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Religion and Economics

This essay was presented to the Claremont Democratic Club

This essay was presented to the Claremont Democratic Club, May 8, 2009, but originally prepared for a talk at California State University at Northridge, California. Permission granted by the author.

In this lecture I am using “religion” in a somewhat broader way than is usual. I understand “religion” in its root meaning of binding up. A religion is a system of beliefs and practices that commands personal and social devotion. The word is most often used for the great universal systems that arose two and a half millennia ago to supersede the local religions of the earlier epoch. Most of us in the United States have been influenced chiefly by the monotheistic Abrahamic faiths: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. But religions that arose in India and China are now also influential in this country.

On the whole these traditions have lost the ability to organize the whole of individual and social life in the modern period. New religious systems have arisen. When I was growing up the most powerful claimants to ultimate devotion were Nazism, Fascism, and Japanese emperor worship. The major competitor was Communism, which, like the traditional religions, undertook to deal with the human condition universally. Unlike the traditional religions, however, it focused its attention on economic theory and practice. I call it a form of economism. Opposing all of these was a combination of traditional religion, less virulent forms of nationalism, and democratic feeling. This opposition, in alliance with the Communist Soviet Union won World War II, and the clearly religious forms of nationalism largely disappeared from the global competition. Of course, nationalism remains an important force in the world, and it is always religiously tinged.

The victors soon divided. The Soviet Union promoted throughout the world a deeply religious form of Communism. To oppose this, the Western allies promoted “freedom,” describing themselves as leaders of the “free” world. “Free” was used to point to democracy, but especially because of the economistic character of Communism, it came equally, and now even more, to refer to individual economic freedom and the freedom of the market from governments.

Theoreticians showed that with this freedom the economy could grow faster. Because Communists also favored economic growth, this goal came to be accepted by the two great competing movements. In the West as in the Soviet Union, economic considerations became dominant in national and international affairs, and it was taken for granted that the goal of national and international activity was economic growth. Not only the economy, but the whole of society, was reordered in the service of economic growth. A new form of economism as a religion came into being.

In the struggle between these two forms of economism, the West was victorious. The Communist form of economism has been marginalized. The Western form has become the first truly global religion the world has seen. Almost all leaders of almost all countries are faithful practitioners, or at least claim to be. It is a “theistic” religion in the sense that it has an object of devotion, although this is not personal. In this case, “god” is economic growth. Popular participation in this religion is called “consumerism.”

The theologians of this global religion teach in the graduate departments of economics in our universities. Their theologies differ a little. For example, some have thought that economic policy could serve its god best by stimulating demand. Others have said it is better to stimulate supply. But they all serve the same god. Any student of economics who does not serve that god is excommunicated.

Demand-side economics has a considerable role for government. Its policies can provide more services for the general public and even put more money in the hands of the poor. However, during the past few decades the dominant theology has been neo-liberalism. Neo-liberalism supports supply-side economics. This means that government should not try to redistribute wealth but rather allow it to accumulate in the hands of those who can invest in productive enterprises. It discourages any governmental efforts to restrict the freedom of investors and managers. It emphasizes the superiority of the market over government management and hence calls for the privatization of as much economic activity as possible.

Since neo-liberal theoreticians consistently support policies that benefit the rich, it is not surprising that neo-liberalism has received a great deal of support from them. There are now many think-tanks, journals, and magazines devoted to its advocacy. There are well-funded faculty positions and many opportunities for profitable consultation. There are also many well-paid positions in business and in governmental agencies.

Since the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, neo-liberal economics has shaped not only the global economy but also the global society. Prior to that time, the world’s economy was primarily based on national economies that traded with one another. The goal was an international economy partly regulated by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Since that time the goal has been to make the whole world a single market with national boundaries no more a factor in economic affairs than the boundaries between the states are in the United States. Aid to poor countries can then be replaced by investment, which is attracted by cheap and docile labor and low environmental standards. Although the ideal of complete disempowerment of national governments over their national economies has not been fully realized, the extent to which we now have a truly global economy is remarkable. No previous religion has gone so far toward realizing its goals. And all this has occurred in thirty years.

Of course, this religion meets resistance. Part of this resistance comes not to the teachings of the religion or to policies that genuinely express it, but to policies that one-sidedly push reforms on poorer nations while refusing similar reforms in the richer and more powerful ones. The hypocritical practices of the rich nations have led to a backlash that has ended the series of trade agreements that progressively broke down national boundaries, especially in the south. The backlash has brought about a new spirit of independence in South America.

Economism looks to growth for salvation. “Salvation” here is from poverty and all the ills that accompany it. When it is pointed out that its god, or economic growth, has not in fact done much toward reducing poverty, we are told that we must be more faithful to the precepts of this religion. We must give up the ideals and values that stand in the way of total obedience. For example we must give up any commitment to cultural traditions that leads to resistance to the new religion. We must give up concerns for justice or equality. We must turn away from sentimental concern for current suffering. And we must be patient. If we are faithful and observe orthodox teaching without questioning it, bye and bye salvation will come.

II. Economism and Traditional Religions

Previous religions have often claimed to be based on experience or on cumulative human wisdom or on divine revelation. This one claims to be based on science. Indeed, it aims to be a deductive science drawing its conclusions from a limited number of assumptions. It aims, thus, not to depend on empirical or historical information. If the policies it advocates do not obtain the expected results, this must be because they have not been fully and purely carried out.

Communism directly challenged all other religions. When in power it persecuted them. Neo-liberal economism is more like Roman imperial religion than like Buddhism or Islam. The worshipers of economic growth guided by this theology are tolerant of other religious traditions as long as they give up any claim to binding everything together. They can then retain a role in the private sphere. Neo-liberal economism allows diversity of music and dance, the worship of traditional gods and spiritual practices, assuming that they are all compatible with commitment to economic growth.

The extent to which this assumption seems justified by recent history is quite remarkable. Whereas in its Communist form, economism aroused massive opposition from the traditional religions, in its neo-liberal form, it has not. This form of economism developed in Christian countries, but it has caught on in Hindu India, in Buddhist Thailand and Japan, and in countries influenced by Confucianism as well. It has met with very little resistance from Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, or Confucianism. There has been some resistance from Islam, but how much of this is religiously motivated is hard to say.

Given the sharp opposition of the doctrines of economism to those of traditional religions on many points, this quick acquiescence is surprising. For example, the traditional religions have been hostile toward taking interest on loans, at least in the case of lending to the poor. In the now victorious form of economism, interest-bearing debt has become the basic form of money. Only in Islam is there resistance.

More fundamentally, the traditional religions have regarded greed as a major sin. Economism in its currently dominant form teaches instead that rational self-interest oriented to unlimited gain characterizes, and should characterize, everyone.

The point is not that traditional religions ever suppressed the pursuit of personal gain. There were rich people in all “civilized” societies who had great power and ground the face of the poor – to use biblical language. The church itself accumulated, and sometimes flaunted, wealth in European Christendom. If there had not been a great deal of pursuit of riches throughout history, there would not be so much teaching against it.

Nevertheless, those who were most admired in Christendom were the saints, most of whom led lives of voluntary poverty. Today, in countries such as the United States, even through the majority of people consider themselves Christian, it is “the rich and famous” who are most admired and emulated.

Of course, it would be an exaggeration to think that traditional religious values, such as justice and charity for the poor, have completely lost their hold. Although these values are assigned no role in economism, most cultures still want to relieve the suffering brought about by the dominance of economism, and for the most part government is assigned some role in this respect. In Europe and Japan, the role of government in these respects after World War II was quite large. We speak of social democracies, in which the fruits of growth were spread among the people as a whole.

