Secular Right | Reality & Reason

Feb/09

1

Faith and finance

The argument that the current financial crisis was at least partly caused by the retreat of religion from the public square and by rising secularism will undoubtedly recur regularly over the next few years.  These are complex matters, and those propounding the godlessness thesis are far wiser and more knowledgeable than I.  I would like to offer just a few pieces of possibly countervailing evidence, with no presumption that they are correct. 

— Maybe thirty years ago, American culture could have been characterized as increasingly secular, but after the emergence of the Religious Right and the Bush Administration, I’m not so sure.  In 1978, sociologist John Murray Cuddihy noticed what he called the “’invisibilization’” of religion in America’s civic realm.  “Religious identities as such must not be pushy, elbowing themselves into contexts where they do not belong,” he wrote in No Offense: Civil Religion and Protestant Taste.  “If they do, they encounter an equivalent of the polite bureaucratic put-down, ‘You don’t belong here; I must refer you to . . . window 73B.’” 

Cuddihy’s observations remain valid within a centuries-long perspective;  even the most devoted acolyte of Jerry Falwell practices a religion that has been defanged and domesticated compared to the power-hungry, truth-monopolizing manifestations of religion throughout most of Western history. 

But compared to the 1960s and 1970s, religion today plays a far more assertive role in public life.  The Religious Right has weighed in on everything from the NEA to tax cuts.  Political religious rhetoric and influence increased during the Bush years, whether in state legislatures or in Washington.  Bush’s executive branch contained a number of publicly-professing Christians who made no secret of the role of faith in their public life.  Federal policies on embryonic stem cell research, foreign aid for contraception and abortion abroad, and other “life” issues mirrored the platform of the Religious Right.  I would not be surprised if President Bush’s evangelical speech writer Michael Gerson pushed for the greater liberalization of mortgage lending to minorities, on the ground that “compassionate conservatism” (read: his Christian beliefs) required it.  It was during this political religious reawakening that the credit markets evolved ever more arcane forms of risk-dispersion. 

–Christian culture is thriving.  A whole publishing industry pumps out titles like God Is My CEO and God Is My Success.  The proportion of Mexicans, who tend to be highly devout, has been rising nationally,  to the delight of establishment Catholics who welcome their numbers and their enthusiasm for saints and miracles, and to the delight of Pentecostals, who are also seeing an influx of Hispanics in their churches.  Many subprime borrowers who put almost no money down on their mortgage were Hispanics, probably many of them church-going.  Perhaps they were more punctilious in their financial statements than non-church-going borrowers; perhaps not. 

–Speculative manias have occurred during periods of nearly universal church-going.  Calvinist Holland staged the most famous bubble of all time, the seventeenth-century tulip mania, when 12 acres of prime real estate bought a single bulb.  Pious eighteenth-century Anglicans poured irrational sums into the slave-trading South Sea Co., leading to a financial bust in 1720. 

–As for outright financial fraud, this, too, has thrived during periods when atheists are even more closeted than today.  Nineteenth-century America contained an army of fraudsters, charlatans, and mountebanks; business dealings were cutthroat.  Today’s financial crooks operated within synagogues and churches, sometimes even professing themselves to be men of God

–I know of no evidence that more secular societies are less ethical in business matters.  As I have argued, a contract to build a highway is far more likely to be fulfilled without bribes in Sweden than in Mexico; the Swedish cement company CEO is more likely to pay his taxes than his Mexican counterpart.  (He is also less likely to be kidnapped at gunpoint for ransom, though that is not a business matter.)  Church-indifferent Denmark has suffered less dislocation from the subprime problem than church-attending America.  As for sub-Saharan Africa, with its frenzy of ancestor worship, voodoo, and ecstatic Christianity, contracts are not necessarily any more secure there than in non-zealous Norway.  Seattle has the least number of churches per capita of any American city.  It remains a hub of entrepreneurship and business innovation, all of which depend upon trust. 

–In sum, it looks to me like the financial instruments and lending practices that played so prominent a role in the financial crisis evolved during a period when American religion was more muscular and assertive than it has been in decades.  But I may well be missing more important evidence.

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39 comments

  • Author comment by Steel Phoenix · February 1, 2009 at 5:34 pm

    This is getting out of hand. Can we blame God for the lack of accountability in society, or would that be hypocritical?

  • Anthony · February 1, 2009 at 7:37 pm

    “a contract to build a highway is far more likely to be fulfilled without bribes in Sweden than in Mexico”

    This paragraph would be more persuasive if Heather used a single example that didn’t involve Scandinavians (even Seattle has a large number of people of Scandinavian descent, being the birth place of Nordstrom, for example, and is basically a northern European city with a significant number of NE Asians added in).

    The relevant question is to what extent *Mexican* society, for example, is or would be more or less ethical given varying forms of religious belief.

  • Ben A. · February 1, 2009 at 7:55 pm

    Although it seems to have been involved in this one, religion alone doesn’t cause a financial crisis. Intellectual laxity and superstition are the natural state of the pre-enlightenment human mind, and our democracy elevated one such mind to the presidency in the man of George Bush. Postmodernism is in many ways a lapse to premodernism, and our next president might fall into a similar set of errors from ostensibly secular priors.

    Based on his tepid public expressions of faith and his canny instrumentalization of religion, I think we can conclude that Obama doesn’t identify with any particular sect. He does, however, preach faith in the magical powers of the federal government. It’s not entirely clear to me that the religious drink more potent flavor-aid than leftist folk economists. Full-on philosophical materialists tend to put more effort into their redistributionist ideologies, which religious folk gladly adopt after some superficial modifications.

  • Anthony · February 1, 2009 at 8:09 pm

    Ben A. said: “Intellectual laxity and superstition are the natural state of the pre-enlightenment human mind[.]”

    Could you back up this claim about pre-Enlightenment intellectual laxity?

  • Aaron · February 2, 2009 at 7:34 am

    “power-hungry, truth-monopolizing religions…”
    It seems to me that it is logically possible to have confidence in metaphysical truth while not pursuing personal or group power.
    Are you suggesting that confidence in the objective basis of one’s convictions is a necessary or sufficient condition for hunger for power? And if so, does the one follow from the other logically, or only due to human folly and hubris?

  • Jeeves · February 2, 2009 at 8:00 am

    The argument that the current financial crisis was at least partly caused by the retreat of religion from the public square and by rising secularism will undoubtedly recur regularly over the next few years.

    Really? Don’t know who Heather is reading, but I’ve not seen a hint that lack of religiosity is to blame for the financial crisis. Steel Phoenix is right: this is getting out of hand.

    While it may be true that people like Gerson encouraged Bush to urge no down payment mortgage loans as part of his “ownership society.” I’d need to see some evidence that the massive over-leveraging in our society was brought about by some God Squad. Did Christian fundamentalists invent derivatives and credit default swaps? Were Hispanics urged by their priests to submit no-doc loan apps?

  • Ron Guhname · February 2, 2009 at 12:24 pm

    The percent of Americans never attending church has almost doubled since 1972.

    http://inductivist.blogspot.com/2009/01/trends-in-church-attendance.html

  • Prof Frink · February 2, 2009 at 12:31 pm

    Really? Don’t know who Heather is reading

    She does provide two links in her piece to whom she is reading.

  • Derek Scruggs · February 2, 2009 at 3:08 pm

    @Anthony How about the existence of the Bible, in which all manner of events are the result of supernatural intervention?

    Did Christian fundamentalists invent derivatives and credit default swaps? Were Hispanics urged by their priests to submit no-doc loan apps?

    Jeeves, I believe Heather is talking about the opposite. Fundies would (if Heather’s thesis is true) argue that derivatives and poor financial decision making would have been less likely to happen if people were closer to God.

  • Bad · February 2, 2009 at 3:18 pm

    This is one of those ideas I think proponents should provide a scrap of sensible evidence for before anyone bothers to try and argue against it. Otherwise, this is just as silly as the woman I heard on NPR, who described Obama’s election as a blow against ignorance, bigotry… and then she cast around for another word… and came up with “atheism!” Because, you know, Sarah Palin, what an atheist!

  • Jeeves · February 2, 2009 at 3:49 pm

    @Derek Scruggs
    Absolutely right. I got carried away (probably because the wrong afflatus takes hold when religiosity is in decline).

  • Andrew · February 3, 2009 at 5:48 am

    Don’t forget God is My Broker!

    [http://www.amazon.com/God-Broker-Monk-Tycoon-Spiritual-Financial/dp/0060977612/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1233668842&sr=8-2]

  • Kevembuangga · February 3, 2009 at 8:45 am

    Too bad God didn’t fix your botched link!
    I can do that, wow…
    (it’s plain HTML not BBCode or the like)

  • kurt9 · February 3, 2009 at 2:01 pm

    I have yet to hear anyone blame the greed and collapse on Wall Street on the retreat of religion from the public realm.

  • Joshua · February 3, 2009 at 4:34 pm

    Jeeves, I believe Heather is talking about the opposite. Fundies would (if Heather’s thesis is true) argue that derivatives and poor financial decision making would have been less likely to happen if people were closer to God.

    I wonder if this is another case of a phenomenon that was discussed here several weeks ago, to the effect that people strongly influenced by religion may not make better decisions than anyone else, but are more confident in the decisions they do make?

  • Randall Parker · February 3, 2009 at 8:47 pm

    Which religion (including which variation) people believe in is as important as whether they believe at all. One can’t argue that all religions help or hurt make people more fiscally conservative. Heather is right to argue that religious belief doesn’t necessarily improve at least some aspects of behavior. Given the extent to which faith-based belief systems are trumpeted in some quarters as universally good I think her argument provides a very constructive response.

    But I am left wondering whether some religious sects produce believers who are less problematic than the rest of us.

  • Thrasymachus · February 3, 2009 at 11:39 pm

    The idea that Mexicans are highly religious is not well supported. Highly superstitious, yes, highly religious, no.

    Uh, religion was a very big part of political culture in the 60’s and 70’s, only it was left wing religion. Ever here of “Rev.” MLK Jr.? “Rev.” Jesse Jackson” The Berrigan brothers? Liberation theology?

  • Caledonian · February 4, 2009 at 10:10 am

    “But I am left wondering whether some religious sects produce believers who are less problematic than the rest of us.”

    The fact that they are believers is problematic enough, regardless of what other behavioral consequences follow from their creeds.

  • Chris · February 4, 2009 at 2:35 pm

    people strongly influenced by religion may not make better decisions than anyone else, but are more confident in the decisions they do make?

    The degree of confidence to place in your decisions is itself a decision. You won’t find errors in your beliefs if you are convinced there can’t possibly be any.

    IANA Economist, but I’m pretty sure that overconfidence played a significant role in the causes of the current crisis. So if religious people are more confident in their decisions, then religion may have been a contributing factor – not in making people invest with Madoff, but in making them confident that investing with Madoff was the right thing to do and they don’t need to pay attention to the man behind the curtain.

    It would be interesting to see data on this, but one piece of confirmation is the well-known habit of con men of targeting religious and new age believers. Con men know a good mark when they see one – it’s a job skill for them.

  • Donna B. · February 4, 2009 at 8:37 pm

    “There was a belief in the financial sector that diversification of assets was a substitute for due diligence on each asset, so that if one bundled enough assets together, one didn’t have to know much about the assets themselves.”

    http://american.com/archive/2009/our-epistemological-depression

    That describes faith to me.

  • Randall Parker · February 4, 2009 at 10:41 pm

    Caledonian, People hold many false beliefs. False beliefs about the supernatural are just a subset of all the false beliefs people embrace. I do not think that false beliefs about the supernatural necessarily make people more dangerous than other types of false beliefs (though I could be wrong on this point). Some religious sects are a whole lot more problematic than others. The same is true of false secular beliefs. Look at communism for example. It did more damage than Zoro-Astrianism has done in the last century.

    The holding of false beliefs is inevitable. Most people aren’t smart enough to understand the nature of reality. Of those who are smart enough a large fraction lack the training or inclination to only believe based on strong evidence.

  • Caledonian · February 5, 2009 at 9:55 am

    ‘Supernatural’ is a category-level error. People who make one such error will make others, as it indicates that their standards of logical consistency have been compromised.

    It’s easy to be factually wrong, and not in itself particularly noteworthy. But being logically wrong is troublesome, and wrong about concept-level thinking potentially devastating.

    I consider Communism to be an example of religious thinking, Randall Parker, despite the fact that it explicitly claimed not to be.

  • Randall Parker · February 5, 2009 at 11:48 pm

    Caledonian, Atheists lean left politically and are are on average far less intelligent than agnostics. Why is that?

    More generally: Where’s the evidence that atheism makes for greater wisdom and rationality? Not saying it doesn’t exist. But I’m skeptical of non-believer claims that non-believers are more rational than religious believers. Show me the evidence.

  • Author comment by David Hume · February 6, 2009 at 3:01 am

    and are are on average far less intelligent than agnostics.

    i think one should be cautious of the “far less.” the 95% intervals for this are HUGE for the less religious groups because of relatively small N’s (i used the same GSS variables as audacious). nyborg’s NLSY data points to a similar pattern where atheism is duller than agnosticism, but much milder. here are the 95%

    1: DONT BELIEVE 6.41-5.51
    2: NO WAY TO FIND OUT 7.34-6.85
    3: SOME HIGHER POWER 6.83-6.44
    4: BELIEVE SOMETIMES 6.07-5.54
    5: BELIEVE BUT DOUBTS 6.38-6.14
    6: KNOW GOD EXISTS 5.89-5.76

  • Caledonian · February 6, 2009 at 9:16 am

    “Where’s the evidence that atheism makes for greater wisdom and rationality?”

    You’ve gotten it backwards. “If A, then B” does not imply “if B, then A”. Greater wisdom and rationality makes for atheism, not the other way around.

    As for the evidence of *my* claim, there are countless potential examples, but the best one is to point to the important role religion doesn’t play in science.

  • Daniel Dare · February 6, 2009 at 9:40 am

    Randall,

    But I’m skeptical of non-believer claims that non-believers are more rational than religious believers. Show me the evidence.

    It’s evidence that is the problem. The rational position on belief is that belief in a hypothesis should only be as strong as the evidence that supports it. No more no less.

    If there is no verifiable evidence for the existence of God then your belief should be zero. If your evidence is weak or ambigious then your belief should be weak. Strong faith cannot be rationally justified in the absence of strong evidence. Extreme claims require extreme evidence.

    An example of an extreme claim might be: That there is an entire supernatural order, in addition to the observable natural one. This extreme claim requires extreme evidence to justify rational belief in it.

  • Kevembuangga · February 6, 2009 at 10:35 am

    That there is an entire supernatural order, in addition to the observable natural one.This extreme claim requires extreme evidence to justify rational belief in it.

    Isn’t this a vacuous statement?
    If there is nothing “observable” where would the evidence come from?

  • Daniel Dare · February 6, 2009 at 10:44 am

    An example of extreme evidence might be:

    I will believe in the hypothesis that Jesus is the Messiah and the Son of God on the day that the Second Coming occurs live on CNN. Maybe Fox News and all the other channels as well, just to be sure.

    And even then, I might want to chuck a few hydrogen bombs at him first, just to be sure that he is not a superior Alien intelligence taking advantage of our superstitions and pretending to be Jesus in order to subvert us. Think how Montezuma originally mistook Cortes as a returning god, Quetzalcoatl, which allowed him to overthrow the Aztec empire.

    If “Jesus” survives a few hydrogen bombs, then either he is God, or his technology is so superior, that he might as well be God as far as we are concerned.

    Of course you could prove the existence of “The Force” in the movie universe of “Star Wars”, just by producing an actual Jedi Knight able to produce Force Powers, like Force Levitation or Force Jumping.

    In the absence of a Jedi Knight, a Sith Lord would serve just as well. Then you could have cool effects like Force Lightning, which would prove the existence of the “Dark Side of the Force”.

  • Grant Canyon · February 6, 2009 at 11:05 am

    “Isn’t this a vacuous statement?”
    “If there is nothing ‘observable’ where would the evidence come from?”

