Robert Eklund, Robert Hebert, and Robert Tollison (three Roberts) have just released a book called The Marketplace of Christianity, a book that explores the development of Christianity from the point of view of an economist.
This startlingly original (and sure to be controversial) account of the evolution of Christianity shows that the economics of religion has little to do with counting the money in the collection basket and much to do with understanding the background of today's religious and political divisions. Since religion is a set of organized beliefs, and a church is an organized body of worshippers, it's natural to use a science that seeks to explain the behavior of organizations--economics--to understand the development of organized religion. The Marketplace of Christianity applies the tools of economic theory to illuminate the emergence of Protestantism in the sixteenth century and to examine contemporary religion-influenced issues, including evolution and gay marriage.
The Protestant Reformation, the authors argue, can be seen as a successful penetration of a religious market dominated by a monopoly firm--the Catholic Church. The Ninety-five Theses nailed to the church door in Wittenberg by Martin Luther raised the level of competition within Christianity to a breaking point. The Counter-Reformation, the Catholic reaction, continued the competitive process, which came to include "product differentiation" in the form of doctrinal and organizational innovation. Economic theory shows us how Christianity evolved to satisfy the changing demands of consumers--worshippers.
The authors of The Marketplace of Christianity avoid value judgments about religion. They take preferences for religion as given and analyze its observable effects on society and the individual. They provide the reader with clear and nontechnical background information on economics and the economics of religion before focusing on the Reformation and its aftermath. Their analysis of contemporary hot-button issues--science vs. religion, liberal vs. conservative, clerical celibacy, women and gay clergy, gay marriage--offers a vivid illustration of the potential of economic analysis to contribute to our understanding of religion.
From the Chronicle of Higher Ed ($$$):
"Economics does not give us a full and complete explanation for any of these things," says Robert B. Ekelund Jr., a professor emeritus of economics at Auburn University and one of the authors of The Marketplace of Christianity. (His collaborators are Robert F. Hébert, also a professor emeritus at Auburn, and Robert D. Tollison, a professor of economics at Clemson University.) "But economics does enter into our understanding of religion, just as sociology, anthropology, and psychology have done in the past."
And if some people worry that using demand curves and utility functions to analyze religious experiences cheapens the mystery and beauty of those experiences, Mr. Ekelund and others in the field are quick to answer that their approach is more respectful of believers than were previous social-scientific models. Where Marx, Freud, and Durkheim, in their various ways, argued that religion was fundamentally irrational, economists of religion take people's desire for "spiritual goods" at face value. (For the record, Mr. Ekelund says that he, Mr. Hébert, and Mr. Tollison are, respectively, a skeptic, a practicing Roman Catholic, and a practicing Methodist.)
Some scholars outside the subfield, however, doubt that rational-choice models of religion are useful or coherent. Critics have suggested that measuring spiritual goods is so difficult that it is impossible to construct meaningful supply-and-demand models for religious markets
Perhaps neuroeconomics would be useful here. I imagine that someone could examine the brains of subjects to see if people use the same part of their brains to make choices about spiritual goods as they do about other goods. Then again, correct me if I'm wrong because I am not an expert in neuroeconomics. Here's a little more from the Chronicle on the industrial organization of the market for religion:
The central question that animates The Marketplace of Christianity is: Why has the supply of Christian churches taken different shapes at different times and places? In other words, why does the contemporary United States offer hundreds of flavors of Christianity, while medieval Western Europe was effectively a Roman Catholic monopoly?
Among other things, the authors take on one of the oldest puzzles in historical sociology: Why did the Protestant Reformation succeed in some parts of Europe but not in others? (See "The Reformation and the Pre-Capitalist Spirit," Below.)
But they also look at more-contemporary issues, arguing that the present-day Roman Catholic Church is highly vulnerable to schism because ordinary Catholics in the affluent West hold much more liberal social attitudes than do Catholics in the developing world.
The new book extends an argument that the authors developed in a controversial 1996 book, Sacred Trust: The Medieval Church as an Economic Firm (Oxford University Press). (Sacred Trust was written with two more authors, Gary M. Anderson and Audrey B. Davidson.) The scholars argued there that the pre-Reformation Catholic Church exploited its monopoly position just as monopoly industries do, looking for each and every opportunity to raise fees on its trapped "customers."
For example, the authors suggested that the concept of purgatory was invented in the 12th century precisely so the Church could extract financial donations from people who wanted to make sure that their deceased relatives' souls would move from purgatory to heaven. That innovation, the economists argued, allowed the Church to engage in "price discrimination" similar to modern industrial firms. The "doctrine of purgatory," they wrote, "provided the Church an opportunity to enhance its revenues and its power by offering differential prices for assurances of salvation to different demanders."
In The Marketplace of Christianity, the authors move forward into the Reformation, arguing that the Catholic Church reacted to the new "market entrant" — Protestantism — much as AT&T reacted when its own monopoly was broken. Among many other things, they argue, the Church competed by increasing the number of Catholic feast holidays offered in regions where Protestantism closely competed with Catholicism.
"There were many potential entrants up to the 16th century," Mr. Ekelund says, "but Luther was the one who entered and made it stick. And after Luther, what we have is a competitive market in Christianity."
Protestantism succeeded, the authors say, by offering a "pricing scheme" both simpler and less expensive than the Catholic Church's. Gone was the practice of purchasing indulgences, and Protestants were generally asked to demonstrate their faith through the practice of "good works" rather than through financial donations. ("In its initial form," the authors write, "Protestantism had fewer mechanisms through which its agents could extract rents, so that, in effect, it sold redemption much cheaper, even allowing for the seemingly random allocation of God's grace.")
I think of the term "economic imperialism" as meaning what happens when economic thought begins to dominate the examination of problems often thought to be in the realm of other disciplines. Perhaps "imperialism" is too strong of a word. Do economists try to take over when they begin to examine what some might call "non-economic questions?" I doubt it. But if the application of economic thought to some, say, sociological problem becomes accepted over time, it may seem to be "imperialist", but it was really others concluding that the economic way of thinking about that problem was the best.