Religion and Economic Life Research Paper

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Investigation of the relation between religion and economic life has long been a central concern of sociological reflection, but the topic has been largely defined through debates on the relationship of religion and capitalism, the latter being the specific and dominant expression of economic life in modernity. The work of Karl Marx on the origins and world historical significance of capitalism, and of Max Weber on the Protestant ethic and the ‘spirit of capitalism’ and the economic ethics of the world religions, inevitably overshadow the discussion of both the history and the contemporary forms of the ambiguous and changing relation between religion and economic life. These classical discussions do not, however, exhaust the topic, which can be divided as follows. In Sect. 1, precapitalist configurations of religion and economic life are reviewed both as regards the sociological, or socioeconomic, study of Western history and, very briefly, the anthropological study of primarily non-Western cultures. In Sect. 2, the emergence of modern capitalism is considered in relation to political economy, Marx and Marxism, and Weber’s account of the elective affinities between religion and economic life. Following this, in Sect. 3, some contrasting reflective religious responses to nineteenth and twentieth century capitalism are outlined. In Sect. 4, contemporary capitalism, now unfettered by ideological confrontation with socialism, is represented as the driving force informing globalization, commodification, and managerialism, and as possessing such comprehensive power as to provoke and sustain a wide range of contrasting religious responses. In the concluding section, possible futures and research options are considered in relation to the capacity of economic life to destroy and recreate ‘nature,’ to reforge the parameters of human self-understanding, and to virtualize the condition of humankind. Economic life would seem increasingly to have become ’life’ itself.

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1. Precapitalist Configurations Of Religion And Economic Life

The relation of religion to economic life is a function of the totality of any given society and its cultures; besides this, the way in which the interfusion of intrinsic, use, and exchange values may be understood depends on the theoretical assumptions of the inquirer. The most relevant founding fathers of sociology, Marx, Weber, and Simmel, sought to develop grand theory. In general terms, sociologists of religion have devised and reinforced relatively homogenous accounts of the modernization process and attendant phenomena of secularization, and they have used particular economic theories in order to inform and justify their approaches. By contrast, under the influence of Marcel Mauss’ account of the gift and using exchange theory (Gregory 1994), anthropologists have generally paid more attention than sociologists to specific human ecologies and reciprocal community economies as originating in ‘stone age economics’ (Sahlins 1974). Some anthropologists have correspondingly defended distinctive and reciprocal human ecologies and cultures against the ravages of economic modernization in ways inadmissable to orthodox sociologists.

Archeological and textual records indicate that ancient Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, and Israel all had contextually relevant, practical financial institutions, but there is little or no trace of analytical effort. The history of Western economic thought is normally traced back to the primarily agrarian world of the fourth and fifth century BC which knew the small trading firm and had a well-defined merchant class. The representative unit of the economy was the household and commodities were exchanged in free markets. In the Graeco-Roman world early ‘economic’ reflection was based on the ‘nomos’ or law and rule of the household ‘oikos,’ and the practical wisdom of household management (oeconomicos) was the source from which early economic conceptions were derived. In the setting of the city-state ( polis), the universal existence of slavery ensured that labor was relatively fixed and immobile. Religion and economic life as part of the cultural superstructure were conditioned by the dependence of ancient Greek and Roman life upon a slave economy; correspondingly, manual labor was regarded as menial. Later, the Classical tradition provided some of the core values of Western culture for two millennia.

Central to Greek thought were the good life and reflection on the nature of virtue: seen thus, economic activity amounted to a mere external factor. Plato and Aristotle were, however, aware of such concepts as the distinction between use value and exchange value, the role of money, and the division of labor. In The Republic, the latter corresponded with the human types of ruler, soldier, and worker, and each class pursued its proper, specialized goals. The ideal rulers, the philosopher kings, would ostensibly be free from vulgarity of wealth. Aristotle, as did Plato, assumed the existence of slavery, but he envisaged a wider participation of citizens and reflected upon the distinction between use and exchange value, favoring value based upon use. The arts of commerce and the practice of usury were condemned, above all the latter, which makes gain out of money itself and not from the natural object. Money was to be understood as a medium of exchange, a unit of account, and a store of value; but in itself money was barren, and usury the oppressive exploitation of misfortune. The classical Christian doctrine of the Trinity, couched in terms of the ‘economy’ of God’s self-revelation of his ‘essential’ being, employed a metaphor with an enduring importance. Later, the evolving theology of the atonement repeatedly exploited certain economic metaphors, not least in the conceptuality of payment of debt and redemption from sin.

Little new was added to Greek economics by Roman thought. The denigration of manual labor was continued by such writers as Cato and Cicero. Pragmatic management of ever larger estates (latifundia) and slaves was required, but the system based upon slavery was first questioned in principle by early Christianity. As with other aspects of life in the Roman Empire (for example, military service), the early Christian Church introduced subversive ideas which underwent rapid accommodation. While debates took place in the early church concerned (e.g.) alms-giving, according to Schumpeter there was little substantial interest in what was to become the dismal science of economics, for ‘the Christian Church did not aim at social reform in any sense other than that of moral reform of individual behavior,’ nor, moreover, ‘did the Church attempt a frontal attack on the existing social system or on any of its more important institutions.’ Indeed, ‘It never promised economic paradise or, for that matter, any paradise this side of the grave’ (Schumpeter 1954, p. 72). This is a view endorsed by Michael Mann, who argues that ‘Christianity was a form of ideological power … . Only by becoming a Christian could one live a truly meaningful life’ and that its ‘power resides originally in the fit between the Christian message and the motivations and needs of the converted’ (Mann 1986, p. 302). The question as to the ‘fit’ or affinity, elective or otherwise, between the impact of individual Christian belief and spirituality upon individual motivation and economic life has remained a matter of central importance above all in the thought of Max Weber. In a more uncompromising way, Marxist analysis implied that the religious ideology that emerged in the theological debates of the patristic theologians of the first four centuries in the West was but a reflex of the material base; this, however, does less than adequate justice to the complexity of the factors involved.

After the fading of the eschatological expectation of the earliest Christian communities and abandonment of the primitive communism, monasticism did, initially and in principle, preserve the radical exemplar of the economic ethic of the Synoptic Gospels (Troeltsch 1931). The religious orders that emerged from the practice of the Desert Fathers provided both the basis for the continuity of a religious culture and an economic model compatible in key respects with the warrior culture of feudalism. Monastic communities and the religious orders came to be centers of rational economic organization in ways that prefigure the business corporation. Monastic organization created wealth which, in turn, led to inner contradictions tackled by attempts at institutional reform—and which later became the target of acquisitive envy during the Protestant Reformation.

At the high point of scholastic theology and in the context of feudalism, a crucial debate took place which connects the early economic ideas of Aristotle (and of his wide philosophical concerns) with the early modern loosening of the constraints upon economic activity that facilitated the growth of international trade, and the justification of such expansion in mercantilism. In the Middle Ages, Europe was characterized by a relatively stable agrarian, largely subsistence economy with slow urban growth. Central to urban productive activity was the guild, a form of association which ensured corporate monopolies, the protection of members, standards of quality, and price stability. The presence of the Church in relation to all social institutions ensured an unparalleled degree of cultural interfusion between religion and economic life. Social status and social function implied definite religious duties in a divinely ordered governance that extended throughout the body politic. Nineteenth century guild socialism attempted to recover something of this integration of meaning into ‘menial’ work.

St Thomas Aquinas, the leading theologian of scholasticism, defended the just price and the prohibition of usury, the core principles of the attempted control by the Church of economic life. Estimating the just price based on moderate gain was a difficult task: the merchant was justified in trading at a price which ensured the life of his household in its accustomed style. Following Aristotle’s account of money as barren, St Thomas condemned usury, the lending of money at interest, arguing that given the true role of money solely as a medium of exchange, it did not exist in the way that a rented house continued to exist when occupied by a tenant. St Thomas’ counter-realist account of money applied more to the ethics of the personal loan rather than to large-scale financial transactions. During the course of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries the increasing complexity of major financial transactions made it increasingly difficult to fit new practices within the constraints of Church law and this was reflected in modifications of St Thomas’ rigorist views.

