God’s Business: Thinking About Religion Through Economics

Nile Green applies economic thinking to matters of faith

Saint George Greek Orthodox Church and Mohammed Al-Amin Mosque, Beirut
Saint George Greek Orthodox Church and Mohammed Al-Amin Mosque, Beirut. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Smartphone in hand, with a carefully trimmed beard and a constant eye on his Twitter account. Such is the familiar image of the entrepreneur of our times. But the same strategies used by promoters of commercial brands are as likely to be used to promote religious brands. Whether in Silicon Valley or the Tigris Valley, the strategies of the entrepreneur have much in common. The use of social media by ISIS operatives such as the British Arab nicknamed Jihadi John, who uploaded beheadings to YouTube, forms the dark fringe of such entrepreneurship.

Most people think of religion as belonging to an entirely different sphere of life from economics. Religion is, after all, usually thought to be concerned with abstractions like belief and faith, or economically irrelevant practices like ritual. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. All religious organizations can be understood in economic terms and by applying a few basic economic principles we can make sense of the activities of all kinds of religious groups. A new field of research known as religious economy is devoted to exploring such insights.

Now that violence is increasingly tied to the expression of religion, the explanatory toolkit of religious economy is more valuable than ever. This is because conflict – or rather, competition – stands at the heart of religious economy. It is one of a handful of simple tools drawn from commercial economics that can be applied to the study of religious activity.

The most basic insight of religious economy is that the characteristics (and even the amount) of religion in any social environment are shaped by the interplay of forces of supply and demand. That is, religions do not exist in and of themselves: they are repeatedly shaped and reshaped by outside forces in accordance with the tastes and preferences of the local “consumers” of religion. And the more people in a particular setting want the different things that religion can offer, the more “suppliers” will be drawn there to satisfy their demands.

Whether with regard to commercial or religious economies, what’s implied by such abstract talk of “forces” of supply and demand is real people who do the supplying and demanding. Let’s focus on the supply side. Traditionally, we think of such suppliers in terms of a dizzying range of labels: vicars, pastors, preachers, rabbis, imams, yogis, gurus. Their organizations come in similarly confusing varieties: churches, chapels, temples, mosques, gurudwaras, ashrams. Religious economy boils all this down to two simple categories of supply: the individual religious entrepreneur and the collective religious firm. Thinking of religious suppliers in this way has a candidly disarming effect: it suddenly seems natural to consider entrepreneurs and firms as planning strategies, providing services, advertizing the superiority of their product, and even collecting revenues in return.

Although it may feel like an affront to ask one’s local rabbi or imam about his revenue and investment base, the simple fact is that every effective religious organization since the dawn of humankind has formulated strategies to gain and maintain followers. Since we inescapably live in a material world, this also means acquiring resources: even the loan of a library hall for an evening meeting is a resource. And religious firms that survive are those that succeed in this basic task of amassing resources through appealing to consumers of their services.

But what, you might well ask, are such services? The answer depends upon the relative conservatism or innovation of the firm in question. For an old school Episcopalian church, it might boil down to piously reassuring social networking; for an inner-city mission it might mean soup and shelter for the night. In other regions of the world, religious services include miracle-working or faith-healing, finding reliable sons- or daughters-in-law, legal or political intervention, and providing income or employment. It doesn’t take much reflection to realize that the range of services offered by religious firms that range from Haitian Vodou to Hare Krishna is infinitely more varied than the traditional standbys of solace and prayer.

Where religious economy gets really interesting, though, is where it asks what consumers have to provide in return for such services. After all, economics is in large part the study of transactions, and religion is no exception. Again, what is exchanged for these services can vary. Sometimes it’s material resources by way of tithes, endowments or donations. But for most people, it’s an invisible resource that few members of religious firms even recognize is a resource: belief. For when someone agrees to follow another person’s view of the world, and in particular their way of behaviorally interacting with the world, they hand over a core resource that is the foundation of social power. When those individuals become larger groups of people, the religious entrepreneur at the head of any such firm soon finds themselves with an impressive amount of the social power we casually call “authority” or “influence.” In environments where religious sources of social power are routinely diluted by other sources of authority (such as science or the state), such power is less immediately visible, real enough though it remains. But in environments where such alternative sources of authority have broken down or never fully developed, religion serves as a highly effective route to social power.

Some of the fractured Muslim-majority societies between the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean provide such fertile environments for religious entrepreneurs. This is all the more the case through the sheer lack of alternative means of social mobility that Muslim-majority societies offer as a consequence of corruption, failed economies, and the lack of career advancement through education. The breakdown of traditional modes of transmitting religious authority also means that there are today fewer entry-barriers to becoming a religious leader than at any point in Muslim history. Ironically, the twentieth century’s great democratizing wave of Islamic reform that encouraged Muslims to rely on their own faith and learning to guide themselves served to undermine traditional religious establishments. Concomitant with those changes was the appearance of new technologies – recordable cassettes then smart phones – that allowed younger religious entrepreneurs to reach new markets among the massive Muslim youth bubble.

The results? A tremendous increase in religious competition. Accompanied as it has been in some regions by the breakdown of state regulation of religion, such competition has turned violent.

Yet it is one of the ironies of modern life that the more and more acts of violence are carried out in the name of religion, the more and more we are told that such violence has nothing to do with “true this” or “true that” religion. While such lofty talk may make good cultural diplomacy, it makes bad explanations.

By contrast, the model of religious economy accepts that violence is part of religion because of the unavoidable social fact that violence is sometimes a strategy that religious firms adopt. What is reassuring is that this happens most in volatile and unregulated religious markets, especially where the empowering resources offered by religion are suddenly made available by the breakdown of state order.

In other markets, where the state regulates religion by holding entrepreneurs to state-defined laws, pandemics of violence are far less likely, despite the occasional Wako disaster or ISIS cell. Iran, where Islam is a state monopoly, is a particularly interesting example of the state regulation of religion: its controlled markets see no more entrepreneurs for religion than they do for internet start-ups.

Religious economy helps us talk realistically about religion in ways that don’t shy away from social reality. The model also helps us recognize that violence and other extreme tactics are not more inherent in some religions than others. As religious economy shows, the strategies of all religious firms are situational: they are reflections of and responses to conditions in the marketplace. But if that means that neither Islam nor any religion is inherently violent (or, for that matter, inherently peaceful), it also implies that violent societies are more likely to produce religious violence. If peace does someday return to the Middle East, it’s therefore unlikely to come through religion.

Nile Green is Professor of History at UCLA. His many books include: Terrains of Exchange: Religious Economies of Global Islam (Oxford, 2015), which was reviewed here, and The Love of Strangers: What Six Muslim Students Learned in Jane Austen’s London (Princeton, 2016).