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Putting the Cart Before the Horses: Can Christianity Learn from Economics?

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The leaders of Britain, politicians, intellectuals and churches, invariably focus on what’s gone wrong with life, whether it’s the economy, the NHS, education, inequality or foodbanks. Yet that’s to start with the carts of life. There are some useful lessons we might draw from economics, offering a message on Lent and sin. Without the horse, the cart is pretty useless, so let’s rather begin with the horse.  And, by that, I mean I’m grateful that I’m neither dead nor am I dirt poor. And that’s astonishing progress, because only 100 years ago my uncle John Robert Atherton (after whom I was probably named), was born and died in 1900, one of the 20% who tragically died in childhood of incurable infectious diseases. The remainder often suffered from great undernourishment, and from lack of education. In contrast, I’m 76, highly educated, have a modest pension, and therefore the freedom to be and to do. And these great and historic achievements have beneficially affected more and more people increasingly across the whole world in terms of incomes, life expectancy and education.

Of course, these are not as yet a universal achievement. A very significant but diminishing minority do not share in the benefits obtained by the Industrial and then the Mortality Revolutions. A billion still live in absolute poverty, and, in rich economies like Britain and the USA, a significant minority still suffer from relative deprivation. These deeply disturbing situations reflect what is called the paradox of development; the great achievements in wellbeing in the last 200 years have also been accompanied by deeply negative forces, including grave inequalities (throughout history, and including today, these paradoxes of development, or ‘horsemen of the apocalypse’, traditionally included famines, epidemic, climate changes, migrations and state failures).

So this analysis is therefore about putting the horse back where it belongs: before the cart. Don’t begin, as our leaders in academia, politics and churches do, with the downsides of life, with the paradoxes of development. No. Begin with the ongoing historic achievements in income, health and education in only the last 200 years. Then, and only then, also address the paradoxes of development.

What on earth has Lent and sin got to do with this? Well, for most of its history Christianity has regularly put the cart before the horse, and especially in the season of Lent, and especially with its focus on sin. And that’s again putting things the wrong way round. Let’s think a bit more about this.

So much of the church’s historic views on sin are pathological, and are now also profoundly inaccurate and unhelpful.  Let me give you a few examples:

In medieval churches, the walls were often covered with paintings regularly featuring vivid pictures of hell as the punishment for sin if the parishioners didn’t confess to a priest.  The fear this inevitably injected was also a powerful way of controlling the population.

If a newborn baby died before it was baptised, it was, until relatively recently, buried in unconsecrated ground outside the consecrated church yard – because its original sin, addressed only through baptism, therefore ostracised it beyond the pale.

When I was a young Rector of Hulme Church in inner city Manchester in the late 1960s, I was frequently asked to ‘church’ a young mother who had just given birth to a child.  Now, this old ‘churching’ service wasn’t a ‘thanksgiving for childbirth’ as it later became.  It was a (grandmothers won’t let the daughter out till she’d been churched), going back to the Christian doctrine that original sin was transmitted to new generations through the sexual act, through the woman’s birth of a child.

Why on earth did Christianity and the churches have such views often well into the twentieth century? My ongoing research in economics and religious studies indicates that for all human history, until the 19th century, the vast majority of people lived lives, as the great 17th century political philosopher Thomas Hobbes put it, which were ‘poor, nasty, brutish and short’. They died at best by middle age, they lived in poverty and squalor, and they often suffered violent deaths.  Reflecting and deepening such experiences, no wonder such views of sin, of the self-inflicted darkness of life, so pervaded Christian thinking and preaching. But now life is quite different. For most people life is long, peaceful and relatively prosperous, with increasing healthcare and educational opportunities for a growing majority.

So I now begin with the lovely and accurate Anglican collect or prayer for Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent: ‘Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing that you have made…’  That’s where I begin, with the fundamental goodness of the created order. Then, and only then, do I address what’s also gone wrong in terms of sin and finitude (don’t confuse them, and do recognise both as severe, distinct and different constraints on our social development – including as the paradoxes of development). And that’s certainly not to therefore acknowledge my ‘wretchedness’, as the collect for Ash Wednesday goes on to declare! Whatever I now feel and understand as my sin and finitude, I would thankfully, not normally refer to it as wretchedness.

