Economics: Both Scientific and Religious?

In recent decades, many religious reflections on economics – celebrating or denouncing the social effects of things like the privatization of public services – have been published. But little attention has been given to the ongoing debate among philosophers of economics about the status of economics as a scientific discipline.
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Economics: Both Scientific and Religious?

Originally published in the Union College Magazine, Fall 2014

Kirk Wegter-McNelly, John and Jane Wold Visiting Assistant Professor of Religious Studies

In recent decades, many religious reflections on economics – celebrating or denouncing the social effects of things like the privatization of public services – have been published. But little attention has been given to the ongoing debate among philosophers of economics about the status of economics as a scientific discipline.

Kirk Wegter-McNelly is paying attention, though, to each of these aspects.

“I’m investigating economics on the assumption that its practice rightly includes both scientific and religious dimensions,” he said. “One of my main concerns is to characterize the nature of economics in ways that acknowledge and make sense of the fact that economics entertains – perhaps even requires – both scientific and religious modes of argumentation.”

An example of such argumentation, scientifically, is econophysics. It applies the methods and theories of physics to economic problems like financial markets and economic growth. The goal, Wegter-McNelly explained, is to “mathematicize” economics so that its conclusions are afforded the same authority as those of physics.

Religiously, Wegter-McNelly points to the Social Gospel Movement of the late 19th century as an example. Its proponents strove to improve society through biblical principles of charity and justice. Labor reforms, including abolition of child labor and a living wage, were their primary concerns.

The idea that economics possesses both scientific and religious characteristics is important to Wegter-McNelly, because science and religion are typically viewed as separate and irrevocably opposed.

“Economics provides an intriguing realm in which scientific and religious concerns are inextricably linked,” he said. “This kind of study has the potential to expand and even reshape the ways scholars of religion think about relating region and science to one another.”

Wegter-McNelly’s work is supported by a faculty fellowship from the Lilly Endowment.