In the United States, economic action was never as restricted as in Europe, but concerns for justice did, for a while support labor in organizing, and organized labor did share in the fruits of economic growth. Also, the government was expected to provide a safety net for those who were unsuccessful in competition in the market economy, which is touted by economism as the salvific force. It is ironic that the Republican Party, which has embraced the new religion of economism with fewer qualifications and reservations, is widely viewed as the more “conservative” and “Christian.” Traditional religious values, such as justice and charity, are now viewed as liberal and secular.

We must ask why traditional religions have offered so little resistance to the trans-valuation of values that has shaped our world. The history is complex, but I will single out just one factor: industrialization. All of the traditional religions came into existence and shaped their teachings before the industrial revolution.

Throughout millennia there had been some increase in the productivity of labor. That is, people have harnessed the power of wind and water as well as animals, and they had improved technologies and the organization of productive enterprises, in such a way that a given amount of human labor could produce more goods and services. However, changes in this respect were small and gradual. They did not enter into thinking about economics. Instead, this thinking was based on the assumption that the total production of a given population was relatively static. If one person appropriated more, others would have less.

Medieval Christians did not argue for equality in distribution, but they did seek some kind of proportionality. To seek more than one’s fair share was to deny a fair share to others. Greed, accordingly, was a mortal sin. Religious teachers talked about just prices that would reward the makers of things appropriately without gouging the purchaser. They recognized the existence of distinct social and economic classes, and they tried to assure that those with the power to oppress did not render the poor destitute. Of course, there were enormous injustices in Medieval Christendom. But ethical teaching also had some effect. Ambition for admiration led in other directions than accumulating wealth.

Although the renunciation of wealth and the embrace of voluntary poverty were highly admired and were required of Christian professionals, no one favored involuntary poverty of the extreme sort, which yet remained widespread. All religious teachers would have preferred to meet basic human needs more generously. They simply did not think this was possible.

The industrial revolution abruptly showed that human labor could become much more productive. By applying fossil fuel energy, new machines, and new forms of organization to production, far more goods could be produced by a given work force. This seemed to mean that, in principle, there could be enough goods to satisfy the needs, and many of the desires, of all. It was hardly possible for morally sensitive people to oppose this new development in human history.

The only question was how to employ this new discovery. Speaking in very general terms, it has seemed to those who have considered this question that there were two possibilities. Industrialization could be effected by the people, acting for the most part through governments, or it could be left to the private sector. The former system is socialism, the latter, capitalism. Traditional religious and cultural values generally supported the former, but the great original success was by capitalism, and over the years, it has proved more effective in achieving growth. Although many Christians favored socialism, the success of capitalism led most to accept it.

Since its capitulation to capitalism, Christian ethics has had a muted and often confused voice. It continues to oppose “greed,” but it now redefines it so as to make this opposition refer only to excessive subjective attachment to wealth that may do the greedy person inner, spiritual harm. It no longer discourages those practices and policies that lead to gaining increasing wealth and even an increasing share of the wealth.

It is greed in the latter sense that makes capitalism work. Christians dare not condemn that. Their ethical teachings are largely limited to calling the public to be concerned for those who suffer want or are treated with special brutality. Only a few critique the system as a whole and in general. Industrialization has raised the standard of living of the great majority of people in “advanced” societies, and most assume that it can do the same for those in undeveloped and developing societies. And, again, the most successful form of industrialization has been through capitalism.

The other side of economism is consumerism. Industry can continue to produce goods only if there is a demand. Demand depends not on need but on the ability and desire to buy. This buying requires that even people who have enough for a comfortable life, still desire and pay for more. The theory is that as they do so, the factories employ more people and that the number of the really poor declines. Growth is pictured as a rising tide that lifts all ships, the yachts and the rowboats alike. This means that the desire for more and more possessions is to be encouraged. This is deeply contrary to the traditional virtue of frugality. But given a system in which unemployment and poverty can be reduced only by the continual acquisition of goods by those who do not need them, how can traditional religious thinkers object?

III. Responses to the Financial and Ecological Crises

Today the situation has changed, and there may be a new role for traditional religion. Two crises have forced themselves on public attention. The financial institutions overreached in their gambling and the greatest bubble the world has seen has now collapsed. Meanwhile the concerns of ecologists about the effects of economic growth on the environment came to a head on the subject of weather- change and its consequences. Both of these crises raise serious questions about the neo-liberal theories that have governed the efforts to serve the god of economism.

However, a powerful religion into which many people have been deeply socialized does not collapse when a challenge arises to its god. Many problems have been pointed out with traditional beliefs about the Abrahamic God, but Judaism, Christianity, and Islam still flourish, sometimes with changed views of God, sometimes dogmatically holding on to what has been discredited. Similarly, the leaders of the world, even if their policies may be changing, are still worshippers of economic growth, and the world’s people are still devoted to consumerism.

We will consider the financial collapse first. The religion of economic growth was originally focused on the growth of production. But the desires of the rich for growth outgrew the capacity of the real economy to satisfy. The great centers of finance got the governments of the world to make available to them, by privatization, all of their possessions. But still this did not suffice.

How could growth continue when there was nothing more to buy in the real world? The answer was derivatives. The best and brightest graduates of our business schools invented a way of expanding the virtual economy almost infinitely without regard for growth of the real economy. The virtual economy increased to something like five times the value of the real economy. The paper or electronic wealth of the world thus became wholly disproportionate to its actual wealth. We have seen the logical and actual consequence of the worship of economic growth carried thus to an absurd extreme. The drop in the price of stocks around the world alone wiped out 40% of this virtual wealth.

This is recognized as an unprecedented event that shows that something very serious went wrong. However the dominant response is to try to get the economy, including the financial “industry” “back on track,” that is, back on the track we were on. The sums we are expending for this purpose are disproportionate to any sums every spent before. We are throwing many trillions of dollars at this effort. There is little dispute about the need for these huge expenditures. There are, however, major disputes as to how the money should be expended.

There is another debate. Many worshippers of growth now admit that their insistence on an unregulated financial system contributed to the debacle. They are ready for new governmental restrictions and controls. A few even acknowledge that in exchange for its huge investments the government might acquire ownership of some financial institutions, at least temporarily. These are major adjustments of neo-liberal thinking; so other economists strongly oppose these heresies. There may or may not be a major shift of theory as to how to renew economic growth in the field of finance, but there is no public discussion of the object to which all remain committed: economic growth.

For some time now environmentalists have been calling attention to the way the growing economy is straining the limits of the environment to supply our needs. Two of their arguments now function in important ways in the public debate. One of these is the fact that our economy is powered primarily by oil and that this oil will soon be scarce in relation to the growing demand. The second is that our industrialized economy is responsible for changes in the chemical composition of the atmosphere. It is generally recognized that the results may be very negative.

Standard economic teaching assures us that we should not be concerned about the exhaustion of particular natural resources. As they become scarce, prices rise. The rise of prices causes users to find ways of accomplishing more with less. Also less accessible supplies, and others of lower quality are exploited. Further, alternative sources are developed to meet the need. In short the magic of the market will take care of the problem. In the case of oil, technology will find new sources of energy as oil becomes scarce.

Unquestionably, this general pattern has worked well in many cases in the past. But today technologists warn us that the scale of the problem will probably render market-oriented solutions inadequate. Economists in general have more faith in technologists than technologists have in their ability to meet the expectations of the economists. Governments have decided that they need to push markets to do their work before the price signals become effective.

The challenge to technology to solve the problem of sufficient energy to power continuing increase of economic activity is complicated by the heightened concern to reduce pollution and especially to avoid disastrous changes in weather. There is renewed interest in atomic energy, but there is resistance to this because of the long-term risks associated with it. Cars can be powered by electricity and thus emit far less pollution, but the production of this electricity is almost always polluting or otherwise environmentally destructive.

