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Paul Oslington (ed.). Economics and Religion.

Paul Oslington (ed.). Economics and Religion. Cheltenham, UK and Northampton, MA, USA: Edward Elgar, 2003. Two volumes, pp. xvii + 513; pp. xi + 460. ISBN 1 84064 849 X. 250 [pounds sterling].

Economics claims to be the leading social science, an enterprise which tries to emulate the methods and purported success of the natural sciences. At least in the commercial (nominally Christian) part of the world, the practitioners of the natural sciences long ago fought a successful battle to free themselves from constraints of religion. Social scientists followed suit. For most modern economists, the linkage of the words 'economics' and 'religion' appears to be anachronistic and a dangerous mixture; for them the combination is explosive and threatens the whole programme of modern economics as a putative science. Economics and Religion, edited by Paul Oslington, is a two-volume collection of writings focusing on this volatile mixture.

Oslington, a Senior Lecturer in Economics at the Australian Defence Force Academy, is well-qualified to undertake the task of producing a collection on the theme of economics and religion (with a Ph.D. in economics and a divinity degree). Apart from Anthony Waterman (a former Anglican priest who also has a Ph.D. in economics), Oslington is a rare bird with his qualifications in both economics and theology. Oslington's interest in the history of economic thought and the relationships between religion and economics stretches back some years. Details of his blossoming work in these fields can be found on the internet (Oslington n.d.). Oslington has demonstrated his expertise in Economics and Religion in two ways: by providing a brief but insightful introduction and by selecting an excellent set of papers.

Next, a comment on the structure of the volumes is required. Volume I contains one Part: 'Historical Relationships'. There are 17 contributions in this Part. These articles and book chapters are probably the most relevant to the history of economic thought specialists. Volume II contains two Parts: Part I is 'Religious Economics and its Critics'; and Part II is 'Economics of Religion.' Of the 14 articles, book chapters and previously unpublished materials in the former Part, twelve are on Christianity. In addition, there are papers on Judaism and Islam. 'The Economics of Religion' Part contains 10 articles and book chapters. The theme of this Part has gained prominence in recent years with the ascent of the Chicago School of economics. Overall, the 41 contributions in the two volumes take up about 960 pages of text; they comprise materials drawn from the period 1939 to 2002.

What may initially be surprising to non-specialists is the sheer volume of material from which Oslington could choose. To include almost a thousand pages on such a topic seems preposterous, given the well-established secularisation of the social sciences in the developed world. Once such a reader recovers from this shock, he/she might suggest that such a collection would comprise materials drawn primarily from obscure sources. Actually, the set of papers includes reprints of articles from mainstream journals (including three articles from the American Economic Review, four articles from the Journal of Political Economy and two articles from the Journal of Economic Perspectives) as well as little-known periodicals, selections from books published by well-established and obscure publishers, and some 25 pages from one author which were previously unpublished. For many economists, especially historians of economics, there is much to feast on in these papers.

In reality, the extent of the scholarship would be unsurprising to specialists. The pervasive influence of religion has only diminished in a limited part of the world and even there the secularisation of intellectual and social life occurred only relatively recently. The interest by historians of economics in earlier theories, and in the context of the times in which earlier economists wrote, would naturally lead them to deal with the influence of religion. Hence, especially welcome in Oslington's volumes are commentaries on the religious dimensions to the work of Adam Smith (by Leathers and Raines, Rothschild, Hill, Waterman and Anderson), T.R. Malthus (by Pullen), and Thomas Chalmers (by Hilton). Also welcome are articles dealing with the emergence of the break between economics and theology (by Waterman), the religious roots of the founding of the American Economic Association (by Bateman and Capstein), and others. Waterman's leading position in the field dedicated to the study of the historical connections between religion and economics justifies the inclusion of two articles by him in this Part.

Let me now turn to Volume II. Even today, beyond the historical dimensions, economics and religion is a surprisingly active field. In the United States civil society has not undergone the secularisation evident in Western Europe. Many American economists are also active Christians. Thus many economics professors at liberal arts colleges have an interest in the way in which their religious beliefs can be brought into their teaching. Some nevertheless think that, for the benefit of both disciplines, economics and theology should be separated. Such debates have found expression in various venues. For example, there is an active Association of Christian Economists (founded in 1982) which produces a scholarly journal; until 1999 this journal was called the Bulletin of the Association of Christian Economists but it is now called Faith and Economics (see Association of Christian Economists n.d.). It is not surprising that Oslington included one Part on 'Religious Economics and its Critics' and in this Part included four contributions from the Bulletin.

In addition to these more traditional approaches to the topic, there is much activity by those who seek to impose neoclassical economic approaches on the study of religion. The former approach may be called economics and religion; the latter Oslington correctly labels the 'economics of religion'. The imperialist approach of the economics of religion, which has been championed by Chicagostyle economists, has also had considerable impact. Under the Chicago influence, the 'imperial science' of economics expanded into other fields whilst retaining the same model of human behaviour that it uses within traditional economic topics. Perhaps the leading figures here are Robert Ekelund and Robert Tollison. A rising star in this field is Laurence Iannaccone, under whose leadership several major activities have begun. Since 2002 an annual conference has been held on Religion, Economics and Culture. In 2003-4 he set up The Association for the Study of Religion, Economics, and Culture (see The Association for the Study of Religion, Economics, and Culture n.d.). It was a wise choice by Oslington, therefore, to include another Part on 'The Economics of Religion' and to insert in it two contributions by Ekelund and Tollison and one by Iannaccone.