The prohibition of usury was circumvented through the creation of an international system identified with the Jews that was capable of supporting the accumulation of the major loans required for effective warfare. A similar role was also undertaken for a limited period by the Templars. The pariah status of Jews and their indispensable role in facilitating financial transactions and more widely in commerce came to reinforce negative attitudes which provided a long-enduring basis for anti-Semitism (Stern 1977, Chap. 18). The role of such Jewish thinkers as Marx and Sombart in the theorization of capitalism in the nineteenth century and beyond reinforced the impression that Jews and modern capitalism were intimately and fatefully interrelated (Paul Morris in Roberts 1995, Chap. 5). Freudian psychoanalytic accounts of the power of money as supreme ‘reality principle’ have continued the decoding of economic life. Present-day Islam continues the formal prohibition of the practice of usury, but Islamic banking and investment systems have nonetheless devised ways and means of adapting this restraint to the global economic system (Choudhury and Malik 1992).

In the early modern period, the growth of international trade, the breakdown of comprehensive ideological unity within Christendom following the Reformation, and the destruction of stable communities unified by shared religious values were factors associated with the rise of mercantilism. During the course of the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries, economic analysis gradually gained increasing autonomy, throwing off the remaining constraints of scholasticism. Mercantilism and then physiocrat economic theory developed as distinct schools, which reflected the conditions of their countries of origin, England and France, where trading and rent of land represented prime sources of value, respectively.

2. The Emergence Of Modern Capitalism And Its Critique

The advent of early industrialization and the development of the factory system brought about unprecedented social disruption, breaking many ancestral ties: this process required both explanation and legitimation. In the locus classicus of political economy, The Wealth of Nations (1776), Adam Smith articulated a world view informed by the image of the pin factory in which virtue is equated with profit; his analysis of the rational division of labor and its necessary place in the making of profit grounded in the accumulation of surplus value of labor provided the justification for the removal of remaining constraints. The quasi-providential ‘Invisible Hand’ purportedly provided a spontaneous connection between individual wealth creation and the common good of society. Political economy attained a high status among an ascendent entrepreneurial class as it emancipated economic practice and provided the means for the elimination of embedded social, ethical, and cultural inhibitions, including those traditionally endorsed by religion in pre-industrial agrarian societies.

Marx regarded the intellectual destruction of religion by the eighteenth century Enlightenment as the axiom underpinning the true emancipation of humankind through subsequent social, political, and economic critique: there was, therefore, in principle no basis for any mutual reflective encounter between religion and economic life. Seen in full historical perspective, the theory of alienation adumbrated in the posthumously published Paris Manuscripts of 1844, the theory of society as composed of material basis and ideological superstructure in the German Ideology, the quasi-Hegelian ontology of capitalism expounded in the Grundrisse of 1857–8, the ‘fetishism of commodities’ in volume I of Das Kapital, and the later explorations in Theories of Value were all components in a theoretical scheme to which an adequate theological response has never been forthcoming. The representation of the proletariat in the Communist Manifesto as the class excluded from all classes crystallized the fears of churches already confronted with their loss of influence over a growing urban working class and its anti-clericalism.

The uprooting of agrarian workers from an ancestral status sanctioned by divine order and their regimentation into a disciplined, wage-earning working class differentiated by a new division of labor created rather a dilemma for the churches. On the one hand, the Anglican clergyman Thomas Malthus endorsed population regulation in accordance with economic needs. On the other, the living conditions of the working class were an affront to those sensitive to the historic Christian teaching on wealth and poverty. Such figures as the Scot, Thomas Chalmers, English Christian socialists, and continental religious socialists struggled to find ways to redefine the role of religion under industrialized conditions. An unchurched, brutalized proletariat also, however, represented an inner threat to the role of Christian elites, clerical and intellectual across Europe. In the English religious establishment, serious critical engagement with ‘scientific socialism,’ or, moreover, with political economy was minimal. Methodism was exceptional in that it successfully harnessed religion and industrial work in ways which, according to the Halevy thesis, spared England a Revolution.

