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Press: Using economics to explain religion has limits

07 June 2024


LONG ago, I would get upset that I spent my life writing about something that didn’t exist. I don’t mean God — newspapers have no business with God — but religion itself. Everyone else seemed to know what the word meant, or at least to use it without inquiry or definition. And, obviously, from a news point of view, religion is whatever anyone wearing silly clothes does or says because a holy book tells them. That definition still holds for progressives, except that the word “book” is now pronounced with the same incredulous sneer as the word “holy” — both concepts that belong back in the Dark Ages.

One alternative is to look at religion as a route to God, or to ultimate reality and truth. This is obviously the one preferred by practitioners, but not one that anyone who has had to cover religious politics can take seriously. Do we really suppose that anyone who reaches the top of the hierarchy is closer to God than those lower down?

In any case, neither of these explanations can account for the reasons that people actually attend services, or tithe, or in other ways behave as the irreligious don’t. For that, you need the kind of sociology that watches carefully how people believe and behave — which brings me to Jane Shaw’s review in the Financial Times of The Divine Economy (Princeton University Press), an economist’s attempt to examine religion.

Shaw writes: “The book opens in Accra, Ghana, with the story of a 24-year-old woman, whom the author calls Grace, who earns a $1.50 a day selling iced water to people at traffic lights. She tithes 10 per cent of that income, along with other donations, to her Protestant church, even though that means she cannot pay for some medical treatments for her aunt, with whom she lives in a tiny house in a slum neighbourhood. Understanding why Grace does this becomes even more pressing when we learn that her pastor is ostentatiously wealthy: he drives a Mercedes and ‘wears a belt with a big round buckle decorated with a dollar sign’. . .

“The author suggests that Grace is hoping to meet at church a respectable marital candidate who will have the imprimatur of her pastor and the church community. This is far more than a dating app could offer. Church encourages a husband to ‘turn up sober, in a clean suit, on a Sunday morning, knowing that many eyes will be watching to see whether he is treating his wife well’.”

This, I think, is extremely shrewd. There are many ways for people to spend money that they can’t afford to make themselves feel better. A man who gives it to a preacher is probably less gullible and more reliable than one who spends it on wine or other women.

Paul Seabright, the author of the book, describes belief “rather disarmingly as a ‘marketing disadvantage’, a particular problem in the scientific age. And, it turns out, people don’t join religious movements because of the theology,” Shaw writes.

That has to be wrong. Even though people don’t join movements because of the propositional content of the theology, they most certainly do because of the social valence. To profess some beliefs positions you either as respectable or as a heretic, and both positions have their advantages. In fact, the beliefs generally regarded as wacko can function as what biologists call a “costly signal”: they tell other believers that you can be trusted, because you have made sacrifices to be one of them.


THE GUARDIAN had an article by Jackie Bailey, an Australian “ordained interfaith minister”, which delineated exactly the kind of spirituality which carries no social cost (at least among Guardian readers): “I don’t want to extract practices from religious traditions to commoditise them and make myself feel good about myself,” she writes, and then, wonderfully, continues: “I want a spirituality that draws on the wisdom and practices of thousands of years and places these learnings in a modern ethical framework that I believe in” — obviously something completely different.

There is, in fact, a sweet spot where the embrace of certain beliefs marks you as a dangerous weirdo in the eyes of the mainstream media, but signals that you are a regular guy among the real people you live with. You might call it the taxi-driver zone, the place where everything “stands to reason”, and Donald Trump is a champion of the little people.


AND so Elle Hardy had a long piece on UnHerd about the far-Right ring of American Roman Catholicism, and its hatred of Pope Francis. This captures exactly the way in which heresy can make a message more attractive, and apparently more trustworthy: “Mother Miriam, a Jewish-turned-evangelical-turned-Catholic convert who wears a full nun’s habit, claims to have been kicked out of two dioceses, and had her vows cancelled by one bishop and denied by three others. Yet this has only increased the size of her pulpit among a reactionary coalition of defrocked.” But what else would you expect?

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