When a market is mentioned, buying, selling, and everyday business activities usually come to mind. Economists Rachel M. McCleary and Robert J. Barro have a broader focus in their new book, The Wealth of Religions: The Political Economy of Believing and Belonging.
Building on over a decade of work considering religion and economic growth, the authors approach religion as an economist would study any market characterized by demand and supply. The Wealth of Religions develops insights into economic and social situations around the globe from this approach to faith.
Hoping for an unbiased examination of religion’s impact on business and society, McCleary and Barro don’t mention their own position or belief system. Still, their work clearly indicates that beliefs matter. High levels of formal religious participation do not necessarily promote prosperity, but strong beliefs in heaven and hell seem to. State religions fit some social conditions better than others. Faith and political economy are entangled, not isolated, according to the authors.
It may seem cold and calculating to consider religion in this way, with churches and other groups serving as “suppliers” of the rules, community, and heartfelt experiences of faith “demanded” by individuals. As an evangelical Christian myself, this approach is not very appealing at first glance.
Even so, The Wealth of Religions reflects the application of the standard analytical tools employed by economists that often give new insights into reality. Simple decisions to buy or sell are voluntary and repetitive, as are many religious actions. The same behavior – comparing alternatives, making rational choices – occurs in material and spiritual spheres, thus allowing the economists to apply their tools.
McCleary and Barro embrace this approach, examining Tibetan Buddhism in light of fixed costs and Catholic saint-making practices as a mechanism for enhancing religious fervor, to name only two examples. One of the interesting elements of The Wealth of Religions is this intentional attempt by the authors to cover several different religious groups in diverse historical conditions. In this sense, the authors are continuing and expanding the work of Nobel-laureate economist Gary Becker, who applied the ideas of markets and rational choices to crime, the family, and more.
More importantly, The Wealth of Religions is a valuable reminder of social institutions’ importance. The condition of a nation or group does not simply depend on politics. Individuals express their creativity through a wide range of valuable activities that may be influenced much more by their family, church or synagogue than their government. Under the rule of law, people are able to meet their needs through religious avenues as well as economic opportunities.
Recognizing these realities reveals the dignity of the individual across the numerous human pursuits. When politics can so often seem an intense struggle between bitter enemies, both sides are tempted to demonize and devalue their opponents. Viewing the creative adaptations by several faith groups of their institutions and beliefs presents a more positive and humbling perspective. Understanding that religion is not simply irrational superstition promotes cooperation in a moral culture for social flourishing.
It may be surprising to find these reflections flowing from a 21st-century work of economics, but it is also encouraging.
Interested readers can look through the first chapter of the Wealth of Religions here.