formation of capitalism-an economic paradigm. In the The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Max Weber advanced how the kind of religious belief system can instill in people the zeal to strive for economic success.


In a nutshell, these are some of the various ways in which religious values and virtues (the belief system) can promote unity, integration, and solidarity that are essential in building social capital for the development of the human societies. However, religion can also be abused as a source of discord and conflict in society. Such conflicts can be avoided if people avoid "religio-centrism"-a construct out of "ethno-centrism." Religio-centrism refers to the "feelings of rightness and superiority resulting from religious affiliation." Such religious tendencies "inhibit the ability of a society to achieve adaptation, integration and goal-attainment" (Chalfant, Beckley and Palmer, 1994, p.51).

Abdul-Mumin Abdulai is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, International Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM).