Economic Icons of Religious Beliefs

By Peake, Charles F. | National Forum, Winter 1998 | Go to article overview

Economic Icons of Religious Beliefs


Peake, Charles F., National Forum


What do the Temple at Abu Simbel, the Colosseum in Rome, the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, and the new Bengals football stadium in Cincinnati have in common? Quite simply, each edifice is an economic icon of its society's religion, where religion is used in the dictionary sense of an "institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices" or a "system of beliefs held with ardor and faith." (A colleague suggested that the Marxist idea of religion as "the opiate of the masses" would be more appropriate to this discussion.) To appreciate this conclusion, it is helpful to understand how a society's economic activity - what it builds - responds to religious beliefs.

ECONOMICS AND RELIGION

Two classic works on the relationship of economics and religion are those of R. H. Tawney and Kenneth Boulding, and although some economists consider the subject inappropriate, a modest literature continues on the subject. Tawney's Religion and the Rise of Capitalism (1936) develops the thesis that the Protestant (more broadly Judeo-Christian) Ethic fostered development of the modern capitalist economy by nurturing attitudes toward work, saving, and entrepreneurship that encouraged growth of capitalist institutions. Boulding's "Some Contributions of Economics to Theology and Religion" (Religious Education, 1957) interprets religion within the framework of economic analysis of preferences and resource allocation:

The church as an institution has many aspects of a firm. It produces a spiritual product rather than a material product. . . . Nonetheless it is not unreasonable to suppose that the financial contributions which give the organization its revenue are paid 'for something' which the contributor receives. . . . The 'success' of the church as measured by worldly standards . . . depend(s) on its power to attract . . . resources (p. 52).

Tawney's work suggests a relationship between religious beliefs and economic development. Boulding's proposal that a religion's success may be measured by its ability to command resources suggests that we may find clues about a society's religious beliefs in its architectural heritage. What a society builds reflects what it believes. If religious beliefs focus on the spiritual, a society's buildings tend to do likewise. If beliefs lead to a materialist focus, so will its structures. The edifices I mentioned above provide evidence of this relationship.

THREE RELIGIOUS EPOCHS

The Temple at Abu Simbel, the Great Pyramids, and other temples and tombs depict the ancient Egyptians' spiritual emphasis, specifically the spiritual needs and the quest for immortality of the Man-God Pharaohs. The road to immortality lay in satisfying deities, providing the edifices for eternal survival, and equipping those edifices with appropriate necessities and luxuries. Three economic circumstances enabled the Pharaohs to command the required resources:

* The fertile Nile Valley produced an economic surplus that freed labor from subsistence activities.

* The perception of Pharaohs as deities made it easier to enlist volunteers.

* If voluntarism fell short, their sheer power enabled the Pharaohs to conscript labor.

The result is an architectural heritage that reflects religious beliefs of the time.

The Colosseum symbolizes a Roman epoch in which religion focused on materialism. Rome's well-managed economic system created what was until that time history's greatest economic surplus; unlike the Egyptians, who pursued immortality for their Pharaohs, the Romans directed the surplus to materialistic indulgence. As with earlier societies, the Romans deified emperors and worshipped many gods, but the message of their architectural edifices is distinctly worldly, and activities pursued within them placed little value on human life, immortality, or the spiritual. The Roman bath with its elaborate swimming pools and playing fields, public buildings with intricate art work, and houses with ornate gardens reflected a strong need to gratify hedonistic desires.

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