Bohanon: Mixing Religion and Economic Disciplines

April 28, 2014

by Cecil Bohanon, Ph.D.

It is graduation season, and college seniors move from the hallowed halls of the university to the wider world and workplace. The ceremony itself includes a procession, numerous speeches, awarding each graduate a diploma, and an official confirmation of the degrees. It takes on a religious aura even in a secular university. This isn’t surprising because the modern university evolved from church institutions.

So what role does religion have in a state-run university? What can or should a course outside a religious studies class say about religion? There are two extremes that I think are misguided. The first is the professor who uses a course to proselytize for a particular religious faith. The other is the professor who avoids or ignores relevant references to religion that emerge in his discipline out of fear of censure.

The former error in my estimation is quite rare; few of my colleagues, Christian or agnostic, use the classroom to evangelize for their faith.

The latter error may become more common because of the controversies surrounding discussion of religion in the classroom. Better to avoid discussion rather than risk offending someone — a position that I am afraid is becoming too common in higher education.

Most people probably assume that economics, the discipline I teach, has nothing to do with religion. In most areas of economics this is correct. So is a professor proselytizing if he uses a biblical reference in class? I think not. As I outlined in an earlier column, I regularly use the example of Joseph in Egypt to examine issues about speculators in the marketplace. I make clear to my students the intent is not to promote any religious view, but rather because the story is familiar to Christian, Jewish, Muslim and secular students, it is an example that helps them understand a number of economic concepts.

Economic history and the history of economic thought are two areas in my field in which the discussion of religion — as it affected events and thinking — is quite appropriate and hardly avoidable. Max Weber, sociologist and economist, claimed over a century ago that a Protestant work ethic both animated and directed modern capitalism.

James Burke, English writer and filmmaker, argues that non-conforming English Protestants were an essential component of the industrial revolution. He cites data indicating that, although the Quaker, Presbyterian, Baptist, Unitarian, Congregationalist and other sects made up only 3 percent of the English population, they accounted for more than 50 percent of the late 18th- and early 19th-century industrialists. No mystery, according to Burke. These “dissenters” were excluded from university education, government and military jobs, and most professions. So they took on the only job available to them: that of tycoon merchant-industrialist, one beneath the dignity of the snobbish Anglican gentry. Lucky for them, and lucky for us.

Contemporary economist Robert H. Nelson divides his discipline into two camps: Those who believe scientific management of the economy is both possible and desirable, and those who are deeply skeptical of such propositions. He calls the first a Roman perspective and the second a Protestant perspective. The source of the division predates Christianity but was augmented in western European Christian history.

Although one is free to agree or disagree with any of these propositions, I don’t think examining them implies that one is forcing religion on students. I suspect there are issues and topics in most disciplines that touch on the domain of religion. Although professors should clearly avoid using the classroom to convert students to his or her religious viewpoint, there is no reason to avoid topics that touch on religion. That too can be an academic sin.

Cecil Bohanon, Ph.D., an adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, is a professor of economics at Ball State University.



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