The Economics of Religion: Anthropological Approaches: Volume 31


Table of contents

(18 chapters)

The “economics of religion” has grown into a new and groundbreaking approach to the study of religious beliefs, preferences, attitudes, belongings, organizations, and dynamics. This chapter circumscribes its epistemological area, outlines some of the major developments in the field, allows place for the presentation of both important theoretical models (market theory, rational choice, supply-and-demand) and crucial criticisms that have been directed toward them. If the “economics of religion” partakes of an attempt to explain religion in ancient or recent history, in the conceptual prism of economics, the general movement known as globalization has accelerated the convergence of economics and cultural/social analysis in religious studies. Anthropology, however, has gone its own way regarding economic issues. It has been somewhat reluctant to espouse the principles of “economics of religion,” even while being convinced of its relevance. Some recent anthropological works on globalization and religion are presented here as examples of this ambivalent contribution of anthropology to the economics of religion in global settings.

This chapter aims to develop an institutionalist concept of faith based on Williamson's concept of ‘institutional trust’ and Coleman's contribution to ‘placement of trust’. As a starting point, it considers the social capital literature on trust from the perspective of institutional economics and economic anthropology. ‘Institutional faith’ posits as a normative state the inevitability of trust with regard to certain questions human beings cannot answer. This has a behaviour-channelling effect which makes, e.g. for institutional stability. The proposed concept is evaluated critically by contrasting it with T. Kuran's concept of ‘preference falsification’ in the Hindu caste system. Finally, the concept is challenged by today's Hindu fundamentalism and makes a differentiation between fundamentalism and institutional faith.

I present here a review and critique of social scientific analyses of the global spread of Prosperity Christianity. My argument is that at least two phases of research can be discerned: an initial phase where economic factors are given strong causal explanatory force in accounting for the upsurge in Health and Wealth congregations; and a more recent phase that complicates our understandings of the relationships between religious and economic action. My review of the literature reveals that sacrifice is a theoretical trope common to both phases of writing, and in the latter half of the chapter I explore the ways in which notions of the sacrificial economy can point to nuanced understandings of the forms of materiality deployed in many Prosperity contexts. The wider implications of this chapter refer in part to how we might understand notions of rational and irrational action in relation to economic behavior; and also to an appreciation of the ways in which ritual action can be productive of, and not merely a response to, perceived ambiguity and risk.

As testified by its secular history, Catholic Social Teaching is closely bound to the various attempts that have been made at putting it into practice. Today, one of the most interesting ones is that of the enterprises' association Compagnia delle Opere. Particularly in Italy, the Compagnia wants to become an important point of reference for Small and Medium Enterprises, the heart of Italian production system, through a new socioeconomic concept, based on the Subsidiarity Principle and the growth of the nonprofit sector. In many ways, it aims to create an alternative to classical capitalism, also supported by Benedict's XVI recent social encyclical; nevertheless, numerous ambiguities persist.

Although the host, the future body of Christ in the Catholic Eucharist, seems to lie completely outside of the economic system, it needs to be produced and sold. The majority of host producers are female monasteries for which the production process brings double tension: as an economic activity within a religious utopia (the monastery) and as the economization of something that is considered to be a religious good. This double tension provokes the question, how do the nuns legitimate this economic process in their monastery without desacralizing the symbolic good? Trying to answer this question, nuns typically deny the economic dimension of production and transaction, yet the sheer existence of this economy proves it is accepted. This chapter examines the relationship between economy and religion through an analysis of the ambivalence in the production and marketing process of altar bread.

Buddhism, a globalizing religion, offers a remarkable opportunity to test different hypotheses and models coined in the field of “economics of religion.” Since their foundation over 25 centuries ago, Buddhist ethics have always epitomized extra-worldly and noneconomic philosophies of renunciation. And in the context of globalization, contemporary Buddhist voices praise resistance to the human-engineered damage caused by expansive capitalism. Buddhist traditions have, however, always followed commercial routes and have been involved, although indirectly, in economic affairs. The globalization of Buddhism perpetuates this tendency but also uncovers the rise of “new” relationships between Asian tradition and (capitalistic) economy, in the realm of religious values, behaviors, and organization. This chapter aims at differentiating three models: Buddhism and economy, Buddhist economics, and the economics of Buddhism. It raises questions about the relevance of the “economic”-inspired conceptualization of Buddhist forms and dynamics.

This essay situates the significance of “spiritual capital” within Puerto Rican brujería (witch-healing) in relation to re-enchantment theories of modernity. It argues that the merging of spiritual and economic values has engendered a form of “spiritualized materialism” that has turned sheer economic prosperity into spiritually wrought rewards. Within this moral economy, matter does not simply function as a conduit for the sacred; it actually constitutes the very idea of the sacred. In comparison to recent work on corporate attempts to fuse religious ethics with business, this essay is noteworthy in that it unravels the logic and effect of such fusions at the vernacular religious level.

In a village of Eastern Yucatan, Mexico, cargo or kuuch sponsors compare their ritual tasks to “buying life” from crosses, Catholic saints, and Mayan deities or “owners.” The local notion of compromiso, engagement, or commitment, helps these festival participants express the condition of possibility to successfully perform such exchanges. Decisive for these life renewals, promises, and compromisos depend upon empathy to authorize ritualists and subsume social and natural phenomena under exchange paradigms. By defining, critiquing and using the concept of “disposition” as an inherently self-other stance through which economy transforms into religiosity and vice versa, this chapter analyzes this particular regime of engagement and the temporalities it implies. Through a commitment to the past and the practice of promissory exchange, sponsors develop a new perceptual scheme in which the ritual cultivation of discipline, awareness, expectation, and responsibility are expressed.

The last three decades of the 20th century was a period of momentous social, economic, political and religious turmoil in many African societies. Nigeria is a prime example. Although the economic transformations of this period were perhaps bigger than other kinds of change, religious shifts probably had more remarkable social effects. One particularly noticeable development was the emergence of a new strand of Pentecostalism that serves as a source of political power and as a vehicle for economic mobilisation. Embedded in a theology of materialism and a redefinition of ‘money’, this new ideology found a fertile ground among local and global corporations struggling to cope with problems such as a devalued currency and political corruption and instability. Using data from ethnographic research on the Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG), with more than 10,000 congregations worldwide, this chapter shows how the near economic meltdown of the last decades of the 20th century precipitated a massive religious (re)engagement with economic structures and practices in Nigeria.

This chapter focuses on the changing relationship between multi-level marketing (MLM) and religion. MLM originated in the 1950s in the United States out of a desire to make capitalism more humane. It was initially based on Protestant networks linked to prosperity theology, which among other things enabled it to grow internationally. Yet, comparing how MLM adapted to conditions in three different countries (South Korea, Haiti, and France) shows that its ability to break away from this controversial theology was crucial to its international development. It was then able to approach other religious movements, and even to secularize its values.

This chapter focuses on donating to the church on the part of Wesleyan Methodists in the Kingdom of Tonga. It illuminates the dynamism and tension emerging between religious faith and economic practice. Quantitative analysis of income and expenditures are combined with qualitative observations of villagers' actions and discourse in this microanalysis of donating events, which seeks to comprehend the situation from point of view of the local adherents. It concludes that what might appear in Tonga on the surface to be a purely competitive practice is actually a complex blend of competition and cooperation, with the latter probably having a larger role than the former in these transactions.

We investigated the effect of religion on generosity, interpersonal trust, and cooperation by using games developed by experimental economists (Dictator, Trust, and Public Goods). In these experiments, individuals were paired or grouped with unknown strangers to test the degree to which religion promotes prosocial behavior. We evaluated group- and individual-level effects of religion on prosocial behavior across the three games. Although playing the games in a religious setting showed no overall difference as compared to a secular setting, we did find a weak association between some individual-level dimensions of religiosity and behavior in some of the games. The weak association between religion and behavior is consistent with theory and empirical studies using similar measures – the anonymous pairing and grouping of the economic games may moderate individual-level effects of religion. Our research is a strong complement to the empirical literature because the three studies involved a large and diverse sample and used sensitive instruments that have been found to reliably measure prosocial behavior.

This chapter examines how religion and religiosity shape economic norms in Villa Israel, an urban squatter settlement in Cochabamba, Bolivia. In Villa Israel, residents share water with others to help overcome limited access to drinking water. Using a mixed methods approach, we draw on the results of ethnographic research and economic experiments. The analyses yield three key results. First, there were strong norms of generosity and charitable giving in the community. Second, religiosity was positively associated with generosity. People who adhered to Christian conceptions of charity and frequently attended religious services were more likely to give generously. While wealth was a limiting factor on some families' ability to give water, there was no evidence that the rich and poor endorsed different norms of fair giving. Third, the norms of fair giving varied in the context of the three most common reciprocal relationships in the community (family members, coreligionists, and neighbors). Compared with neighbors, exchanges between family members and coreligionists were relatively generous and permissive of self-interest. Based on these results, we conclude that the presence of strong Christian norms of generosity and fair giving is an important institutional mechanism for facilitating water reciprocity in this community.

Publication date
Book series
Research in Economic Anthropology
Series copyright holder
Emerald Publishing Limited
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