Wednesday, January 29, 2020

On Religion, Cults and the Economy: Book Review of The Wealth of Religions

Autumn Leaves and bits of blue sky

Ever since reading Max Weber’s The Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, I have grown very interested in the link between religion and economy. When I received the offer to review the book The Wealth of Religions: The Political Economy of Believing and Belonging by Rachel M. McCleary and Robert J. Barro published by Princeton University Press, I did not waver: I was more than thrilled to accept. This book is not only filled with a wealth of knowledge and information, but it is also very timely and relevant as religion continues to have significant effects and influence on our mindset, lifestyle, and actions as well as political choices and decisions.

In his influential and ground-breaking book, Max Weber claims that religious beliefs encourage and foster certain characteristics, such as work ethic, honesty, and thrift, which then contribute to economic growth. The driving idea is that if people believe that they can improve their chances of a better afterlife and attain salvation, i.e. that they gain access to heaven instead of ending up in hell, they would embrace moral values more willingly and dedicate themselves more fully to work and career. These behaviors are then increased with the belief that idleness is sin and that God is watching and keeping count and score of each person’s thoughts and actions.

Furthermore, since for many believers, economic progress and success in this life signified and meant that they were blessed by God, it propelled them to further action. Not only did they accumulate wealth on Earth, but they assumed that they would be similarly increasing their spiritual worth in heaven. It became a religious duty to follow one’s vocation and to do one’s daily work and tasks, whether as a provider and regulator of the family, in one’s job or in the vicinity of the home.

The second book that is of great importance and influence for the authors of this work is Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, which looks at the world through an economic lens. This classic book is also in part responsible for the given title here, namely The Wealth of Religions, as religion is used and viewed as an economic item, commodity, and necessity. This also underscores that religion is not so much approached on its beliefs and dogmas, but rather it is analyzed on its effects and influences on wealth and economics.

When analyzing religion, researchers McCleary and Barro break it down into different belief categories: there are those who hold strong and steady religious beliefs, those who score moderately high on religious beliefs, the liminals, who sometimes embrace religion while at other times they do not do so, as well as the nones, who are not necessarily atheists – they may consider themselves spiritual or agnostic - but they do not have a clear association or relationship with a given religion.

In the United States, 70 % define themselves as strong believers, about 10 % never had a religious affiliation while 20% tend to be on the moderate liminal side. In fact, the number of nones is slated to be rising over the next years as most millennials tend to identify as such.

Nonetheless, there are certain trends and tendencies within the moderate groups of believers; for instance, some of them prefer to pick and choose aspects and elements of different religious beliefs, a kind of amalgam or mix and match that is referred to as religion à la carte. This belief system seems closest to my own modus operandi when it comes to religion: I do not fully commit to one religious group but appreciate and value parts of various religions across the board.

For someone like me who finds it difficult to embrace and swallow religious doctrines and ideology wholesale without the opportunity of doubting or questioning them, I find it rather surprising, if not disconcerting that a large majority of people not only embrace religion and its ritual practices but that they do so willingly and unwaveringly by accepting and adopting its imposed restrictions and limitations. This ranges from prescriptions or set rules on lifestyle, be it regarding the regulation of sexual activity, entertainment choices or personal appearance to certain restrictions on food items, such as pork, beef or meat in general to the practice of regularly scheduled prolonged fasting throughout the year.

Moreover, religion may also limit, if not completely ban certain beverages, such as alcohol and coffee. I often ask myself how and how come people accept to forgo such common practices and willingly implement into their daily lives such prohibitions, challenges and sacrifices that come with adhering to a given religion.

The economist Laurence Innacone proposes an interesting theory, which does not merely point to cases or instances of brainwashing, lack of will or simply following the herd or majority, but rather gives a plausible and reasonable explanation of the psychology behind adopting a religion. Surprisingly, if not shockingly, the mechanism and the psychological underpinnings of joining a major world religion and joining a radical sect and cult are not that different from each other. What they all have in common is that religious groups, regardless of ideology, essentially provide services for people to consume.

