Religion and Utopian Economics


Economic and power relations are the place where any set of lofty religious or humanistic ideals come to ground, where the rubber hits the road. And for those atheists who care about making a better world (rather than just making religious people look dumb) this is a place where atheists and the religious can help each other face a most formidable, perennial, intractable challenge: how to structure institutions for the benefit of their members or the public at large while discouraging exploitation and the use of institutional power for the private gain of trusted leaders.

My current favorite of the atheist religions–which don’t generally consider themselves religions–is Nonviolent Communication or NVC, and I was confirmed in my positive regard for the NVC movement when I came upon this piece by Miki Kashtan on Tikkun’s blog addressing crucial questions of money, higher values and inner peace. Kashtan attacks the problem of money in a mode of full-fledged utopian dreamery, offering ideas and experiments that point toward the reform of our society’s whole economic exchange structure. She summarizes some of her intentions thus:

In how I engage with money and resources, I continually strive to move closer to my vision of how I want to see these operate in the world at large. I aim to move from considering exchange value to valuing people and life; from seeing relationships through the lens of exchange to participating in a flow of generosity; from allocating resources based on output equity to caring for everyone’s needs; from making things happen based on the ever-s-subtle coercion of money incentive to complete and wholehearted willingness; from thinking about our merit to sharing our gifts; and from wondering about what someone “deserves” to contributing to everyone receiving all we need. (Miki Kashtan, personal communication)

But I want to focus on a specific problem she raises: how can she offer her services as a trained NVC teacher and practitioner in a way that is consistent with her values? She is, from what I can gather, in considerable demand in the NVC world, but many of the people and organizations who would like her help have little money to pay for it. Does she sell her services only to those who can afford it? No, that would not fit her values. But how can she meet her own financial needs otherwise?

She seems to suggest that a full solution requires a new economic order all around. While I would be overjoyed at seeing her ideas come to fruition, I’m too pessimistic to consider them on such a grand scale. Money is power and humans like power and any scheme for the universalization of generosity and equality will likely fall into the hands of those most eager to exploit it for their own gain. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep trying to solve these problems one way or another. (And, of course, self-interest also has its limits and kindness, generosity and other ideals will always inform many of our relationships and exchanges.)

Rather than considering the whole economy, let’s look just at religious or humanistic institutions or exchanges–those involving the sharing of deeply meaningful guidance and wisdom. Can we solve Kashtan’s problem of wanting to share her wisdom without selling it to the highest bidder without overhauling our entire economic system?

What I’m calling religion is different from making widgets or preparing tax returns. We do religion to make ourselves and the world kinder, more generous, more loving. This is not a realm where buying low and selling high is appropriate, and the contradictions between market and gift economies cause constant tension in religions. The Catholic Church may be dedicated to the values of Jesus or St. Francis, but it’s practically a miracle when Pope Francis comes along and fires a spendthrift bishop.

If religions are to address problems of institutional power and betrayal of religious principles by self-interested leaders, there are few better models than that offered by the 12-Step movement, Alcoholics Anonymous and its offshoots. The 12 Traditions are a profoundly thoughtful program for holding a religion to its principles. But their solution is radical: they dispense with privilege, rank, individual recognition, money, outside influence, and accumulation of power as far as institutionally possible without entirely abandoning consistency and core principles.

This solution is unlikely to work for Kashtan. She wants to put more time into offering service and wisdom than she can afford without getting paid. And in NVC, unlike 12 Steps, training is essential. No infrastructure (as far as I know) exists for spreading NVC practice and wisdom without the participation of trained leaders. Quakers, like 12-Step groups, dispense with paid clergy. Many Buddhist teachers offer teaching freely and survive only on donations. But these, like Kashtan, may find themselves in awkward positions when they don’t receive enough to live on or when they become so popular that they can’t provide all the teaching their followers are requesting and must somehow choose between them. Most mainline religions welcome all but expect significant contributions from regular congregants who can afford it, and big donors can often expect a little special attention.

The ethical and structural issues at hand are too vast to tackle here, but one suggestion for religious or quasi-religious leaders in Kashtan’s position is complete financial transparency: to publicly report all assets, revenue, expenses and services performed. If it is clear that a religious leader is making less money by her vocation than she could by some other easily accessible profession, at least the appearance of exploitation of the trust of followers or congregants or clients would be greatly lessened. I have no doubt that Kashtan meets this standard, but many wouldn’t. Even putting aside televangelists and cult leaders, workaday clergy, though they are paid little enough, God knows, are sometimes not trained to do anything that would pay better, which might, as their careers progress, affect their motivations significantly.

It is entirely appropriate that a religious leader should be paid far less than a mundane professional with comparable skills. We certainly expect a nurse to change a bedpan with an attitude of kindness and generosity, but we wouldn’t expect him to do it without being paid. A chaplain, however, offering prayer at the same bedside, we would hope is not being motivated by a paycheck. We need money to pay the nurse, but we need money only to allow the chaplain to do God’s work, which she would hopefully do anyway if she didn’t need the money. And if she wouldn’t do it anyway, you’ve got to wonder about the quality of the prayers she offers.

In the service of this idea of complete financial transparency for clergy, I propose the formation of a new kind of religious order–called something like The Blessed Order of Guru Accountants. This would be a volunteer society of accountants dedicated to auditing the finances of clergy, gurus, religious leaders, and basically anybody who wants to publicly be held to a standard of working for the public good as opposed to self-interest (politicians anyone?), and verifying for the public that these people are making only a modest living from their calling.

I offer this as a proposal of interest to religious people and atheists alike because one of the great things atheists bring to discussions of religion is a healthy distrust of the motivations of religious leaders, which religious leaders would do well to consider and address in their efforts to be true to their own beliefs. I also offer it because there are so few truly noble and selfless opportunities for accountants to exercise their callings.

Sigfried Gold writes at Tailored Beliefs and designs interactive data visualization software. Follow him on Twitter: @godforatheists.

0 thoughts on “Religion and Utopian Economics

  1. A very interesting piece. One approach would be to work until a certain age, retire and devote oneself to one’s particular interests. Pope Francis’ turning of the Church toward frugality may slow the exodus from the church more than almost anything. One of the main complaints I have always heard is about the Church’s wealth when so many members live in poverty.

  2. Thanks, Shanti. That’s extremely close to the approach I’ve been taking–both regarding my spiritual work and regarding my literary aspirations: I make a living and support my family as a software designer, and use moments of extra time to pursue my calling. If I had known that my calling was going to grow so loud, I might not have taken on the responsibility of raising a family; but in that case I probably wouldn’t have learned the spiritual lessons that have brought me to this point. In any case–I fully endorse the idea of self-supported or amateur spiritual leadership.

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