Max Weber was fully aware of the threat which Marx’s thought and Marxist socialism created for Liberal Protestant European bourgeois culture and society. According to Weber, the mentalite associated with the capitalist mode of production had historical connections and elective affinities with ‘this-worldly’ Protestant asceticism. It is therefore customary (but not undisputed) to link the nascent ‘spirit of capitalism’ with the much disputed ‘Protestant ethic,’ above all within the Reformed Christian tradition. Weber explored the affinities between the singleminded pursuit of God and an equally focused desire for profit, but he also applied his analysis to the major world religions, classically, for example, to the religion of India (D. Gellner in Roberts 1995, Chap. 1). Marx and Weber agreed on the centrality of acquisitiveness to the bourgeois mind: political economy both explained and justified the alienative emancipation of single-minded acquisitiveness from contextually embedded human needs. Weber used the Latin scholastic ascription of God as supreme good when he analyses this distinctive mind-set and hinted at its wider implications:

In fact the summum bonum of this ethic, the earning of more and more money, combined with strict avoidance of all spontaneous enjoyment of life, is above all completely devoid of any eudaemonistic, not to say hedonistic, admixture. It is thought of so purely as an end in itself, that from the point of view of the happiness of, or utility to, the single individual, it appears entirely transcendental and absolutely irrational. Man is dominated by the making of money, by acquisition as the ultimate purpose of his life. Economic acquisition is no longer subordinated to man as the means for the satisfaction of his material needs (Weber 1930 1976, p. 53).

In Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, R. H. Tawney applied Weber’s insights to seventeenth-century England, and provided an indirect critique of the laissez-faire liberal capitalism which underwent economic and social crisis during the period between the First and Second World Wars. Later, further British explorations of the processual metaphor of the ‘rise’ of capitalism were extended by V. A. Demant to its ‘decline’ and its ‘persistence’ by R. H. Preston. Christian thinkers such as the Anglican William Temple relied upon the emerging Keynesian standpoint in advocating ‘middle axioms’ as the basis for socio-ethical intervention. Following the Second World War, the Keynesian program of partly statemanaged mixed economy (and declining) capitalism underpinned the ideology and implementation of the ‘welfare state’ for 30 years until the ‘triumph of capitalism’ associated with the Reagan–Thatcher era. The re-assertion of neo-classical economics (Friedman 1962) and the ideology of the New Right (Green 1987) stripped away both tacit belief in the ‘hidden hand’ and all ascetic hesitance with regard to hedonism (Roberts 1992). Mainline religions in Anglo-American Western countries were split between localized variants of the ‘option for the poor’ and outright endorsement of the ‘enterprise culture.’ Those who advocated the option for the poor were depicted as naive and ill-informed practitioners of the ‘kindness that kills.’ Conversely, New Right ideologues proclaimed the virtues of greed, the adequacy of the ‘trickle down’ theory of welfare, and the necessity of a docile, ‘flexible’ labor force willing to undergo repeated social deracination.

3. Reflective Religious Critiques Of The Relation Of Religion And Economic Life

The most significant mainline religious response to industrialization and to the growth of capitalism and Marxist socialism is to be found in Roman Catholic social teaching. After lengthy consultation provoked by the changing socioeconomic conditions of the nineteenth century, the papal encyclical Rerum No arum was published in 1891. Aware of the fate of the Catholic Church in Revolutionary France (and then later of the Orthodox Church in Soviet Russia), papal teaching represented the historic struggle between capital and labor as conflict between the competing rights and obligations of owners and of workers, in relation to which the Church was to exercise a moderating role. Both parties were to recognize the mutuality of their rights and obligations, and to relativize these through acknowledgment of the Beatific Vision as the sole and legitimate goal of humankind, thus hopefully resisting the Weberian slippage (under conditions of secularization) from the spiritual worship of God to the practical service of Mammon. For a century the Church developed this doctrine through a series of encyclicals culminating in Pope John-Paul II’s Laborem exercens (On Human Work) (1981). Following the collapse of Marxist socialist states in 1989 90 the changing nature of capitalism was recognized in the encyclical Centesimus Annus (1991). The latter contains a cultural rather than a politico-legal analysis and critique of both socialism and capitalism in which the integrity of the human agent is asserted against the contradictions of a destructive, secularizing modernity in need of comprehensive re-evangelization.

Direct intellectual contact between Christians and Marxist socialists did not take place on a significant scale until after the Second Vatican Council (1962–5) and took the form of Christian–Marxist dialogue during the following decade, but even this discussion of the nature of ‘true humanism’ would seem to have had minimal long-term influence. At the same time ‘political theology’ embodying a synthesis between Protestant theology and various strands of revisionist Marxism also developed in Germany. Insights from political theology were transplanted to Central and Latin America, where, after the Second Vatican Council and the Medellin Bishops’ Conference of 1968, ‘liberation theology’ emerged in the context of rapid industrialization and urbanization, a situation similar in important respects to the conditions the young Marx and Engels had observed in the Rhineland in the 1830s. This theology drew critical perspectives from Marxist analysis of society but side-stepped the atheistic aspects of Marxism, as was to be emphasized in the critical response of the Sacred Congregation in Rome. In Central and Latin America liberation theology’s stress upon the ‘option for the poor’ has tended to exacerbate a divergence between Roman Catholicism and Pentecostal Protestantism, where the latter has performed a role analogous to that of Methodism during the European industrial Revolution (Martin 1990, pp. 27ff.). The most radical theological critique of capitalism through the representation of the imbalanced distribution of wealth in the global economy was a confessional issue (Duchrow 1987).

The Roman Catholic apologist and critic of liberation theology Michael Novak has written of a ‘magic capitalism.’ Humankind has to abandon the naive and infantile ‘dream’ (the ’false consciousness’) of socialism, and to recognize the universal necessity of alienation at the heart of a vital economic reality. Every individual must pass through a rite of passage in which each encounters the ‘empty shrine’ of ‘democratic capitalism’: this is the contemporary ‘dark night of the soul’ (Novak 1982 1991, p. 53). Humankind may then draw upon spirituality, theology, and religious values (above all, those taken from Christianity and Judaism) for the individual strength to survive and compete. Others, like Peter Berger, deny that capitalism has such mythicizing power (Berger 1987). Other accounts of religion and economic life are to be found in Protestant Christian theologies of ‘God’ the Economist. (Meeks 1989).

Recently, the globally influential ‘Third Way’ politics of the center left advocated by such prominent figures as President William Clinton, the British ‘New Labour’ Prime Minister Tony Blair, and the British sociologist Anthony Giddens has been accompanied by a revival in Christian socialism and continuing campaigns to remoralize the individual. This post-Keynesian and postcommunist active capitalism seeks to combine the ideology of entrepreneurial zeal with managerialism and relentless sociocultural ‘modernization.’ The ‘Third Way’ contributes to the increasing salience of the religious factor in economic life, albeit with paradoxical consequences.