The recognition that economic growth has caused natural disasters and is leading toward far more catastrophic ones has had a different kind of effect. The more enlightened worshippers of growth are now emphasizing the need to modify their understanding of growth. In standard economistic teaching, one kind of growth is as good as another. For this reason, until recently the worshippers of growth took no account of its negative consequences. They have measured growth primarily in terms of market activity and government expenditures. These are typically increased by such things as wars and earthquakes. These costs are added to the gross national product, whereas the losses due to destruction are not subtracted. Similarly the losses caused by changes in weather are not factored in negatively, while extra costs involved in responding to these changes are considered as contributions to growth.

There is still little interest in changing the way growth is measured, but many of our leaders have now recognized that the pollution caused by industrial development threatens the human future. Although some economists still resist any serious change, most politicians now recognize that growth must be in less polluting forms, that, indeed, even the present level of pollution is unsustainable. In other words, the economic growth that they find worthy of their continuing devotion and commitment is less polluting growth.

Any major change in the understanding of the god we humans truly serve is of major historical importance, and this change is beginning to have some effect on what is happening in our world. However, there are serious question, just beginning to be heard, as to whether this change will suffice to save us from the disastrous consequences of our long service of economic growth in general. The change of weather patterns is only one of these consequences, but it alone may be more than human society can handle without collapse. The reduction of the rate of increase of pollution that is following from this modification of the established religion is unlikely to avoid disaster.

We can see that while there are debates about how best to serve the god of economism, there has thus far been no serious public or political debate about this religion as a whole. Nevertheless, at the margins questions are being raised. And during an obvious crisis there is some chance that more radical proposals can be heard. Does the god of economism deserve to be held sacrosanct, above any rational criticism? Is the proper goal now to get our financial system back on track? Must we pour our energies into the continued growth of the productive economy even when we know that this makes very difficult, if not impossible, avoidance of truly terrible disasters?

When Christians accepted economic growth, and all that was required to produce it, as the desirable goal, the reason was that it would benefit people in general and the poor in particular. Growth is still needed in some places to provide truly needed goods and services. But surely the real goal should not be growth as such but human wellbeing. If improving the human condition is the reason for affirming growth, would it not be better to let that be our aim? Economists would still have a role in guiding us in that direction, but insofar as their self-designated task is teaching us how to make the economy grow, they would no longer be our theologians. Their contribution would be integrated with that of historians and philosophers, psychologists and sociologists, and even the theologians of traditional religions.

Today, as we are learning that the separation of human beings from the rest of the world is wrongheaded and disastrous, as we are beginning to affirm such things as the “rights of nature,” we should expand our goal. It should be the wellbeing of the world. It is the world as a whole that we should serve. And that cannot mean only its present wellbeing; it must include also its wellbeing in the future, that is, its sustainable wellbeing. For some, “Gaia” can be the way in which to name this god.

A shift from the service of economic growth to the service of Gaia, with a special concern for its human inhabitants, would have enormous practical consequences. It would require serious thought and research about what makes for authentic human wellbeing. The relation between this and economic growth is far less direct or clear than we have supposed for two hundred years. Sometimes economic growth occurs in tandem with increased human wellbeing. Sometimes, as in the past half century, growth accompanies a decline in human wellbeing, at least in the United States. A recent study of human happiness concluded that the Nigerians are the world’s happiest people despite their poverty.

At present there is just one country that declares itself directed toward the happiness of its people rather than their wealth. That is the Buddhist Kingdom of Bhutan. But surely that is a more rational object of devotion. If growth does not make us happier, why make its production out national goal? We now know, or should know, that the worship of growth makes terrible ecological disasters inevitable. The promise that patient faithfulness in the service of that god will be rewarded by universal prosperity is empty. And now we know also that prosperity as measured by the quantity of consumption has very little to do with happiness or wellbeing.