One of the most contentious issues in a collection of this kind is selection. In my view the volumes contains many of the items that one would hope to find. Australian readers of the History of Economics Review can be proud to find included so many contributions by their fellow countrymen. Despite those general observations, I have a few reservations about Oslington's selections.

Let me mention first some general concerns about journals that have not been included. Some journals which frequently, or at least regularly, discuss economics and/of religion which have not been successful include the Review of Social Economy (although one paper from its sister journal, the Forum for Social Economics, was included), the International Journal of Social Economics, the Journal of Markets and Morality and the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. The Review of Social Economy has an interesting connection to the theme of economics and religion. It is currently the journal of the Association for Social Economics but it has a history going further back; it was the journal of the Catholic Economics Association, formed in 1941. With such a pedigree, and long existence, it is hard to believe that there was no article in it worthy of inclusion. Almost as important, however, was the exclusion of contributions from the new Journal of Markets and Morality. While this journal only began in 1998, already it has vastly expanded the number of pages per issue and gained considerable attention. According to the editorial objectives, it is dedicated to 'the scholarly exploration of the relationship between economics, theology, and ethics'. Finally, the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion began in 1961 and periodically includes articles from an economic perspective.

Next, let me discuss specific authors. I was pleased that Oslington included contributions from Jacob Viner, Frank Knight, Barry Gordon, Anthony Waterman, Michael Novak and several others mentioned above. Some authors were perhaps unlucky not to have been reprinted. Edward O'Boyle and Peter Danner dedicated much of their lives to Catholic social thought (personalist economics) but were overlooked. Similarly, Daniel Rush Finn specialised in the study of the relationships between economics and theology but was also overlooked. Something from each could have been included.

With regard to specific items, it seems to me that the famous article by E.F. Schumacher 'Buddhist Economics' warranted inclusion (reprinted in Schumacher 1974). Also, Waterman recently praised a contribution by Ian Steedman; it may also have warranted inclusion (Waterman quoted in Webb 2000; Steedman 1994). In my view an article from the History of Economics Review by Richard Kleer should have been included (Kleer 2000). Also, while one article on Malthus's theology was included, it was surprising that there was no space for any others on this subject.

Oslington's parameters for the set of contributions were quite wide but could have been extended. First, if the time-frame had been extended backwards, sections from Veblen's work should have been included (Veblen 1899-1900). One should also note that new contributions of a high standard have already started to appear (Hill 2004). Second, the volumes could have included translations. Thus work by Germans like Wilhelm Hasbach (writing in the late 1800s) could have been added (excerpts from him are provided in Kleer 2000). Similarly, inclusion of Japanese authors like Shoji Tanaka (1993) would have been valuable.

One comment on the style of the presentation of the papers is required. I was impressed with the layout of the two volumes. The reprinted articles included original page numbering in addition to page numbering within the two-volume set. This is very helpful.

Producing these volumes was a major undertaking and to my knowledge the first of its kind. Nevertheless, there is scope for further work. Perhaps a third volume could be added in the future to supplement the existing material (no doubt including a contribution from Oslington himself). Alternatively, new projects could be undertaken to extend the excellent work that Oslington has begun. In any event, both Paul Oslington and Edward Elgar Publishing are to be congratulated for producing such an excellent contribution to intellectual history, the history of economic thought, theology and religious studies. The relationships between economics and religion are highly relevant to serious students of the history of economic thought. I believe, however, that these relationships are not only of interest to antiquarians. The enduring relationships between economics and religion are evident in various ways (especially outside of the nominally Christian world).


Association of Christian Economists, n.d. Homepage. <> (7 December, 2004).

Association for the Study of Religion, Economics, and Culture, n.d. Homepage. <> (7 December, 2004).

Hill, Lisa. 2004. 'Further reflections on the "hidden theology" of Adam Smith', European Journal of the History of Economic Thought 11(4), pp. 629-35.

Kleer, Richard A. 2000. 'The role of teleology in Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations', History of Economics Review 31, pp. 14-29.

Oslington, Paul. n.d. Dr Paul Oslington, Staff Directory page, Australian Defence Force Academy, University of New South Wales, Canberra. <> (2 December 2004).

Schumacher, E.F. 1974. Small is Beautiful. London: Abacus.

Steedman I. 1994. 'Wicksteed: economist and prophet.' In H. Geoffrey Brennan and A.M.C. Waterman (eds), Economics and Religion: Are They Distinct? Morwell: Kluwer, pp. 77-101.

Tanaka, Shoji. 1993. The Natural Theology of Adam Smith (in Japanese). Tokyo: Ochanomizu-Shobo.

Veblen, Thorstein. 1899-1900. 'The preconceptions of economic science' (in three parts), Quarterly Journal of Economics 13(2), pp. 121-50; 13(4), pp. 396426; 14(2), pp. 240-69.

Webb, Bruce G. 2000. 'A conversation with Anthony Waterman', Faith and Economics 36, pp. 10-18.

James E Alvey, Department of Applied and International Economics, College of Business, Massey University, Private Bag 11222, Palmerston North, New Zealand. Email:
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Author:Alvey, James E.
Publication:History of Economics Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2005
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