• This book is about how the world’s religions have gained such power, what they do with it, and how abuses of this power can be constrained.
  • —Paul Seabright, The Divine Economy: How Religions Compete for Wealth, Power, and People,1 p. 6
Paul Seabright’s The Divine Economy investigates how religions gain adherents and acquire wealth and power. He finds that it can be useful to treat a religion as a business, and to view it with an economist’s eye. But his approach is broader than that, incorporating sociology, political theory, and evolutionary psychology.

To understand the book, one must try to keep in mind two views of religion. The narrow view is how Seabright defines religion. The broader view is what he calls the “platform perspective.”

As a definition, Seabright uses:

  • … religion is the very large and diverse set of human activities that directly or indirectly involve interaction with invisible spirits who intervene causally in the world, and who can be influenced by appeals from human subjects. p. 36

By putting “invisible spirits” at the center of the definition, Seabright includes what we commonly think of as religions. But he excludes describing something as a religion just because people care strongly about it. You may describe someone as “worshiping the Almighty dollar,” “believing in climate change,” or “Woke,” but they are not treating the dollar, the climate, or systemic racism as spirits to which prayers can be addressed and answered.

But there are people who affiliate with a religion for whom belief in invisible spirits may be unimportant, or even non-existent. Their behavior is best understood from the platform perspective.

  • Religious movements are a special kind of business—they are platforms. Platforms are organizations that facilitate relationships that could not form, or could not function effectively, in the platforms’ absence. p. 15

Seabright claims that the platform perspective helps to explain how religions appeal to humans, how they influence behavior, and how religions compete with one another.

Humans are a social species, and religions have evolved to meet our needs for belonging.

  • The activities of religion have historically included everything from private prayer and meditation through collective spectacle to violent crusades and jihad. They have channeled such diverse emotions as awe, fear, devotion, anger, excitement, and love. They cater to needs for ritual and transcendence, needs for peace and for striving to overcome a challenge, to needs for private and selfish fulfilment as well as the need to be needed by others…
  • … Religious platforms create communities that powerfully articulate that collective dimension to our lives. Some secular institutions can do that too—political parties, for instance. But religious platforms have access to historical traditions, and stories from those traditions, that give them a powerful edge. p. 331

Seabright argues that religions create special social bonds.

  • They may credibly claim that their members are more trustworthy and are, on average, more worthwhile friends and colleagues than random members of the population. p. 332

He would have to acknowledge that there are secular institutions that do this to some extent. If you can say that you were in the marines, or that you went to Yale, people with similar backgrounds will be inclined to trust you.

Seabright offers an extended analysis of the topic of religious competition. He writes,

  • … anything that makes it easier for people to make lucid comparisons between the benefits of belonging to different movements will intensify religious rivalry. p. 333

He offers many insights into the way that religions evolve under the pressure of competition. This is where they face challenges that are very similar to those faced by businesses.

Seabright believes that the Internet is going to force further evolution. He thinks that the Catholic Church is likely to incur another schism, comparable to what took place in the wake of the invention of the printing press. Of course, we can hope that it will not be accompanied by so much violence.

Seabright also believes that tensions will arise concerning the relationship between religion and politics.

  • Everything we have seen in this book about the platform model of religious movements suggests that religion cannot command the legitimacy of most of the population if its leaders use that legitimacy to prop up political rulers, whether or not they are authoritarian. p. 339
“As platforms, religions have an impact on the economy, on politics, and on social relations in general. Friction would seem to be inevitable, and it becomes unclear how best to apply the First Amendment.”

For me, this comes back to the tension between the narrow definition of religion and Seabright’s broader platform perspective. If religion were merely the belief in certain animal spirits, then at least in the United States we would be happy to rely on the First Amendment and a tolerant attitude of, “sure, whatever floats your boat.” But as platforms, religions have an impact on the economy, on politics, and on social relations in general. Friction would seem to be inevitable, and it becomes unclear how best to apply the First Amendment.

For more on these topics, see

Seabright is adamant that religion is not just going to fade away. He concludes,

  • … the religious movements…have for too long been regarded with an odd mixture of reverence by some and scorn by others. These private reactions are no way to think about religion in public life. Religious movements enjoy privileges, and they should acknowledge obligations. It’s time to treat them more pragmatically, more demandingly, not with reverence but with respect. p. 341


Footnotes

[1] Paul Seabright, The Divine Economy: How Religions Compete for Wealth, Power, and People. Princeton University Press, 2024.


*Arnold Kling has a Ph.D. in economics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is the author of several books, including Crisis of Abundance: Rethinking How We Pay for Health Care; Invisible Wealth: The Hidden Story of How Markets Work; Unchecked and Unbalanced: How the Discrepancy Between Knowledge and Power Caused the Financial Crisis and Threatens Democracy; and Specialization and Trade: A Re-introduction to Economics. He contributed to EconLog from January 2003 through August 2012.

Read more of what Arnold Kling’s been reading. For more book reviews and articles by Arnold Kling, see the Archive.


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