Interesting piece in The New Yorker (April), a magazine of which I know little other than I recognise its title, but of which recently I am quite impressed with the quality of its writing, having now read two of its books reviews on the net.
A recent one caught my attention. It is a review of Daniel C. Dennett’s new book, ‘Breaking the Spell’, by Allen Orr (‘The God Project: what the science of religion can’t prove’).
“Finally, Dennett describes a recent theory according to which the spread of religions reflects the action not of Charles Darwin’s natural selection but of Adam Smith’s invisible hand. As the rational-choice theorists Rodney Stark and Roger Finke argued in their book “Acts of Faith” (2000), human beings, when confronted with imperfect information, behave in a way that is generally rational. So if you believe (rightly or wrongly) that there is a God, it can be perfectly rational for you to engage in exchange with this well-heeled partner (even if the commodity you most desire can be delivered only post mortem). Stark and Finke are not, then, so much concerned with why people believe in God as with how believers act and why religious institutions spread. Their key claim is that churches mediate the complex exchanges between mortals and their gods. People go to church, in other words, for much the same reason they hire a real-estate agent: when something important is at stake in a complex transaction, it pays to get professional help.
This theory may explain, as a corollary, why a larger percentage of Americans attend church than do, say, Western Europeans. The reason, according to Stark and Finke, is that Americans enjoy a free market in religion. While we have, more than a thousand denominations Europeans often have centrally planned state religions that put barriers in the way of competition and provide little in the way of diverse religious products. “The American religious economy,” Stark and Finke conclude, “surpasses Adam Smith’s wildest dreams about the creative forces of a free market.”
Adam Smith wrote a longish section on education by religious agencies in ‘Wealth of Nations’, which is generally, though understandably, leapt over by impatient economists brought-up on the arguments of functions. More is the pity, because it explains something about Adam Smith’s views towards religious institutions in 18th century Scotland and the rest of Europe, at a time when Europe was not too far from where Islam is today in the societies that it dominates.
Religious institutions, their practices and consequences, were (and still are) one of the determining factors in the nature and cause of the wealth of nations. If a dominant religious doctrine hinders, inhibits or directly opposes those factors that interest economists in economic growth, it should be of more than passing interest before they make policy recommendations that ignore those very same influences.
However, my current focus is on the last sentence of the extract from Allen Orr’s review:
“The American religious economy,” Stark and Finke conclude, “surpasses Adam Smith’s wildest dreams about the creative forces of a free market.”
What were ‘Adam Smith’s wildest dreams’? Not surprisingly, Smith was sceptical about state sponsored monopolies in religion, for all the usual reasons.
‘The interested an active zeal of religious teachers can be dangerous and troublesome only where there is, either but one sect tolerated in the society, or where the whole of a large society is divided into two or three great sects; the teachers of each acting by concert, and under regular discipline and subordination. But that zeal must be altogether innocent where the society is divided into two or three hundred, or perhaps into as many thousand small sects, of which no one could be considerable enough to disturb the publick tranquillity. The teachers of each sect, seeing themselves surrounded on all sides with more adversaries than friends, would be obliged to learn that candour and moderation which is so seldom found among teachers of those great sects, whose tents being supported by the civil magistrate, are held in veneration by almost all the inhabitants of extensive kingdoms and empires, and who therefore see nothing round them but followers, disciples, and humble admirers. The teachers of each little sect, finding themselves almost alone, would be obliged to respect those of almost every other sect, and the concessions which they would mutually find it both convenient and agreeable to make to one another, might in time probably reduce the doctrine of the greater part of them to that pure and rational religion, free from every mixture of absurdity, imposture, or fanaticism, such as wise men have in all ages of the world wished to see established; but such as positive law has perhaps never yet established, and probably never will establish in any country: because, with regard to religion, positive law always has been, and probably always will be, more of less influenced by popular superstition and enthusiasm’ (WN V.i.g.8: page 792-93).
When I read this section of Book V first, some years ago, I was struck by it novelty: let a thousand sects flourish! For this to work the society would have to take measures to prevent any one sect becoming dominant, and the separation of Church and State in the USA and France seemed steps in that direction. That no such similar separation has occurred in Britain is worrying.
In France the challenge to the separation of Church and State (or rather Mosque and State) comes not from the albeit dominant, though separated and largely inactive ‘great sect’, the Roman Catholic Church, but from a new, immigrant sect, the Moslem religion, which is dominant, with a vengeance, in some of the home nations of recent immigrants into secular France.
If there are to be a multitude of sects within the Moslem religion, besides the two of Shi’ite and Sunni (who gladly kill each other in the Middle East, it would probably come from within the Diaspora, albeit severely inhibited by the murderous treatment of apostates among some of its adherents.
In America, the separation of Church and State is under siege from the Christian tradition, even though it is divided into ‘more than a thousand denominations’. These denominations have a common cause this side of a blurring of the separation of Church and State, though perhaps not if one or two of the dominant ‘great sects’ within the thousand sects appear to be favoured by the legislature nationally or in individual states, other would change their minds. There is no doubt that any degree of dominance, Federal or local, would have the effect of heightened inter-communal tensions.
Smith did not think that his suggestion for a thousand little religious sects would lead automatically to social tranquillity. In this, as in other matters, including free trade, he remained sceptical of universal conclusions of preferred reforms; but he also believed that some steps towards a desirable goal were better than similar steps away from such goals. As I have noted several times on ‘Lost Legacy’, Adam Smith was never a fanatical extremist on any of the policies he advocated.
I am not sure that he ever had 'wild dreams', or at least any he was prepared to share with posterity.
Read Allen Orr’s review at: http://www.newyorker.com/critics/books/articles/060403crbo_books