Religion and institutions

I see the Pope made some comments about capitalism and social justice, and a bunch of economists were unhappy with this (Mankiw, Sumner) – or were unhappy with the way economists viewed the Pope’s comments.  Note:  This piece is a good discussion.

My view is easily summarized.  Meh.  I grew up in a Catholic family, going to church every week and doing all the classes – and if there was anything I learnt from reading all the “social justice literature” it was that Catholicism as an institution likes to frame things as battles between “right” and “wrong” rather than actually trying to understand the subtle undertones of what is actually happening.  The Pope seems like a nice guy, who is well intentioned, but he relies on “common sense” views of rising injustice – rather than looking at the facts.  While this makes Catholics feel good about themselves, it is a lazy way to talk about justice and fairness – which implies that there is some truth to what he says (we should talk about these matters) but it also propagates dangerous falsehoods.

Note:  If anyone is wondering, I’m not being bitter here.  Growing up my church was filled with good people who were incredibly supportive, who gave me good life advice, and who were always kind – I have nothing but good feelings about any of this.  But the general attitude that exists in society as a whole, that there are obvious good and evil things, is dangerously naive.

Yes, many Catholics have different value judgments than wider society – with far more redistribution desired (I will of course admit to being in this direction on a personal level).  And this is cool!  But I just don’t see this as a reason to employ empty rhetoric to persuade others to introduce policies that favour your value judgments, which is what they are doing.

Of course, this brings us to the actual subject of this post – religion is an institution, an institution that fills a certain role within society and the lives of an individual.  When we think about ideas of ‘social capital’, religion offers us a lens on the type of community/social institutions we are talking about when thinking about this issue.  This is a common idea, and with the use of a little game theory we can even state that Jesus was an early applied economist.

As individuals we are boundedly rational, we form groups and use their judgments and expectations to form our own.  Even secular individuals do this in a way comparable to religion:

Sticking to the religion example, it is clear that religion offers many positives.  Many of the rules written in the New Testament offer clear moral guidelines that help individuals co-ordinate and co-operate.  The weekly meeting point for individuals helps to build trust and social integration.  The sense of purpose associated with religion gives people direct consumption value/peace.  All very lovely.

However, religion has undeniably reinforced negative racial stereotypes.  It has reinforced sexism.  It punished people based on their sexual preferences.  It has helped to cause wars.  It reinforced the push for “normality” and “homogeneity” in society when individuals are inherently different!!!  Institutions that provide “social capital” do so within a group – but individual groups often define their own purpose and focus on the basis of how they are different from other groups.

For a slightly different example, think of the way we talk about income inequality.  We almost always look at arbitrary “nation states”.  Not global inequality.  Less often we will look at regional inequality, but always with reference to this nation state.  There is nothing “natural” about the nation state – it could be a lot larger, or a lot smaller.  It could encompass more groups, or less.  But we base our view on a whole range of factors (justice, fairness, the performance of our group, and our view about what people and things matter) on this nation state.  Individuals view of the state is part of their “social capital” but there are negative and positive aspects to this.

Many conflicts about fairness are actually pushes by individual groups to get what they perceive to be in their interest, even if it involves hurting other groups – people are just supporting their team, because they believe it supports the interests of their group.  And this is completely sensible for individuals – as it would be impossible to process, and co-ordinate, a completely optimal solution.

But this also tells us why it is important for clear, transparent, and independent analysis of these types of issues.  There are trade-offs in society, and different sets of values.  Making these clear and accessible to people helps to improve choices, and hopefully helps to improve the evolution of institutions – although this is not given, as institutions are heavily history dependent.

To finish, SMBC sums things up nicely:


4 replies
  1. Michael Reddell
    Michael Reddell says:

    So you reckon that “religion has undeniably reinforced negative racial stereotypes… It has helped to cause wars”
    Shall we just focus on the Christian religion – which teaches that before God there is “neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female”. And as for the most destructive wars in history, there is no conceivable interpretation on which World War One was caused by religion, World War Two was at least arguably down to an absence of religion (unless you are conflating religion and anti-religious ideology). And that is before we start on Genghis Khan.

    • Matt Nolan
      Matt Nolan says:

      I do not disagree that many of the teachings of the bible should reinforce the idea that war is bad – and that we need to love each other irrespective of our race or sex. Furthermore, the parable of the good Samaritan explicitly points out some of the shortcomings of group behaviour – and explicitly tells people to also look beyond their group!

      However, the Crusades were a long lasting, bloody, and religiously motivated war. The constant conflicts between Protestants and Catholics were at least in part motivated by religion as well. I said “helped” as a single factor is never the driver of conflict – but religion is a type of group behaviour, and there are positive aspects to that, and negative aspects in terms of how we treat “other” groups.

      I am also not saying that there wouldn’t be institutions that allow, or reinforce, these things in the absence of religion. Missing the idea of “opportunity cost” in this sense would be an unforgivable oversight!

      Religion, and the history of how different religious groups have functioned in practice, gives us a lens into viewing the negatives AND positives of social capital. These issues are not unique to religion – but religion offers us a wealth of history to help think through the issues!

      • Michael Reddell
        Michael Reddell says:

        I’m not suggesting that no conflict anywhere has ever had a religious dimension, but religion as cause of conflict is much overstated. By the standards of historical global conflicts, the Crusades were not particularly “bloody”, and were primarily defensive on the part of the West to sustained territorial aggression by entities that had Islam for their religion, but where religion was far from being the only driving force behind the expansion. And I’d accept the Thirty Years War as having a strong religious dimension, but not the rest of post-Reformation European conflicts. As I noted, the bloodiest wars in history don’t seem to have had a strong religious dimension. And the Christian church has often acted as a force for restraining evil in warfare – eg the Just War teachings, and humanitarian treatment of prisoners. non-combatants etc.
        I’m also not going to defend religion as generally good. The truth claims of various religions are in fundamental conflict. As a Christian, I find no more overall in common with a Muslim than with an atheist. Truth, when well-applied, is a force for good in the world. Error, however applied, is generally not. Of course, in today’s world few are willing to run too far with any sort of concept of truth.

        • Matt Nolan
          Matt Nolan says:

          Fair enough – I would note my comments about religion are not about Christianity, but religion as a general concept. In the same way that Durkheim discussed it back in the day.

          The key point was that institutions (in this case focusing on religion as an example) influence expectations and beliefs. As a result, these institutions and the “social capital” we may attribute to them, have positive and negative elements.

          This framework can be applied to any institution, whether it is supported by progressive or conservative elements in general. And I find it a useful lens for understanding why both US conservatives and US progressives are bemoaning the fact that “things aren’t as good as they were in the 1970s” – this post was a primer for a post I’m going to pop up on that 😉

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