It's an hour after opening time at a posh jewelry store in New Delhi. The scene is unusually sedate. Missing is the usual din of sales pitches and haggling. The sales girls sit primly behind glass counters, making no effort to pull out the coruscating fineries inside. Yet the customers, mostly wealthy women already dripping in diamonds, show no irritation. Everyone seems content to wait for something to happen.
That something, I learned when I entered the store on a recent trip, was the completion of the Hindu owner's morning oblations to the marbled deities, including the goddess of wealth, perched in the back. "He got stuck in traffic and arrived late," whispered a sales girl, "so he didn't get Lakshmi's blessings before opening." Until he did, business simply couldn't commence.
Not only did no one mind, they didn't think it could be any other way.
Indians love gold and they love gods. But in a contest between the two, gods have a clear edge, even in liberalized, modernizing India-or, rather, especially in that India.
This god-and-mammon revival is a development that wasn't predicted by Western philosophers, whether the right's Friedrich Nietzsche (who famously declared that "God is dead") and Max Weber, or Karl Marx and Emile DurkÂheim on the left. To the contrary, they, like so many others, developed the secularization thesis: that in modernizing countries, science would replace supernatural beliefs with rational worldviews, and commerce would seduce people into material pursuits.
In recent years, this 19th-century philosophical consensus has split. On one side are doubters such as the University of Washington's Rodney Stark, who point to America's high levels of religiosity two-and-a-half centuries into the Industrial Revolution. (According to Pew Research Center, 80 percent of Americans retain some religious affiliation.) A post-Cold War religious resurgence in Eastern Europe (Hungary, Poland) and in relatively modernized Islamic countries such as Turkey also presents evidence against the thesis. And lest one dismiss these revivals as simply a backlash against religious repression by secular rulers, Economist writers John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge in their 2009 book God Is Back document the global rise of American-style megachurches, especially Pentecostal, not only in Latin American countries such as Guatemala but also, improbably, in South Korea.
So powerful is this evidence that renowned sociologist Peter Berger of Boston University, one of the major theoreticians pushing the secularization thesis in the 1960s, seriously revised the thesis three decades later, throwing out key aspects and replacing them with weaker claims.
On the other side are thinkers like Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, whose 2007 magnum opus, The Secular Age, forcefully reasserts the secularization doctrine. Taylor notes that moderns might maintain some nominal belief in God, but what distinguishes them from the pre-moderns is that they simply can't experience the world as "enchanted." They might not be militant atheists in the Christopher Hitchens mode, but they are fundamentally cut off from deeper kinds of religious experiences, which makes them tone deaf to non-scientific understandings of reality.
But since India ended its tryst with Fabian socialism and embraced a market economy in the 1990s, it has fallen firmly in the Stark-Micklethwait-Wooldridge camp. God is not only back in India, but back with a vengeance. Economic liberalization has produced what Meera Nanda, a professor at New Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University, described in her 2009 book The God Market as "the rush hour of the gods."
Far from posing a threat to Hinduism, India's dominant religion, modernization has given it a major boost. What remains to be seen is whether a revived Hinduism will be good for liberal democracy's core commitment to a neutral state that respects religious pluralism-especially after the May elections that handed a decisive victory to Narendra Modi, an avowed Hindu nationalist who derides India's accommodations of religious minorities as "pseudo secularism."
Tech Money Goes to the Temple
India has always been a deeply religious country where public displays of piety command an automatic moral high ground-precisely what the jewelry storeowner was counting on by having customers wait while he prayed.
Contrast that to America, the most pious Western country, where religion is something one generally leaves at home. Even wearing a small crucifix can come across as too in-your-face in some American situations. Not so in India where religion, like the stars and trees, is everywhere.
Women and men wear necklaces and bracelets adorned with Hindu religious symbols, without a trace of self consciousness. Figurines of gods adorn dashboards; posters of deities drape store walls; garlanded idols are prominently displayed in professional offices; and religious songs blare constantly into the air from places of worship and loud private ceremonies.
But market-led growth has minted a class of mostly Hindu nouveau riche-generated, ironically, from the high-tech boom-for whom religion is a consumer good, like ostentatious weddings or fancy cars.