What then does contribute to wellbeing and happiness? Certainly there are basic physical needs to be met by the economy. But beyond that, the quality of community appears to be vastly more important than the quantity of goods. Feeling secure in the esteem of one’s fellows, having a respected role to play in one’s community, loving and being loved – these are the major contributors to human wellbeing. Having interesting work that is a little challenging through which one can express one’s creativity is also important. Probably the relationship to a beloved and healthy natural context also contributes more than worldly goods that are not really needed. A society could provide all these contributions to human wellbeing at very little cost to the natural environment. Regeneration of a healthy biosphere would be both possible for its own sake and for the sake of its human inhabitants. A truly good society could be a sustainable one.

Unfortunately, those we consider our progressive and ecologically-concerned leaders are still worshipping the wrong god. They are trying to renew economic growth by restoring the financial industry and by finding new sources of energy. These efforts will postpone consideration of the radical alternatives that alone might now save us. Whether there is time to move to a society designed for the wellbeing of all its inhabitants we do not know. Perhaps we have already passed the line of no return in the destruction of our environment. It is hard to be optimistic. Still it is important to begin to worship the true God and to refuse to despair.

I have proposed that a shift of devotion from economic growth to Gaia would be a great gain. But I should tell you honestly that I do not myself worship Gaia. I mention it because the reality of the Earth and the importance of its wellbeing for us are so obvious that there may be a chance of moving tough-minded people in that direction.

For myself, I continue to worship the one whom Jesus called “Abba” or “Papa.” Since I called my father by the name “Papa” I like that translation. “Abba” and “Papa” are ways of rendering sounds that babies make early in life. That Jesus used that name to address God indicates to me that he did not think of God as the omnipotent lord of hosts. The central element in God and our relationship to God is love. God loves all the creatures, and especially all people. God excludes no one. Despite all the evil in the world, the evil for example of worshipping economic growth instead of God, God does not condemn. Those who worship God are called to share in the spirit of forgiveness and inclusion. We are called to care for those who do evil as well as for those who do good.

Whatever we do to one another we do to the “Abba” of Jesus. This is true also of what we do the least of Abba’s other creatures. Abba is in our midst and works in and through us to realize the basileia theou. This is usually translated as “Kingdom of God,” but because Jesus never speaks of “Abba” as a king, I prefer to understand this as the “divine community” or “commonwealth.”

Jesus was very clear that we cannot serve both wealth and Abba. In spite of Jesus’ warning, many of us Christians have been trying to serve both. We have failed, as Jesus knew we would, and the earth is paying a high price for our betrayal. Collectively, we are the prodigal children of Abba, who have been worshipping other gods. As the parable of the prodigal son makes clear, Abba rejoices in our coming back when we finally acknowledge the foolishness of our ways.

The worship of Abba, like the worship of Gaia, leads to the quest for the well being of all creatures, and especially all human ones. Today, in face of the disasters toward which devotion to economic growth is leading us, it calls for a profound, a truly radical, repentance. Would that even a tiny fraction of those who say “Lord, Lord,” would join in fresh thinking about the practical meaning for today’s world of devotion to the Abba of Jesus.


John B. Cobb, Jr., Ph.D. is Professor of Theology Emeritus at the Claremont School of Theology, Claremont, California, and Co-Director of the Center for Process Studies there. His many books currently in print include: Reclaiming the Church (1997); with Herman Daly, For the Common Good; Becoming a Thinking Christian (1993); Sustainability (1992); Can Christ Become Good News Again? (1991); ed. with Christopher Ives, The Emptying God: a Buddhist-Jewish-Christian Conversation (1990); with Charles Birch, The Liberation of Life; and with David Griffin, Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition (1977). He is a retired minister in the United Methodist Church. His email address is [email protected].

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