Thursday, March 12, 2009

Adam Smith and Religious Beliefs

Stephen L. Bloom, a Christian lawyer serving clients throughout Pennsylvania, writes in Good News Daily (‘hope after the headlines’)

Good News on the Law: More Laws or More Freedom to Cure the Great O-pression?”

“But to dismiss or underestimate Adam Smith at such a time as this would be a dangerous mistake. Because Smith – although he was a Deist, rather than an orthodox Christian – clearly understood exactly the nature of our menace: The fallen, sinful, self-centered, and hopelessly self-interested human heart; “the imperfect propriety,” as he called it, of our own conduct. And the general economic system Smith articulated in the illumination of that understanding has been the only one ever devised, before or since, to effectively and consistently harness the power of our horrible human greed and transform it for our common good

Adam Smith was not a Christian, ‘orthodox’ or otherwise. I am not sure what Stephen implies by the words: ‘although he was a Deist, rather than an orthodox Christian – clearly understood exactly the nature of our menace’.

Is this a suggestion that only ‘orthodox Christians’ and ‘Deists’ understand the ‘The fallen, sinful, self-centered, and hopelessly self-interested human heart; “the imperfect propriety”?

It is this kind of moral arrogance that gives adherents of religion – any religion – a ridiculous aura. Adam Smith was a moral philosopher and perfectly capable of understanding the culpability of human beings in amoral and immoral behaviours, as did philosophers long before Christianity was known about. They, and he, wrote extensively about the whole range of human behaviours.

As for Deism, proclaiming such matters, especially contrary views to the prevailing orthodoxies of 18th-century society, was not just a matter of exercising an imaginary freedom of speech – an unknown freedom in Scottish society under any of the denominations of Christianity, none of which were any more tolerant than any other when they achieved political power.

The last man (a boy actually, a student) to be hanged for blasphemy, in his case on trumped-up and spurious charges, Thomas Aitkenhead, was hanged in Edinburgh in 1697, and the last witch, a woman more senile than evil, was burned to death in 1727. On an almost weekly basis, somewhere across Scotland, young girls were paraded before the Kirk to be harangued and humiliated by sanctimonious ministers, breathing fire and indignation, for sins of reputation or imputation over sexual activities, not a few of which were caused by members of their incestuous families.

David Hume was accused by Agnes Galbraith of fathering her child out of wedlock in the Chirnside Kirk, 25 June, 1734. She appeared in the sackcloth and was committed to the pillory. (See Mossner, E. C. The Life of David Hume, Oxford, 1980).

Of Course, Hume was widely believed to have been an atheist, a ‘crime’ for which those (very few) who declared to be so, were excluded from ‘polite’ society. He was refused chairs by both Edinbrugh and Glasgow Universities on the interventions of Kirk ministers. Hence, most sensible people took pains never to be suspected of the lack of belief that dare not be named.

Among them was Adam Smith. He had many profound family reasons not to appear as anything other than a Christian (his mother was deeply religious and he would never do anything to upset her). As a professor, he had signed the Calvinist Confession of Faith before the Glasgow presbytery – no signature, no professorship – and he had to open his daily lectures with a prayer, which he tried unsuccessfully to be excused from. He delivered his prayers more in the manner of Natural rather than Revealed religion, for which some still complained (Natural Religion was part of the Moral Philosophy syllabus).

Smith wrote Moral Sentiments with a scattering of Christian sentiments throughout, though they were often qualified by innocuous words and phrases that have passed unnoticed so far (I am documenting these at the moment for my paper to be presented at the Annual Conference of the History of Economics Society in Colorado this June). If he hadn’t done so, his book would likely not have been published; as it was some opinionated divines found grounds upon which to quarrel, some, like Bishop Magee, blamed Smith for his association with the ‘atheist David Hume’. (Hume never admitted to being an atheist)

A further question emerges: to what extent was Smith even a ‘Deist’, or had he abandoned all faith in religion? That remains to be seen – my paper addresses this latter question in the (cautious and tentative) affirmative.

For Stephen, the ‘Christian Lawyer’, who layers his proposals for the current financial problems with a dose of ‘freedom’ may feel obliged to let his case rest solely on his own Christian theology when it becomes clear that Adam Smith’s moral philosophy stands alone without association with any religion.

Given Stephen's ‘misunderstanding’ of Smith’s political economy as manifested in the rest of his article, I doubt whether he will do other than continue to hide under the misapprehensions he has about Smith’s supposed views on religion.

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Blogger Stephen Bloom said...

Professor Kennedy,

I just came across your scathing commentary on my column. Then I explored your blog and discovered that the scathing tone is a bit of a tradition. I now count it an honor to have been the recipient of same. And regardless of tone, I do appreciate your insight and intend to read more about Smith's religious faith (or lack thereof). Your devotion to the careful study of this influential man is appreciated.

Stephen Bloom

9:14 pm  

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