In this episode, Shruti talked with Sriya Iyer about her recent book, The Economics of Religion in India. Iyer is an official fellow and director of studies in economics at St Catharine’s College at the University of Cambridge. Her research interests include development economics, the economics of religion, health and education. This transcript has been slightly edited for clarity.
SHRUTI RAJAGOPALAN: Welcome to Ideas of India, a podcast where we examine academic ideas that can propel India forward. My name is Shruti Rajagopalan, and today my guest is Sriya Iyer, a University Reader in Economics and a Fellow of St Catharine's College at the University of Cambridge.
Sriya’s recent book, The Economics of Religion in India, is an excellent survey of her work on religion in India from the economic point of view, studied using the tools of economics.
In this book, Sriya analyzes provisioning of religious and nonreligious services by religious organizations in India, ethnic conflict, riots, competition between religious organizations, and religious education. This work is extremely insightful and sheds light to understand more recent trends of nationalism in India.
I had a chance to speak with Sriya about her work on the economics of religion, caste, the rise of the BJP and Hindu nationalism, her intellectual influences, and much more.
Both Sriya and I are trained in the field of economics, and our discussion is from a positive and not normative perspective. Our attempt in this conversation, like Sriya’s work, is to analyze trends in religion, conflict, nationalism, caste. It is neither to condemn nor condone these trends, merely describe and explain.
Sriya, thank you so much for joining us. Welcome to the show. Normally, we jump straight to the book. But in your case, your field or the economic way of thinking about religion—it is so specialized and so niche that even a lot of economists don’t know what it is. Can you start us off by explaining what is the economics of religion, especially the rational choice perspective on religious choice?
SRIYA IYER: Thanks so much, Shruti. I’m delighted to be a part of this.
On the Economics of Religion
IYER: The economics of religion is a new and fascinating area of economics research, where economists are applying methods from economic theory, as well as statistical tools, to evaluate the role of religion in society. Here, they’re looking at the characteristics of religious communities. They’re looking at the way in which religious organizations evolve over time.
The reason we’re interested in these behaviors is because we think that economists do have much to contribute to broader debates about religion in society, as well as related issues, such as religious conflict.
When we’re thinking about the economics of religion, we use what is essentially called the rational choice approach. That means we’re thinking of a market for religion, just as you think of other goods and services. There is a demand for religion that comes on the part of adherents. There’s the supply of religion that’s being provided by religious organizations, and you’re trying to match the demand with the supply.
This is what creates the market for religions. This is where we think economists have something to contribute because, in general, economists do look at the evolution of markets of different kinds. At the same time, another characteristic of religion that economists are particularly interested in is the idea of club goods. Religion is something that is collective. It’s something that is shared.
That means that if it is a club good in that sense, it has various characteristics so that people enjoy religion more if it is also shared by others within their community. That’s the other aspect that economists also look at, the club good characteristics of religion, as well as determining demand and supply of religion at the individual basis.
In general, we think of the economics of religion as applying theories from economics as well as statistical tools to evaluate the role of religion in society in various empirical contexts.
RAJAGOPALAN: That’s great. I want to pick up a little bit on the club goods aspect. It’s unsurprising to you, I’m a George Mason University, Virginia School–trained economist. This is, of course, Buchanan’s famous theory of club goods, but he was talking more about provisioning of goods which have a collective characteristic to it or, rather, what we call public goods or quasi-public goods, and now you’re talking about religion.
My question is, can you clarify for us exactly what we mean by religious goods and services? I imagine that it is not within the realm of economics to talk about, “Are we going to heaven or hell?” or some kind of transcendence. Exactly what is the nature of these religious goods or services that different sects provide in a club-like fashion?
IYER: When we’re thinking about religious goods and services, part of it stems, of course, from doctrinal differences, from theological beliefs. If people believe in a particular religion, they are adhering to some of the scriptural norms that are associated with that particular religion. That could be thought of as a religious good or service. It could also be dealing with notions of reincarnation, the afterlife—these are all benefits that people might actually feel that they’re getting from religion.
They’re getting the benefit of worship in this life. They might be getting the benefit of what they perceive is going to be the benefit in the afterlife. They may be getting benefits from worship in various ways. That’s what we think of in terms of religious goods and services.
But at the same time, there is this public-good aspect of this as well, that we get more benefit from, say, learning a language or observing a religion if we also think that there are others who are also sharing in that benefit. And a lot of communal aspects of religion, such as community worship, going to church every Sunday, observing religious festivals of various kinds—these are also ways in which we are participating in the religious good or service, but it depends not only on our own individual participation, but also on the participation of others within our community or, indeed, more globally.
I think that when we’re thinking about a religious good or service, what we’re thinking about is, what are the benefits that religion might bring either theologically, scripturally, doctrinally, or in terms of this kind of a community aspect of religion.
Hinduism and Club Goods Competition
RAJAGOPALAN: In one sense, the club goods model describes the Hindu religion quite well. I mean that in the sense that Hinduism is a non-Abrahamic religion. Many people have described it mostly as a collection of different sects that are actually stitched together by the persistence of the caste system.
On the one hand, it’s quite clear to see religious competition of different sects competing for both congregations, as well as donations, as well as producing services. On the other hand, because of the caste system and exactly how rigid it is, in the sense that you’re born to a particular caste, which is nobody’s choice—and caste in one sense, in Hinduism, persists across different lives, even.
So there is very little mobility once we take the caste system into account. What is a good way to think about Hinduism and the marketplace for religion and competition once we account for caste rigidity?
IYER: Shruti, I think you’re absolutely right in saying that Hinduism is actually quite different to some of the Abrahamic faiths. Hinduism is often described as magic tempered by metaphysics. It is really very much about, as you say, as it evolved over time, having these different forms where different kinds of Hinduism have actually, over time, coexisted quite happily—if you’re just thinking about the religion itself.
Bear in mind, of course, that this is a religion that officially doesn’t really have a clerical community in that sense, a scriptural book, a hierarchy in terms of the religion. But what you do see is both lots of sects and cults and others that have developed within the religion, and as you say, it has a very rigid social structure in terms of the caste system.
When we’re actually thinking about competition within Hinduism, we’re not thinking here about competition between Protestant denominations in the US. What we’re thinking here, much more, is competition between the sects and the cults and the various groups within a much broader Hindu tradition.
I think partly, the polytheistic nature of Hinduism allows that kind of notion of competition to be interesting in this context as well. On the one hand, as Hinduism was originally conceived, it is very much a polytheistic religion without a lot of this very strict structure. What happens, really, is that over time, we actually see Hinduism, even within India, changing.
The kind of Hinduism we have today seems much more monolithic in many cases than polytheistic. Of course, that’s tied up with the development of Hindu nationalism, but that’s a different story. If you’re actually thinking, “Are notions of competition relevant to Hinduism as they are to other religions, such as Christianity?” Yes, I think they are, just because of the polytheistic nature of the religion and the fact that you do see lots of different cults and sects in communities that could well be competing for adherence between each other.
Caste Rigidity and Religious Competition
RAJAGOPALAN: I want to pick up on the caste rigidity aspect a little bit more in relation to the competition. In one sense, Hindu society is highly segregated in terms of where we live, where one worships, what kind of food one eats, what kinds of restaurants one patronizes, and so on and so forth. I understand when you say that there is competition between sects, and polytheism lends itself very well or easily to that, but there’s a second aspect of competition, especially in club goods, which is inclusion and exclusion.
These sects provide great services—both religious and nonreligious—to the congregation, but to avoid the free-rider problem, they need to have certain practices by which they include people or members within the group and they exclude some people from the group. In a lot of sects and cults, this comes in the form of sacrifice or stigma. Sometimes it’s in the form of clothing, and so on and so forth.
But in a society where you already have segregation, and there is already a different kind of social way of who is included and who is excluded, what does that mean for competition? Is it actually easy to compete? Or is most of it assigned by birth, and within each caste, you see a little bit of competition?
IYER: I think that those ideas that come from the club goods literature—the sacrifice and the stigmas—of course, this is the work of Larry Iannaccone and Eli Berman and others, who have written about this in the context of ultra-Orthodox Jews, who’ve written about it in a Christian community context. This is the idea that, in some ways, what these communities are doing is specifying codes of dress or food patterns and so forth as a way, as you say, of excluding some and including others.
But the rationale for actually doing that, as Larry Iannaccone and Eli Berman and others have argued, is really to demonstrate the extent of religiosity of the adherent. To show that you are more committed to the club, you then adopt some of these ways.
I think that idea is also relevant in the context of some of the Hindu communities that we’re talking about here. They are also, in some ways, using that club goods framework, excluding and including people by imposing, for example, dietary restrictions. So you have some Hindu communities and subcommunities that are vegetarian, others that are not. There are restrictions on dress all over India. For example, even within the Hindu community, women tie their sari in different ways.
All of this is also illustrative in many ways of belonging to different communities. And here, the social estate is interacting with the religion, is interacting with the caste and the class and so forth. I think that club goods idea of having these visible manifestations of your religious belief is also relevant in the Indian context as well. But I do agree with you that on top of that, we have the segregation that is also engendered by caste, whether that’s ghettoization of communities and how they live.
Having said that, I think with education and so forth, a lot of these segregations do break down as well. And in certain urban areas, certainly, communities are a lot more mixed than they would be, for example, in certain rural areas.
So I think that the club goods concept is relevant to the Hindu context, to the Indian context, but then I do agree with you that caste might actually impose a further level of both stigma and sacrifice that perhaps hasn’t really been written about in quite the same way as it has in the context of ultra-Orthodox Jews or Baptists.
Competition across Religions
RAJAGOPALAN: To continue the conversation, now I want to bring in Hinduism in competition with some of the other religions. Hinduism, of course, is practiced by the majority of Indians, about 80 percent, 82 percent, which is a very large number. But in India, the numbers are generally so large that even 13 percent Muslims is a very large community, and so on and so forth.
Just keeping that in mind, India has constitutionally espoused a secularism in the sense that the government must treat all religious faith and practice equally, but it’s a little bit asymmetric in terms of how it has been practiced over 70 years of the Indian Constitution.
What I mean by this asymmetric secularism is that very early in the Indian Republic, they have huge efforts to modernize the Hindu religion. This is, of course, in the 1950s, the Hindu Code Bills and making sure that marriage practices, adoption, inheritance—all these come quite uniform. I think this had a way of also unifying the Hindu community because it was lots of different sects with lots of different practices, whether it’s polygamy or including or excluding women, and so on and so forth.
However, while doing that, the state also, in some sense, reduced the power of the clergy, the Hindu clergy within each sect and their ability to sort, which is who to include and who they can exclude from the particular congregation.
Now at the same time, the Indian Republic, not the Constitution, didn’t quite do that for Muslims. The Muslim communities were allowed to have their own religious practices, their customary practices. When it came to marriage and adoption and inheritance, there was no Uniform Civil Code, as we call it in India.
Now, what does that do in terms of religious competition? If one were to impose a Uniform Civil Code, how does that change the competition, not just between sects of Hinduism but also Hinduism with other religions? Does it increase it? Does it decrease it? Does the nature of the religious provisioning change, and so on and so forth?
IYER: This is a very interesting set of ideas. One point to make up front is that, unlike other countries, notably the US—this is where I’m thinking of the comparison—conversion is more difficult in the Indian context. Empirically, we don’t actually observe huge amounts of conversion across religion from Hinduism to Islam and Christianity.
There’s some conversion, of course, but the movement across religions and religious denominations, which you see in other parts of the world, you don’t see it to that same extent in the Indian context. The competition idea in that sense—I think, again, it becomes more within religion rather than across religion, if we’re just thinking about membership of a religious organization.
However, if you’re thinking more broadly about, how do you reconcile competing communities that are actually living within what is constitutionally, as you very importantly point out, a secular, liberal country? The way in which religion was conceived in the 1950s was very much that everyone was allowed to pursue their individual religious beliefs, to make community contributions, to develop their religion and so forth, but the state is actually secular and does not have a formal state religion.
This is actually a very important point, I think, in the Indian context—that the state itself is secular and does not have an official religion, but religious communities, majority or minority or whatever, are allowed to practice their religion freely. Now, what that essentially creates is a situation where you then have to deal with issues such as personal law, inheritance, and so forth, for the different communities that have actually both developed in different ways and been treated in different ways by the state.
I think that’s something that’s important in the Indian context. We talk about, as we were saying, minorities in the Indian context, but it’s 150 million Muslims. It’s a huge number of people that we are talking about.
The way different laws, with respect to some of these personal issues, have developed over time—some of it is driven by the fact that many of the issues are state issues. Some is driven by the fact that religion and religious law influences some of these issues. And some is driven by the fact that I don’t actually think there’s competition across the religions on those personal issues.
I think it’s difficult for the state, in a country which is supposedly secular, to have to legislate on all of these things across different religions. It was not perceived as the function of the state, at least originally in 1950 when the Indian Constitution was put together.
RAJAGOPALAN: The way I have seen some of this competition play out—and I just want to get a sense of how you would think about it—you’re absolutely right in that, other than the Dalit community, which we will talk about in a moment, we don’t see large-scale conversions between religions. This is also because Hinduism, being the dominant religious practice, does not have conversion or a set of practices that allow you to convert in and out of the religion. It’s assigned at birth.
But what we have seen over the years is, for instance, something like the Shah Bano case, where the courts try and modernize a particular kind of practice. This has to do with the amount of alimony that a Muslim woman would receive in the event of a divorce. The moment the court tried to modernize the practice a little bit, immediately there was a lot of rent-seeking, one could say, by the Muslim clergy to ensure that that doesn’t happen. This was a huge political moment in India.
Now, I want to fast-forward two or three decades to the triple talaq, where once again, from the other side, which is the dominant Hindu nationalist groups, there is a lot of rent-seeking to ensure that triple talaq—which is a way of Muslim men divorcing Muslim women within certain sects by just saying talaq three times, and it’s as easy as that—this was considered a very regressive practice.
But surprisingly, the demand for it did not come from Muslim women or a lot of Muslim feminist groups. The demand for it came from the Hindu nationalists, who felt that this was a concession that the Muslim groups receive. In a sense, what I have seen play out in terms of religious competition is, it’s more at the political rent-seeking level than it is the way, for instance, in Iannaccone’s work or something like that, where you talk about different sects actually competing for donations and members of the congregation.
Do you get the same sense? Or do you think these are completely different things—they are different kinds of competition?
IYER: My sense is, they are two different issues. One is the Iannaccone competing for adherence at the individual level, but the other issue that you’re raising, which I do think is very important, is the interaction between the state and religion. This is something, of course, that your colleagues at George Mason, Mark Koyama and Noel Johnson, have written about very extensively in the context of medieval Europe, and it is something that is relevant to the economics of religion literature, I think, in the Indian context as well.
When the state intervenes in issues that are considered within the purview of religion, religious beliefs, religious practice, then it is difficult territory because what happens is you get this interaction between the state and religion. Partly, in this case, the two issues that you mentioned—whether it was Shah Bano or the triple talaq—it’s an issue that concerns women’s autonomy and women’s rights and their welfare.
On the other hand, when the state intervenes in those kinds of decisions, it has to be sensitive to the needs of the issue. But in some cases, as you pointed out, it’s also a political statement that the state is engaging in by engaging with that kind of issue. And it may be also related, as Johnson and Koyama and others point out in other contexts, to broader issues about toleration of religious minorities, persecution of religious minorities, religious freedoms, and those kinds of ideas as well.
As I see it, the Iannaccone literature and the state and religion literature are both relevant to the economics of religion. It’s just one is looking more at the politics of religion, and the other is focused much more on membership of religious organizations and how an individual may choose which religious organization to adhere to. Of course, the two might also intersect at some point if the organization that you choose to be a member of is also engaging in political activities. Then, of course, all of these things are going to be inextricably linked.
RAJAGOPALAN: What is a good way to think about Ambedkarite Buddhists? I just want to give a little bit of context here. This is B. R. Ambedkar, at the birth of the Republic. He was a champion for equal protection under the law for everyone, and he’s the reason we have that guaranteed in the Indian Constitution.
India is divided both along lines of caste and along lines of religion. Castes that were historically discriminated against don’t have minority protection in India, though they have other kinds of protection, which is through affirmative action and reservation, and so on and so forth.
One, I would say innovation, if I can use that word in the economic sense, that Ambedkar brought about within the depressed caste or the Dalits was to convert out of Hinduism, which had historically oppressed Dalits. What is the way to think about this mass conversion into Buddhism? In one sense, if I just thought about it as an economist, I would have thought, “Oh, this is so great. There’s going to be this mass conversion, and then Hinduism would have tried to keep all this large group of people.”
Once again, we’re not talking about a small number of people. Present-day Dalits are about 270 million strong. It’s a very, very large community. Hinduism would automatically reform, or at least a large number of Hindu congregations would reform, and that’s how the competition would play out. But what has actually happened is that caste has persisted more than religion. Now we have Buddhist Dalits, we have Christian Dalits, we have Sikh Dalits, we have Muslim Dalits.
In a sense, it’s actually flipped on its head. It’s not the kind of good competition and the good results we expect in the marketplace. We had to almost rethink the idea of backward classes and depressed classes in India in the ’90s because they realized that even converting to Buddhism or Christianity did not eliminate the Dalit disadvantage or the oppression. So what is a good way to think about Ambedkarite Buddhists or Christians and competition in the religious space?
IYER: When you’re thinking first about conversions in this kind of context, you can’t separate it from the economic characteristics. I did some work with Vani Borooah and others some years ago, where we were actually looking at Scheduled Caste, Scheduled Tribe—how much these communities actually benefited from affirmative action policies in the post-independence period, and so forth.
I think that a lot of the issues with religion are also very closely tied to the educational employment opportunities, land ownership, credit opportunities of minority communities in general. The way to actually think about this at one level, the problem we really should be addressing, is the economic deprivation because sometimes people use conversion as a way of getting out of economic deprivation if they feel that they can get more advantage from being in another religion or community and so forth.
This may be in addition to their faith and their theological beliefs and doctrinal issues and so forth. The other thing which is important in the Indian context, specifically, is people don’t just have one identity. Many economists, like Amartya Sen and others, have written extensively about the idea of the Indian having multiple identities which they identify with.
I think at different points, religious identity has been important, the caste identity has been important. Now the national identity is also very important. Very often, regional, national, caste, and religious identities are interacting with each other. My sense is that, in some ways, if we’re looking at competition across religious groups in India, we’re actually looking at a subcategory of that.
We’re really looking at competition across religious caste–economic groups and looking at the economic deprivation as a way of solving some of the religious issues. That’s where some of my work, for example, has really been focused, looking at differences between communities, inequality between communities, educational differences, employment differences, demographic differences.
That’s really where we should be putting our energies, and that might be one way of then dealing with the competition issue. I don’t think we’ll ever be able to get rid of competition between groups. I think the issue more is looking at economic deprivation among certain groups and thinking about how you can ensure at least some equality and opportunity, even if we’re not ever going to be in a situation where we have the equality of outcomes.
RAJAGOPALAN: I agree with you here in the sense that the competition between religions and conversion did not lead to the typical good market outcome because there are these structural barriers, which didn’t disappear simply because of conversion to another religion.
Religion and Economic Growth
RAJAGOPALAN: I want to switch gears a little bit and move towards the other big theme in your book, which is this two-way relationship between religion and the economy or, rather, economic growth. There are some broad trends globally, and they don’t exactly apply one-on-one to India. I’ll just kick us off on a few of those themes.
Globally, it seems, as nations become richer, they are also more secular. One sees this trend playing out empirically when we do cross-country comparisons. In India, it has been a slightly different relationship. Post-liberalization, India has gotten richer. In absolute levels, poverty has decreased, and in absolute terms, incomes have increased. But at the same time, Indians have become more religious, and that bears out in the survey data that you have collected.
Second, India has also become less secular in the sense that there is more of a loudness in the religious identity. As you said, we all have multiple identities, but the religious identity has become a little bit amplified in the last two or three decades post-liberalization, and the last consequence of how all of this might be tied to the fact of liberalization and economic growth and the inequality that bore out of it. What does some of the empirical research on India tell us about the link between economic growth and religiosity?
IYER: If you’re looking overall at the world as a whole, as you say, the richer countries have become more secular, but the world as a whole actually has become more religious. Some of the work by Norris and Inglehart and others does actually substantiate that. Of course, there are some countries, like the United States, which are both the richest country in the world as well as the most religious country in the world in survey after survey.
