Religious organizations may preach in poetry, but they must minister in prose. The messages they send to their members and potential members may be numinous, illuminating, mysterious, moving or transfiguring. But the organizations themselves – churches, mosques, madrassas, synagogues, temples, prayer groups, ashrams, monasteries, meeting houses – have to engage in what the economist Alfred Marshall called “the ordinary business of life”. They must recruit, raise funds, disburse budgets, manage premises, organize transport, motivate their employees and volunteers, get their message out, all the while being keenly aware that they compete – for funds, loyalty, energy and attention – with other religious organizations, potentially no less inspiring than they are, as well as with secular rivals and the pull of lassitude and indifference. The history of religion organizations has focused overwhelmingly, and for good reasons, on the personalities of their leaders and the nature of the messages they communicate. This seminar series is about the underlying prose, which over the millennia has shaped how much and what kind of messages it is possible for the spiritually minded to hear. It will look at how the conditions of economic rivalry within and between religions has interacted with other dimensions of rivalry – theological, scientific, political.
Considering economic aspects of religious rivalry has a long pedigree – Adam Smith devoted many paragraphs of The Wealth of Nations to the question how the strength of economic competition between religious organizations in different societies had shaped their activities, including the content of their doctrines. The approach lost its importance thereafter until late in the 20th century but is now a flourishing and fascinating area of research. Religious rivalry is shaping up to be a major influence on the world in the coming century.
The seminars will be organized as follows. In the first two sessions I will set out some background facts about the way in which the shape of religion across the world has changed in the last three quarters of a century. I will propose a conceptual framework for understanding those developments that does justice both to the economic character of religious rivalry, and to the way in which religious rivalry is different from rivalry between secular organizations.
The remaining six seminars will be organized as structured dialogues in which I will talk to leading researchers whose knowledge of particular historical, political, anthropological and geographical contexts of religious rivalry can help us to assess the value of such a conceptual approach.
All members of the University are welcome to attend. No prior knowledge will be presumed (and in particular, no familiarity with economics). It is not necessary to attend all sessions, though I hope those who do will benefit from connections between the themes discussed in different sessions.
This series features in the following public collections: