Fukagawa Hachiman Matsuri
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We asked an ‘economics of religion’ professor to explain what her subject actually means

"Everyone has a view on religion. We want to inform the debate, rather than inflame it."

When we ask people what they want from economics, we'll often hear things along the lines of, "Just be honest about the facts. Be transparent about where these ideas are coming from, so I can make my own judgement call."

Economics is often presented as though values and emotions had nothing to do with it – but at the end of the day, if economics is about people, then it's got to be about our beliefs and value systems as much as it is about the numbers.

Understanding where people's beliefs come from is impossible without looking at religion. We set out to explore the connection between religion and economics – what different religions say about the economy, how their ideas about the way humans should interact with each other affect people's decision-making, and what power religious organizations have in our economies.

Figuring all this out was a pretty overwhelming task – so we turned where anyone would for advice: YouTube. That's how we came across a lecture by Dr. Sriya Iyer, one of the few professors in the world who teach what's called 'economics of religion.' We gave her a ring to ask her what that actually means, why she thinks economics matters to religion, and why religion matters to economics.

Here's our interview:

What does ‘economics of religion’ really mean?

It’s basically trying to use economic ideas and statistical tools to look at the role of religion in society. What we’re really trying to do is say, “Are there ideas from economic research that we could use to look at the evolution of religion?”

We’ve got to marry what we know from social scientists, who have been studying religion for years, with what we can learn from our tools as economists.

We don’t have a grand theory yet. It’s about doing careful, local studies in different parts of the world. The field is just very young at the moment – so we need to be quite careful about what economics can claim.

Everyone has a view on religion, a bit like politics. It’s quite interesting to work in these areas. But of course we want to inform the debate rather than inflame it.

Why are people surprised at the idea of bringing the two subjects together?

“A lot of economics research is very much about rational decision-making. But when we look at religion, people often think of it as irrational, or emotional.

So that’s what really surprises people when we bring economics and religion together – because religion based very much on feeling, upbringing, emotion.

But I think it works. The scholars in the field are being very careful. We’re not saying that economics is going to solve religious issues – we’re just saying in specific settings, there might be insights that economic methods could bring to the understanding of religion.

What exactly can economics explain about religion?

One of the ideas that’s really central in economics is the question of ‘incentives’ – what people respond to, either as individuals making decisions, or as groups; like religious groups.

The other is competition – just like you have banks competing with each other to provide different accounts, you could have religious organizations competing to provide services. I work on this in the context of India, providing healthcare, finance, jobs.

Another one that’s interesting, and that I work on, is how religion is involved in providing public services. We’re seeing a lot rising inequality at the moment around the world. In developing countries, the services the state provides to counter this are incomplete or not big enough. So you’ve got religious organizations stepping in to basically provide the education and healthcare that the state isn’t providing. And as they do so, that’s increasing their following, donations, and so on – which makes them quite powerful.

Religious organizations have a mobilizing ability that others don’t. But then the bigger question is how you regulate what they’re doing, without infringing on people’s faith. These are very difficult questions to answer.

Another topic that’s very relevant nowadays is religious conflict. How does it involve? Why do we witness it more in some societies than others? Economics might be able to tell us something here. If it’s related to poverty, jobs, insecurity, unemployment, economics could have a role to play in finding the root to the conflict, and resolving it.

And what could religion explain about economics?

So this is a whole other field, called religious economics, which looks much more at whether religious texts have economic implications. What age you should marry, how many children you should have, whether you should use contraception – different religions have different views on these things.

Whether people actually follow these views in their day to day behavior is a decision that each individual makes, and is affected by other factors too. So for example, Spain is a very Catholic country, but fertility rates are very low, because women are educated, and are choosing careers over families.

So religious issues end up being mediated by other factors, like education. If a woman is educated, she’s likely to have fewer children, whether or not she’s Hindu, Muslim, or whatever. So that might matter more – it’s not that religion isn’t important to her, but other factors may dominate even more.

What do you think people misunderstand about religion today?

One of the big assumptions people make about religion is that they might not realize how many people in the world actually ascribe to some kind of religious belief or religious faith. There’s been a lot of data coming out which shows that there are still some 5.8 billion people around the world who say they are religious – that’s huge, when you think about it.

The rich world is becoming less religious, and the developing world is becoming more religious. People sometimes think that religion’s influence is diminishing as economies grow, but that’s not what we’ve seen. We’ve actually seen a stronger influence of religion.

My view is that inequality is a big part of this story. It may not really be poverty that is driving the evolution of religion, but inequality. As inequality grows, the importance of religion does too.

Are you religious?

I’m Hindu, yes.

So has studying this field influenced your faith in any way?

I don’t do the economics of religion because I’m religious. I don’t link the two at all, but the first thing people ask me when I say I work on this field is “Are you religious?” I always say that if I worked on the economics of crime, people wouldn’t ask me if I’m a criminal. I’m Hindu, but they’re not linked.

I grew up in India, which is obviously a country with very diverse religions, that are very predominant, and you see it in everyday life. So I was keen to study it more because I saw it’s influence. But to be honest, I think you need to separate the two very distinctly. Personal religious faith is personal – it’s a different area of life.

Do you think there’ll ever be a time when religious organizations aren’t involved in the economy at all?

I don’t think we’ll ever be in a situation where religious organizations won’t provide anything – I think I’d be surprised. I wouldn’t say whether it’s good or bad – I’d say it’s just a fact. They’re providing so much of this around the world – Latin America, Africa, Asia – I don’t think, overnight, that’s likely to change.

For most of these organizations, spirituality and service is what motivates their work. So serving the community by providing these services is part of what they do. It’s not just that they need to, they want to.

Do you think a lot of people become part of a religion for economic reasons?

I think it’s primarily because of faith, and belief, and the economics is just one aspect of a very complex decision to adhere to a particular religious group or sect. I don’t think it’s the primary reason. But in societies with a lot of inequality, the economics might complement other reasons that people choose to be religious.

So the end of poverty wouldn’t mean the end of religion.

No, not at all, because people believe for other reasons. Some people have the healthcare and the education and still believe – the US is the richest country in the world but also the most religious country in the world. That’s why the area is very complex. It’s not so much about the dominance of the economics. It’s about how the economics interacts with other factors – whether it’s their beliefs, or sense of belonging, and social norms – this is why we need more research.

Liked this piece? Check out the rest of Economy Explores: Religion

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