/ 8 April 2009

Boom times for God

Late last year, when the global economy began to plummet, Reuters reported that lunchtime prayer services — particularly on Wall Street — saw a marked increase of suits and business ties in attendance.

Across the Atlantic religious leaders say the economy has prompted Britons to rekindle their faith. One pastor claims to have five to 10 new faces pitching up each Sunday at church services, according to the BBC. The Church of England has even released a new prayer, written especially for these times, entitled ”prayer for the current financial crisis”. It begins:
”Lord God, we live in disturbing days: across the world, prices rise, debts increase, banks collapse, jobs are taken away and fragile security is under threat.”

In the past few months the church has also released a prayer for redundancy, as jobs everywhere become invisible, like so many holy ghosts.

Back at home, the financial impact is only beginning to be felt, so perhaps it’s too soon to tell if South Africans will echo the international trend. One friend confessed at the weekend that he has noticed parking become increasingly scarce at his church in recent weeks and the pew room is at a premium inside.

Father Chris Townsend, information officer for the South African Catholic Bishops’ Conference, says it may be too early to tell if more people are going to church, but ”it would not surprise” him. ”We’ve not seen a massive increase but I would imagine that people turn to faith in times of uncertainty,” he says.

On a rand and a prayer
Indications are that the faithful at least are praying more. A survey conducted on Faithbook, an interfaith Facebook page dedicated to religious tolerance, revealed that believers of whatever religion have found themselves increasingly concerned with finances in their prayers.

Simon Cohen, managing director of Global Tolerance, the company behind Faithbook, says the reasoning behind the poll was partially to find out how people of faith are responding to the global economic crisis.

”We also thought it would be interesting to find out if people are praying more and if their notions of wealth have shifted as a result of the economic crisis,” says Cohen.

The poll pointed out that for 70% of the respondents a spiritual crisis is of more concern than the current economic one. This is a good indication that for a number of people spiritual wealth or what they believe to be good, moral or true is more important than financial wealth, says Cohen.

The survey found that 27.52% of respondents have prayed more since the economic downturn and 23.94% have stated that the financial crisis or their own personal finances were the subject of their last prayer.

Cohen believes that this may be rooted in people’s need to have their basic needs met, rather than prayers for wealth or prosperity.

”It may be rooted in the concern that those needs might not be met,” he says. ”It’s not so much about material as it is about material sustenance.”

This would perhaps undermine the assumptions of the ”prosperity gospel”. The teaching — that God wants his followers to prosper and seeks to bless them with earthly riches — has recently gained credence in US evangelical circles. But the call to wealth by ministers such Creflo Dollar and Joel Osteen, seems inherently flawed in a post-Lehman world. A world where economic uncertainty completely pummels aspirations of material gain.

The Faithbook survey states 80.56% of respondents believe we should see the financial situation as a global financial watershed, with opportunities to regrow the economy within a moral and social framework.

Faith-based arguments for the re-creation of the financial system may not hold much cachet in the circles of the politically powerful. But they certainly raise questions around how a total failure of morals and ethics on the part of some financiers helped bring about the crisis.

Kosher cash
The crisis has increased interest in faith-based banking practices, such as Islamic banking.

According to Ahmed Moola, of Absa’s Islamic banking division, the system requires among other things that investments cannot be made into companies that are too highly leveraged. Nor can investments be made into companies that earn a disproportionate amount of their revenue through interest. Sharia law also ”requires an underlying asset”, meaning that transactions cannot be paper-based.

Even the Vatican has praised Islamic banking as a way to overcome the current crisis. In its official newspaper, Osservatore Romano, it stated that the ethical principles behind Islamic finance may bring banks closer to the ”true spirit, which should mark every financial service”.

Similarly Talmudic scholars in orthodox Judaism have also pointed to the possible benefits of faith-based fiscal regulation.

The Judaic texts on civil and ceremonial law include decrees on keeping your money ”kosher or fit” reports Time magazine.

Rules include not willingly misleading the ”blind” — in this case the financially blind — to get them to take out mortgages that they cannot pay.

It also includes the need for disclosure, or the revelation of the ”hidden flaw”, in a transaction, and it must be done in such a way that the ”reasonable” or average man can understand it to make a fair decision.

Ultimately though, law and regulation have failed on the back of greed.

As Townsend says, although there may be no hard numbers to indicate a resurgence of faith, people are reassessing how they see the world.

”This crisis was brought on by greed, the selling and reselling of debt,” he says. ”It’s a pack of cards that has fallen and naturally people are re-evaluating their lives.”

The love of money, so says the good book, is the root of all kinds of evil. In this sentiment at least, that idea has been quite prophetic.