Soul traders: the ‘faithonomics’ of religion

What price eternal life? Matthew Reisz meets a scholar who uses economics to explain our belief in the hereafter

October 27, 2016
Shopping district superimposed over head of Buddha
Source: Getty/Alamy montage

Why is a Cistercian monastery like a mobile McDonald’s franchise?

The “products” they offer – eternal salvation versus hamburgers – may sound rather different, but in Faithonomics: Religion and the Free Market, Torkel Brekke suggests that this difference can largely be ignored. The introduction of “indulgences”, by which people paid to cut down the amount of time they spent in purgatory, “was the best business idea in the Western world between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries”, he believes, noting that it greatly enriched the Catholic Church.

It also raised some classic questions of business strategy: “Imagine that salvation could be tailor-made and sold to individual customers at the highest price they were willing and able to pay. Any sensible business firm will try to sell its goods at the highest profit possible and would love to know the exact demand curve of each customer. If you have been very naughty and happen to have a high income, in finance say, we can offer salvation for $10,000. If you are a professor with a modest income, like me, and have behaved impeccably, the price is far more reasonable.” Accordingly, in parts of Europe where “priests had very good knowledge of local communities”, the Church was able to create “systems of tier-pricing, according to which rich people would pay a high price and poor people would pay far less”.

Those offering salvation, as Brekke sees it, could be regarded as operating in a kind of franchise relationship with “the Church and its central management in Rome”. Since there had always been parish priests, the growth of the Augustinians, Benedictines, Cistercians and other monastic orders “introduced a new kind of competition between two different kinds of suppliers”, rather as if “the company headquarters of McDonald’s decided that their franchise stores did not work hard enough to sell burgers and came up with the idea of mobile McDonald’s vans manned by particularly committed and highly trained staff who could roam around at will”.

Anyone who has read Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner’s 2005 bestseller Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything and its sequels will recognise the flavour of such writing. This too espouses the assumption that economics offers a master explanatory key to all kinds of human behaviour. The illustration of that assumption through ingenious and wildly counterintuitive analogies has sometimes been dismissed as clever-clever or merely perverse. Yet Brekke claims that his economic perspective can help revive a “public debate about religion” which is “becoming more ill-informed and more divisive every day”. In particular, he believes that it can illuminate issues of church and state, and how we should address extremism.

Brekke is now professor in the history of religion at the University of Oslo, but as his book tells us, he “grew up in a Communist home…When I was eight, my parents sent me to a guerrilla cell for kids”. There, he was shown Maoist films and taught the fire-fighting skills that might be needed during a period of revolutionary activity (other children were assigned roles as police or paramedics). But since he “did not particularly enjoy learning Marxist ideology and guerrilla tactics” or “see much point in creating a revolution”, he decided to rebel at the age of 12 and join a Catholic choir. For him and most of the other boys in the choir, factors such as the incense, the music and the chance to visit Rome were more significant than deep religious conviction. It is a central argument of Brekke’s book that people have for centuries “shopped around” for their religious identities, where alternatives were available to them, even in societies where we might believe religious identity was ascribed at birth.

After studying Indian languages for his first degree, Brekke used his Sanskrit and Pali to look at early Buddhist texts. His 2002 book Religious Motivation and the Origins of Buddhism: A Social-Psychology Investigation of the Origins of a World examines “the psychology of conversion” that emerges from such sources. He also travelled in South Asia on several occasions.

Was this, as so often when Westerners engage intensely with Eastern religions, partly a form of “spiritual quest”?

Brekke cautiously counters that hypothesis, although he adds that “I’ve always thought at some point I would meet someone who could explain religion in a way that really resonated with me at a more personal level…who could really open something I don’t understand at present”.

In 1996, he decided to switch from “ancient stuff” and turn to more recent history, so he embarked upon a DPhil at the University of Oxford looking at the administrative practices the British introduced into India, and their impact on religious identities. He went on to write a series of books about South Asian religions, as well as Fundamentalism: Prophecy and Protest in an Age of Globalization in 2012. He has even written a novel, whose Norwegian title translates as The Loser’s Testament, about the Reformation in Scandinavia. His latest project, following Faithonomics, is a study of attitudes to finance among Muslims living in Nordic countries. “They are so happy to be asked about something other than terrorism and other bad things!” he notes.

At different times, Brekke has used detailed linguistic analysis, historical methods, archival research, focus groups and surveys to illuminate religion from many different angles. The final strand in his unlikely academic trajectory was his decision, when in his mid-thirties and already a professor, to go back to college and take a further undergraduate degree in economics.

