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.





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