Secular Calvinism?

Adherents of the political tendency known as libertarianism often defend their positions with appeals to economic theory.  They do not often show a high regard for the concerns of environmentalism.  So when a libertarian think tank publishes a book that equates the academic discipline of economics with the environmentalist movement, one may well take notice. 

In The New Holy Wars: Economic Religion vs Environmental Religion in Contemporary America, Robert H. Nelson of the Independent Institute argues that the forms of academic economics that have influenced policymaking in the US in recent decades, like the forms of environmentalist thought that have begun to play a role in public affairs, are secularized versions of Calvinism.  How so?  To quote the Independent Institute’s summary:

The deepest religious conflicts in the American public arena today—the New Holy Wars—are crusades fought between two secular religions: economic religion and environmental religion. Each claims to be scientific, even value-neutral, yet they seldom state their underlying commitments explicitly, let alone subject them to scrutiny. Environmental religion views wilderness as sacred, seeks salvation through the minimization of humankind’s impact on nature, and proselytizes using imagery meant to stir spiritual longings. In contrast, economic religion worships technological innovation, economic growth (as measured by GDP), and efficiency (as revealed by cost-benefit analysis) and is presided over by a priesthood of Ph.D. economists who communicate in a liturgical language unintelligible to the layperson.

Nelson is himself an economics Ph.D, having received that degree from Princeton University in 1971.  If one of the tenets of the religion of economics is that economics is not a religion, that would make him a wayward priest.  The summary goes on:

Although rarely acknowledged, environmental religion owes its moral activism, ascetic discipline, reverence for nature, and fallen view of man to the Protestant theology of John Calvin. A remarkable number of American environmental leaders, including John Muir, Rachel Carson, David Brower, Edward Abbey, and Dave Foreman, were raised in the Presbyterian church (the Scottish branch of Calvinism) or one of its offshoots. Earlier forerunners of modern environmentalism who were influenced by Calvinism include the American transcendentalists Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau and the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who offered a secular version of the fall of man from the original “state of nature [in which] man lived happily in peace.”

That’s an interesting claim, and a list of very diverse people.  Nelson seems to focus on the USA, but it would be interesting to contrast the environmentalisms that have taken hold in countries with histories of Calvinism with the environmentalisms that have taken hold where Calvinism was never ascendant.  Onward:

Economists often rely on assumptions that are better categorized as theological than as scientific. Many economists assume that human welfare is a product of the consumption of goods and services alone and that the institutional arrangements that produce those goods and services can be ignored. Some economists assume that eradicating poverty will end crime and usher in a new era of morality. Also, economists typically assume that psychological stress caused by an economic transition to a more efficient allocation of resources is negligible and not worth factoring in. “If [emotional burdens] were actually given full account, it would be impossible to say in principle whether a market system is economically efficient,” writes Robert Nelson.

Coming from a libertarian economist, the statement that “If [emotional burdens] were actually given full account, it would be impossible to say in principle whether a market system is economically efficient” is as amazing as Luther’s Ninety Five Theses were coming from a Roman Catholic priest in 1520. 

The missionaries of environmental religion have managed to get some of their dogmas implemented in poor countries, often with devastating consequences for local populations. Under the banner of saving the African environment, they have promoted conservation objectives that have displaced and impoverished Africans. This catastrophe has occurred because environmental religion has misunderstood African wildlife management practices and problems.

To the extent that this is true, I suspect it is not because of the intellectual forebears of contemporary environmentalists, but because those environmentalists have come to Africa as agents of Western bureaucracies.  As such, they have been constrained to act and think in the terms those bureaucracies made available to them, terms which often have little connection to the social and ecological realities of Africa. 

There is another, shorter, summary on the same page:

“Economics and environmentalism are types of modern religions.” So writes Independent Institute Senior Fellow Robert H. Nelson, author of The New Holy Wars: Economic Religion versus Environmental Religion in Contemporary America, an in-depth study of the origins and implications of the conflict between these two opposing belief systems.

“If it makes a reader of this book more comfortable, he or she may think of it as an examination of the ‘spiritual values’ of economics versus the ‘spiritual values’ of environmentalism,” writes Nelson in his introduction. “For me, though, it is a distinction without a difference.”

In The New Holy Wars, Nelson probes beneath the rhetorical surface of economic and environmental religion to reveal their clashing fundamental commitments and visions. By interpreting their conflict as theological, Nelson is able to show why these creeds almost invariably talk past each other and why their conflict is likely to continue to dominate public discourse until one party or the other backs down—or unless an alternative outlook rises to challenge their influence in the public arena.

