Faithonomics: Religion and the free market
Church Times Bookshop £18
TORKEL BREKKE has had a previous life in religious studies, an omnibus area notoriously lacking in theoretical heft. He has, however, been born again as an economist equipped with a theory as crude as it seeks to be comprehensive. This theory places everything, faith included, under the aegis of buying and selling, producing and consuming. Religions are faith providers, and we are faith consumers within the cost/benefit nexus.
It is all so clear, so clean, so obvious, and so innovative, and people have been obliging enough to describe it as revolutionary. It is nothing of the kind. Although Brekke makes glancing references to rational-choice theorists and even to Steve Bruce’s devastating critique of them, you would have to be a careful and knowledgeable reader to realise this is the approach of Rodney Stark et al., warmed up for resale after two decades on the market.
Economics or, rather, economism of a crude variety, ignoring our embedded identities, has a habit of jettisoning its history and its proper location in political economy. That indifference to history is particularly glaring in this book’s treatment of secularisation theory. It is treated as given over to the notion of religious decline until Stark showed demand for religious products was steady and dependent on the supply side.
In fact, the radical critique of secularisation dates from precisely the years that Brekke identifies as dominated by notions of decline in demand, and Stark was a latecomer. Just as Brekke repackages Stark, so Stark drew on a critique already long established, but embellished by the rational-choice approach now embraced by Brekke. The same old tunes are regularly regurgitated on the academic merry-go-round.
Something of Brekke’s approach comes across in his comparison of faith consumption with getting a haircut. But rather more comes across in his second chapter, where he asks whether we should pay priests to be lazy. This is a completely incoherent normative and empirical jumble.
We can first lay to rest the false premise that priests are lazy, when even those attached to established confessions work extraordinarily hard. But it is more important to observe that Brekke seems to be making the normative case for market deregulation. This he does at a moment when that deregulation is largely accomplished in the West, and where, if it is incomplete, there are agreed settlements with long historical roots in communal practice.
Worse, Brekke over-simplifies the different kinds of pluralism within which that deregulation is worked out. Perhaps it might be worth while asking whether “we” should pay academics to be lazy in their public corporations and regurgitate, generation by generation, their rediscovered revisions and the revolutionary theses of forgotten ancestors.
The Revd Dr David Martin is Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the London School of Economics.