    In the context of the argument, no. In the absence of observable evidence, you merely have conjecture.

    You may posit a supernatural order filled with Jehovah and his hosts, or of sugar rock-candy mountains, or filled with genies and kamis, or of the spirits of the rocks, trees and animals, or any one of a near infinate variety of such unobservable and un-evidenced possble supernatural orders.

    What belief would a rational person have in any one of these? They are all equally likely and equally unlikely; thus the rational person would have to grant each one the level of belief commensurate with the evidence of its existence: zero.

  • Polichinello · February 6, 2009 at 12:48 pm

    Re: belief in diversification over investigation:

    That describes faith to me.

    No, it describes laziness.

  • Randall Parker · February 7, 2009 at 11:59 am

    Caledonian says “Greater wisdom and rationality makes for atheism, not the other way around.”.

    Where’s your evidence for this assertion?

    Whether God exists or not seems unprovable. Seems to me agnosticism is the most rational position to take.

    Daniel Dare says “If there is no verifiable evidence for the existence of God then your belief should be zero. ”

    What do you mean by a zero belief? “I have no idea” or “I strongly believe that God does not exist” or other?

    We have no idea whether other universes exist. We have no idea why this universe exists or why anything exists at all.

  • Kevembuangga · February 7, 2009 at 12:14 pm

    We have no idea why this universe exists or why anything exists at all.

    “WHY” is already a biased question, think about it!
    (Did you stop beating your wife?)

  • Randall Parker · February 7, 2009 at 10:49 pm

    Kevembuangga, I grant you “WHY” is a biased question. The universe might not exist and instead might just be a simulation running in a computer in another universe. But then why does that universe exist?

  • Kevembuangga · February 7, 2009 at 11:25 pm

    @Randall Parker

    No, you didn’t get it.
    But you nicely demonstrate my point!
    I’ll try to be more explicit: “WHY” mandates an answer about some purpose of the “thing” being asked about.
    It opens up an infinite regress, and then “why” is this next thing…
    Have you never being asked “why” by a 7 years old?

  • Daniel Dare · February 8, 2009 at 12:48 am

    What do you mean by a zero belief? “I have no idea” or “I strongly believe that God does not exist” or other?

    You are asking here for the difference between atheism as popularly defined and agnosticism. I would suggest that the legitimate answer is that it is a godless universe.

    Randall, how do we ever approach these kinds of questions elsewhere in science. I cannot advance without guidance from Nature. As long as I am rejecting dualism and the supernatural as well as God, perhaps the best answer would be that God is an idea that has outlived its usefulness.

    Maybe it is time that “God” disappeared from the language altogether. At least from serious discourse.

    What about unicorns, am I an agnostic or an a-unicornist?
    Nothing. Its a joke. I don’t waste my time worrying about rubbish.

  • Daniel Dare · February 8, 2009 at 4:03 am

    Here’s another thought:

    God is an idea that needs to be forgotten for a thousand years. So that, sometime in the future, if Man should find some clue that could give us some guidance in this problem, we could look at it with eyes unbiased by the weight of obsolete and irrelevant historical traditions.

    We need the God hypothesis to be freed from dead hand of the God superstition. That will take much time.

  • Randall Parker · February 9, 2009 at 7:10 pm

    Kevembuangga, Scientists who worked their way down to atoms, then to neutrons, electrons, and protons, and then on down to quarks kept asking themselves why. I do not see “why” as requiring “purpose”. It just requires cause and effect.

    Daniel Dare, Since we do not know whether “God” exists we can’t say whether the concept is useful.

    I do not think superstition holds back the advance of physics all that much. Though both secular and religious myths hold back the development of a real human social science based on natural selection as the biggest cause of who we are.

  • Daniel Dare · February 9, 2009 at 7:49 pm

    Without evidence I have no reason to pay any attention to the hypothesis that God exists. It’s pure conjecture. No more believable than fairies and other spooks.

  • Daniel Dare · February 9, 2009 at 8:07 pm

    I do not think superstition holds back the advance of physics all that much.

    US Physics

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