In addition, by exploring little-known corners of American intellectual history, Nelson shows how environmentalism and economics have adapted Judeo-Christian precepts in ways that make them more palatable in an age of secularism. In many cases, Nelson is able to demonstrate a direct lineage from traditional religious beliefs to tenets held by mainstream economists and environmentalists.

Some readers of this blog have expressed interest in “political theology,” the idea that there are no truly political belief systems, but that all political theories are simply theological doctrines in disguise.  This notion is often associated with the German legal scholar (and onetime NaziCarl Schmitt (1888-1985.)  Say what you will about Schmitt’s detestable activities from 1933 to 1937, he made a powerful case for political theology.  Nor did he originate the notion; it can be traced back to Cicero’s Laws (especially book 1, chapter 8), and back of Cicero to the Stoics, with the idea that a certain memory of the Divine lingers in the human mind and that the various legal codes and religious practices of the world result from the attempts of various peoples to translate  that memory into a guide for action.  If there is truth in political theology, then we would expect both economics and environmental theories to be driven by unacknowledged theological commitments.


  1. lefalcon

     /  March 6, 2010

    This post deals in matters which to me, being untutored in them, seem slightly arcane or opaque. Here’s my main thought: To say that economics or environmentalism are religions sounds like an effort to de-authorize or relativize them … or at least to suggest that they are not fully rational or scientific. But how could these knowledge systems *not* be influenced by the religio-cultural circumstances of those who constructed them? In every age, scholars stand on a ground of pre-commitments that are hard to see precisely because most of us share them as foregone assumptions. But I guess the point here is that, once these pre-commitments do start to reveal themselves, there are all sorts of implications for e.g. economists and environmentalists … and some rethinking of their fields may be necessary.

  2. lefalcon

     /  March 7, 2010

    Here’s another thought: The statement “X is, at bottom, a religion” might be taken to mean: The underpinnings of X are tied to a specific religious tradition … so much so that X is, in effect, a branch of that tradition (e.g. Calvinist Protestantism).

    Or it could be taken to mean: X, while seemingly a rational / scientific system, contains a set of assumptions that are rarely challenged and that amount, in effect, to a body of beliefs. But these beliefs might not be derived from any identifiable religious tradition.

    I don’t know anything about the book or the writer beyond what is contained in the above post, so I’m sort of speculating. But if environmentalism doe have pre-commitments anchored in Calvinist Protestantism, that is not necessarily a bad or wrong thing. It was less clear to me how (or if) the scholar was relating econ to any historical religion. (Perhaps Manichaeanism?) Speaking from a layman’s perspective, econ looks to me like a fairly coldblooded field that probably could benefit from some rumination on its “spiritual values”!

  3. acilius

     /  March 8, 2010

    @LeFalcon: You and I seem to be thinking along similar lines. There’s one thing I’d add. Economists and their admirers always seem to be invoking the ethics of utilitarianism to justify their positions. So they want to show that a particular economic system will provide the greatest pleasure to the greatest number of people. Yet utilitarianism is hardly the mode in philosophy. It may still have its fans, but it has some huge shortcomings that seem to have left most philosophers with the suspicion that it is altogether discredited. For example, the idea of “pleasure” as something that can be aggregated into a single quantity never struck thinkers outside the Utilitarian movement as coherent.

    Why are so many economists wedded to an obsolete school of philosophy? Maybe it’s because of some relationship between Utilitarianism and Calvinism. Maybe Utilitarianism is a phase people go through when their societies are emerging from the influence of Calvinism, and economics is a function of that same phase.

  4. lefalcon

     /  March 8, 2010

    This is an interesting conversation. Unfortunately I have almost zero acquaintance with things like Calvinism, econ, philosophy, or Utilitarianism. And it is axiomatic that there exists an inverse relation between one’s knowledge of a given topic and one’s penchant to discourse upon it profusely.

    Maybe attaining monetary wealth is the economic analogue to Calvinist salvation. But Calvinists apparently believe the individual’s salvation (or damnation) is 100% fore-ordained. So the entire edifice of modern capitalistic theory is constructed upon the assumption that some people are inherently deserving of wealth, while others are inherently deserving of poverty.

    Sounds like a pretty disastrous assumption. I just wish all these free market pundits would admit that this is, indeed, what they believe.

  5. acilius

     /  March 9, 2010

    One of my old professors used to say that “unacknowledged theories are the worst theories of all.” So I too wish that people would “admit what they believe.”

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