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Yes, Economics is Religious. This is Not a Bad Thing.

September 26, 2017

Program Director Brian Dijkema responds to a recent article by John Rapley and asks: Why can't economics be more like religion?

The Guardian recently published an article by John Rapley asserting that economics has become the new established religion of the west. It's a fascinating article, less for what it says (it gets a lot both right and wrong) but for what it does not explore: the possibility that economics might necessarily be religious, that this might be a good thing, and that the author's view of religion is itself not an accurate representation of religion. The question arising becomes not a matter of asserting if economics is religious, but what would good religious economics look like? Or, what type of religious economics should we want?

What's most interesting about his analysis is what it says about religion, not economics. Rapley's view of religion—the view he offers to lend opprobrium to economics—is a negative one. It is a somewhat reheated version of the type of thing that you'd find in Bertrand Russell's Why I am not a Christian. Religion is irrational, intent on control and power, and serves as a moral straightjacket that prevents people from living the lives they were meant to live. But this is not what religion is.

Religious belief is not, as Rapley would have it, a purely irrational thing "reflecting sentimental predisposition" in the face of "scientific assessment." As people such as Richard Bauckham, N.T. Wright, and many others have shown, religion (or at least Christianity) is a complex expression of faith operating within empirical reality. And, as this fascinating discussion from Ross Douthat on economist Tyler Cowen's evaluation of belief in God shows, believers are constantly evaluating and weighing evidence of all sorts of types. They do so within particular historical communities, with much more humility and doubt than most people think.

In other words, it's not the fact of economics being like religion that is the problem. The problem is economics is not religious enough. Religion marked by hubris is bad religion, just as economics marked by over-weaning pride is bad economics. Which raises the question: would a better description of religion also make the "economics as religion" analogy more fruitful? I think it would.

Economics, like any field of study, is religion. All of life is religion at some point. As economist Alex Tabarrok points out, even something as mundane as going to the bathroom is influenced by religion. Rapley's right to point out that economics works from a distinct view of humanity, and insofar as it tries to draw conclusions based on partial evidence, it requires a great deal of central ingredient of religion: faith. What Rapley really wants is an economics that asks questions in a similar manner that religion does. But his understanding of religion gets in the way:

Economists arguably do their best work when they take the stories we have given them, and advise us on how we can help them to come true. Such agnosticism demands a humility that was lacking in economic orthodoxy in recent years. Nevertheless, economists don't have to abandon their traditions if they are to overcome the failings of a narrative that has been rejected. Rather they can look within their own history to find a method that avoids the evangelical certainty of orthodoxy.

Note the divide here: agnosticism good, orthodoxy and evangelical certainty bad. I'm all for humility in science—and especially in social science. And I endorse Rapley's call for economists to "explore their assumptions and data by conducting social, demographic and anthropological work, and…to work more closely with other disciplines." But as an argument and an analogy, Rapley's failure to properly understand religion is enough to turn the reader off of both economics and religion.

This is a shame because thinking about economics from religious terms can help economics, and vice-versa. Take, for instance, the concept of desire. Adam Smith spoke of insatiability of human desire (we always want more, better, faster!) as fundamental to economic life and the dynamism of markets. But how do we make sound judgement about the goodness of these desires – and the actions we take to fulfill them – in a modern liberal era that is intentionally unwilling to do so? Many economists believe that is not part of their job, and Rapley's description of economists as technical advisers who help us make our "stories come true" is oddly in line with that. But economists aren't just technocrats. As Rapley notes, they make assumptions about human nature all the time. The question is, how do we evaluate the strength of those assumptions?

And this shows how religion can serve economics. Religion offers a vision of human life which provides contestable but solid ground on which to make judgments about our economic life. Christianity, for one, acknowledges the central role of desire in human life—"our heart is restless" says Augustine—and the need for something, someone, whose infinity can serve as a match for our insatiability—"until it finds its rest in you." This is the starting point by which Christianity develops a broader understanding of the proper ordering of desires, and a call to make judgements, in charity, about all of our desires, including those that drive our economy.

The favour can be returned. Economics can, in turn, help us better understand the gap between our supposed desires and our actions. While our desires may be insatiable, we are still mortal. We must make choices about how we spend our mortal time on earth, and those choices reveal more about our desires than anything else. Economics, which involves the evaluation of choices made about scarce resources, can be an invaluable tool in conducting what my colleague, Jamie Smith, calls a liturgical audit of our lives and the actions of institutions that make up our society. You say you care about the poor? How much of your scarce time and money do the poor see? You say you care about the environment, or your body? How much do you participate in a throw-away culture?

The words of Jesus when he says "where your treasure is, there your heart is also" is a recognition that economics and our deepest longings are intimately connected. Perhaps Rapley should have titled his piece: Why can't economics be more like religion?

Topics: Economics, Work