From Abnegation to Actualization: Religion and Economy in the World of Global Interdependence

Tetsunori Koizumi, Director

What is the proper relationship between religion and economy? One obvious response to this question is to argue that religion and economy represent two separate spheres of human activities and should be treated as such. We may recall Jesus’ response to this question as recorded in The New Testament: “No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.”1 Indeed, it is tempting to argue that the question has become mostly irrelevant in modern secular societies, in which our attention is increasingly turned towards serving mammon, towards managing the mundane affairs of life.

However, it is impossible to argue that religion and economy represent two non-intersecting spheres of human activities. For one thing, to the extent that religion addresses itself to the question of values, it influences not only which goods and services are transacted in the economy but also how these transactions are carried out. In addition, the line dividing religious and economic motives behind human activities is not always clear and can become blurred or even obliterated in some cases.

If complete separation of religion and economy is impossible, how can a society ensure that both the spiritual and material needs of its members are satisfied while maintaining its cohesion and viability as a system? Once the question is rephrased in these terms, it is not difficult to see why different societies have had to choose among what might be termed the four archetypal modes of interaction between religion and economy: (1) abnegation, (2) alliance, (3) apologist, and (4) actualization.

(1) Abnegation: The first mode of interaction between religion and economy can be termed the “abnegation” mode. Here, the society, recognizing that unbridled freedom of economic activities is potentially disruptive of social cohesion and viability, tries to “abnegate”, if not totally “repress”, economic motives and activities within a broader system of religious values.

The enforcement of usury laws to prevent excessive exploitation in money lending is a good case in point, and such laws have been adopted in many societies. The notion of “just price”, on which Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) expounded in his Summa Theologiae, also developed from a similar concern over excessive profit making in trade. The Islamic doctrine of economics can also be interpreted in this light: for the adherents of the faith, economic motives cannot be separated from religious ideals, let alone be elevated over them. We are free to engage in economic activities as long as we do not violate the basic Islamic value system embodied, for example, in the conception of umma as an ideal community.2 In Buddhist societies, we are aware that the Buddha lists five trades, as recorded in the Anguttara Nikaya, as the kinds of economic activities to be avoided: “The five trades, O monks, should not be taken up by a lay follower: trading in weapons, trading in living beings, trading in meat, trading in intoxication, trading in poison.”3

(2) Alliance: The second mode of interaction between religion and economy is one in which religion is employed as an ally in our economic activities. This mode of interaction between religion and economy has attracted the attention of researchers mainly because of classic studies by Richard H. Tawney (1880-1962) and Max Weber (1864-1920) on the alliance between Calvinism and capitalism in the early phase of capitalist development in the West.4 While the “abnegation” mode looks askance at our economic motives, the “alliance” mode elevates them into part and parcel of our religious devotion. Acquisitiveness, avarice, and greed, which would be regarded as vices in most religions, are accepted as necessary, if not essential, elements of the religious value system because these human traits are needed if we are to be successful in our economic activities. Here, the accumulation of material wealth becomes one of the most highly cherished values, because material wealth, as represented by Jean Calvin’s (1509-1564) idea of “predestination”, is a sign that we are among the chosen.

In the context of the history of religious ideas, the “alliance” mode can be traced back to the Judeo-Christian value system, in which morality meant, “to do the best we can with what we are endowed with in our life”. In capitalistic societies that have evolved out of the Judeo-Christian tradition, such human traits as entrepreneurship, ingenuity, and inventiveness are among the values most highly regarded, for these values are needed in creating wealth by exploiting resources around us to better our lot in this world.5 The words of John D. Rockefeller (1839-1937) in an interview given in 1905—“God gave me my money. I believe the power to make money is a gift from God”—attest to the importance of Calvinistic faith for this giant of early capitalism in the U.S.A.6 Rockefeller, in the same interview quoted above, goes on to say: “I believe it is my duty to make money and still more money and to use the money I make for the good of my fellow man according to the dictates of my conscience.” These words show that Rockefeller was concerned about the welfare of his fellow human beings as well, a concern that could be considered the foundation of the next mode of interaction between religion and economy.

(3) Apologist: Liberal democratic societies in the world today have evolved out of a constitutional commitment to the separation of church and state, or the separation of God and Caesar, as Jesus put it: “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.”7 In these societies, religion and economy are treated, at least in principle, as addressing themselves to separate spheres of human activities. However, since the two cannot be completely separated, the freedom to engage in economic activities in these societies sooner or later begins to infringe on religious conscience. In the “apologist” mode of interaction, which is the third mode of interaction between religion and economy, the society deals with conflicts between religion and economy by paying lip service to its inherited religious values. Thus, if our accomplishment in the economic arena is to command respect from our fellow societal members, we are expected to donate a portion of our acquired wealth to worthy causes.

The “apologist” mode of interaction reflects, to some extent, a sentiment that we have gone too far in our pursuit of material progress since the Industrial Revolution. As science and technology have become engines of social change and tools of social engineering, modern liberal democratic societies have become excessively secularized, relegating religion to perform ceremonial functions at best. A sentiment that something vital is missing from our pursuit of material progress has emerged, necessitating the re-examination of the role of religion, which used to define the meaning of life for us. However, as long as the society lives by its constitutional commitment to the separation of church and state, it cannot hope to fuse religion and economy in any other way than the “apologist” mode.

