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Is religion a ‘no no’ for think tanks?

The Jesuit Centre for Theological Reflection (JCTR) is a very interesting think tank. It does not just talk about evidence but also about faith. Its mission statement is:

To foster from a faith-inspired perspective a critical understanding of current issues. Guided by the Church’s Social Teaching that emphasises dignity in community, our mission is to generate activities for the promotion of the fullness of human life through research, education, advocacy and consultation. Cooperating widely with other groups, our Jesuit sponsorship directs us to a special concern for the poor and assures an international linkage to our efforts. We aim to promote an inculturated (sic) faith, gender equality and empowerment of local communities in the work of justice and peace and the integrity of creation.

Maybe they have a point. Research from North America shows that atheists are distrusted as much as rapists:

The study, conducted among 350 Americans adults and 420 Canadian college students, asked participants to decide if a fictional driver damaged a parked car and left the scene, then found a wallet and took the money, was the driver more likely to be a teacher, an atheist teacher, or a rapist teacher?

The participants, who were from religious and nonreligious backgrounds, most often chose the atheist teacher.

This moral distrust of non-believers is relevant in very religious societies -and much of the developing world qualifies as such. By combining religion (with explicit references to values) organisations like JCTR are able to award a certain degree of credibility to the, less face it, sometimes God-less work of the researcher -who will not believe it until it can be measured.

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  1. Specifically on the subject of the JCTR I would draw attention to their stellar research which compares more than favourably with other (non-religious) think tanks in Africa. This is not a case of comparing the value of a religious-based think tank with a non-religious one – much of the work the JCTR does is not explicitly religious (e.g. Basic Needs Survey) but is, importantly, undertaken with theological concerns in mind.

    This distinction between “religious” and “non-religious” think tanks is not straightforward however. A few things to think about:
    1. JCTR is explicitly religious and has chosen to wear this on its sleeve, whereas I would hypothesise that other TTs have religious affiliations – funding sources, origin – that are not made entirely explicit.
    2. Further, it is possible and useful to distinguish a TT’s staff from the organisation/insitution itself. At the JCTR, for instance, I was told that not all staff were overtly Christian, and whilst there are clear examples of a theological perspective being applied to policy issues (e.g. Brother Peter Henriot’s excellent article on GMOs and Church Teaching, amidst a number of other examples – http://www.jctr.org.zm/publications/cst-gmos.htm) it is important to consider the beliefs, values, and religious affinity of individual researchers. Similarly, a non-religious TT is likely to employ individuals with a religious affinity and again it is important that we ask what influence this has on the organisation’s work.
    3. The language of “religion” and “development” (which TTs in developing countries largely employ as a rule of funding thumb) often converge. The appeal to “human rights” is just as abstract as an appeal to Jesus Christ and the Church’s mission on earth; the end game of “development” and Christianity appear – in description – to be rather similar (equality, love, respect, empowerment, a fulfilled life). Whilst the policies non-religious TTs prescribe are based on evidence, their mission is arguably as “rootless” or abstract as that of the religious TT.

    You raise an important point about evidence and the legitimacy of “a believer”, or more accurately – “one of us”/”our own”. This has come out quite strongly in my current research on the politics of evidence use in African policy debates, and is confirmed by one of RAPID’s principal recommendations to researchers to “align” their research not only with the interests of policymakers, but with the dominant policy discourses or policy narratives at play. However I will use an example from a police investigation I was following last week, between a *private sector exporter of natural resources* and three men – followers of Islam – in the eastern part of Sierra Leone.

    The three men, who were employed by the company to buy and collect the natural resorce from numerous villages, were accused by the company of stealing money they had given them. This was a significant amount of money, which had – allegedly – immediately gone on the purchase of a car from Freetown. The three men also admitted to the company and the police that they had stolen. This is not a particularly surprising story. What I found interesting is that section chief who arrived observe the policeman “tehk evidehnss” (that’s right – take evidence, in Krio) informed me that it didn’t matter what the three men (who as members of his section he was responsible for) said,”evidehnss de wit di God-man” (believable and credible evidence comes from the Christian man), not only in the eyes of the police (this was not a veiled criticism of police investigations in Sierra Leone) but in his, too.

    This is not a startling example, nor is it out-of-the-ordinary. I have many examples like this. The take-away, again not startling and by no means specific to Africa (think of reports of “weighted” evidence in police investigations in the US and UK, and criticisms that the police employ an institutional racism in the conducting of their investigations), is that what counts as valid evidence lies with “our own”, whether this be people of the same religion, class, school, friendship group (think of when your friend moans about their boyfriend/girlfriend – there is little room for balanced evidence collection there!), family, and so on. We shouldn’t be surprised about this. We just need to be aware of this.

    December 16, 2011
  2. Interesting insights from the previous comment. I’d also like to add that think tanks in general are funded intellectually and otherwise by a whole host of frameworks and influences – corporate, political, ethnic, cultural, religious, educational, and so on. It seems to me that think tanks risk disservice to their various constituencies when they believe themselves to be completely objective and without any kind of orienting set of ideas – that’s simply not possible.

    Think tanks are valuable as an institutional form when individual think tanks are part of a wider network of competing ideas where exchange and interaction are the norm. Religion is an enormously powerful and influential aspect of human cultural life so it would seem odd not to have religious vantage points represented among the thousands of think tanks globally.

    Important points to ponder for all think tanks involve the quality of their research, the commitment to share what they learn whether the news is good or bad from their particular perspective, the way in which they add to the diversity of thought and the generation of innovation, how free they are to pursue research along lines deemed important regardless of who is funding it, etc. When these qualities are present, think tanks can continue to provide much-needed depth in approaching some of our most pernicious challenges.

    January 5, 2012

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