Wednesday, June 19, 2019

A Scholarly Look At How Religions Attract, Operate, Compete, and How They Interact With The Economy

The Wealth of Religions: The Political Economy of Believing and Belonging 

Authors: Rachel M. McClarey and Robert J. Barro
Publisher: Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 2019

I have read many research books over my life but this one was different. It covered a topic I never thought could be, or should I say, ‘should’ be, analyzed from an economics perspective. And yet these two authors/researchers, both from Harvard University -- Rachel McClarey, lecturer at the Department of Economics, and Robert Barro, the Paul M. Warburg Professor of Economics, did just that. Together they provided this reader a “wealth of knowledge” on how religion, including my own, interacts with the economy, attracts adherents, operates, and even competes with other religions.
McClarey and Barro present their data factually (making great effort not to let their own faiths or lack thereof bias them in their work). Their writing style is quite comprehensible to non-academics as well as suitable for those in the field.
The book explains how religion is indeed a ‘market’ that operates like any other market does in a given economy. It defines what the researchers consider as evidence of ‘religiousness’ and then takes the various aspects of the definition and describes the relationship of each to economic growth (and decline).
Having been born in a country with a ‘state religion’, I personally found the section of the book on that topic most informative and interesting. The history and modern-day accounts of state religion(s) are well described.
The authors also address how religion impacts terrorist organizations as well as describing the crowd power of ‘religious clubs’. In particular, there’s an excellent detailed study of Tibetan Buddhism.
The section on competition among religions focuses primarily on the Catholic Church’s reaction to what would be considered the raiding of their people by Protestant groups. The research shows that the Catholic Church seems to react by increasing the number of beatifications and canonizations of individuals on route to being declared ‘saints’ when this competition is most prevelant. An interesting piece of work on its own.
The book is full of economic theory and facts, drawing extensively on the work of many others, but especially Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nationsand Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.
What makes individuals join a religious group, and stay in the group, or leave it is well-explained and very insightful. The theory and research findings both ring true for this reader who has been observing such activity for decades. The impact of the economy on these actions seems strange to accept, but at the same time very difficult to deny.
McClarey and Barro make some basic and most interesting statements throughout the book. One example is, “declining religiosity is not the same as rejecting religion”.  Another is, “…there is something about Harvard – presumably along with similar top universities – that tends to attract nonreligious people.”  There are many more.
The book helped me understand why I can’t expect “moderate Muslims” to stand up to the proponents of “Islamic terrorism” – something I thought should be happening. The authors helped me see, in their chapter on Islam and Economic Growth, why Muslims will never ‘war’ with other Muslims.  That same chapter goes on to give some amazing explanations as to why Islam is today “intellectually rigid, having declared itself perfect without any need of reassessment.”  Fascinating reading.
I recommend the book highly – both for its professional and scholarly treatment of the material, but also as a “must read” for those who have anything to do with religion, or religious organizations – not only their own, but the religion of those they interact with. Definitely useful to ministers, pastors, priests, rabbis, imans, members of religious organization boards, and the ordinary Joe who sits in the pew or kneels on a prayer bench, or rug for that matter.

n  Ken B. Godevenos, President, Accord Resolutions Services Inc., Toronto, Ontario, June 19, 2019,

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