What we’re seeing in India, in some ways, with economic growth and religion becoming more prominent, is actually not something that I found very surprising. I think that what we are seeing, though, in the relationship between religion and economic growth, is that religion is becoming more important. Really, some of the work that I’ve been doing in my book, for example, has also been showing how conflict has been related to economic growth as well.
While we’ve had a lot of economic growth, we’ve had increases in the incidence of religious conflict, but the intensity of the conflict has actually gone down. I think that’s been a positive benefit to the economic growth. But at the same time, I don’t see the influence of religion actually diminishing in India anytime soon.
This broader secularization thesis, which was prominent in some writings about the economics of religion in the ’60s and the ’70s and so forth, we are seeing at the moment, for example, 80 percent of the world does declare religious affiliation. There are 16 percent who also say that even if they don’t declare an affiliation, they may have some kind of spiritual belief.
At the same time, you need to be thinking about how the nature of religion might actually be changing over time. In the specific case of India, I think that we are going to have increased economic growth. This is going to come with increasing inequality, as our standard macroeconomics tells us.
But at the same time, we’re not going to see a diminution, in any way, of the influence of religion. That is partly linked to the way in which religion is also tied up with the role of the state, with politics, and with other areas, which are not necessarily economics, and the way in which Hinduism itself has developed over the last 50, 60 years or so, where I think now in the country, it is very closely aligned with the nature of the state as well, which is something . . . You know, we talked about the Constitution. It’s probably something we didn’t think about in 1950, but which we are seeing, definitely, in 2020.
Inequality and Religion
RAJAGOPALAN: I wanted to ask you a whole bunch of questions about the rise of Hindu nationalism and the BJP, et cetera. I’m going to get to that in a minute. Before that, I want to talk a little bit more about the increase in inequality post-liberalization. While poverty levels have gone down, there is no question that inequality has increased in India. One part of it is income or wealth inequality.
But there are other margins on which there is inequality: for instance, access to public goods, access to education, access to health services. In the case of women, access to the labor market. There are certain margins on which sometimes the inequality decreases, and sometimes it increases.
Specifically, about different kinds of religions in India, how do you think of religiosity interacting with inequality on two specific margins? One is the provisioning of religious services, and this is typically the spiritual services, congregations, funerals, weddings, baptisms, things like that; and second, the provision of nonreligious services, which is education, health, some on-the-job training, or sometimes these cow lending programs and things like that.
IYER: This is really what my book is about, The Economics of Religion in India. The argument we’re basically making in the book is to say that both the provision of religious services and nonreligious services may be related closely to changes in income inequality that has come about with economic growth in India. There’re two channels through which I think this might be important.
The first is one of the arguments I am making that, over time, you might have actually seen religious organizations, some positioning themselves as more liberal, others positioning themselves as less so, and that by moving to the extremes in this way, this is the way in which organizations are dealing with the increase in income inequality and the fact that very often, these organizations are substituting for the lack of state provision in basic services, such as education, health, and so forth.
One of the theses that we examined in the book, and which I’m also doing in some related papers with some co-authors here, is really looking at whether religious organizations are more likely to differentiate themselves in response to a competition on nonreligious service provision. With the increase in inequality, does that nonreligious service provision then increase?
What I would argue is that one of the reasons why we’ve seen religion being so resilient and so much more visible post-1991 is really because it is responding to changes in inequality and competition between groups, which has become much more visible, but also responding to the fact that the Indian population now is extremely aspirational. People want good health, good education, jobs, and the rest of it.
Sometimes, if the state is either not providing a service adequately or not providing enough of the service, then other entities—religious or otherwise—might actually step in to provide those services.
What I’m arguing in my book—and this is what we document from our surveys—is really that religious organizations are providing many more services in this post-1991 period in response to that increase in inequality and in response to the demand for some of these services. I think both religious services and nonreligious services would definitely be influenced by inequality through this channel.
Competition in Religious and Nonreligious Services
RAJAGOPALAN: One thing I found very interesting in your research is that even though the demand side of things comes because of inequality, aspiration, weak public goods provisioning by the government, and so on and so forth, the supply side is motivated by good old-school marketplace competition, right?
The survey data bears out so clearly that these religious organizations know exactly what’s happening in their neighborhood or their district. They know what services are not being provided by the state and by other organizations.
Even though they’re a little bit reluctant to say that they are competing with other religious organizations—it seems a little bit not cool to say that—they’re actually competing with other organizations because they seem to be trying to both fill the gaps as well as make sure that in their congregation, nobody goes to sleep on an empty stomach, or no child is turned away if they need footwear or clothing or food or education, and so on and so forth. What did you find when you were doing some of this research?
IYER: This was actually something that I was surprised by when we first started doing the surveys because, as you said, these organizations essentially are spiritual organizations, faith-based organizations. That is their main motive of operation. But what we found when we were doing the surveys is that they are both very aware of the services that they are providing but also very aware of the services that the religious competitors are providing, even if they don’t think of them as religious competitors in that sense.
This was something that was very striking—the in-depth level of knowledge that people have, both about their local communities and about other religious entities in the local community that are also providing these services.
Like all economists, I think a little competition here is a good thing because it’s ensuring that the customers, in this case, are actually getting some education provision and healthcare. If they are providing some of these services in areas where that service provision is weakly provided by the state, then some education is better than no education at all. That’s the way I looked at this issue.
But what it also does reveal is the extent of community involvement in wanting to develop some of these areas. People are very keen to send their children to school, to get the best healthcare, to have good jobs. They’re willing to accept it from different entities, including the religious organizations.
Of course, this brings up a much wider policy issue, which is, if you’ve then got all of these entities providing various kinds of education and healthcare and credit access and so forth, you need to think about bigger issues of regulation or monitoring, and what exactly are the services that are being provided and how?
What is very striking is the knowledge of the services, certainly, in the competition. This is something we specifically introduced into the survey to try and understand how much each organization knew about other organizations within the same religion as well as other organizations not in the same religion. In both cases, there is extensive knowledge on the ground of what those activities entail. I think that, in the end, will be good for the customer.
RAJAGOPALAN: One other thing that was very striking to me from this particular aspect of your survey on competing, especially in providing nonreligious services and closing the gap of public goods and quasi-public goods, was what we think of when we think of canonical models in the economics of religion. The question is always about inclusion and exclusion. They are two sides to the same coin, right?
A lot of religious practices and congregations have rules to ensure that there isn’t a free-rider problem, that people don’t just come and eat your food or free-ride on educational services without partaking in the spiritual aspect or without giving back to the community. What I found very interesting about these services that you talked about is that they are more inclusive than not because they are catering largely to the poor.
In a sense, the industrial organization, so to say, of these religious organizations—there’s a split. There are members of the congregation who are well off, and there the different organizations are competing for donations and things like that.
But when it comes to service delivery, the customer is not the same as the member of the congregation who is actually donating the money. It is a completely different group of people, usually very poor. And it’s not that they want to avoid the free-rider problem. They want more people to come and join in the partaking of those services without paying for them. I found this genuinely surprising. What do you think is going on here?
