On Religion…

I wasn’t sure I would write about this topic.  For whatever reasons, religion is a subject that many people – including me – don’t like to touch with a stick find difficult to discuss.  But as I have started to work my way into the world of international development and global health, I have quickly realized that religion is central not only to the lives of the poor and lower middle-class patients we seek to treat, but also to the practitioners and providers we necessarily partner with.

Through the windows of a seminary outside of Lubango, Angola

In Haiti, the field hospital I worked at was on the grounds of a Christian orphanage.  In Angola, I attended a bible study with my client just hours after I arrived (having travelled for literally 38 hours). And in South Africa I am doing my rotations at a mission hospital where staff is frequently – and politely – invited to church.

I have to admit my own bias before I carry on further.  I am not a Christian. I am scarcely a believer in higher powers and my religious views are, well,  ‘in evolution.’   Nevertheless, I grew up celebrating Hindu holidays and these traditions form a part of my identity.  Anything that approaches proselytizing can make me uncomfortable and at least inwardly defensive.

Still, when I think of the work that many missionaries are doing, I admire the courage of their convictions. In Angola, it was clear to me that mission surgeons were among the few doctors who stayed through the worst times of war to provide care for the hyper-vulnerable.  One doctor, I was told, felt the government forces were preventing him from treating opposition soldiers so he disappeared into the bush where he could do his work better (supposedly never to return).

The old art school at the seminary

I could learn a lesson from the mission doctors.  I have jumped on every opportunity to gain international exposure and as a result have spent time in hospitals in Australia, Brazil, Haiti, India,  Angola, and now South Africa.  While I may have learned and benefited immensely from these brief, fly-by visits, I’m not so sure how meaningful my contributions have been.  Part of this is the result of being a student – it is a role in which I am fundamentally a ‘taker’ or a ‘learner.’  But part of it, I suspect, comes from a rather naïve desire to fly-in, heal, fly-out.

The funny thing is that I know better.

In the academic world there is plenty of writing about the need for sustained investment in development – interestingly many of those writing about Africa or India or Haiti do so from Boston or London or New York.  The mission surgeon – who may not write or read the development journals – is often someone who has stayed and provided the very sustained investment called for by the academics.  No doubt collaboration between these two groups could lead to strides of success.

But intellectualizing our way to collaboration does not necessarily make it happen.  The fact is that there often remains a cultural gap between academics and missionaries. (Of course, there are plenty of exception to this blanket statement)

The day I landed in Angola, I met two lovely guys – both named Paul.  They were childhood friends from Canada and had travelled to Angola to document the work of the evangelical group with which they were associated.  This included the hospital I was working at.  ‘The Pauls’ and I stayed in a guesthouse together and eventually got to talk about a variety of topics.

The door to my guesthouse

One of the Pauls had travelled to India when he was much younger.  He described to me his first encounter at a Hindu temple.  During the ceremony, he told me, a bleating goat’s neck was slit in sacrifice. To Paul, this was an unquestionably brutal act in what should have been a place of peace and solemnity.  To me, this was hard to believe given my own experience with Hinduism.  Nevertheless, Paul compared the violent Hindu sacrifice to the orphanages that Mother Theresa had set up in Calcutta.  It was said the sisters from the facility would walk the streets outside and offer to take in the polio-affected, paraplegic, poor, or otherwise out-of-luck people who had gathered.

The contrast, in Paul’s mind and from his description, was stark.  And while I was somewhat annoyed and initially defensive about Paul’s anecdote, I eventually realized that it is important to see true compassion for what it is.  Though Mother Theresa’s work is not without controversy, surely there are aspects of her work that we can agree to aspire towards. It also occurred to me, however, that while God may have been Mother Theresa’s motivation, what I admired about her was not in her motivation but in her actions.

So, while Paul and many of the warm and caring people I have worked with recently may have cultural values and religious beliefs far different from my own, my resolution is to see good work for what it is.  With this resolution I may achieve my otherwise intellectualized goal.  Or maybe not.  But at least I’ll have a few more thought-provoking conversations along the way.



  1. Andy

    Interesting post Saurabh. I’ve been finding in a lot of my development work here in the US South that churches – especially churches in rural communities – serve an important development role by acting as an important source of social capital. Because of religious institutions, individuals who would otherwise be socially “cut off” are able to share information with one another and identify with a larger community, which makes collective action much easier. For example, recent Latino immigrants in North Carolina have set up all sorts of development institutions – loan funds, business associations, day laborer collectives – through connections made at their churches. It’s hard to say whether religion motivates action in these cases, but it certainly can certainly make it possible. Especially in places facing crisis, it’s important for people who think of themselves as development practitioners to engage (in a culturally sensitive way, of course) with local communities of faith. As for missionaries… well, there can sometimes be a conflict between proselytizing (which is particularistic in nature) and creating a solid foundation for sustained development (which probably requires a more universalistic way of approaching problems), but there may be room for alliances and coalitions.
    Sorry for geeking out here. Hope you’re doing well, and I’m looking forward to catching up when you’re back stateside.

  2. Leandro Couto

    Isn’t it ironic when we call ourselves “not religious” and everything around us is religion? I guess that may have been your motivation to write this post, wasn’t it? I believe there’s something better and greater than any religion on this Earth and that is good actions and charity. If a GOD is a motivation to get involved in good deeds, isn’t faith and religion something great? On the other hand, we have to agree that some really religious people NEVER lift a finger to help anyone in need and despair whereas some people who do not even believe in a “higher” deity spend their lives giving, sharing, helping and donating. Mother Theresa is an admirable example and, whether you believe in a god or not, you go to church or not, what really matters is what you are doing in your life to help those who are broken and suffering from excruciating pain, be it physical or emotional. Actions are above any preaching or reading of religious scriptures. Interesting point of view and great food for thought. Your blog is addictive. I’m always looking for updates. Abraço do Brasil! Le

  3. Sonali Saluja

    I think at its core Christians, Hindus, Atheists and Agnostics who are doing the work you describe all have much more in common than they realize. One may say one is motivated by God or by one’s family or by the greater good, but in the end it comes down to our innate human nature of bringing peace to another being and alleviating suffering.

    There is an interesting debate on intelligence squared called “The world would be better off without religion.” They talk about a lot of the issues you raised. I was almost converted! Almost.

  4. prateek

    Saurabh – very interesting piece you´ve written here…lots of coments posted prove how opinionated people are about religion and its role in communities such as those you have visited. I agree with yours.

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