How then, to define sin today, post-1800?  Well, I go to the New Testament’s interpretation of it as ‘missing the mark’. In other words, we aim for, in Paul’s words, ‘what is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable’ (Philippians 4.8).  And then, and only then, do we recognise and face up to where we get it wrong personally and collectively (the latter including what we call structural sin in terms of defective or bad institutions, markets or nations). Now this is called ‘putting the horse before the cart in Christianity, church life and history’. It’s about Christian beliefs, urgently updated in the life of the most historic changes in human life, continuing to give greater depth and greater meaning to our ordinary human experiences.

John Atherton is an Associate Research Fellow of the William Temple Foundation

Challenging Religious Studies. The Wealth, Wellbeing and Inequalities of Nations is out now: click here for more.


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Challenging Religious Studies: Part 3

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This third and final edited extract from ‘Challenging Religious Studies: The Wealth, Wellbeing and Inequalities of Nations’ consists of the concluding note or ‘Afterword’ to the book. It summarises the whole necessary approach to disciplines and experiences working together to promote the greater wellbeing of all. 

Read part one and part two. Order the book from SCM Press

On Living in More Than One Place at Once

Journeying through the continuing story of the Industrial and Mortality Revolutions generates two contrasting emotions, two sides of the one coin. Their achievements are extraordinary mostly in themselves but also when contrasted with life before 1800. To increase the average income eightfold for the world’s inhabitants in only 172 years (1820–1992) gave people the resources to be and to do, freed from the ever present threats of absolute poverty.

For that is also what happened when we take into account that even in only 27 years (1981–2008) 700 million people were released from poverty. The results of the Mortality Revolution were maybe of even greater historic significance for human wellbeing. In America, life expectancy increased from a meagre 47 in 1900, with 20 per cent dying before the age of one, to 77 in 2008.

My little uncle, John Robert Atherton, was one of those who died before his first birthday in 1900. I am now 75. Wellbeing cannot but profit from the near doubling of life year chances to be and to do, to pursue one’s own self-chosen purposes. I am left with a great sense of eucharistic awe when faced by such achievements.  But then there always comes the deep awareness of the paradox of such development, always also present throughout long history, say from the end of the last Ice Age around 13,000 years ago, but starkly evident in the post 1800 changes, and summarized in the massive inequalities between and within nations. It really is astonishing to see that the world’s wealthiest nation is now 256 times richer than the poorest, that in terms of people’s height (such a key indicator of nourishment and health adequacies), the Impressive growth in Europeans’ height from 166 cm to 178 cm in only 140 years (1850–1980) contrasts so starkly with the 151 cm in height of Indians, and that it could take an astounding 200 years for Indian men to catch up with where we Englishmen are now. That fills me with great sadness and a sense of shame.

That response to the paradox of development is only compounded by possibly the greatest threat of all resulting from such economic and population growth, one of the four great horsemen of the apocalypse, climate change, so deeply associated with the other horsemen of famine, disease, migration and state failure. In the last 650,000 years, carbon dioxide never reached 300 parts per million (ppm) molecules of air until 1958. By 2010 it was 393 ppm, and, if left unchecked, it will reach 550 ppm by 2050, higher than for 24 million years, The effects could be irreversible and catastrophic.

Describing, measuring and analysing such changes in human wellbeing is now a profoundly interdisciplinary exercise. For the economist Easterlin, the world’s greatest problems are not the problems of any one discipline alone, with their often very protective walls, whether say economics or psychology. Rather, the solutions to today’s problems ‘recognize multidisciplinary training and research’ using a variety of relevant and related disciplines. Given the impressive performance of religion in promoting greater subjective wellbeing, religion too becomes a partner in such cross-disciplinary studies. But such a religious studies must increasingly move beyond any thought of living ‘entirely within a religious grammar’. For the tasks of theology and sociology, psychology and economics ‘are united in at least as much as they address the human condition in exploratory and interpretative terms’. All these disciplines, and certainly including religious studies, must therefore ‘be concerned in their distinctive ways with life and with how things are, with the world of daily life’ and that’s about them all ‘living in more than one place at once’ about being able to see things from another perspective as well as from one’s own. Interestingly, that profoundly accurate understanding of the human and its better workings comes from a well-researched study of the ecumenical movement, of the historic struggle to bring together very different and frequently warring (literally say through the devastating seventeenth-century Wars of Religion) Christian denominations into the shared space of the World Council of Churches.

