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.
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.
3 CommentsIn the first of a three part series to celebrate the publication of his landmark new book‘Challenging Religious Studies: The Wealth, Wellbeing and Inequalities of Nations’ John Atherton introduces the key themes of his latest work.The following is an edited extract from the book’s introduction. It is published on 31 October by SCM Press.
The Argument Emerges
This book is about what matters most to most people, most of the time, whether as individuals, families, communities or societies. It is therefore deliberately and primarily about what the American sociologist Robert Bellah has called ‘the world of (the) daily life’ of people which they face with ‘a practical or pragmatic interest’.
That is how it is so often for most people, and it always has been since the dawn of the human about 200,000 years ago. For other commentators like the archaeologist and historian Morris, surveying human life from 15,000 years ago, it is about society’s ‘abilities to get things done in the world’ including in terms of the adequate provision of the basics for human life on earth, as food, clothing and shelter, and increasingly, too, in later periods, in terms of life expectancy, health and education. You can’t have a good life if you die before the age of five, and now we don’t. In other words, this story is simply about the ‘world of daily life’, but it is also significantly about, for the economist Angus Deaton, ‘how people have managed to make their lives better’, so often in terms of ‘what makes life worth living’. And, at the heart of these changes in human development lie the Industrial and then Mortality Revolutions from the eighteenth century, transforming human life in ways never achieved and never really dreamt of in the previous 200,000 years of human history. And all this so often allows and enables that concern to be developed into the pursuit of a good life, a life that turns out well, the basis of a flourishing life and community. It is, as John’s Gospel reminds us, the importance of not just having a life, but having it more abundantly. It is very difficult to have the second without the first, as liberation theologians have rightly reminded us.
But this story is also about how these amazing developments in human living have been intimately accompanied by what historians and economists call ‘the paradox of development’ or the often negative and destructive or damaging consequences of social change. For example, the astonishing improvements in economic growth, so important for nurturing, sustaining and progressing human wellbeing, have also been accompanied by breath-taking increases in inequalities, particularly between nations, but also within them. Such inequalities are symptomatic of that paradox of development, but clearly, as the story will recount, they stretch more widely to include, for example, increasingly destructive environmental damage, but also the historic other ‘four horsemen of the apocalypse’ namely hunger, epidemics, migrations and state failures.
Of course, what matters to people, communities and nations cannot be adequately summarized by their improving wealth and wellbeing, because the world of daily life, however central and essential for human survival and betterment, has always been, at least for 100,000 years, also accompanied by the field of religion, so often of such importance for sustaining and enriching human life. Sociologists talk therefore of humans inhabiting ‘multiple realities’, which inevitably and invariably constitute ‘overlapping realities’. So there is now, and always has been deep into human evolution, an acceptance that there is more to human living than the daily struggle for human existence in terms of achieving the necessary basics for human living, of food, clothing and shelter, and now of income, health and education.
So this story is about at least both, about the economics and biodemography of life and about the religious dimensions of life and how they have, and need to, come together in ways that recognize and engage constructively these most profound changes the human has ever experienced in the profoundly material, though never exclusively so, dimensions of life as income, health and subjective wellbeing.
Of course, religions in general, and, in my case, Christianity in particular, have at best, persistently refused to take these matters and these changes seriously. They have rarely prioritized them, as the world of daily life does, and has to, and they have rather and regularly focused on the negative consequences of the paradox of development and almost never on the processes of social development that contribute to the furtherance of human wellbeing. They have pursued the soft option of prophecy for the hard struggle for construction and reconstruction… That is the gulf that this story seeks to address.
What’s the argument of the book?
Its arguments are stated in only two parts.
The first part explores the growing and telling evidence for the wealth, wellbeing and inequalities of nations through the three perspectives of income, health and subjective wellbeing in Chapter 2. Chapter 3 then develops a model from the interaction between secular and Christian (and other religions) understandings of the nature and significance of the religious contributions to engage initially the third perspective of subjective wellbeing. This then recognizes the likely feasibility of the model’s transferability and adaptability to engaging the second (health) and then the first (income) perspectives. Together, they could constitute a model for Christian engagements with economics (and other disciplines concerned, say, with wellbeing studies, for example psychology). This represents the cumulative result of much research in various fields of religious studies. And it constitutes an ongoing field of activity, not least in terms of further testing and elaboration of the proposed model. It represents, probably, the heart of this thesis.
Yet the second part of the argument’s importance lies in the significance of locating this work in a historical context stretching back to the end of the last Ice Age, say around 13,000BCE, and forward to 2000CE. This illustrates how social development has gradually increased over that long period, in both the West and East, but how, highlighted by that context of continuing and evolving change, the developments in the last 200 years, from about 1800CE, represent the most remarkable changes in the whole of human history. This therefore illustrates and confirms the importance of the choice of the two following representative case studies engaging that decisive period from 1700CE to 2000CE, and drawn from the USA and UK, two nations at the forefront of such dramatic change. They illustrate what, how, and why Christianity has contributed to increasing human wellbeing.
I want to end this introduction with a picture from St Mary Magdalene church in Newark-on-Trent, Nottinghamshire (to the left of the text). It’s from the Markham chantry chapel dating from the early sixteenth century. It’s a remarkable survival given the targeted destruction of such chapels commemorating the dead particularly by Edward VI. It depicts a dancing skeleton flourishing a carnation and pointing to the grave, and next to it, a well-dressed young man with his hand on his purse. The pictures convey the warning that death awaits even the most well-to-do and wealth cannot buy him off! Both death and wealth were as much part of the late Middle Ages in Europe and much of the Middle East, as they are now. But with the most profound of differences which these two figures of death and prosperity signify.
Now death comes to most in old age, not as little children, and prosperity is no longer the prerogative of the elite few, but is increasingly the privileged possession of most people on earth. That’s called a better world of daily life for most people on earth. And that’s a first, maybe the greatest first, in human history. And you can see why it is from that chantry chapel 500 years ago.