Do Christians Respond to Incentives?

July 26, 2008

In “Anarchists and Socialists,” I contended that any time people are given the incentive and means to take advantage of a situation, they can be expected to act in their own self interest to benefit themselves as much as possible. In the case of European settlement of the New World, Europeans were able to conquer the Native Americans and take their land because of their superior numbers and weaponry, and they proved themselves willing to do so.

James responded that European colonization was not brought about by narrowly-defined economic incentives; rather, the fact that European settlers were Catholic and viewed non-Catholics as sub-human provided unique circumstances and enabled the Europeans to treat Native Americans (and blacks) as they did. Had the shoe been on the other foot, he claims, the Native Americans would not have conquered Europe, because they did not have this system of morality.

To resolve the debate, James suggests that we come up with examples and counter-examples to support our favored positions. Well, I’ve never been a big fan of examples, so I prefer to argue by examining what James’s position entails.

The problem with the “Christianity did it” argument is that is confuses justification with cause. By treating the tenets of Catholicism as the cause of oppression, James’ theory fails to explain why these same people don’t follow every aspect of Catholic teaching. For example, the Bible commands believers: “thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself” (Leviticus 19:18; Matthew 19:19). Or more concretely: “Jesus said to him, ‘If you want to be perfect, go and sell what you own and give the money to the destitute, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come back and follow me.'” If the Catholic religion is a sufficient cause for European oppression, why isn’t history also filled with examples of powerful and rich people who give up everything they have because of their Catholicism to follow Jesus?

I understand that my advocacy of the position that people don’t really follow all the tenets of their religion borders on the absurd. Unfortunately, I am forced into this situation by the absurdity of the claim that religion causes violence and oppression. You just can’t look at something like the Bible or organized religion, which makes hundreds of vague and contradictory commands, pick one of those commands, and use it to argue that religion is the root cause of oppression. You need some distinguishing principle to explain why some religious commands are followed over others. I suspect you will very quickly hit upon “economic interest” as that principle, since killing the Native Americans and taking their land leads to a much more comfortable existence than giving away everything you own.

Whether or not religion itself can spring up ex nihilo or through divine revelation, regardless of economic interests, it is impossible to argue that the way people use religion is similarly unconstrained. It would be suspicious if people were to follow a religion, all of whose commands just happened to coincide with their economic interests. We would certainly wonder where that religion came from. A whole new level of suspicion is added, however, when a religion gives many different commands, and the ones that its followers obey just happen to be the ones that are in their economic interest. Given all the factors that influence how religion is exercised in the world, it is implausible to maintain that Christianity was uniquely capable of causing something like slavery or genocide.

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3 Responses to “Do Christians Respond to Incentives?”

  1. tripinchina Says:

    Yes, when the Europeans used religious ideology to dehumanize the natives this was not the *cause* of their drive to kill them and take their land. Rather this was their justification. It was a convenient way of convincing other Europeans, some of whom may have been wary of the slaughter, to quell their consciences and go along with it.

    Zinn’s book is all about this dynamic — how a middle class popular concencus is established even though it overwhelmingly serves the interests of the rich and powerful and harms the poor. This is hegemony in action and Zinn describes it again and again in his book which you did not read!

    I don’t want to put words in James’ mouth, but I think part of his point is that its worthwhile to examine history and analyze *how* cultural forms such as Christianity have been made to serve economic interests of the rich and powerful.

  2. James Says:

    It seems to me that you are implying that I was saying something that I was actually not saying. Here is what my blog response was saying. You need to look at history in order to understand why things are the way they are. You can’t make blanket statements about all forms of oppression because every form of oppression is different. I wasn’t saying “Christianity did it”. But in this particular case of oppression, I was talking about how Christianity helped murderers sleep at night. And furthermore I was saying that this is where the idea of color barriers came from, which developed into what we now know of as modern day racism, the remnants of which are still prominent in American culture today. Can you see how it is important to know this in order to understand oppression? That is my point. The economics of oppression is important, but it doesn’t explain the whole picture.


  3. […] Jaime. I wasn’t arguing that things that have happened in the past have no influence on the state […]


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