That which has been is what will be,
That which is done is what will be done,
And there is nothing new under the sun.
Ecclesiastes 1:9, NKJV
In a recent post for Bloomberg.com, Mark Buchanan asks, “Is Economics a Science or a Religion?” It is a good question, but Buchanan is a bit late to the game. He writes that, “The idea of economics as a religion harks back to at least 2001, when economist Robert Nelson published a book on the subject.” Underscore “at least“! That may be the first time an economist asked that question, but academic theologians began asking that question a lot earlier.
I am not talking about theologians saying economic things. I am talking about theologians making the particular argument that Buchanan makes: value judgments precede, and thus shape, economic analysis. For instance, when economists argue against labor unions, they demonstrate how unions can keep companies from innovating, but they ignore other benefits of unions, such as limiting the power of corporations are involving people in the democratic process.
This is not a new idea in what we now call the “theology of economy.” My dissertation advisor, M. Douglas Meeks, argued in his 1989 book God the Economist that the modern market economy requires a definition of property that can only be sustained by a deistic theology. This idea was echoed later by John Milbank, a foundational thinker in the Radical Orthodoxy movement (which, it is worth noting, inadvertently helped restart distributism).
But perhaps the earliest and, in my opinion, most cogent analysis of economics as a religion comes from Sergei Bulgakov, the son of a priest who became a political radical, only to become disillusioned with Marxism, return to the faith, and emerge as one of the most significant modern theologians in the Orthodox Church. He argued that economics is not a pure science but a kind of hybrid. This is because economics deals with people, and people resist conforming to predictions scrawled on pieces of paper, no matter how refined the math. Society is a living organism, and you cannot dissect it without killing it first. Thus in the case of Marxism, Bulgakov observed that we are actually dealing with a mythos pretending to be a science. Everything for Marx depends upon an eschatology that has no real empirical basis, yet whole political systems have been built upon that blind faith. For various reasons, Bulgakov wrote less about capitalism (which he thought made people, selfish, lazy, and stupid), but his basic point holds, irrespective of the system. (I briefly apply Bulgakov’s analysis to capitalism here.) It is impossible for economics not to appeal to some kind of transcendent ideal. When economists argue for a particular course of action, they presume something is good. Bulgakov suggested that theologians can help economists be honest about what they take that good to be. After all, what is a theologian if not an advocate for the Good?
I could go on about other thinkers, but I think I have made my point, which not that Buchanan is wrong. He is right, more or less. I would not say that economics is a religion but that it functions like a religion, and this is why economics needs theology. So I am glad that economists are beginning to realize, on some level, what we academic theologians have been saying for years.
A few books on theology and economics: