Academic journal article Review of Social Economy

The Relationships of Religion to Economics

Academic journal article Review of Social Economy

The Relationships of Religion to Economics

Article excerpt

Abstract The relationships between religion and economics are both complex and controversial. In this paper is explored one method for organizing those relationships. Four categories are examined which help identify possible options: economics separate from religion economics; in service of religion; religion in service of economics; and religion in union with economics. The paper begins with a definition of what is included under the headings of religion and economics. Next, each of the four categories is described and discussed. Conclusions close the paper.

Keywords: economics and religion, economic methodology and thought, social economics


On the first page of his Principles of Economics, Alfred Marshall wrote:

[M]an's character has been moulded by his every-day work, and the material resources which he thereby procures, more than by any other influence unless it be that of his religious ideals; and the two great forming agencies of the world's history have been the religious and the economic.

That religion and economics are great forming agencies that shape the conduct of human affairs and the organization of human society is largely undisputed. What is in dispute is their relationship to one another. Consider, for example, the theologian Long's (1996) opinion on the relationship of economics to theology (whose place in the larger category of religion will be clarified shortly). Long wrote that: "... beneath those mathematical models is a philosophy of human action that makes economics inescapably a moral science.... [E]conomics and theology can never be thoroughly separated...." (p. 706). This is in sharp contrast with Boulding's view that economics and theology "... represent abstractions from reality, and hence we should not expect them to cover much of the same material" [1] (original emphasis).

The quotes from Long and Boulding serve to remind us that it is an oversimplification to think in terms of the relationship of religion to economics: they can be related in several ways. The quotes also remind us that how religion and economics are related is subject to human perception and action. On this latter point Marx (1970: 131) wrote: "man makes religion; religion does not make man." As a statement about the origins of religion, as intended by Marx, the comment is open to significant and, perhaps, irreconcilable debate. But as a statement about what lies behind any given position on the relationship between religion and economics it provides insight: How they are related by people may owe more to how they are perceived than to anything inherent in either.

The complexity of the relationships of religion to economics; the fact that conflicting explanations have been given for how they relate--perhaps because the explanations were based on an explicit or implicit assumption that they can relate in only one way; and the significant roles they play in a changing world have encouraged us, a professional economist and professional theologian, to probe further into the subject of their relationship. [2]

In this paper relationships between religion and economics are explored using a system of four categories: economics separate from religion, where there is no perceived interaction or a preference for no interaction; economics in service of religion, and religion in service of economics, where one of the two is perceived or preferred to be subordinate to the other; and religion in union with economics, where the two are perceived as having areas of overlap and complementarity. In what follows each category is described and discussed. [3] Conclusions close the paper.

Before proceeding, it is necessary to clarify what we include under the headings of "religion" and "economics." "Religion" is understood to include both people's practices of their belief systems and the bodies of thought that inform those systems. Practices are characterized by the activities of formal and informal groups into which people organize, as well as people's activities when acting alone on their beliefs. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.