Shaping debate on religion in public life.

Is Capitalism a Religion, or Religion Another Form of Capitalism?

20 Jul 2015

“This is a horse. Either you get on it or it dies”.

This quote from Yanis Varoufakis in his first interview since resigning as Finance Minister of Greece, and a comment made to him during the course of an earlier set of negotiations. The current set has apparently yielded some sort of “compromise agreement”, although it would seem to be the Greek nation who have done the lion’s share of the compromising! So much then for democracy in the EU, and so much also for most of us in a culture that offers only illusory choices.

At the conference I have just attended of the Association for Continental Philosophy of Religion “Political Theology: The Liberation of the Postsecular”, one comment initially amused and then increasingly disturbed me. Exploring the idea that capitalism is a form of religion, the speaker suggested that credit rating was not to be equated with piety. In other words, we do not earn our relationship with God through good works. I commented that this is now exactly the discourse that has invaded ecclesiastical life, and that even existence at parish level is being evaluated in this way. Poor credit rating, meaning poor attendances, levels of giving, activities for young people, rates of conversion, and you may well be facing closure! The same is true in the educational world of course. Poor credit rating, coasting school, failure to show significant levels of progress, requires improvement, and you will appropriated by a “successful” academy down the road.

Credit, apparently, is the criteria by which we are all to be assessed, and in terms of which we all risk failure and judgement. Piety is precisely a matter of our credit rating. Of course, we are supposed to know better from within the theological world – salvation by grace alone, not through good works. So which is it? Is capitalism a form of religion, or religion now another form of capitalism? Is there an antidote to this?

As I listened to the various papers and presentations, it became clear to me that whatever the postsecular might be, it cannot be a return to an uncritical valorization of religion. Yes, we recognize that religion has not disappeared and still plays an important part in public as well as private life. But not just any old form of religion will do. Who decides what is the acceptable face of faith though, and on what grounds and according to whose criteria? If “the secular” is not to be allowed to impose upon us some limiting and alien criteria according to the priorities and directives of the politicians or the media – so we are OK as long as we contribute to social cohesion, or to social capital – do we have our own means of rating our practices and beliefs? Can we choose our own horse please? Much of the discussion centered on different candidates to become the trusty nag. Should we rate faith commitment in terms of, for instance, its capacity to catalyse civil society?

Or perhaps to generate the material religious practices that offer genuine alternatives to the damaging impact of a consumer driven culture? Is it possible that faith can enable rather than inhibit reflexivity and a critical consciousness? Do we have something to contribute to the need to acknowledge and respect difference, including that of the human from the non-human so required by planet earth? Are there insights into the limitations of human autonomy that could counter the hubris of the Enlightenment project which was based upon a confidence in achieving a maturity freed from the constraints of external authority and tradition? Each of these was offered as a possibility during the course of 48 hours, and quite reasonably so, but they all of them seem somehow instrumental – they present a means to an end.

The problem is that the telos or purpose of these approaches is not articulated nor debated. It is not simply a matter of having our own horse upon which to leap, but of knowing why we should have one at all, let alone where we intend to go once we are on board. There perhaps the analogy breaks down. Set a determinate goal or trajectory for the journey and one might as well be back with the credit rating as we can then claim to know the extent to which “we are getting this right”. And there’s the rub. A life of faith, setting out in trust, not knowing where it will lead, or even knowing why, cannot be reduced to or equated with those sort of judgements. We do not know what “the end” might be, and it is that indeterminacy and uncertainty which defines the journey.

It is possible that this is neither capitalism nor religion, nor even a hybrid version. “A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse”. Varoufakis turned away rather than mounting that particular steed. Fine for him perhaps, but not so good for the nation as a whole. But perhaps he is right to want this particular mount to perish, and that is the real choice that will have to be made? Unless the seed falls to the ground and dies etc.

No credit rating can take account of that.

John Reader is an Associate Research Fellow of William Temple Foundation.

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