That journey was the recognition that it was no longer sufficient to be and to have through pursuing one’s own self-chosen purposes. The task was now also to be profoundly relational, to also ‘belong to another outside of ourselves’. It’s what Adam Smith regarded as central to any adequate Theory of Moral Sentiments, to put one’s self into the other’s shoes, to see any problem also from the other’s perspective as well as from one’s own, to always include in one’s judgements, whether personal or corporate, the views of the impartial spectator. And putting the different perspectives together was about ‘higgling’, Smith’s glorious concept (a bit like ‘happifying’ in the American case study) to describe the actual messiness involved in negotiating prices, in trying to hold together the very different interests involved, in contrast to the efforts of aloof, tidy economic theory.

‘Living in more than one place at once’ must therefore inform agendas for an emerging religious studies for the twenty-first century, including with relevance for other disciplines. Necessary developments in religious studies illustrate this shared agenda in a number of ways. For example, it involves understanding and appreciating the contributions of different religions in their own terms. It requires accepting the reality and value of a religious pluralism. Interestingly, the Christian laity, with their ordinary theology and church are often much better at this than their clerical leaders. Putnam’s survey of contemporary religiosity in America revealed 88 per cent of Christian laity saying heaven was not reserved for their particular faith alone, therefore accepting the legitimacy claims of other beliefs and even of the non-religious.

In contrast, 60 per cent of Protestant clergy were very clear that heaven was attainable through faith in Jesus Christ alone, and therefore through no other way. ‘Living in more than one place at once’ is about living in one religious tradition or discipline and being prepared also to live in another religious tradition or discipline. Yet it is not about being lost or absorbed by the other. For Fingarette, we should be a ‘sensitive and seasoned traveller, at ease in many places, but one must have a home’.  Religious studies is about exploring religion from a variety of perspectives and disciplines, secular as well as religious. Yet it necessarily and indeed essentially also involves the irreplaceable perspectives drawn from living within a particular religious or secular tradition. William James, so foundational for any adequate evidence-based religious studies, knew this and felt it. He realized the importance of the profound religious experiences seen from the inside and so strongly evidenced in the conversion accounts from the American great awakenings, even though he had not himself, as he sorrowfully admitted, experienced one. For him, ‘[m]y personal position is simple. I have no living sense of communion with God. I envy those who have, for I know that the addition of such a sense would help me greatly’.

That way of working and seeing things from different vantage points, for Clements, drawing from his reflections on the ecumenical movement, expresses this as a kind of ‘double vision’, as ‘seeing the social world from there as well as here’. It’s about inhabiting and then bringing together the differences of scientific and traditional history, of a monovision with the brain combining the close detailed work of the reading eye with the longer view of the distance eye. It’s about examining aggregates and long-term trends, and yet seeing these essential facts on the particular faces of people at particular times and places.

Of course, ‘living in more than one place at once’ deeply informs much of religious studies’ historic and contemporary engagement with economics. Many theologians today have never seriously entered into the other world of economics, preferring the pontifical statements issued from the safety of their own restricted view of Christianity. Yet it can be done. It must be done, because it has been done. Over 100 years ago, Ely illustrated how the development of a more historically and empirically sensitive economics could be achieved, including through learning from developments in historical and evidence-based religious history, practices, ethics and beliefs. In today’s world, the engagement of economics in wellbeing studies illustrates the potential for the reformulating of economic traditions. There are early signs of similar developments in a religious studies also engaged in wellbeing studies.

That shared interest in and commitment to understanding better and then promoting greater human wellbeing therefore provides a real opportunity for constructive engagements between these two traditions of Christianity and economics for their mutual benefit. The work on a Christian model for doing this as described in this book illustrates the feasibility of that task. And why? Because it’s about being in more than one place at once.  Such living in more than one place at once particularly informs the foundations of Christian beliefs, those energizing forces of spiritual capital behind so much of the effectiveness of its transmission processes, seen, for example, in the British case study’s successfully interacting an age of incarnation with an age of the state. In the great prologue to John’s Gospel, at the heart of the incarnation story, is the proclamation that ‘the Word became flesh … and lived among us’. For this living among us, this living in more than one place at once, literally means ‘pitched his tent’ among us in the way God dwelt among the Israelites ‘in the tent of the tabernacle in the wilderness’, as sharing in or living in ‘the conditions of skin-thin tented life and human vulnerability’.

