840117 :Religion and Economics


Voertaal Engels
Werkvorm: lectures and seminars (Collegerooster)
Tentamenvorm: written exam, combined with group assignment (paper and presentation (Tentamenrooster)
Studielast:6 ECTS credits
Inschrijving:Inschrijven via Blackboard voor aanvang colleges
Blackboard informatieniet beschikbaar in Blackboard


prof. dr. W.B. Drees (coordinator)

dr. J.O. Prüfer

Doel van de cursus (alleen in het Engels beschikbaar)

Students who have participated successfully in this course

  1. Have knowledge of some specific religious practices (micro-level) in their contexts, and are able to describe these in scholarly terms both for their meaning to believers and as human practices with economic, social or political consequences;
  2. Have knowledge of some structural and large scale scale developments (macro-level) (e.g. secularization, the role of religious institutions, the rise of capitalism as understood by Max Weber) and a basic understanding of contemporary debates on those developments so that they can describe and evaluate multiple perspectives on these structures and developments;
  3. Have a basic understanding of economics and of religious studies as academic disciplines and of the multiple facets involved in religions (beliefs, practices; individuals and communities; invented traditions);
  4. Are able to propose explanations of particular religious practices and related cultural phenomena, and discuss how these might be evaluated;
  5. Have understood the economic approach to questions in the social sciences, including the political economy of religions, and have provisionally developed a considered view of the potential power and limitations of economic explanatory models of religious or cultural practices.

Inhoud van de cursus (alleen in het Engels beschikbaar)

Religion seems to be a private affair, while the economy is about public transactions. At least, so the understanding in contemporary secularized Europe. However, religions are more than beliefs; they shape human practices, communities, and attitudes. Those practices have economic consequences. Religious practices may be costly, and thus may seem unproductive and irrational. Believers invest time in rituals and resources in the community. In India, cows are considered holy, while people starve. Muslims may not charge interest, but how then can one build a healthy entrepreneurial society? Religious practices may appear irrational, but are they? Are the choices people make open to economic analysis, as if they are rational actors? Can religious practices be analyzed with economic models? Or are religions in opposition to economic considerations, as the bearers of moral values, of critical solidarity with the poor, of a long-term and person-transcending perspective, beyond self-interest? Topics that will be covered are the following.

1. Religion and the study of religion: The example of Christianity

‘Religion’ refers to beliefs and practices, theologies and ‘lived religion’. Insiders tend to engage in theology, the meaning of their practices and beliefs to them. Outsiders more often focus on worldly consequences. We will consider the multiple facets of ‘religion’ and ways religion may be approached. In the introductory sessions, we will focus on Christianity as the religious tradition that dominates Western understanding of religion.

2. Economy and Economics: Basics

‘The economy’ refers to a social reality. ‘Economics’ is a disciplinary perspective that analyzes human behavior, especially under conditions of scarcity.  How do people allocate their time and attention is as much a question open to economic analysis as how people allocate money. How can religious institutions, e.g. via shaping believers incentives for certain behavior, have real-world consequences? What methods are characteristic in economic analysis? What would an economic approach to religion entail? Lecture 1 will focus on the understanding of economics; lecture 2 on the economics of religion.

3. Costly and Counterproductive Practices?

Many religious practices appear to be irrational, odd and counterproductive. If food is scarce, why consider certain good sources of food prohibited? Taboos and maledictions: are those not practices of an earlier, more superstitious age? Why take the risk of reaching a verdict by ordeal, rather than by a legal procedure? Why invest in elaborate rituals and expensive festivities rather than in productive activities? Why engage in apologies and public confessions, rather than a fair legal procedure? How might one understand economically costly practices? Can religious practices that seem odd and unproductive, be understood as rational?

4. Did Protestantism Facilitate the Rise of Capitalism?

In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1904-1905), sociologist Max Weber argued that in North-West Europe Protestantism, and especially Calvinism, was decisive for the rise of modern capitalism. This week, we will consider the European Reformation, some theological and moral ideas of Protestants, and the Weber thesis, followed by an economic assessment of the thesis and discussion of some alternatives, especially of the role of religious institutions in education.

In Western Europe religious organizations such as schools and hospitals continue to exist, even though membership in churches seems to have become less important to the individuals. Is the confessional profile of an institution just a relic of the past, or has it significance in our time? This will be considered on the basis of a case study of strategic decisions made by Protestant and Catholic nonprofit hospitals in Germany.

5. Membership and Secularization

Why would persons join a religious organization? Why are they investing time and resources in the life of a sect or Church? Various models of community and participation will be considered, from the tribe to which one belongs by birth to the individual choice open in a pluralistic society. How are such models justified by insiders? How might one think of secularization in today’s world? Why is the situation for Christianity in Europe so different from that in the rest of the world? Can one interpret membership in terms that draw on economic analysis, e.g. with ‘rational choice theory’?
6. Group presentations  

Students will give presentations on the meaning and socio-economic significance of various religious rules or practices.

Bijzonderheden (alleen in het Engels beschikbaar)

This course is an elective, for Liberal Arts and Sciences students only.

For the first session on economics, read from Partha Dasgupta, Economics: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007) at least from Prologue to ch. 4, better the entire book (equals about 40 A4 pages).

For further details on the schedule of classes and readings, see the course pages in blackboard.


  1. Group assignment/presentation       30 % of the final grade
  2. Concluding exam                            70 % of the final grade

Group assignment: In this assignment, students will describe and evaluate a particular religious rule or practice, considering its meaning to believers (‘insider perspective’) and its socio-economic effects and efficacy (an ‘outsider perspective’).

Concluding exam: The exam will consist of open questions that invite the student to show understanding of conceptual, methodological and substantial issues raised in the course. The material to be studied for the exam will be the lectures and additional literature.

This course is taught through co-teaching, which entails that more than a single professor is responsible for teaching the course and guiding the students that take it.

Verplichte literatuur

  1. Partha Dasgupta, Economics: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford: Oxford University Press,, 2007. This book is on internet available at http://iklim.cob.gov.tr/iklim/Files/eKutuphane/Economics%20-%20A%20Very%20Short%20Introduction.pdf.
  2. Linda Woodhead, Christianity: A Very Short Introduction, second revised edition, Oxford University Press, 2014.
  3. Other materials, which will be made available via blackboard, or else in a syllabus

Aanbevolen literatuur

  1. Additional information will be provided via Blackboard

Vereiste voorkennis


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