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Marketplace of the Gods: How Economics Explains Religion

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Two centuries after Adam Smith illuminated the workings of the marketplace, a new movement among economists and social scientists is expanding his insights into a groundbreaking "economics of religion." Using cutting edge ideas from the behavioral sciences, and a deep knowledge of religious history, this new approach is making sense not only of past beliefs, but of religion today.

In Marketplace of the Gods, award-winning journalist Larry Witham tells the inside story of this expanding "economic approach" to religion, the puzzles it tries to solve, the controversies it has stirred, and the people who are making it happen. He shows that the economic approach, while evoking images of stock markets or accounting ledgers, actually begins with a simple idea about human beings as rational actors, judging costs and benefits in life. Every life has limits, so human experience is a series of trade-offs, balancing resources to make choices for the best possible benefits. As the economics of religion shows, this model can be applied to the rich story of the human race and its gods. Beginning with the individual, the choices in religion shape households, groups, movements, and entire "religious economies" of nations. On the one hand, this mixing of the profane and the sacred, the economic and the religious, is an exciting exchange of ideas between economics, sociology, psychology, history, and theology. On the other, it has spurred a lively protest. Indeed, for some, the economic approach seems to transform our good angels into grubby consumers.

As Witham shows, however, the economic approach to religion has insights for everyone, believers and skeptics alike. He illuminates this approach in a volume rich with ideas, history, contemporary events, and the insights of some of our sharpest modern-day thinkers.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Offer[s] insight into the way economic theories try to explain some of modernity's most perplexing issues...In a world dominated by the marketplace, books such as this one are an important part of the conversation." —Publishers Weekly

"Witham makes accessible the fundamentals of the economics of religion, demonstrating the growing importance and popularity of the field. I recommend this book to anyone looking for a layman's introduction to the economics of religion." —Rachel M. McCleary, Senior Research Fellow, Harvard Kennedy School

"Marketplace of the Gods is both a pleasant read and a comprehensive overview of the economics of religion, appealing to general audiences, scholars, and theologians alike. Readers of this precise scholarly work will gain insight into the peculiar way economists view religion in particular and human behavior in general." —Brooks B. Hull, Professor of Economics, University of Michigan, Dearborn

"In this cogent book, Larry Witham describes the development and the insights of a broad academic literature that uses economics to explain the organization, evolution, and impact of religions. His mastery of the debates and grasp of the proposed theories are impressive. Readers ranging from the uninitiated to professional economists who specialize in religion will find Marketplace of the Gods informative and provocative, but also entertaining." —Timur Kuran, Professor of Economics and Political Science and Gorter Family Professor of Islamic Studies, Duke University

Publishers Weekly
A former religion reporter for the Washington Times, Witham turns his attention to the contemporary rise of economic theories to explain religion. Drawing on the works of Rodney Stark, Roger Finke, and Laurence R. Iannaccone, among others, he explores how these academics use economic models of costs and benefits to explain the persistence of religious faith in an age of growing secularization. While Witham gets off to a slow start, his concluding chapters offer insight into the way economic theories try to explain some of modernity's most perplexing issues: why is the United States more religious than Europe? What are the cost-benefits of extreme faith, such as that of religiously inspired terrorists? Economic answers such as the widely embraced theory that religions thrive on competition and are stifled by state regulation are ultimately reductionist; Witham quotes influential religion sociologist Robert Wuthnow, who has said that an economic analysis “fails to illuminate about 90 percent of what I find interesting about religion.” Many readers may agree. Yet in a world dominated by the marketplace, books such as this one are an important part of the conversation. (May)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780195394757
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
  • Publication date: 5/5/2010
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 256
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Larry Witham iis a veteran journalist and author who has covered current events, history, religion and society, science, and philosophy for more than two decades. Now a full-time author, he has written twelve books, including the recent award-winning Who Shall Lead Them?. Witham has contributed to publications ranging from the Christian Century and Beliefnet to Nature and Scientific American, and he has been on C-SPAN, Fox News, public television, and dozens of radio programs including affiliates of National Public Radio. He lives in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, DC.

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Table of Contents

1. The Economic Approach
2. Rational People and Religion
3. Life in the Household
4. The Gods of Risk
5. Why Religions Form
6. History of an Idea
7. Marketplace of the Gods
8. Debating Secularism
9. How Religion Shapes Economics
10. The Merits of Mammon

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