IYER: What we’re really arguing here is that the religious organizations have sensed the demand and are providing the services. However, services are costly to provide. So what we’re arguing is that they may differentiate themselves on the religious spectrum in order to minimize the competition and the cost of providing services on the nonreligious spectrum. That’s the way in which they are able to attract adherents.
I think that that’s why there are two sides to really looking at this. Yes, the services are very inclusive. Most of the religious organizations—the services they’re providing are open to members of all religions. It’s just that in certain cases, some religions use the services more than others. But this is an important issue, that in many cases, the services are primarily used by the poor.
Because they are used by the poor and the religious organizations are competing for more adherents amongst that group, they are then also seeking to minimize the cost of providing those services and thereby also, in that sense, differentiating the religious proposition. This is really what we’re arguing—that the religious proposition and the nonreligious services might actually be linked because of poverty and inequality in a way that we might not have thought of before.
That might be the real reason why religion persists even though you have increased economic growth in India today. In some ways, writing the book really makes the case for better secular provision by the state because, of course, if you look at the history of countries like the country that I live in—the UK—when you had the development of the welfare state, you then saw the decline in the influence of religion.
Really, the argument I’m making with the book is not just documenting the service provision by the religious organizations, but really making a very strong case that if the welfare services provided by the state were, in fact, improved, then this minimizes the necessity for any other entity to have to substitute in and provide that. Until then, you’re going to see many entities, including the religious organizations, providing a lot of these nonreligious services, but it comes at a cost.
RAJAGOPALAN: Absolutely. I want to talk about the cost a little bit, and I want to zero in on one particular kind of good that’s being provided, which is education. There’s a lot of controversy—not just in India but across the world—on religious versus secular education. It is possible for religious organizations to provide a secular education. There are a lot of religious schools which are substituting, in a sense, for the state, and they are not providing the same skills and the same education that one would see in a secular school.
The other side of the argument is, it’s better than nothing. They’re providing some basic literacy and some basic mathematics and so on. In India, of course, the schools that are demonized are the madrasas, which are the schools run by the Islamic clergy. In the United States, it would be Catholic schools because the secular education teaches evolution or some other fault line.
How does one think about this? The empirical research suggests that religious education can be a complement to secular education. There is no problem with religious education by itself. In fact, learning religious texts, repeating them, reciting them actually improves literacy levels. It helps build human capital, and so on and so forth. In India, in particular, a lot of religious education is imparted in the vernacular, or the regional language, which is also spoken at home. The parents and the community can actually contribute to the education of the student.
But they say that the cost is it comes with regressive ideas, segregation between men and women. Of course, the worst-case scenario is the Islamic fundamentalism being taught at madrasas, and so on and so forth, which is naturally a minority of religious schools. How does one think about this problem as religious education, whether it’s a complement or a substitute, and what are the consequences when it’s a complement or a substitute to secular education?
IYER: This is a very important issue to consider, Shruti. If we look at other populations—if you look at historical Jewish populations, for example, there’s work by Carmel Chiswick and others that showed that there was this complementarity between religious education and secular education that was good for that community. That argument, I think, still holds, even in the Indian context as well, that there is a complementarity between religious education and secular education.
However, one of the issues in the Indian context is that this is perhaps an issue that could have been sorted out way back in the 1950s when India adopted—you mentioned the issue of language—India adopted the three-language formula. The third language was decided that it was going to be Sanskrit and not Urdu. I think, had it been Urdu and not Sanskrit at that time, we might not be seeing so many of the issues that you’re alluding to now, 70 years later.
The issue is—this came out in some of our surveys as well—that for some of the minority religions—and this is true not just of India, but in other cases as well, as you were mentioning Catholic schools and so forth—parents might feel the need for their children to have the religious education in addition to the secular education. The question is, where do you then provide it? Do you provide it as part of the secular schooling structure or as what is happening now? You have the religious schools that are providing the religious education as a complement to the secular education.
In Kerala, for example, there are very good examples of students who attend Maktabs and then go to other schools as well, so they get religious education and the secular education. There are examples from other parts of the world, too. The issue that really needs to be thought about in a lot more depth is, how do you provide the religious education? Is it good in inculcating values?
But most importantly, I think, in the current Indian situation, the religious education system has been very good in inculcating the knowledge of Urdu, which has been important. For both language as well as for values that come through the religious educational system, that’s going to be helpful. And that’s true whether of the Muslim religion or the Hindu religion or other religions.
The wider question, though, is that, if a student is only attending a religious school—and we have data that shows about 5 percent of the school-going population in India now attends a madrasa, for example—what are the employment characteristics of the graduates of these schools? Are they then qualified to be able to compete in the open labor market? Which is, ideally, what you would want people from any schooling system to be able to compete in the open labor market.
One of the arguments I’m making in my book, for example, is that introducing subjects like mathematics, science, English, computers, is going to be very important in increasing the employability of graduates from religious schools of all religions. I think that that is really where we should be looking when we’re thinking about the debates about religious education—how it fits with secular education.
We have a secular schooling system. We’ve got a widely developing religious schooling system, and it’s a question of how to actually reconcile the two in a harmonious way that ensures that, if parents want their children to have religious education, they have it, but at the same time, if they want their child to have a secular education as well, they have the opportunities for both.
One thing to mention—and this is particularly true in the Indian context—is that again, if you look at the economic composition of students who actually use the religious schools only, they tend to be from a poorer socioeconomic background than others. That’s, again, a very important factor because I do feel, as I said earlier, that a lot of the issues with religion in India are actually economic issues—issues surrounding economic deprivation and unequal access to opportunity that really need to be fixed.
Of course, it’s a long process to do that, but I think that’s how we should see the religious-schooling-versus-secular-schooling issue—not as religious schooling versus secular schooling, but actually as complements, religious schooling and secular schooling actually working together to fulfill the needs of the population as parents might want.
RAJAGOPALAN: When we see them acting as complements, say, in the Jewish community, we’re really talking about a group which has some of the highest human capital and income levels in the world.
When we’re talking about madrasas, it’s not an apples-to-apples comparison because we’re talking about some of the poorest people in the world—especially in South Asia—who don’t necessarily have access directly to any other normal government school, either because the area doesn’t have a good school yet, or their family has not been able to give them the tools to understand the curriculum that’s going on at the school, and so on and so forth.
I agree with you that the madrasa issue is an important one. In some recent research by Asher, Novosad, and Rafkin, they find that upward intergenerational mobility has fallen substantially amongst Muslims in the last 20 years, in the post-liberalization world, in a way that it hasn’t even with Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes because they have the reservation and Affirmative Action Program, which has helped lift intergenerational mobility.
Rise of Hindu Nationalism
RAJAGOPALAN: I want to switch to a different aspect. This is a little less in the book, but it’s there in a lot of your other research. This is about the rise of Hindu nationalism.
You’ve written a great piece, which is—is it out yet?—the one on Johnson and Koyama’s book on Persecution and Toleration. They’re my colleagues at the Mercatus Center, and they write about what factors ensured that it was in the interest of policymakers to move towards greater religious freedom because we know that there is a really tight link between religious freedom and the rise of liberalism.
What we’re seeing in India right now is the opposite of the rise of religious liberalism. We’re seeing this monolithic rise of Indian nationalism. I have a few questions on this overall theme of the rise of nationalism. My first question—and this has less to do with economics and more to do with theology—my understanding, based on my own upbringing and also reading the little I know about Hinduism, is that Hinduism was always a religion based on conduct, not one necessarily anchored around belief.
In fact, I’ve been told by my very devout grandfather that even my atheism or nir-īśvara-vāda, as we would call it, is part of Hinduism. It’s assimilated within Hindu philosophy. But this has completely changed now. Now it has become a matter of faith, not just conduct.
A second change has been that Hinduism has started getting some major focal points, like Abrahamic religions. In India, most recently that is the issue of the Ram Mandir. Just last month, we saw the prime minister of India being a very important participant in what was basically a religious ceremony held for the entire country to see, which was setting the foundation stone for the new Ram Mandir at the old contested side between the Ram Mandir and the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya.
What has happened to Hinduism in your opinion? Why did it go from conduct to belief? And why has the belief become the Ram Mandir?
IYER: This is a difficult question. In my perspective, we’ve seen a change in the nature of Hinduism that is linked very closely to the development of Hindu nationalism. We were talking earlier about how, if you’re thinking about Hinduism in the abstract, as a religion in its Vedic form, it was very much about polytheistic gods, and no one scripture book and so forth, and no hierarchical clergy, mandatory religious attendance like some other religions.
Over time, in the last 73 years, what we have seen is the rise of a different kind of Hinduism. It is one that, I think, is based very much on visible representations of the religion. The structure actually looks far more monotheistic than polytheistic to me. It’s also a structure that is based on very visible representations of the religion—temple building, rathayatras—things that we’ve seen over the last 73 years or so have now become very important facets of the religion.
This is partly also aided by wider developments in technology, which has made religion much more accessible to people, whether it’s through the radio or the television or social media or other ways of bringing people together. I also think the competition has had something to do with this as well. The way in which Hinduism has changed over the years is also in response to what has been happening with secular nationalism, developments in the Indian National Congress, developments of British colonialism.
There’re all of these other factors that also have affected the rise of Hindu nationalism, which many political scientists in India have written quite extensively about. I think the nature of Hinduism as we see it today is quite different, and it’s related, really, to the change in India’s politics, as well as its economics in that sense.
What we have now is an example, actually, of the Johnson and Koyama conditional toleration model, where you’ve got the connection between the majority Hindu religion and the state with conditional toleration for the religious minorities. I’m actually arguing in the paper that you mentioned, which I’ve just written—it’s coming out in the JEL—is arguing that this Johnson-Koyama model is actually quite relevant to the Indian context as well, and I think that’s really what’s happened.
The development of Hindu nationalism has really made the relationship between state and religion much closer in practice, even if not in theory. India is, of course, still constitutionally secular and liberal and so forth, but the visible representation of religion and the way in which it is interacting with the state now is very different to the situation in 1950.
Riots and Politics
RAJAGOPALAN: I want to talk about the interaction between politics and religion by going into a different paper of yours, which I found fascinating for multiple reasons. This is your work on religious riots and their impact on vote share for the BJP, which is the Bharatiya Janata Party and also a party of the Modi-led government.
Your research, of course, is of state-level elections. It’s not talking about national elections. I’m going to give the story away. You find that if there is a riot in the year before the year of the election at the state level, then you see an increase in the vote share of the BJP.
There are two things that I find fascinating about the paper. One is, of course, your instrumental variable, which is incredibly unique, and I’m going to ask you to talk a little bit about that. The other is what this means for Indian politics and the BJP’s vote share, and also their persistence in national governance long term in India, going into the future. Can you tell us a little bit about this paper and also what it means in a normative sense for policy outcomes in the future?
IYER: Thanks for this. This is work with Anand Shrivastava, I should say, who is based at the Azim Premji University in India. We published this paper in the Journal of Development Economics a few years ago, and what we’re really arguing here is that yes, a riot can affect the vote share of the BJP. I think we predict that it would increase the vote share by 5 percent to 7 percent.
In some ways, all that we were doing in that paper is to quantify an argument that many journalists and others had been making for a long time in the Indian popular press, that you might find that there are situations where you have riots that then affect the vote share. We’re just providing the bare bones of the quantitative evidence that that was indeed the case, and we’re putting a number on that by saying that in this particular sample that we were looking at in these state elections, it was 5 percent to 7 percent.
The broader issue that that raises, I think, is really thinking about whether there is any motive there to instigate a riot in order to influence the vote share. Now, we don’t say anything about that in our paper because our job was just to document the statistical evidence, but others have written about those issues. It does raise the question about when you observe certain election outcomes that occur, you hope very much that a riot is not instigated in order to ensure the requisite outcome. That’s the broader policy issue.
In terms of the instrument that you were interested in, for economists out there who are interested in issues of causality and identification of these causal effects, of course, what we’re using is festivals. Again, this is an idea that is not new. It’s actually come from others who’ve argued something very obvious—at festival time, people congregate.
What we argued, though, was to say that if a Hindu festival fell on a Friday, which we know is a holy day for the Muslim community, then that was going to predict whether a riot occurs or not. What our data is simply showing is that it does. We essentially use what we call the festival instrument because in Hinduism, the dates of the festival are determined by the lunar calendar.
Essentially what happens is, the date of the festival moves around for different years, which means that we can use that to identify the effect, which is what we do in that work. The broader question that we were really interested in is whether there was any quantitative link that one could establish between the occurrence of a religious riot and the outcome in the election.
RAJAGOPALAN: I was very charmed by that instrumental variable because, when one reads papers on religious conflict, almost always it is a weather-related instrument, and that can get quite repetitive and tiresome. So it was quite interesting when I found a completely different instrumental variable. That aside, I appreciate your point of it being a larger issue.
I want to touch upon two things related to riots, both of which you allude to in your book and in your broader research. There’s good research, even outside of India, that riots are not just caused by some religious hate or friction, but it’s also a question of state capacity.
This has been written about by multiple people. Ed Glaeser and DiPasquale have their paper, which talks about two aspects to riots, one of which is the opportunity cost of time, which is, of course, of the individuals participating in the riot. But the other part of it is also the potential of punishment. If there’s weak state capacity and very low probability of punishment, then you would likely see greater participation in riots.
There’s another paper by one of my colleagues at GMU and the Mercatus Center, Alex Tabarrok, who talks about something very similar. This is a simple model of crime waves and riots and revolutions. Again, the argument is very simple, that if there is less likelihood of being caught because a lot of people are partaking in the crime simultaneously, which reduces the chances of being caught, then more people are likely to join the group which is engaging in the criminal activity.
