free market as religion :: economics as theology

“Our present economic system should also be understood as our religion, because it has come to fulfill a religious function for us. The discipline of economics is less a science than the theology of that religion, and its god, the Market, has become a vicious circle of ever-increasing production and consumption by pretending to offer a secular salvation. The collapse of communism makes it more apparent that the Market is becoming the first truly world religion, binding all corners of the globe into a worldview and set of values whose religious role we overlook only because we insist on seeing them as ‘secular.’” (15)

It is important to pay attention to the conceptual employment of both “secularity” and “religion.” Both concepts have shifted their content so that they demarcate autonomous spheres of ethical thinking. “Religion” is an abstract term that enables the speaker to lump incredibly diverse worldviews together in a single term, and generally, to contrast them to something else. “Religion” is the corral which contains a certain motley collection of worldviews in order to open space for the “secular.” The “secular” on the other hand is the “real” world in which thought is reduced to basic material and utilitarian terms, without the distraction of (private) values, beliefs, or metaphysical constraints. Past traditions (with their encumbering and superstitious restrictions) and any sense of the intrinsic importance of wild beauty or freedom are “external” considerations, things for other people to worry about in private—after all we live in the real world, the public sphere. 

“Although it may offend our vanity, it is somewhat ludicrous to think of conventional religious institutions as we know them today serving a significant role in solving the environmental crisis. Their more immediate problem is whether they, like the rain forests we anxiously monitor, will survive in any recognizable form the onslaught of this new religion.” (15) 

In exchange for a deeply grounded identity and a place in the ecological whole of the planet, we receive the consumer frills of a culture burning all the world’s candles at both ends. This “plenty” for which we endlessly labor is, supposedly, heaven. Or at least a third-rate knock off. Because perhaps, in the end, this is the heaven we’ve been imagining since Dante—divorced from the world that we know, from rocks, trees, lions and lambs. The (unreachable, but always “close”) heaven of the Market is that insipid climate-controlled cloud where nothing interesting ever happens because we’ve finally isolated ourselves from all of nature’s unpredictability (btw, there’s harp music for $2, if that’s your thing). 

“Market capitalism began as, and may still be understood as, a form of salvation religion: dissatisfied with the world as it is and seeking to inject a new promise into it, motivated (and justifying itself) by faith in the grace of profit and concerned to perpetuate that grace, with a missionary zeal to expand and reorder (rationalize) the economic system [where its ‘good news’ has not yet reached].” (19)

The myth of “secularity” is that a society can exist without some fundamentally orienting value distinctions (even a plurality), without some basic ordering of perception, and interaction with, the world. As it turns out, it cannot—the basic order appears implicitly and unacknowledged rather than consciously. When the free market is understood as the source of these fundamental value distinctions, even though it is supposedly “secular,” one recognizes its religious function in our lives. One corollary of this is that the “Separation of Church and State” is revealed to be a myth—without even entering into a debate about evolution or prayer in schools. Our “State” has a deeply vested interest in the national Establishment faith, the progress of the market. 

“Until the last few centuries there has been little genuine distinction between church and state, between sacred authority and secular power, and that cozy relationship continues today: far from maintaining an effective regulatory or even neutral position, the U.S. government has become the most powerful proponent of the religion of market capitalism as the way to live, and indeed it may have little choice insofar as it is now a pimp dependent upon skimming the cream of market profits.” (21) 

The most pressing theological tasks of the present include “publicly” exposing the (invisibly) idolatrous invasions of the market into the life and well-being of the planet; and narrating a tradition with a strong sense of identity rooted in a deep and complex history—a community with open boundaries and a promiscuous invitation.



All quotes from:

Loy, David. “The Religion of the Market.” In Visions of a New Earth: Religious Perspectives on Population, Consumption, and Ecology, 15-28 Ed. Harold Coward and Daniel Maguire. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2000.

6 Replies to “free market as religion :: economics as theology”

  1. Eric,

    three cheers from me.

    Have you read Michael Northcott? If not, you should read “A Moral Climate” soon. His argument follows your post above rather closely, in that the ‘myth’ of global capitalism is finally facing fact in an increasingly decimated earth towards which it has no alternative but to continue to plunder. It might just be that the metaphysic upon which the whole project is founded is bunk. (or maybe more technology could fix it, one or the other…)

    heres a spicy taste of Northcott,

    “A refusal to recognize that it is precisely the imperialist nature of the global economy which is driving the ecological and social destruction… Neoliberalism rests on a collective lie of momentous proportions, which is that when economic growth is pursued without let or hindrance, and when material power is concentrated in the hands of economic corporations, the peoples of the earth will enjoy progress and peace. And it is therefore no coincidence that the prime sponsors of global warming denial are the United States government, multinational corporations and corporately-owned mass media.” (pg. 39)

  2. I think your author has done a good job of defining idolatry. But isn’t that the nature of materialism in all its definitions? I trust the author offers some way of ameliorating scarcity that does not exacerbate suffering. Facing the reality of how to feed, clothe, and shelter is a noble deed and must be pursued. How does the author propose the exchange of goods and ideas without a market?

    Finding excess and plunder in any human system is easy. Goodness, the church is an easy place to start. I think the marketplace is one of the most basic forms of community from the foundations of civilization. As with any human institution, it will be abused and I perceive the greatest abuses having come with authoritarian control oppressing the basic functioning of the community in the market.

    I think more Christians should find themselves in the marketplace rather than just criticizing it. As a response of sorts, try Michael Novak…even Craig Gay.

  3. Hey there Matt,

    I haven’t read Northcott, thanks for the suggestion. I’ll look him up when I come up for air one of these days.

    He wouldn’t be the only person to suggest that our economic and ecological problems are driven by metaphysical confusions, and I find that argument convincing more often than not these days.

  4. Hi Mac,

    Thanks for your comments.

    As I read your thoughts, I’m wondering if “market” is perhaps being used in two ways here. I take you to be saying that human exchange is inevitable (and good!)—to which I heartily agree. For Loy, on the other hand, I think that the market stands as a place-holder for a more specific term (“market capitalism” shows up a few times in the quotes above) that designates a system built on the aspiration to perpetual growth—and perpetually growing growth if possible. That version of the market and the societal impact that it has does really strike me as intractibly short-sighted and delusional.

    Loy doesn’t do much to offer an alternative in the concrete (though I haven’t read his other work). If I were to venture a suggestion, it would be along the lines of the reversal of many of our present trends: localization rather than globalization (prioritizing the village market rather than the stock market), restrictions advertising, internalization of ecological “costs”, etc.

    But no matter what the solution looks like, I think that the first step must be to break the idolatrous power that our economic systems have over our social structures and day-to-day lives. I like Loy’s article because he refuses the separation between the economic and the theological—a point that stands even if you dislike his economics.

    Give a hug to Melissa! It’s always good to hear from you. (I think that your vote tipped Virginia to Obama!)


  5. Reflecting upon the financial crisis the world is slouching into, I cannot help but remember “It’s A Wonderful Life” when the banking system is described as people depositing their cash into the bank so the bank could fund the building of houses within the community. On a larger scale, this may include the funding of Martini’s restaurant expansion project or the updating of the Bedford Falls bridge. The sophistication of today markets may even take my deposit to some crazy in inventor in Finland. I think that is good, but it also gives much power to the gatekeepers of finance. If we are truly one humanity, the question of global community must be asked at Religious, Political, and Economic levels.

    Market Capitalism is a way to raise money for projects within the community. A company with a great idea should be allowed entrance into the capital market so that idea may become reality and hopefully benefit the greater community. However, and I think this is your point, who decides what a great idea may be and what is the definition of ‘benefit the community’?

    You will be exploring a realm where more hairs have been split than I care to imagine. Please come to Virginia Beach if you want a change of scenery, we have plenty of room.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: