Monthly Archives: November 2013

Conversations with my Father: part 1, religion as economy

One of my philosophy professors once told me that people study philosophy for one of two reasons: they are either trying to prove their father right, or prove their father wrong. I knew when I heard it that I fell into the latter group. My father is annoyingly religious, and I am not. Professor Messick also said that philosophy and religion were very similar and that his adage applied equally to both. I immediately realized that nearly every paper I had written, every forum post, every argument, was a conversation with my father. In my mind he is perhaps a more formidable debater than in reality. I needed to understand religion in order to understand him. A better understanding of myself, society, and the world was incidental.

My conclusion after several years of study is that religion, in general, is a form of control, a comforting lie evolved over many hundreds of years (millions, if you take it from Bellah), based on supernatural promises that cannot be delivered. Karl Marx’ definition is most fitting; “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people.” Marx was an economist as well as a philosopher and saw religion in that light. Many sociologists have picked up where Marx left off by expanding his theory. Rodney Stark and William Sims Bainbridge, explain, in great detail, the economics of religious belief in their book, A Theory of Religion. Understanding religion as a cyclical pattern of dependance and control is often offensive to theists but provides for the most predictive models. Stark and Brainbridge borrow from Travis Hirschi to describe four factors of social investment, the accumulation of social capital: attachment, investment or commitment, involvement, and belief. These terms can overlap but ideally describe four separately measurable concepts.

1. Attachment results from the “positive evaluation of an exchange partner.” When we interact socially with a person or group we are exchanging in some way or another. I welcome you to my home and feel important and popular for having a visitor, you feel honored to have been invited and we both have a good time being engaged socially. This builds social capital between us and a measure of attachment is earned. If we continue this trend, especially with the involvement of others we continue to gain social capital and the level of attachment increases. Now we are good friends, best friends, inseparable, etc… In a religious setting, the minister may tell his congregation that God loves them, that they are free from sins through Jesus’ sacrifice, and that God wants them to be successful. These statements support a positive self-image which is known to improve mood and health, the congregation, in return, pays the minister as well as maintains the church, and an attachment between the minister and/or the organization and the individuals is strengthened.

2. Investment or commitment “are costs expended in the exchange which have not yet yielded their full potential of desired rewards.” We are good friends now and we have invested social capitol in each other, as well as grown in our attachment, but there remains future benefits yet to be realized that could be shared and earned together. Two people romantically involved often have the future benefits of marriage and strong social attachment through family ties in mind. Religious people invest in supernatural compensators, such as immortality, or freedom from the guilt of perceived sins through their investments in religious organizations. The future benefit of a place in heaven is a reward religious people see as worth the cost of the continued investment in the group.

3. Involvement is the amount of “resources that one invests in an exchange.” I may only attend church twice yearly and have little invested in the organization or the social capital achieved from such an investment, yet my attachment to religious concepts, or my belief in the supernatural compensators offered by religion, may be high, despite my lack of regular involvement. Alternatively, I might be highly involved in a relationship with another person or group, allocating mass resources toward the construction of attachment and mutual investment in order to be compensated in the future. Involvement can offered by measured by time or money spent supporting an organization.

4. Belief is “the positive evaluation of an explanation.” An explanation, in this sense, is a statement about how and why certain rewards and costs are earned or incurred. To belong to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, I must adhere to several rules pertaining to my lifestyle, specifically the abjuration of alcohol, because it is forbidden by the church. The reward is inclusion in a group that actively seeks to share in the benefits of association. Now members of the church will patronize my business and my children will grow up with the children of other church members, our social norms will be reinforced and supported through our shared beliefs. The cost for this inclusion is following the rules of the organization, which could mean not participating in activities that have pleasure, satisfaction, or entertainment value.

The combination of these four factors creates a structure of exchanges of rewards and costs that can trap an individual within itself. The religio-socio-canopy, or cage, defines your social norms and becomes a system of control. It may cost you money, as in the Mormon defeat of California’s Prop 8 through the cohersive collection of mass amounts of advertising dollars throughout the community. Or it may cost you political allegiance, the same example applies, although there are many more, such as the purpose of the Christian Coalition or other Christian Dominionist groups. Once you are socially invested in an organization the choice to leave that organization becomes a choice between giving up all your current social rewards or continuing to pay the costs and maintaining your relationships. This makes a group of religious people easier to control and it makes leaving such a group a difficult life choice. The more an individual invests in a group, the more rewards they receive and the more costs they incur, but the level of attachment also grows increasing their social dependency on the group. The cycle reinforces itself and strengthens the organization at the cost of the individual’s freedom and independence. They become emotionally and socially dependent on an organization that uses them to further its own goals.