There seems to be a pretty tight link between state capacity and the incidence of riots. I want to talk about two things here. One is, is it just a coincidence that, as India’s state capacity—especially in the criminal justice system—becomes weaker, we have also seen the rise of the BJP and Hindu nationalism? Do you think those two things are just coincidental? Or do you think there’s something else going on in the underlying political economy?
IYER: I haven’t done research on this specific area, but I wouldn’t be surprised if state capacity was linked to a religious conflict. If there are interested graduate students out there, I think this would be a very interesting topic—in the context of India—to look more closely at. Many of these other papers have shown this link has been very strong in other contexts. It would be interesting to see whether it’s also important in the Indian context as well.
One of the things you also would need to bear in mind when thinking about riots—in some of the work which Anand Shrivastava and I did, for example, the data set on which we calculated these riots was actually an event study, which also had information on the causes of riots.
What is interesting there is how many nonreligious causes are usually attributed to riots. We talked now about the Babri Masjid-Ram Temple dispute and so forth. It is a prime piece of urban property, something that’s frequently overlooked. Many, many examples of riots that you do see all over India sometimes have political-economic property, other kinds of disputes that are associated with it.
RAJAGOPALAN: Especially urban congestion, right?
RAJAGOPALAN: Urban congestion seems to be a big theme in these riots because it places people in a very tight spot quite literally at the same time. Triggers can cause things to go out of control much more frequently and much more easily than you would expect somewhere else.
IYER: If you look at the data from 1950 onwards in terms of riots, most of the riots are urban riots. There have been very severe rural riots as well, but many of them are in urban congested centers. We really do need a lot more research on some of these interactions. The underlying causes of riots, how it interacts with perhaps local state capacity, police presence, the ability of government officials, civil servants, and others to navigate these riots when they occur—there’s a lot of more research that can be done in these contexts.
Many people have written about them already, but I think having some quantitative evidence on linking all of these things together would be extremely useful. This is an important area of future research, which would tie in with a lot of the work on medieval Europe, which many of our colleagues—other economist colleagues, economic historian colleagues—have been writing about for the last several years.
RAJAGOPALAN: One theme that kept emerging from your book, for me, was how much of both the religious conflict and the competition and cooperation has to do with state provisioning of public goods.
If only the state did its job when it came to providing secular education, then you wouldn’t see a lot of the things that one sees in religious competition. If only the state provided sensible urban regulation so that there could be a quick increase in supply of housing and you don’t see building up of slums or very high degree of urban congestion, then you wouldn’t get the street riots, even small incidents, that one gets.
The reason I was linking so directly to state capacity—I think the last riot I read about in detail was the one that happened in Delhi just before the COVID pandemic. One of the reasons that many journalists wrote about it, anecdotally, was Donald Trump was visiting India and New Delhi at the time. A lot of the police force had been directed towards VIP security and things like that. Of course, the neighborhood in which the riot took place was much poorer than where the VIP and the police bundobust was happening, and so on and so forth.
Political Economy of Hate
RAJAGOPALAN: I want to move from riots to something that is related, but I still want to think about it a little bit differently. This is the political economy of hatred. Once again, I’m referencing Ed Glaeser’s canonical paper on this, where he says that hatred, as we normally perceive, is not irrational. There is a demand for hatred, which is the consumers’ or participants’ willingness to hear hateful stories about the other group, whatever that other group might be. It could be another sports team. It could be another religion. It could be another caste, gender, so on and so forth.
The supply—typically, in the case of religion, it is by politicians and the clergy, media houses. There are multiple groups that are willing to supply and facilitate this consumption of hatred. The level of hatred increases with intergroup economic differences or inequality. But it’s also linked to the funds received by right-wing groups.
What I just described is the Cliff Notes version of the Ed Glaeser paper. I see that playing out almost on a one-on-one basis in India at the moment, in the sense that there is a lot of misinformation at the beginning of the COVID pandemic because there was one super-spreader event by an Islamic group. Then suddenly, it was “Muslims have brought COVID to India” narrative.
There’s a lot of both misinformation and hateful information which is out there. There’s clearly a very large group willing to consume this information and propagate it. How much do you think this has to do with the increase in economic inequality and also the differences post-liberalization and political funding?
These are the two main reasons many people attribute to the rise of the BJP. I thought maybe we can link it in some way—though at the moment, anecdotally—to the rise of production and consumption of hatred. How would you think about that? If you were to write a paper on this, what’s a good way to think about this in the Indian context?
IYER: The rise in income inequality is definitely a part of this story. There’s no doubt, with economic growth, inequality has risen. We’ve already talked about the fact that populations are aspirational. I think the other issue is actually jobs. While on the one hand, we can put a lot of resources into increasing education and getting a lot of people educated—men and women and so forth—you need to have good employment outcomes once you’ve actually had the increases in education.
Where this is linked to the riots and other issues and so forth is that if people feel that they do not have access to good jobs—government jobs are important in the Indian context and so forth—then that’s going to be creating the underlying conditions for tensions of various kinds. I think dealing with issues in the labor market is actually going to be quite important.
I have a project that I’m working on at the moment with two other co-authors. We’ve just started the project. We’re really trying to look at religion and occupational differences. You’ve seen big changes in education since the 1950s, but some groups are in certain occupations compared to others. This issue needs to be examined a lot more.
I think that the political-economy-of-hatred story works if the underlying conditions for it are there. In this case, the labor market conditions in India are probably driving what’s going on with the riots and the hatred and so forth. This is also an area where the media need to be very responsible in terms of putting forward the good stories as well, what is most salient in terms of describing the good work as well as the other stuff.
My sense is that one can tie in the political-economy-of-hatred narrative to what’s going on in India at the moment, but with much more focus on the underlying situation in the labor market there.
Of course, with what’s happened with COVID in the last few months, this has just exacerbated a lot of the issues, particularly because of issues with migrant workers and so forth. This has really made the whole issue of the labor market in India much more complex. It has also made it much more tense in the last few months, certainly, but longer term, this is something that needs to be looked at very closely.
RAJAGOPALAN: In addition to the points that you made about the labor market, there is also inequality in terms of status. Of course, a lot of that comes with the job, but it’s also status within the family, within the neighborhood, and so on. I recently read this book by Snigdha Poonam called Dreamers, where she’s written about gau rakshaks and how they’re basically young men who should be in the job market and should have good jobs because they have received basic education, but they don’t. One way to raise their status within their community is to become a gau rakshak because that is the entry point to get some respect from your peers, and so on and so forth.
I very much agree with you that it’s not just a question of income inequality. It’s also a question of jobs, relative status between the genders, and so on and so forth.
Background and Influences
RAJAGOPALAN: I want to move on to some other questions. I want to start with your intellectual background and influences and what made you pursue this path and become an economist who studies religion. The little bit that I know about your background, I know that you come from the family of Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan. You’re his great-granddaughter.
Of course, he is very well known as the first vice president of India and second president of India and so forth. He was also a great religious philosopher and a religious scholar. Is that family influence? How much did that contribute to your intellectual influences? And what was your path towards becoming an economist?