And such Christ-like godly living in more than one place at once therefore means, for Christians, that they too, through faith, share in that energizing double residency. This is described most beautifully in the Collect for the First Sunday of Christmas where we pray ‘grant that, as he came to share in our humanity, so we may share the life of his divinity’. It is about Christian beliefs and stories giving greater depth and meaning to the ordinary, necessary and hopefully increasing collaboration between disciplines, traditions and practical partners for the pursuit of greater human wellbeing.

John Atherton is an Associate Research Fellow of the William Temple Foundation

Join John for his book launch, which will take place during the William Temple 70th Anniversary Conference on Monday 10th November in Manchester. Book now!


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Challenging Religious Studies: Part 2

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In the second of a three part series to celebrate the publication of his landmark new book, William Temple Foundation Associate Research Fellow John Atherton introduces the key themes of his work on religion and wellbeing. ‘Challenging Religious Studies: The Wealth, Wellbeing and Inequalities of Nations’ by John Atherton will be published on 31st October by SCM Press.

For the three economic perspectives on the wealth, wellbeing and inequalities of nations, namely income, health and subjective wellbeing, I have developed a model for relating Christianity to each.  In terms of subjective wellbeing it is clear that Christianity has been demonstrated by secular research to score better than other sources.  The following introductory section illustrates this and how Christianity achieves it.   I am pretty sure that the same could be done for its contribution to health but it is engaging the first perspective – income – where Christianity is weakest.  Recent publications such as ‘Just Money’, published by Theos, and Peter Selby’s ‘An Idol Unmasked’ illustrate these inadequacies.  The second part of this blog begins to set out an agenda for correcting these grave Christian limitations. 

Although contemporary research on religions’ contributions to wellbeing (particularly subjective wellbeing) is of recent origin, ‘In survey after survey, actively religious people have reported markedly greater happiness and somewhat smaller life satisfaction than their irreligious counterparts’. That conclusion is confirmed by economists, for example by Layard who states, ‘one of the most robust findings of happiness research: that people who believe in God are happier’, and by Graham arguing that, ‘In most countries, respondents that express faith or religious affiliation – as well as those who practice their faith – are, on average, happier than others … In most of the rest of the world’; by psychologists like Seligman: ‘survey data consistently show religious people as being somewhat happier and more satisfied with life than nonreligious people’; and finally, by sociologists, for example Putnam: ‘As with good neighbourliness, the correlation between religiosity and life satisfaction is powerful and robust … Other things being equal, the difference in happiness between a non-churchgoer and a weekly churchgoer is slightly larger than the difference between someone who earns $10,000 a year and his demographic twin who earns $100,000 a year’.

Why is the relationship between Christianity and subjective wellbeing so positive? Answering that question will occupy the rest of this chapter. But that is not its principal objective. The task is rather to explore the relationship between Christianity and wellbeing, initially and principally through a focus on subjective wellbeing. That entry point will then be extended, at the end of this chapter, to engage health and income, so together embracing the three great perspectives on the wealth and wellbeing of nations that are at the centre of Chapter 2’s agenda. The subjective wellbeing perspective has been selected as the main entry point of this research at this stage because achievements in this field, in terms of the contributions of economics, psychology, sociology and religious studies, are most comprehensive, robust and consistent. And it is out of these relationships addressing this shared area of concern – subjective wellbeing – that there emerges a model for Christian engagement with both this perspective, and probably the other two; health and income. The model can therefore also be deployed to address the relationship between Christianity and economics. As the introductory Chapter 1 noted, one of the tools to be used in exploring this relationship is the deployment of models, reinforced by statistical evidence and located in historical contexts. So the following elaboration of the chosen model will also involve reflection on the nature and role of measurements in religious studies, and the following Part 2 and Chapters 4 and 5 will explore the historical contexts of such research.

