What's Good about Religious Fundamentalism?

By Iannaccone, Laurence R. | Science & Spirit, May-June 2007 | Go to article overview

What's Good about Religious Fundamentalism?


Iannaccone, Laurence R., Science & Spirit


Radical fundamentalism has been called a "new" problem. But to understand it today, we can draw on economic theories from a few centuries ago. The key to understanding Osama bin Laden, for example, could be the free-market economic ideas that Adam Smith elaborated in 1776.

Smith and bin Laden are an odd couple. The absent-minded founder of classical economics spent his gentle life teaching in the cold seaside city of Glasgow--a quiet corner of eighteenth-century Scotland far removed from Saudi deserts and Afghani caves. Even so, Smith's economic theories demystify modern religion and explain its extreme manifestations. Through economics, we can understand fundamentalism's enduring appeal and its many good consequences.

To look at the good and bad of fundamentalism--to compare the suicidal zealot and the self-sacrificing saint--is not moral equivalence, as some would declare. An environment that sustains commitment and produces collective action shapes both--economics explains why.

Economics today tries to explain just about everything: discrimination, drugs, education, crime, sports, politics, marriage, and fertility. When it comes to religion, the economist sees people as "rational religious consumers." Consumers think about costs and benefits. They choose how extensively to participate in religion and which religion (if any) they will embrace. Likewise, religious leaders act as "suppliers" of religious goods and services. Taken together, these consumers and producers form a "religious market."

The competitive process that leads to better material products also works in the religious marketplace. Successful religious "firms" must provide goods and services valued by their "customers." Fundamentalist groups are particularly adept at producing collective goods--both spiritual and material. They often are key suppliers of health care, education, housing, food, and financial aid. But how do we get from these social services to suicide bombings?

[ILLUSTRATIONS OMITTED]

Many Americans view religious violence as the product of theology and deprivation. Militant Muslim clerics preach violence as a road to salvation and indoctrinate followers who suffer from poverty, ignorance, and anger. But this popular view of radical Islam is deeply flawed. If theology is so important, for example, why are most terrorist groups not religious? In fact, the secular Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka have initiated more suicide attacks than any religious group.

Suicide bombing is more strongly linked to a certain kind of organization--a sect--than to any particular theology. Most sects devote great energy to benign activities, such as running schools, health clinics, and social services agencies. How do we make sense of this association between sects and violence? The economics of religion can give us a clue.

Economists study how people overcome scarcity: How do they produce and exchange material goods and services? Humans may also feel a scarcity of cultural goods and services, so they invent and exchange them as well. Religions are cultural products that employ supernatural powers. No one can prove that supernatural "products" really work. But mere uncertainty has never been enough to kill the desire for them (such as the promise of life after death).

From a rational point of view, supernatural investments make sense for those who do not know that the "skies are empty" of spiritual benefits. Therefore, from a rational economic standpoint, secularization theory has been the biggest predictive failure in the history of social science. Individuals and groups have not become more secular because of science, modernity, and education. Most members of extreme religious sects are not irrational or indoctrinated. They choose to participate in the religious marketplace because the supernatural remains attractive.

We have never lacked entrepreneurs in the supernatural economy--we have prophets and priests, seers and shamans, and pastors and ministers aplenty. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

What's Good about Religious Fundamentalism?
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.