So what would my father say to all this? He would likely dismiss it as the overanalyzing of armchair atheists bent on the destruction of society and inspired by the evils of secular thinking, or Satan himself. He would likely offer some anecdotal evidence for the existence of the supernatural or argue from the authority of the Bible. These are weak subjective arguments, easily defeated, but is religion completely explained by economic theory? How does economic theory explain altruism or suicide bombing? Is it strong belief that inspires people to be self-sacrificing? How are ascetic religions explained? Can they even be defined the same way that organized religions are defined? If economic theories do completely describe religion, what are the implications of that knowledge? Can a humanist perspective provide purpose for people’s lives, especially those downtrodden or suffering, the group most drawn to fervent belief?

Changing my father’s mind about his faith is not my goal. He wouldn’t be who he is without it. What began as a somewhat unconscious need to prove him wrong has turned into a challenging journey in the pursuit of a concrete understanding of human need and the history of spirituality, a journey that has begun to define me. Although I doubt he’ll ever read this, (and it’s probably better that he doesn’t); Thanks Dad.




Dominionism. Part one.

“If a man is ambitious for power, he can have no better supporters than the poor: They are not worried about their own possessions, since they have none, and whatever will put something into their pockets is right and proper in their eyes.”

Gaius Sallustius Crispus (86-34 BCE) from Jugurthine War 86.3

The very earliest republics quickly figured out that the “great unwashed” were easily roused toward political goals if they were promised material rewards. Ambitious leaders in Sallust’s time took full advantage of the plebian courts, announcing plans to share the spoils of war with volunteer soldiers and redistribute public land to the poor, before discussing his intentions with the senate. Once the word of their promises had spread they could win positions of power with or without the blessing of the consuls or any other elected authority. They used the desperation of the poor as a political tool to gain power and authority. It was during times of economic hardship that both Germany and Yugoslavia fell under the authority of ambitious demagogues. There were many factors leading to the destruction and chaos that followed in each case but fascism seemed an easy answer, the only answer, at the time.

America is facing a similar economic crisis. The government was shut down for 16 days while the nation’s ability to pay its debts was held hostage by those opposed to health-care reform. Manufacturing jobs, which accounted for over 50% of American jobs in the 60s and 70s have been outsourced and replaced by service jobs that, on average, pay much less. I only have a vague understanding of how the deregulation of banks through the repeal of the Glass act allowed Wall Street to intentionally bet against its own investments and walk away smiling. It is enough to know there is a problem and that deregulation is not the answer. Unregulated capitalism will only continue to make the rich richer and poor poorer.

Many of the politicians responsible for the stand-off in the House of Representatives belong to what was a fringe group of ultra right-wing Christian Dominionists. They have used the malaise and dissatisfaction of the American public, in a campaign of deception, to reach for more power. Dominionists make several claims that have no historical merit or are based entirely on a myopic interpretation of the Bible (see part 2). They claim that America was founded as a Christian nation, a claim immediately exposed as false by reading many of the founding father’s writings, or simply by noting that the constitution fails to mention God entirely. They also claim that natural disasters and misfortune are the plight of a nation indulgent in sin. Sins like abortion, acceptance of homosexuality, and inter-racial marriage have all been labeled as the cause of various droughts, tornadoes, and hurricanes. Along with this very mystical worldview there is a natural mistrust of the educated and the informed. The world becomes polarized between “us” and “them,” the saved and the unsaved. Anything that is discordant with their Biblical view is interpreted as the work of evil forces. Opposition is painted as evil and associated with dictatorships, subversive plots, and conspiracy theories. Healthy rational debate becomes impossible when you believe you are fighting against supernatural evil powers. Politics must involve compromise.

Mark my word, if and when these preachers get control of the [Republican] party, and they’re sure trying to do so, it’s going to be a terrible damn problem. Frankly, these people frighten me. Politics and governing demand compromise. But these Christians believe they are acting in the name of God, so they can’t and won’t compromise. I know, I’ve tried to deal with them.

Barry Goldwater, (1909–1998), five-term US Senator, Republican Party nominee for President in 1964*, Maj. Gen., US Air Force Reserves, author of The Conscience of a Conservative.

A pluralist society demands compromise and more than anything an informed public. America is no longer informed and, as illustrated in the shut down, is quickly losing the ability to compromise or even communicate effectively while the lower classes are fooled with mystical promises about the afterlife or an American-Christian utopia. People need to be informed, they need to know they are being preyed upon. They are being used for their numbers and their votes, and most of all what little money or influence they have; used to push an agenda that does not care about them, used like a virus to make more believers and spread the Gospel to anyone that will listen.

Here is a great article about Ted Cruz, an up-and-coming Republican leader whose background is soaked in dominion theory.

Look out for Dominionism Part two, coming soon.