free market as religion :: economics as theology

by Eric Daryl Meyer

“Our present economic system should also be understood as our religion, because it has come to fulfill a religious function for us. The discipline of economics is less a science than the theology of that religion, and its god, the Market, has become a vicious circle of ever-increasing production and consumption by pretending to offer a secular salvation. The collapse of communism makes it more apparent that the Market is becoming the first truly world religion, binding all corners of the globe into a worldview and set of values whose religious role we overlook only because we insist on seeing them as ‘secular.’” (15)

It is important to pay attention to the conceptual employment of both “secularity” and “religion.” Both concepts have shifted their content so that they demarcate autonomous spheres of ethical thinking. “Religion” is an abstract term that enables the speaker to lump incredibly diverse worldviews together in a single term, and generally, to contrast them to something else. “Religion” is the corral which contains a certain motley collection of worldviews in order to open space for the “secular.” The “secular” on the other hand is the “real” world in which thought is reduced to basic material and utilitarian terms, without the distraction of (private) values, beliefs, or metaphysical constraints. Past traditions (with their encumbering and superstitious restrictions) and any sense of the intrinsic importance of wild beauty or freedom are “external” considerations, things for other people to worry about in private—after all we live in the real world, the public sphere. 

“Although it may offend our vanity, it is somewhat ludicrous to think of conventional religious institutions as we know them today serving a significant role in solving the environmental crisis. Their more immediate problem is whether they, like the rain forests we anxiously monitor, will survive in any recognizable form the onslaught of this new religion.” (15) 

In exchange for a deeply grounded identity and a place in the ecological whole of the planet, we receive the consumer frills of a culture burning all the world’s candles at both ends. This “plenty” for which we endlessly labor is, supposedly, heaven. Or at least a third-rate knock off. Because perhaps, in the end, this is the heaven we’ve been imagining since Dante—divorced from the world that we know, from rocks, trees, lions and lambs. The (unreachable, but always “close”) heaven of the Market is that insipid climate-controlled cloud where nothing interesting ever happens because we’ve finally isolated ourselves from all of nature’s unpredictability (btw, there’s harp music for $2, if that’s your thing). 

“Market capitalism began as, and may still be understood as, a form of salvation religion: dissatisfied with the world as it is and seeking to inject a new promise into it, motivated (and justifying itself) by faith in the grace of profit and concerned to perpetuate that grace, with a missionary zeal to expand and reorder (rationalize) the economic system [where its ‘good news’ has not yet reached].” (19)

The myth of “secularity” is that a society can exist without some fundamentally orienting value distinctions (even a plurality), without some basic ordering of perception, and interaction with, the world. As it turns out, it cannot—the basic order appears implicitly and unacknowledged rather than consciously. When the free market is understood as the source of these fundamental value distinctions, even though it is supposedly “secular,” one recognizes its religious function in our lives. One corollary of this is that the “Separation of Church and State” is revealed to be a myth—without even entering into a debate about evolution or prayer in schools. Our “State” has a deeply vested interest in the national Establishment faith, the progress of the market. 

“Until the last few centuries there has been little genuine distinction between church and state, between sacred authority and secular power, and that cozy relationship continues today: far from maintaining an effective regulatory or even neutral position, the U.S. government has become the most powerful proponent of the religion of market capitalism as the way to live, and indeed it may have little choice insofar as it is now a pimp dependent upon skimming the cream of market profits.” (21) 

The most pressing theological tasks of the present include “publicly” exposing the (invisibly) idolatrous invasions of the market into the life and well-being of the planet; and narrating a tradition with a strong sense of identity rooted in a deep and complex history—a community with open boundaries and a promiscuous invitation.



All quotes from:

Loy, David. “The Religion of the Market.” In Visions of a New Earth: Religious Perspectives on Population, Consumption, and Ecology, 15-28 Ed. Harold Coward and Daniel Maguire. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2000.