12. Adam Smith on Religion
While economic thought is nothing new or even that modern, a properly mathematical approach to the topic was not established until Adam Smith and his Wealth of Nations. The majority of the book is fixated on exploring and describing various aspects of the British economy mathematically. For most people, it’s a rather dense read and not very engaging. But surrounding all of this math are Smith’s takes on morality, ethics and religion.
Smith himself did not act in a way that was extensively religious; his conduct resembling that of his fellow Enlightenment thinkers. His approach to God and the existence of reality assumes two claims:
That God exists, that he created reality, and that reality has value; That God wants man to enact his will on earth.
He summarizes this well in Theory of Moral Sentiments:
The all-wise Author of Nature has, in this manner, taught man to respect the sentiments and judgments of his brethren; to be more or less pleased when they approve of his conduct, and to be more or less hurt when they disapprove of it. He has made man, if I may say so, the immediate judge of mankind; and has, in this respect, as in many others, created him after his own image, and appointed him his vicegerent upon earth, to superintend the behaviour of his brethren. They are taught by nature, to acknowledge that power and jurisdiction which has thus been conferred upon him, to be more or less humbled and mortified when they have incurred his censure, and to be more or less elated when they have obtained his applause.
In Smith’s eyes, man was made for community, and for relationships; and that man must be able to interact with others in a meaningful way;.
The Power of Religion and Revival
Smith also noted a significant shift in how people viewed faith in light of the modernizing trends that had spread across England, and that would eventually manifest into something similar to the Revivals in the United States. Walter Mead of The Atlantic stated the following:
Smith saw what we see: the progress of modernity, he noted, was not undermining religion in the Britain of his day. Instead, religious revivals were blooming. These new religious movements often rejected the liberal values of a free society. They favored absolute moral codes, conservative interpretations of religious doctrines, and political activism to enact their values into law.
Smith observed a relationship between these revivals and the process that we now call urbanization. Young people, arriving in cities in search of work, faced new opportunities and temptations without the structure that village life — with its communities of relatives and others that watched and guided young people — had provided. “A single week’s thoughtlessness and dissipation is often sufficient to undo a poor workman forever,” wrote Smith about life in London. But the city’s small sectarian religious congregations gave rural immigrants a social-support network and a moral code that could keep them on the straight and narrow as they built new lives. These movements were a response to the dislocations of modernity; there was no reason to expect them to fade away.
Yet in the teeming religious marketplace of Britain’s cities, Smith also saw pressures that would limit the political impact of religious beliefs and prevent theocracy. With so many competing denominations, he noted, religious leaders could acquire political influence only by finding allies outside their own version of the faith — and the process of forming those alliances would drive them toward agendas that could appeal to a wider, multi-faith audience. To be politically significant, he wrote, religious extremists had to move toward broader and necessarily more-moderate coalitions. Their entry into politics would, itself, moderate them.
Smith was able to predict the splintering of religious denominations caused Protestants to create their own political movements that would inevitably evolve into modern Protestant movement in America, and that zealotry was not compatible with Capitalism.
Adam Smith is by his nature an economist, not a teacher of morality. And yet in his work, we see hints of theology, philosophy and morality. We see thoughts on the formation of certain religious communities, on a deity’s hand over reality and more.