Thursday, October 8, 2009

Book Club - God is Back #1

In the introduction to their book, God is Back, Micklethwait and Wooldridge set up a number of arguments of interest to us. Instead of summarizing them all here, let me highlight one of their claims that they will attempt to establish during the course of the book.

They explore the distinction between what they call the American and European views of the relationship between religion and modernity. They say that whereas Europeans (and non-European intellectuals) tend to view modernity as undermining religion, Americans have believed that religion can thrive in the face of modernity. With this in mind, they notice a trend:
It now seems that the American model is spreading around the world: religion and modernity are going hand in hand... The very things that were supposed to destroy religion--democracy and markets, technology and reason--are combining to make it stronger. (P. 12)
More specifically:
The biggest problem for the prophets of secularization is that the surge of religion is being driven by the same two things that have driven the success of market capitalism: competition and choice. (P. 21)
Here's the big question for us to chew on: How might competition and choice, as they increase, actually lead to a surge in religion?

One simple explanation is that religious goods are like other goods in an important way: competition breeds innovation, which increases the choice and quality of goods available in the market, and leads to an increase in amount of goods consumed by market participants.

But this answer needs more. Innovations are also occurring in the markets of substitutes for religion, so how is religion keeping up? Will religion eventually reach a saturation point once previously closed countries have been open a sufficiently long time? Does an increased awareness of religious choice imply that religious groups are catering to satisfying what people want rather than trying to convince people to change what they value and therefore imply less staying power as people religious tastes change?

So back to the big question: If the authors are correct that God has surged back into people's lives, can we attribute any credit to increased competition and choice, and if so, how much?


  1. Michael Chan (14741172)October 8, 2009 at 6:55 PM

    A big reason behind the argument that religion helps strengthen a nation's economy is the moral establishment that certain religions bring. On page 8, the authors mention Zhao Xiao, who is a Chinese government economist. He wrote a popular essay, "Market Economies with Churches and Market Economies without Churches", stating that the market economy in China requires a "moral underpinning". Even if a person does not believe in say, Christianity, he or she has to admit that the moral teachings that stem from Christianity are universally valued by humans. The market economy works so well that it causes people "to lie and injure others", says Zhao. Therefore, it is natural to prevent those sins and temptations from happening by introducing certain moral teachings that can be find in The Bible or other religious texts.

    The authors of God Is Back call this moral aspect "Spiritual Wealth" on page 9, and that's exactly how I picture it in economic terms. You have the materialistic wealth that drives capitalism and the market economy, and sometimes if control can't be maintained, Greed takes over. The idea of having spiritual wealth to help keep you in line is a good deterrent when you have a capitalist society tell its people that "sky's the limit".

    Greed, considered one of the deadly sins, was also evident in one of the lectures where McBride explained the parable of The Rich Young Man. The man could not part with his valuable possessions, showing that all he had was materialistic wealth and no grasp on spiritual wealth.

  2. Religion has become a common good in our society, and globalization has contributed to the spread of religions to different parts of the world. With the advent of technology creating shorter distances between countries, as well as people, there is a more equal opportunity for competition and choices.

    When the author opens up the book with descriptions of high class society in Shanghai and their binding with religion, he is introducing the choices people are now able to make towards religion. Shanghai(China) is still in the process of development and progress, and along with this new big eastern Asian market, religion has also become more prominent. This is because that along with the market expansion, competition became more vigorous but choices also multiplied.

    Religion, like many other goods in the market, has become an asset that people possess by choice. With modernization producing more goods, pluralism also emerged- producing more options for religions. The freedom of choosing and comparing allowed God to surge back into people's lives.

    Eunice Lin

  3. Raquel Rosales (17191664)October 8, 2009 at 11:10 PM

    The creation of the First Amendment was based on the idea that membership in a church was voluntary; giving people a choice as to what sort of religion or non-religion they wanted to believe in.

    Since they had the choice of whether or not to associate themselves to a religion they are contributing to pluralism because they are making decisions about their relationship with God.

    Once one has chosen a religion or non-religion they contribute to different pluralists groups, thus fueling compeition. For example: a religious group may believe that they have resources such as a strong faith and loyalty to a religion thus they are rewarded with wealth, status, good health, etc. therefore, they view all these assets as resources in which they can use to persuade and influence others to believe what they believe in.
    On the other hand, the non-religious groups believe that since they are not associated to any supernatural being that they have nothing to lose and that they live a life that is free of guilt, where there is no higher authority controlling them; these groups view their free-will as resources as well, and they will use their ideas to persuade and influence others into what they believe.
    Both groups are now fueling compeition because they are both trying to influence other people, with the notion that people have a choice, to join their belief systems.

    Pluralism is a continuous expansion because there are an infinite number of beliefs and opinions among people; therefore with all these differing thoughts and opinions a multitude of religions and non-religions are being created thus increasing the realm of choices for those that have not decided on a religion or non-religion. Pluralism increases the number of choices that one can decide upon thus allowing God to surge back into one's life.

  4. Michael, Eunice, and Raquel,

    Thanks for the comments. I think this connection between religion and economics is a tricky one, but it is one that has been the topic of discussion for a long time. Perhaps the most well known argument is from Max Weber who, writing in the early 20th century argued that certain aspects of Protestantism, namely the work ethic and values associated with Calvin and Luther, fostered the development of early Capitalism. Ideas of hard work and saving combined with the notion that worldly success may reflect the good graces of God meant that the pursuit of success in worldly endeavors was OK even though greed was not.

    We cannot use our tools to directly comment on Weber's theory, however, we can certainly say that religious groups and religion in general may help foster behaviors that can be rewarded in the marketplace, such as certain types of cooperation, saving, etc. This may seem contrary to some people's perceptions that religion and the secular marketplace are at odds.

  5. What I think I found most intruiging in the ontroduction of "God is Back" is that "America is exporting its version of religion" (26). It makes me wonder what economic functions are at play that have made religous goods from America, whether it be physical goods such as "The Purpose Drvien Life" or a credence good such as weekly small group Bible studies, become exported goods. Would the simple explination of supply and demond help to explain this? In other words is it the demond for these goods that has led to them becoming exports? Or is it Americas strong Evangelical church that led to this demand for American verisions of religious goods. What factors might change the demand for these American religious goods that would lead to more substitutes being consumed?


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