He admits that the fact that he has “mixed everything when it comes to method” would be seen by some as “a weakness”. Scholars adopting such a broad interdisciplinary toolkit are not always welcome in the academy, he reflects, since there is “little dialogue between humanities and quantitative social science disciplines” and “institutions are still really quite divided”. This means there is a danger of “being placed in the irrelevant category” even if you don’t attract overt hostility.

Torkel Brekke
Torkel Brekke, professor in the history of religion at the University of Oslo

But Brekke is undeterred. For his new book, he has enthusiastically and provocatively adopted an economic perspective on religion. He admits it is “simply one perspective”, and even that it is “a relatively narrow perspective, because it’s not interested in theology or the contents of religion. I am shutting many other perspectives out. But I say: let’s for a moment use these glasses and then we can go back to the important things about doctrine, ethics and so on. Let’s see for a moment if we can understand some of the challenges from this perspective. It’s an invitation.”

For his part, Brekke writes that he “like[s] the thought of having a church in my neighbourhood”, even though he is not “an avid church-goer or a convinced Lutheran”. As he sees it, the Church of Norway offers him “private goods”, such as life-cycle rituals, that he is willing to pay for. So he regards himself as standing in a sort of commercial relationship with it – or at least he would do if the Church of Norway were not state-funded. If that arrangement were suddenly to end, he would gladly donate to it the roughly €250 a year that currently comes out of his taxes.

He worries that the national “folk churches” of Scandinavia operate in some ways like monopolies – while in Germany, the Catholic and Evangelical Protestant churches split the market in a duopoly. Economists tend not to like monopolies, not least because they often get sluggish and complacent, and Brekke is no exception: “We all agree participation in religion is on the decline, particularly in Europe. The [explanation] from the economic perspective would be that the supply is so bad. The organisations supplying religion…haven’t been very good at tuning into what people want, so there’s a latent demand which is unmet by the supply.”

Faithonomics amplifies this argument by considering “seven sins of government intervention”, which are familiar to economists from non-religious contexts. As an example of what is known as “rent-seeking”, Brekke cites the way that “agitation on the part of religious parties has been a major illiberal force” in Israel, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. To suggest that state support for a single religion can lead to “a tendency to discriminate against immigrant religion”, he quotes research comparing Swiss cantons, which indicates “a clear relationship between government support of Christianity and negative attitudes to Muslims”.

As for evidence that freer markets work better, the book refers to a study showing that the Church of Sweden offers “many and varied” kinds of Lutheran services in areas where there is competition from independent “free churches”, while sticking to “few and traditional” services elsewhere. Furthermore, and “contrary to the intuitions of people who fear increasing diversity”, there is scholarship to show that “a high degree of religious diversity is associated with less terrorism”.

“I really feel that a freer religious market creates less discontent, less reasons for people to oppose the state, use violence and so on,” Brekke says.

So what are the lessons we can take away from all this? We should support international campaigns for religious freedom, Brekke believes, even though these are sometimes dismissed as an attempt by the West – and particularly American Protestants – to impose its own views on the rest of the world. Far more important, however, is the need to rethink relations between church and state.

What Brekke would like to see is a much freer market in religion where “states took more distance [from religion] and tried to create a level playing field [between different religions and denominations]…I am making the argument because the statistics show that state involvement in religion and state restrictions across the globe are increasing year by year.”

He realises his suggestion is “radical and perhaps unrealistic”. But since he is convinced these trends are deplorable, he “wanted to present one kind of solution, even if I don’t particularly expect to end up there. I expect both politicians and religious leaders to [respond to] the arguments and [I want to] put some of the burden of proof on them. I am just making a really clear argument and putting it out there.”

The policy implications of Brekke’s book are obviously controversial. But isn’t there also something about his economic approach to religion that in itself tends to offend people – or at least rub them up the wrong way?

He flatly denies that there is anything fundamentally disrespectful or “immoral” about it, or that it is “a sell-out to market forces or a neoliberal ideology”. Although his book obviously doesn’t discuss religion on its own terms, that is equally true of other social scientific approaches, he argues. And most of these, inspired by the ideas of Freud, Marx or Durkheim, are far more overly hostile to religion than he is.

As for why some people find his perspective upsetting, Brekke believes “there are many different reasons. One is a basic tendency for people to [want to] have certain fields of their lives protected against what they see as a degrading way of talking about and analysing them. A parallel might be the area of intimate relationships [sometimes discussed by economists largely in terms of supply and demand], which people feel they should be allowed to keep to themselves.”

Yet equally significant, in Brekke’s view, is a sort of academic fight over territory. This leads many of his fellow scholars to see what he is doing as “an attempt by economics to colonise all other fields of human behaviour and social life. It’s a sort of war between different disciplines, and [the others] regret the fact that economics has become so dominant.”

Torkel Brekke’s Faithonomics: Religion and the Free Market was recently published by Hurst.

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