economic study of religion, finally

For decades the absent elephant in the room of religious studies has been economics.

There have long been specializations within the various other social sciences that take religion as their focus, and upon which scholars in religious studies can draw, such as sociology of religion, psychology of religion, anthropology of religion, and history of religion (not to be confused with phenomenology of religion, despite the latter being confusingly glossed as “History of Religions,” but which is a philosophical and crypto-theological undertaking [in turn to be distinguished from the “naturalized phenomenology” of Evan Thompson & Co.]). Except economics.

I would suspect that this absence is part of the heritage of exceptionalism. First Christian exceptionalism in the nineteenth century, which in the face of increasing knowledge of other cultures consequent upon European imperialism argued the distinction between “revealed religion” (Christianity) and “natural religions” (everybody else). As religious studies grew out of theology in the twentieth century, this distinction was retained in two forms: (1) textbook distinctions between what is variously called tribal, primal, primitive, oral traditions, and the select group of world (world class?) religions, and (2) the idea that “what religion is really about” (what does that phrase mean anyway other than the command to ignore all other considerations?) is individual personal transformative experience of transcendence.

Further motivation came no doubt from the promotion of religion as a conservative force in American society in opposition to the New Deal and to Communism (see the excellent study by Kevin M. Kruse One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America), and the consequent hesitation of academics during the Cold War era to look even vaguely Marxist by considering economics as part of what forms religions and religious identities. This absence is part of the motivation for the Buddhism under Capitalism project, and even more explicitly, the AAR seminar Economics and Capitalism in the Study of Buddhism (oh, and stay tuned for more information about the 2016 program).

I am glad that it now appears that the economics of religion is being examined by economists themselves. Recently published is a study of the relation between religion and the gender-based differences in compensation received by women compared to that received by men. In their study Travis Wiseman and Nabamita Dutta (“Religion and the Gender Wage Gap: A U.S. State-level Study” pdf here: SSRN-id2738523) ask the question: “Is the gender wage gap higher in states with larger networks of religious believers and participants?” Their study is worth reading not only for the answer to the question, but for an instance of one way in which the economics of religion might be conducted. Economists bring a skill set that allows them to examine these questions in a data-driven fashion, rather than an anecdotal fashion, and to disaggregate that data in ways that take into account other variables such as “age, education, marital status, occupation and time in the work force.” Such an approach provides if not a model of research for those of us not trained in economics, at least a model of clarity and precision of thought.

Oh, and the answer is Yes.


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