4. Contemporary Capitalism: Globalization, Commodification And Managerialism

Contemporary capitalism has both diversified into a plurality of capitalisms, each with its contextually relevant elective cultural affinities between religion and economic life, and has consolidated itself through globalization into an infinitely complex singularity. The representation of globalization as a new paradigm for the sociological interpretation of religion (Robertson 1992) has encouraged investigation of the struggle both between and within religions for power and influence in the context of the asymmetrically distributed economic opportunities and outcomes in an ever more competitive core–periphery world system (Beyer 1995). Moreover, the problematic interface between the global and the local has become the focal point of social identity formation (Castells 1996, Vol. II, Chap. 1). Commodification, the ascription of exchange and monetary value to all aspects of the world and human life, has advanced inexorably with the result that the economic function is central, and natural or intrinsic values become ever more marginal and are reduced to mere market values. Global managerialism (Entemann 1994), mediatized marketing techniques, and the application of ‘neo-Fordist’ organization to mind-work (Drucker 1993) have accelerated the uniformitarian ‘production’ of human beings through rational ‘quality’ education and training. These are now processes replicated within some influential strands of both mainline religion and alternative spiritualities.

Information technology has increased the velocity of circulation of all forms of ‘capital’ to the point that space–time compression is having pervasive cultural consequences in new ‘economies of signs and space’ (Lash and Urry 1994). For those at the heart of a core–periphery economic system, capitalism has become ‘soft’ and infused with transformative cultural power (Thrift 1997). Under these conditions, religious language and theological vocabulary have become resources for the expression of economico-cultural power. Thus, terms like ‘omnipresence,’ ‘omnipotence,’ ‘omniscience,’ and ‘instantaneity’ formerly attributed to the ‘God’ who subsisted at the core of Western consciousness are perhaps the only adequate conceptual categories for such transmutations. Spiritual practices are now recruited into management training in order to assist through the provision of peak experiences the strongest possible integration of individual motivation with corporate goals (Roberts in Roberts 1995, Chap. 9). The religious field may be remapped in relation to these ongoing transformations of economic life. The application of rational-choice theory to religious behavior, a syncretic global marketplace of New Age ‘self-religions’ and spiritual body practices, the managerialization and marketization of mainline Christianity, Christian fundamentalist ‘prosperity theology,’ neo-pagan ‘nature religion,’ and ecological piety are all indications that religion and economic life are in active and sometimes mutually contradictory synergies. Consequently, there is no one ‘spirit of capitalism’ in advanced modernity—but a multiplicity of affinities and collusions in context marked by growing differentiation between ‘religion’ and ‘spirituality.’

5. Conclusion: Future Prospect—Research Options

In the modern world, the last residua of hunter– gatherer societies and subsistence agriculture struggle with globalized economic power: the modern and the postmodern conditions sometimes co-exist in close, yet problematic contiguity (Harvey 1989). From being marginal to the order of things, conscious economic rationality is now for many ‘life’ itself. ‘Economic life’ tends to absorb, transmute, and meld ‘reality’ into seamless economies of virtualized simulacra, a globalized maya, outside of which there would appear to be no fulcrum for a critical ideology or politics of resistance (Baudrillard 1981). In a world in which the virtual exerts hegemony over the residual real the cosmos is silent; yet ambiguous opportunities abound, not least for women seeking freedom from both biological and social construction, as cyborg, prosthetic, and virtual cultures are created and colonized. After the so-called ‘End of History,’ leading sociologists of religion such as Steven Bruce and Bryan Wilson continue to represent religion as subject to terminal attrition by an inevitable process of secularization. Regarded thus, religion can no longer be a resource for the culturally significant critique of total human submission to the dictates of ‘economic life.’ Little would seem left for the researcher into the relation of religion and economic life other than to report on the final stages of religious decline.

Given the comprehensive economization of human life and the deteriorating global condition, the putatively normative pursuit of socio-scientific research on the assumption that it is value free and objectively disengaged is ethically untenable. Moreover, the comprehensive absorption by ‘economic life’ of the physical and biological basis of culture and society—and even of ‘nature’ itself—is ecologically unsustainable. Under conditions of totalizing inclusion in which the integrity of the ecosystem is reduced to a sociological and economic construction, deviant, marginal, and engaged research is essential. It is perhaps through an interdisciplinary and ecologically informed anthropology and in ‘new economics’ that the tools will be found with which to develop research into religion(s) and spiritual practices that may provide a vital but neglected resource for a sustainable human ecology and world survival.


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