The stricter the goods, the more distinct the group becomes, and the more closely people shall identify with their own religion. For instance, certain types of clothing and looks, generally referred to as stigmata, make a group distinct and more easily identifiable, such as the Hare Krishna with their unique clothing and hairstyle, the Mormon businessman attire or Muslim women with their veiling. As a result, these religions manage to stand out and unequivocally communicate and profess their religion to others.

This adherence to and acceptance of rules and behaviors are similar to the “club model,” which tends to be inherently exclusive and restrictive; put differently, in order to become a member of and to pertain to a chosen club or religion, one needs to fulfill a number of prerequisites as well as engage and pass certain requirements. In fact, religious groups may endorse and enforce stricter requirements to ensure and ascertain that only a select few and dedicated individuals make the cut and become part of the group, a kind of elite carefully chosen from the crowd that are in turn given the distinction to represent the given religion.

While this process would instill pride and a sense of accomplishment within its chosen and accepted members, it would at the same time effectively discourage any “free riders” or less enthusiastic people from joining the group. In fact, requiring strict adherence and commitment only manage to elevate the religious experience of its members by creating a closer bond among the group and by increasing one’s feeling of separateness in terms of uniqueness, while at the same time providing personal satisfaction and a firm and strong sense of belonging and of being one and in harmony with the group.

Once one has managed to be inside a given group, acceptance by one’s fellow believers becomes paramount and more important than acceptance and approval by outsiders, i.e. those situated outside of the religious group, including family and friends. This was something I noticed in a Mormon church group I once attended at the behest of one of my classmates. People tended to dress and talk similarly, and they used to follow the doctrines of their church very closely, regardless of and immune to what non-affiliated friends or family members thought or may have thought about the issue.

For me, the idea of renouncing coffee seems unbearable and a huge sacrifice, but I was also alarmed about the lack of individuality, diversity, and openness on my first and only experience of their group. A place where everyone dresses, eats and talks the same is not an ideal place in my mind, but it was apparent that the church itself encouraged and fostered not only networking among its members but also dating and marriage within the group itself to enhance and strengthen the bonds with the religion and its doctrines.

Although ideologically different, the process between religious groups and cults and terrorist groups are not that different. Cults tend to physically - and later spiritually - separate individuals from their home and surroundings and undertake what is commonly referred to as brainwashing, a denial and rejection of one’s previous form and existence of life replaced with the full and unquestioning acceptance and adoption of the new lifestyle.

One’s focal point and indeed world have shifted and are now often solely and exclusively focused on the sect or cult itself; the chosen religious group provides and represents shelter, safety and clarity in the member’s mind as well as a promise of social networking, professional and spiritual growth as well as confidence and reassurance. In such cases, one’s religion often turns into an obsession, especially if outside voices and influences, such as access to the Internet, press and other viewpoints are being controlled and manipulated or have been silenced by the religious group.

In a similar vein, the Islamic rebel groups want to attract the most trustworthy and loyal prospective fighters; to identify them while minimizing defections, such radical groups make membership costly and difficult, especially by binding its members to strict religious codes that have no direct bearing on an individual’s fighting abilities. In return, members receive benefits, such as salary, material goods, insurance and medical care as well as support for one’s families, especially after instances of martyrdom.

When we see religion less as a set of philosophical and ideological beliefs but rather as a mixture of political conviction driven by economic need and necessity, we would see more similarities between major world religions and their radical offshoots. In either case, there are certain trade-offs when it comes to religion.

If we see religion as a rational choice, we may weigh the costs and benefits and then reach a decision whether a religion suits us more than others. In other words, we may choose or opt for a religion that brings us the most personal benefits, a kind of conscious utilitarian cost-benefit perspective. This would then work best in places where religion follows the market model and one can freely “shop” according to one’s personal needs and preferences.

However, matters are more complicated due to our surroundings. Some may grow up in families that raise them firmly steeped within a religious background and context while actively attending and participating in religious organizations, such as churches or schools. At the same time, some countries may even have a state religion that exclusively promotes and encourages its own respective brand.

Religious choice and practice are often related to and associated with whether an official state religion has been adopted or not and about 40 % of the world has an official state religion. As a rule, countries with high and low population tend not to have a state religion. When most people in a country belong to one and the same religion, the possibility of adopting it as a state religion is incidentally higher. This is the case in Scandinavian countries, such as Denmark and Sweden as well as in many Muslim countries around the world.

