The trains run exactly on time in Switzerland, and when it snowed in Bern last week the streets were plowed instantly. The cows trek down from their summer pastures to winter stables on a well established timetable. So it should come as no surprise that Switzerland’s international development programs are run with meticulous care. What’s perhaps somewhat more surprising is that Switzerland has been one of the leaders globally in a thoughtful and probing approach to the question of why religion matters when it comes to fighting poverty.
Last week a conference in Bern reflected on a decade-long exploratory project that has tackled three provocative questions: why does religion matter, what should we do about it, and how? A hundred people, from the government and a range of private organizations, most of them linked to Christian churches, met for a day-long discussion that was open and informed. I was there to bring some international experience.
The starting puzzle is why, when religion is so obviously a powerful force in the world’s poor societies, the very word “religion” has long been essentially taboo in almost all Swiss official debates and even academic literature on development. Some reasons are pretty obvious: European traditions of separation of church and state are especially strong, and good civil servants squirm when the word is mentioned. Other reasons are more complex and are a link to new questions about how to address religion in contemporary Europe. The rise of different forms of fundamentalism, across the Muslim world but also Christian fundamentalism in Switzerland itself, inspire concern that borders on fear. And delving into religion, without much background or a sound framework, can be bewildering because the topic is so complex and full of conflicts and contradictions. Is religion a cause of wars and disputes? How can we distinguish saints and inspired leaders from false prophets, putative terrorists, and outright crooks? Can religion indeed be the force for social justice and world peace that its advocates so passionately claim?