Contribution to GTI Roundtable "On Economism"

Stephen Woolpert

The analogy between neoliberal economics and religion allows Norgaard to make some powerful rhetorical critiques. At the same time, the set of belief systems that rest on unexamined assumptions, and that are to that extent “faith-based,” includes more than religion. It also includes nationalism and all contemporary political ideologies. I believe Kurt Godel’s incompleteness theorem established the same for axiomatic systems in math, and Thomas Kuhn made a similar case for scientific paradigms.

Like all analogies, Noorgard’s is limited. The term “religion” can refer to a doctrine (theology), to a social institution based on such doctrine, or to the ways of living of those who hold religious beliefs. I would have appreciated clearer distinctions among these three faces of religion in Norgaard’s thoughtful essay. Although I am no theologian and belong to no religious community, I see more deep and inclusive consideration over foundational doctrinal questions at the American Academy of Religion than at professional meetings of economists.

Unlike economics, religion has gifted the world with a trove of sublime art and music, pointing to its concern with transcendence and humanity’s ultimate concerns; markets have gifted us with an abundance of material goods. This is not to excuse the horrors committed in the name of either religion or markets, although nation-states have the most dismal record in that regard. Rather, it is to note the different ways each has helped shape human cultures.

Moreover, unlike religion, market economic beliefs have attained global hegemony, or close to it. Christianity was hegemonic only in Europe and only until the Enlightenment.

Stephen Woolpert
Stephen Woolpert is a Professor of Politics at Saint Mary’s College of California, where he served as the Dean of Liberal Arts at Saint Mary’s from 2004 to 2014. He specializes in public law and environmental politics, and his research and writing has covered numerous sustainability issues.

Cite as Stephen Woolpert, contribution to GTI Roundtable "On Economism," Great Transition Initiative, (December 2015),

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