However, having a state religion is not automatically equated with higher religious engagement and participation. For instance, in the previously mentioned Scandinavian countries, religious activities are much lower than in their Muslim counterparts. Part of this is often due to the restrictions and regulations imposed upon the populace. This exists to a less restrictive extent with the existence of Blue Laws in which certain behaviors are discouraged or disallowed, such as the consumption of alcoholic beverages or shop closures during designated times and periods.

In many Muslim countries, in which religion has been tied more closely with political power and control, prohibitions are supported and enforced by the law. That would often lead to a complete ban of perceived secular activities, such as dancing at night clubs or the open and public consumption of alcohol; by reducing the choices and alternatives for entertainment within the populace, the residents will feel obliged to attend religious events and ceremonies.

Since there is a monopoly that is supported and reinforced by the state and there is no open market for religion, hence no other religion to choose from, the available resources and money of the government often go into non-secular education, which benefits that religious brand, hence shaping and modeling future adherents and members.

In the United States, there is no established state religion. Although American colonies used to have their own state religions, this practice was abandoned with the Bill of Rights and the US Constitution. Many Americans are still religious, but the country’s foundations and beliefs have favored the religion market model in which religion, like any other commodity, is allowed to compete with other religions, while education has officially attempted to remain neutral and secular in that regard.

As a result, the US has become an example of religious diversity, in which different sects and factions were given space to compete and to please their members with specific religious brands. Although this may equate religious offerings with selling brands of toothpaste, there is a certain truth to it as religions in the New World tended to be more fluid and flexible compared to more fixed and traditional countries and societies around the world.

According to the secularization hypothesis, an increase in income, education, urbanization, and life expectancy would lead to a decrease in religiousness both on an individual as well as state level. Although there is no clear indication that education reduces religiosity, there is evidence that as a country becomes richer, participation in religious activities as well as engagement in personal prayer tend to decrease.

In fact, economic development has often been tied to religious practices. When societies moved away from agriculture to the greater security of advanced, urbanized economies, religion did not play such an important role in people’s daily lives. This occurred mainly for two reasons. One, with greater economic security, people do not need to turn to supernatural powers and beings for assurance. In agriculture and agricultural societies, farmers are more vulnerable to natural disasters, floods, and droughts that may lead to the destruction of crops and harvests; hence, they would embrace religion for comfort and security. Even in modern times, rural societies tend to be more religious than their urban counterparts.

Secondly, as people lack a diversity of entertainment options, such as cinema, restaurants, night clubs and bars, they would spend their leisure time often in religious programs and activities. In the city, on the other hand, people would often be occupied and choose other preferred forms of spending their time at the expense of religious participation. Also, time becomes a precious commodity in urban areas as there are more commitments, tasks and chores, while in rural societies, people may have a more leisurely-paced lifestyle with fewer options and more time to spare.

Finally, being in a more diverse and active environment in which different nationalities, cultures and religions interact with each other, more flexible and more inclusive viewpoints are often adopted. People in urban settings tend to be more tolerant and accepting of different norms and practices than in rural settings where there is a general lack of opportunity to engage with people from different backgrounds and experiences.

This divide between rural and urban areas may be a decisive factor why the US still embraces religion despite its overall economic advances. It may also be the main reason why the country is segregated and divided on various issues finding itself at an important and decisive crossroad. Part of this may be generational, but another part is related to the growth of ethnic minorities; they are effectively changing the make-up and fabric of the country, and shall, alongside the millennials, affect and influence the outlook of the country.

The Wealth of Religions: The Political Economy of Believing and Belonging by Rachel M. McCleary and Robert J. Barro has been an eye-opening experience for me, while also providing stimulating information and food for thought. There are connections I had not previously seen between economics and religion, but it is important to acknowledge and be aware of this potential link and association. In fact, there are so many more interesting facts and tidbits that I have not been able to discuss here in this review, but I shall follow them up with an article on the history of religion, while trying to shed more light onto the connection between religion, education, and capitalism.