IYER: The family influence was important to the extent that we read the books of Radhakrishnan and Sarvepalli Gopal and others, both in history and in the philosophy of religion. This influenced my early interest in religion, for sure. In terms of how I got into economics, I actually started out here doing work on religion and demography. That was really how I first started looking at demographic differences between religious groups in India, in south India, in particular in Karnataka.
From that interest in religion and demography, I then went into studying the economics of religion per se. Like most of the people who grew up in India, you are acutely aware of income inequality, of poverty, of culture, of these kinds of issues, and that prompted me to have some interest in going into the field of development economics as such, and then the economics of religion in particular. But I was greatly aided by mentors and reading the work of many of the people we’ve spoken about today. That certainly inspired me to work in the economics.
RAJAGOPALAN: What is a good introduction to that field when it comes to young scholars in India? Aside from you and some of your co-authors, Anand Shrivastava, Rohit Ticku, Latika Chaudhary, Jared Rubin, and they’ve done some work, what is a good introduction aside from your book for young students who would like to get into the economics of religion?
IYER: If you’re a young person, and you’re excited by wanting to know more about the economics of religion, I would actually recommend Larry Iannaccone’s paper, “An Introduction to the Economics of Religion,” that was published in the Journal of Economic Literature. My paper in the Journal of Economic Literature, “The New Economics of Religion,” is an update to Larry’s original paper. Timur Kuran has also published in the same journal on Islam and economic development.
If one is interested to read more about the economic theory of religion, one should look at the work of Jean-Paul Carvalho and Michael McBride. If you’re interested in econometric issues of causality and identification and how to resolve these neatly, the work of Dan Hungerman and, of course, people which you’ve already mentioned—Jared Rubin, Mark Koyama, Noel Johnson—these are all scholars really working in the economic history of religion as well, or Sascha Becker, many of whom have made big contributions to this field and are collectively working as a group in order to promote this field for future generations of scholars.
One thing to say about it is, at one level, it is a new field. At another level, it’s actually quite an ancient field because Adam Smith was the one who first wrote about it in the Theory of Moral Sentiments and so forth. I think you should read Max Weber, Adam Smith, the early readings on the economics of religion. Then, of course, more recently, in more recent decades, economists have picked it up. I’m delighted that now it’s such a thriving field.
Process and Productivity
RAJAGOPALAN: What is your writing process like?
IYER: Thanks, Shruti, for the question. It’s very kind. One of my colleagues here at St Catharine’s told me once that you should write 250 words a day. Whatever it is, whether it’s a paper or a book or something, a working paper, an article, you should do 250 words a day. I enjoy writing, certainly. I think if you’re a young person starting out and thinking about how to write, the idea is really the most important.
Write on something that you’re passionate about, that you’re interested in. I try, as far as I can, also to read widely outside my discipline as well. If you are working in an area like the economics of religion, you obviously read what the economists are writing on the subject, but you should also be aware of what is going on more broadly in other disciplines that are related.
As far as I’m concerned, as a busy academic, you’re reconciling research and teaching and administration and other things. So when I can get the time to write, I do my 250 words a day. When I don’t, I try to make up for it thereafter.
Something that I’ve also always found very useful is to run some of the ideas that I’ve had or pieces of writing past family members, friends, others. If your mother and father don’t think that your research is exciting, it’s very difficult to make it exciting to everyone else in the world out there. It’s also frequently useful to run it past your colleagues, run it past your family and friends. This is something that I try to do and that I found periodically useful.
And get some great mentors. That’s also a piece of advice that I would like to give. All of us are influenced by those who’ve gone before us. If you have some great mentors who take an interest in your work, you’ll probably find that their world was full of rejected papers. They’ve had to persevere and persevere and persevere. The only thing I will say is that luck really does change at some point in your work, and life is then not full of rejected papers.
RAJAGOPALAN: Who were some of your mentors, both in the field that you work in but also more broadly, whether it’s in India, from your family, from your years in Delhi University or Cambridge?
IYER: My teachers have always been my mentors throughout, whether in school or at university, specifically in the area. People like Larry Iannaccone and Eli Berman, Steven Datlof have been big influences on my writing. Sheilagh Ogilvie, who was my PhD supervisor here in Cambridge, who works on medieval Europe—she is a very important influence on my work as well.
It’s really important—both in your area as well as in terms of how to be as an academic—to have those mentors because they really share their experiences with you, and that’s actually quite useful when you are planning your own career.
I’m very grateful for the department that I’m in. Cambridge is a place that has great economists, but it’s also a place where you interact with people across many different disciplines. I was fortunate to be able to talk to many scholars of South Asia who have been in this place, as well, who’ve also been great supporters and mentors. I think having a combination of people that you can talk to is actually very crucial for young academics.
RAJAGOPALAN: What are you reading right now?
IYER: What am I reading right now? I just finished reading Persecution and Toleration.
RAJAGOPALAN: This is a wonderful book by Mark Koyama and Noel Johnson. What are your immediate projects or big future projects within the field?
IYER: I’m doing three different projects at the moment. One was this project on religion and labor markets in India with Girish Bahal and Anand Shrivastava, which we’ve just started. We’re also doing work on religion and COVID-19, so we’re looking at the way in which religious networks might have spread COVID and the effects of the suspension of religious services and so forth, and lockdowns, in general, on mental health. We’re currently doing a survey in the US. We hope to extend it to other countries if possible.
I’ve also got a project which I’m doing with colleagues here in Cambridge on religion and insurance in Brazil because one of the issues which came up with the India work, certainly, was the importance of public service provision. One of the things that I’m quite interested in is the growth of the Pentecostal movement in Brazil, which has also been very widespread and, again, has targeted a different segment of the Brazilian population. We’re doing a survey there at the moment.
It’s really working on religion and COVID, religion and labor markets in India, religion and insurance in Brazil at the moment.
RAJAGOPALAN: I really look forward to reading it.
I can’t let you go without asking one last COVID-related question, which is also our most important question. What are you binge-watching at the moment?
IYER: [laughs] I was watching A Suitable Boy, which they just showed us—it was a wonderful book when it came out in 1993—showed it on British television. I was binge-watching A Suitable Boy and reruns of it.
RAJAGOPALAN: Do you recommend it?
IYER: Yes, highly.
RAJAGOPALAN: I have been very nervous about watching the show because I love Vikram Seth and A Suitable Boy is one of my favorite books. I love Mira Nair, and I thought that if it’s not as good as I imagine it will be, I would just be heartbroken. I’ve kept away from it so far, but I’m glad you recommended it. Maybe I’ll give it a go.
IYER: I think you should. They’ve done it wonderfully.
RAJAGOPALAN: I’m so thrilled to hear that.
Thank you so much for your time. It was really lovely speaking with you about your research and getting all the insights on India. Thank you for doing this.
IYER: Thank you so much for having me, Shruti. Thanks for the opportunity.