Benjamin Friedman, Harvard University
Published on 25th September 2022
Most people don’t think of economics as having a religious basis, and may question whether religion affects people’s views of economic issues. But in his recent book, ‘Religion and the Rise of Capitalism,’ our guest on EconoFact Chats this week, Professor Benjamin Friedman of Harvard University, discusses the influence of religion on economics, including how the ideas of the Social Gospel and the Gospel of Wealth played a role in the development of American economic thinking in the late 19th century, how religious thinking influenced people’s views of economic policy in the 20th century, and how that influence continues to the present day.
Professor Friedman is the William Joseph Maier Professor of Political Economy at Harvard University. He has authored over 170 scholarly articles, and written or edited a dozen books, including The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth.
I’m Michael Klein, executive editor of EconoFact, a nonpartisan web based publication of the Fletcher
School at Tufts University. At EconoFact we bring key facts and incisive analysis to the national debate
on economic and social policies publishing work from leading economists across the country. You can
learn more about us and see our work at http://www.econofact.org.
Most people do not think of a religious basis to economics. Instead, the caricature, one that is not too far
off base probably, is that economists are trained to work with sophisticated mathematical models and
advanced statistical techniques to analyze the behavior of humans who are viewed as nothing more than
calculating machines trying to maximize material wants and needs. But in his recent book, ‘Religion and
the Rise of Capitalism,’ Professor Benjamin Friedman of Harvard University shows how early
economists, including those in the late 19th century, who founded the American Economic Association
saw economics as deeply linked to religion. Furthermore, in this deeply researched scholarly book,
Professor Friedman also explores how religious beliefs influence people’s opinions on economic issues in
the 20th century and continue to do so today.
Benjamin Friedman is a William Joseph Maier Professor of Political Economy at Harvard University.
And this year celebrates his 50th year as a member of that faculty. In his long and productive career, he
has authored more than 170 scholarly articles and written or edited a dozen books, including the Moral
Consequences of Economic Growth. Ben, it’s great to have you on EconoFact Chats. Thanks very much
for joining me.
Thanks Michael. I’m delighted to be with you.
Ben, you make the argument which some people will find counterintuitive that although the great figures
of the 18th century in economics like Adam Smith and David Hume were not religious individuals, but
nonetheless, their economic ideas were powerfully influenced by religious thinking. How did that come
about, that idea that you had?
Well, first of all, let me say that you’re exactly right about Smith and Hume. These people were
international celebrities in their own lifetimes and therefore we know a lot about them biographically.
Hume, for example, was a well known opponent…of outspoken opponent of any kind of organized
religion. He used to refer to Church of England bishops as ‘agents of superstition.’ For this reason, he was
never able to get a university appointment, even though he tried several times.
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