The following material focuses particularly and initially on the task of mapping as a way into modelling in some detail those practices, ethics and beliefs of Christianity that resource its robust and positive contributions initially to subjective wellbeing. These are drawn and confirmed from both secular sources and Christian traditions, recognizing their correlative and causal relationships, with their principal features further elaborated with reference to the main Christian denominations, major world faiths and secular spiritualties. This section will conclude with a brief exploration of the model’s transmission processes, showing how Christianity influences the development of greater wellbeing in society. The following section will then examine the implications of such a mapping and modelling exercise by developing appropriate measurement tools for religious studies’ contribution to human wellbeing and for religious studies itself. The final brief section will then begin to explore the feasibility of deploying the model in relation to health and then income, the other perspectives on the wealth and wellbeing of nations.

Part 2 of the book moves onto examining Christianity’s contribution to greater wellbeing through the details of historical contexts…

Exploring the great escapes from poverty and premature death and the resulting great inequality divergences is a profoundly modern and contemporary story, as is the development of a Christian engagement with such a grand narrative. Yet it’s an account that needs enlarging and enriching but also qualifying and analysing. And that best requires locating it in historical contexts that are both long in extent (and I really mean long, going back to the end of the last Ice Age and before!) and more recent in intensity (since 1750 CE). That will also enable us to see the importance of religious contributions to social development in the more general context, for example through the radical operations of the axial age in the last millennium BCE, but then also in two nations in more recent history since 1700 CE, in the USA and UK.

Such evidence will certainly confirm and elaborate the provisional conclusions emerging from Chapters 2 and 3 that life is getting better for more and more peoples and nations and that Christianity has a robust role to play in that improving of wellbeing. Yet it’s equally clearly getting better-ish, with the dramatic damaging increases in inequalities both between and within nations. And it’s in that order that hard evidence now locates them, as nations getting better, then that ‘better’ being qualified.  Both these trends, positives and negatives, will also play a prominent part in the long history, with certainly as much emphasis being placed on the negatives through the repeated bumping against robust ceilings of increasing social development, and the regular violent eruptions of the four horsemen of the apocalypse.

There are four brief stages in this introductory argument of locating the themes in historical contexts. They begin by first using contemporary multidisciplinary surveys of the very gradual progression of social development from the end of the last Ice Age, about 13,000 BCE, until the eighteenth century in modern times. The archaeologist and historian Morris’s work, including his deployment of a Social Development Index, is of particular value in tracing and illustrating the improvements in wellbeing over such a long period of time.

On Christianity, incomes and material wellbeing: Addressing the first perspective

At first sight this is the most difficult task of all. For so much of certainly Christian history, the concept of money dominated understandings of income and material wellbeing. And it has a terrible press, not least through the influence of the Christian Scriptures’ pronouncement that money is the root of all evil and Jesus’ call to the rich young man to sell all and follow him and his refusal to do so, because he had great wealth. The painting on the Markham Chantry Chapel from the early 1500s, used in my first blog, says it all, with the rich young man, with his hand on his purse, warned by Death that even the wealthy cannot buy him off. All these pressures led to the continuing theme regarding money as a god, including by some leading theologians today. This is confusing, unhelpful and inaccurate (I almost said plain stupid!). Historically, money’s place in resourcing human life was very limited until at least the eighteenth century. As we have seen, the vast majority of people had very little of it, because they were poor and lived very straitened lives. In such situations money often becomes a symbol of the reality of their marginalization and oppression. When the Industrial Revolution increased and improved the lives of more and more people, income understandably occupied a much bigger part of their lives and the lives of nations. Then it really does become a god for so many theologians and church leaders despite its liberating consequences for the majority poor. What this book tries to do is to correct such general moral confusions, and this is a particular point where that is absolutely essential. Any contemporary consideration of income must recognize its central contribution to contemporary wellbeing both in itself and as key facilitator and contributor to other foundations of wellbeing, from the provision of the basics of housing, food and clothing, to health care, education and governance.

And doing that effectively and adequately is what my model has to be able to engage. That is a particularly difficult task because it involves entering the engagement between Christianity and economics (and therefore recognizing and addressing the great gulf between them), and then also developing Christian practices, ethics and beliefs in relation to income and what and how income helps to resource other key foundations of wellbeing, and only then, and from such evidence, can the nature and extent of Christianity’s contribution to this first perspective be tested in terms of the viability, or otherwise, of my model.

John Atherton is an Associate Research Fellow of the William Temple Foundation.

John’s book launch takes place at ‘Reclaiming the Public Space: William Temple 70th Anniversary Conference’ on Monday 10 November in Manchester. Book now.


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