An Educated Consumer is God’s Best Customer!

Augustine bequeathed us a model of conversion as a deep, personal, introspective development. Obviously, this hardly describes many experiences of conversion. As Jews know, conversions can take place under duress. Conversions can be instances of dissimulation. People can convert for social motives. Economic motives might be an underrated factor in conversion.

In this vein, Tyler Cowen notes a fascinating article out of Cambodia on the topic of “ZMP (=Zero Marginal Product) Gods.”

At upwards of US$500, the cost of slaughtering a buffalo to revive a relative condemned to ill-health by the spirits has pushed the Jarai indigenous minority residents of Somkul village in Ratanakkiri to a more affordable religious option: Christianity.


It seems like Jews generally underrate these prosaic considerations even as they’re ever present. When we comment on the quality of shul food or the ergonomics of the seats, we are just as consumerist as people comparing the iPhone to its more capaciously screened android cousins. Be that as it may, bringing economics into the realm of conversion seems like a category mistake.

Perhaps the blame lies partly in the oft repeated dichotomy of Community and Society proposed in the justly famous eponymous book by Tonnies. Certainly the dominant Habermasian categories of System and Lifeworld explicitly draw on this lineage. For both Tonnies and Habermas, we go out to work in one sphere of activity. Governed by the markets, supply and demand, this sphere differs from the world we inhabit at home, lighting Sabbath candles and at shul, worshipping the Almighty. For Max Weber, modernity is characterized by a similar move of rationalization of older forms of charismatic authority. We are steered less and less by Rebbes or latter day saints and more and more by Ben Bernanke and the Commerce clause.The Maskilic idea of being a man in the world and a Jew in the home echoes this familiar public/private, community/society way of thinking. And just what is religion to our (Jewish) Protestant ears but the ultimate instantiation of “lifeworldly” Sittlichkeity stuff? We call it heimish.

Furthermore, we believe in personal autonomy. Wedded in some deep Jewish (Protestant) way to the call of human freedom embedded in the Kantian insistence on our spontaneity, we eschew the idea that our deepest convictions could be overdetermined by money. Fine, economics can explain “What can I eat?” But the big questions– “What can I hope? What should I do? What is Man?” should not be susceptible to such heteronomy.

Obviously the distinction isn’t so obvious to some.

“We believe in Christianity because we are poor; we don’t have money to buy buffaloes, chickens and pigs to pray for the spirits of the god of land or the god of water when those gods make us get sick,”

Why isn’t this a useful criteria to evaluate a religion? It might sound crude– but what has God done for me lately?

Certainly people like Joel Osteen and Shalom Arush busy themselves with providing satisfying answers to this question. Less concerned are paragons of neokantian Judaism like the Rav and Maimonides. Although, in the latter case, it’s less clear cut.  Even for Maimonides, religion provides certain civilizing and useful features to people. In the more exceptional case of Provencal Maimonideans, religion brings in its train a host of this worldly social benefits. Its sadly clear that Meiri didn’t read enough Kant.

Blumenberg perceptively argues that secularization conceals a defense of religion. He notices “the familiar pattern of all self preservations.”

the pattern of the reduction of the endangered substance to an intangible core content…in the end of making oneself at home in the role of assistant to the most up to date human interest….Thus, a loss of power, influence, occupied positions can be understood as ‘a providential process with a purifying effect on Christianity.’

The Rav’s insistence that religion does not make your life easier or better can be read in this vein. Soloveitchik famously pillories the idea that “if you wish to acquire tranquility without paying the price of spiritual agonies, turn onto religion!”

This popular ideology contends that the religious experience is tranquil and neatly ordered, tender and delicate; it is an enchanted stream for embittered soils and still waters for troubled spirits. The person who “comes in from the field, weary” (Genesis 25) from the battlefield and campaigns of life…which is filled with doubts and fears, contradictions and refutations, clings to religion as does a baby to its mother and finds in her lap “a shelter for his head, the nest of his forsaken prayers”

We can read the Rav’s neokantian insistence on the autonomy of religion (and Halakha) from such prosaic worries as just the foreordained purification that Blumenberg describes. Previously confined to the thick weave of Jewish cultural practice, Halakha was sadly unable to express its full spontaneity and nearly scientific character as a field of autonomous, unique human endeavor with (coincidence!) the same regulative a prioris behind every bend as the triumphant march of the sciences in Wilhelmine Germany. Like a Dilthey or a Husserl, Soloveitchik defends his newly discovered science as just as good as the (real) sciences. To use a Husserlian turn of phrase, its a “new domain of being.”

Empirical science can get expensive. So, it turns out, can psuedo-scientific Halakha. Buttressed only by an animadversion to actually solving human problems, Halakha signals its unique status with an ever intensifying sense of its own blessed uselessness. Ultimately, this tendency can also be explained through prosaic economic factors. For instance, embourgeoisement and conspicuous consumption lead us to embrace an ethos of a religion which we would never consider changing at any price. Setting the price so high is just another way of signalling what we already have.
But why not simplify matters a bit? We shouldn’t need the Jarai indigenous minority to tell us to perform a simple cost benefit analysis. If your God is on strike from helping people you might do well to comparison shop.

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2 Responses to An Educated Consumer is God’s Best Customer!

  1. You appear to focus on the economic factors and ignore the identity factors, which I believe are central to any and all religious choices after getting over the basic Maslow levels (i.e. once you worked out food, clothing, housing). Being poor also limits ones autonomy, Kant or no Kant.

    Part of the appeal of a religion like the GRY”D (aka Joe Solo)’s is the identity of being able to say that religion should not give you anything. I.e. I have everything I need because I have a job, house, wife, kids, etc. and I can struggle now with existential loneliness instead of having to put food on the table.

    Alternatively, having the identity having a “sophisticated religion” (as I have seen at a couple of Orthodox forums) is that it allows its practitioners a smug sense of self-righteousness when other people have more Torah, money or respectful jobs that you do.

    I would also note a parallel phenomenon of middle class moving to texts and didactic books from mimetic cultures in the rising Hindu middle class in India because once you have an autonomous halakhic/book religion you can apply it to your new community in Teaneck or Mumbai without havin g to call your grandparents in the slums or the Lower East Side.

  2. Bob Light says:

    Oftentimes people don’t really get out of Maslow’s hierarchy enough to ask and try to answer really important questions. Sometimes when the only tool you have is a hammer, all your problems look like nails (as is the case of your Cambodian farmer).

    If all you are looking for is a “product”… there are a lot of religions which will fill the bill….but at some point, you may tire of “shopping” and instead want to understand authentic reality – answer real existential questions and usually this brings you to the door of the Torah.

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