(4) Actualization: The fourth mode of interaction between religion and economy may be termed the “actualization” mode. Here, religion is elevated over economy not because economic motives ought to be abnegated for the sake of social cohesion and viability, but because religious values are seen as emerging at the highest stage of human development. Economic motives are not renounced, and economic activities are regarded as necessary if only to satisfy the basic material needs of our life. However, we should never be too preoccupied with our economic activities, for being so is a sign that our human development has not attained its fullest potential. As our needs for clothing and food are satisfied, as Confucius says, our consciousness about civility and moderation emerges. A similar hierarchy of values is also found in the teaching of Muhammad: “Wealth and children are only the gloss of this world, but good deeds that abide are better with your Lord for recompense, and better for expectation.”8 Religion sits at the top of our value system in this mode of interaction, for religion, as Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) put it, stems from our quest for the “highest good”.

Needless to say, a society as a whole must solve its economic problems, which cater to our lower needs, before it can direct the attention of its members towards actualization, or awakening. The Buddha’s inclusion of Right Livelihood as one of the eight factors in the Noble Eightfold Path illustrates that he conceives of our economic activities as one aspect of the set of mental and physical activities that together lead us to the overall goal of accomplishing enlightenment. Here, the accumulation of wealth is not negated as long as it is “righteous wealth righteously gained”. As the Buddha puts it in the Anguttara Nikaya, “With the wealth acquired by energetic striving, amassed by the strength of his arms, earned by the sweat of his brow, righteous wealth righteously gained, the noble disciple undertakes four worthy deeds.”9

Religion and economy in the age of global capitalism: What is the proper relationship between religion and economy in the age of global capitalism, in which all economies of the world and all cultures with diverse religious heritages are entangled in a web of global transactions? The question needs to be subjected to serious reexamination today, especially in the wake of the Great Recession of 2008, brought about as a result of Wall Street having been turned into El Dorado for bright and aspiring college graduates who, with no compunction at all, accumulate their personal wealth by manipulating stocks with insider information and enticing their clients to invest in toxic assets. Needless to say, what happens on Wall Street is only a symptom of what might be called the “GDP fetishism” that still prevails in most societies as the dominant faith of economic men and women as well as policymakers.

The “abnegation” mode of interaction between religion and economy is unlikely to work in the age of global capitalism because globalization has brought all kinds of religions into the same arena of interaction, and sectarian conflicts even within a single faith are reported almost daily. The “alliance” mode is also unlikely to work because it leads to—and can even be employed as a justification for—global inequality of wealth between the chosen few and all the others. In a way, the financial wizards of Wall Street, who were behind the near collapse of the global economy, are the latter-day Calvinists of global capitalism, except that their religion is a new brand of quantitative finance that enabled them to amass enormous personal fortunes with financial manipulations.

The “apologist” mode is still the dominant mode of interaction in most liberal democratic societies. However, it is not obvious to what extent an activity such as charitable donation is done out of religious conviction rather than out of economic motive for taking advantage of tax incentives. Of course, there is nothing wrong with taking advantage of tax incentives, as far as the adherents of a faith called “market fundamentalism” are concerned. The problem is that, in professing their continued faith in the marketplace as the sole medium through which all of our transactions—economic as well as religious—are to be settled, they are promoting the alliance between religion and economy, except that economics has become their religion.

If the “abnegation” mode, the “alliance” mode, and the “apologist” mode all come short of performing the task of harmonizing religious and economic motives and mediating all kinds of transactions that take place in the global economy, the “actualization” mode becomes the only remaining option for us. The “actualization” mode has an obvious advantage in the age of global capitalism, in that it does not require us to be adherents of one specific religion. All religions of the world today are willing to subscribe to and promote such core human values as compassion, equality, justice, and respect for the environment. It may be difficult to abandon the “GDP fetishism” once and for all. Yet a few societies, led by Bhutan, have taken a commendable step towards replacing GDP—which only promotes a “grossly distorted picture” as far as social cohesion and viability are concerned—with a new indicator called Gross National Happiness (GNH). As for individuals, the image of economic man—and woman—must be abandoned once and for all in favor of the new image of mindful individuals who, with an awareness of the importance of promoting such core human values as compassion, equality, justice, and respect for the environment, will engage in their economic activities as an integral aspect of practice towards “actualization”, whether it is called entering the kingdom of heaven, or accomplishing enlightenment.

  1. The Holy Bible (King James Version), Collins World, 1976, Matthew 6:24.
  2. For Islamic economics, see, for example, Kuran, Timur, “Islamic Economics and the Islamic Subeconomy,” Journal of Economic Perspectives, 9(4), Fall 1995.
  3. Bhikkhu Bodhi, In the Buddha’s Words: An Anthology of Discourses from the Pali Canon, Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2005, p. 126.
  4. See Tawney, Richard H., Religion and the Rise of Capitalism: A Historical Study, Gloucester: Smith, 1929, and Weber, Max, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, London: Allen and Unwin, 1930.
  5. For an extensive discussion of religion and economy in the Judeo-Christian and other traditions, see: Novak, Michael (ed.), Capitalism and Socialism: A Theological Inquiry, Washington: American Enterprise Institute, 1979.
  6. Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, 16th ed., Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1992, p.539.
  7. The Holy Bible, op. cit., Matthew 22:21.
  8. Qur’an, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988, 18:46.
  9. Bhikkhu Bodhi, op. cit., p. 126.

 * Presented at the Buddhist Economics Meeting, held at Dharma Drum Buddhist College, New Taipei City, Taiwan, December 16, 2012.