The Wealth of Religions

The Political Economy of Believing and Belonging

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Rachel McCleary, Robert J. Barro
  • Princeton, NJ: 
    Princeton University Press
    , May
     2019.
     216 pages.
     $29.95.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780691178950.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

The Wealth of Religions: The Political Economy of Believing and Belonging by Rachel McCleary and Robert J. Barro has a clear central argument. The authors are interested in measuring how religious belief, particularly belief in an afterlife, affects economic activity and vice versa. To support their argument, the authors use survey data like the General Societal Survey and the International Social Survey Programme to gauge belief and religious attendance. McCleary and Barro contextualize their case studies by providing historical narration. Some chapters focused more on this historical narrativization than others. This thematic diversity leads to a pairing of chapters, which I enjoyed.

Each chapter has a similar structure of about twenty to thirty pages with a concise one-to-two-page recap at the end of the chapter. Chapter 1 expands on the brief preface by providing a general history of scholarship examining economy and religion, pairing nicely with chapter 8 for concluding the authors’ general arguments. Chapters 2 and 3 as well as 6 and 7 paired nicely as a chapter on theory followed by a case study. Chapter 2 describes the determinants for religiousness through a supply-side or marketplace paradigm of religious institutions competing to provide better products for consumers. Chapter 3 applies the previous chapter’s theory by examining the economic impact of historical figures, such as Martin Luther, and the way belief in an afterlife affects productivity. Like chapter 2, chapter 6 presents a new theoretical framework. It describes and applies Laurence Iannacone’s club model of religion to the historical development of Geluk Tibetan Buddhism. Although chapter 6 had a case study within it, I found chapter 7 neatly built off chapter 6. Chapter 7 argues that Catholic the appointment of Catholic saints, particularly in South America where there is increased competition between the Catholic Church and Protestant churches, so they can compete more efficiently. In my reading chapters 4 and 5 also paired nicely as a theory and case study combination but switched. The focus in chapter 5 on state religions would have made more sense to proceed chapter 4. This is because the analysis in chapter 4 of Islamic countries and their economic growth felt like an application of chapter 5’s claims about unofficial and state sanctioned religious monopolies.

I experienced some reservations with the authors’ claims. My main reservation was about the strategic changing or changelessness claims of religions. In chapters 2 and 6, the authors frame religion as institutions which change with historical circumstances, particularly with Iannacone’s club model of religion. Religious institutions are in a constant state of flux. They respond to economic and social pressure, changing to better compete in their social environments. However, in chapters 3 and 8 the authors claim they “take the position that religion is sui generis,” particularly with the “major religions of the world—Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity” (45) which naturally feature “conceptions of salvation, damnation, and afterlife” (160). The authors claim all religions, or at least whatever qualifies the major ones, all have some sort of inherent otherworldly motivators. Therefore, a problematic contradiction appears between religions being constantly changing and changeless. How can religions always be changing and somehow maintain timeless essential characteristics which are somehow unverifiable? Are not the seemingly timeless characteristics of religion as a category also the products of socioeconomic pressures on the scholar? Claims to timeless truths, whether in academic, religious, or other forms of institutions seem to always benefit someone in a political present, even this sentence. What makes a major religion major in this text? It seems to be major as because of how many people claim to participate or belong to the tradition, but it is unclear. Because of these reservations, I am not totally convinced by some of the authors’ arguments. Theoretically speaking, I am not convinced by the author’s claims about belief as a universal characteristic of all religions, let alone a belief in otherworldly motivators like nirvana, heaven, and so on.     

Despite my reservations, I thoroughly enjoyed reading The Wealth of Religions. One of my favorite sections was chapter 7 on the appointment of Catholic saints. The breakdown of how beatifications are increasingly becoming more female, educated, and from countries outside of Italy fascinating (145–148). I find the authors’ arguments are persuasive. This increase of Catholic saints in recent decades is grounded in current interreligious competition between the Catholic Church and Protestant groups, particularly in Latin America and Africa. Another enjoyable feature in my reading are the anecdotal stories. They way which the authors interspersed experiences to begin chapters or close them was clever. These stories kept me engaged with the content of the chapters. This follows from the preface’s description of the “chapters in this volume are based on articles published over the course of sixteen years of joint work” (vii). To conclude, I can see this text being useful for a variety of purposes. As a textbook, I can see it being useful for coursework on the comparative study of religion. I can also see it being handy for scholars wishing to have a various models of religion applied to intriguing case studies.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Joseph DeFrank is a master’s student in the University of Alabama’s Department of Religious Studies.

Date of Review: 
August 4, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Rachel M. McCleary is lecturer in the Department of Economics at Harvard University. Her books include The Oxford Handbook of the Economics of Religion.

Robert J. Barro is the Paul M. Warburg Professor of Economics at Harvard. His books include Education Matters: Global Schooling Gains from the 19th to the 21st Century and Economic Growth.

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