Trollope on American Religion

Anthony Trollope is a wonderful novelist of the Victorian period.  His Chronicles of Barsetshire series is both a window on nineteenth-century Britain and a stylistic masterpiece.  And he is the author of as stingingly elegant a line about literary talent as I have run across (composed at the expense of my man, James Fitzjames Stephen): “a poor novelist, when he attempts to rival Dickens or rise above Fitzjeames, commits no fault, though he may be foolish.” (from “Barchester Towers”)

Here is a fascinating quote from his travelogue, “North America” (1862), written long before President Eisenhower said something vaguely similar, though in a very different register:

I have said that it is not a common thing to meet an American who belongs to no denomination of Christian worship.  This I think is so: but I would not wish to be taken as saying that religion on that account stands on a satisfactory footing in the States.  Of all subjects of discussion, this is the most difficult.  It is one as to which most of us feel that to some extent we must trust to our prejudices rather than our judgments.  It is a matter on which we do not dare to rely implicitly on our own reasoning faculties, and therefore throw ourselves on the opinions of those whom we believe to have been better men and deeper thinkers than ourselves . . . .

It is a part of [the American] system that religion shall be perfectly free, and that no man shall be in any way constrained in that matter.  Consequently, the question of a man’s religion is regarded in a free-and-easy way.  It is well, for instance, that a young lad should go somewhere on a Sunday; but a sermon is a sermon, and it does not much concern the lad’s father whether his son hear the discourse of a free-thinker in the music-hall, or the eloquent but lengthy outpouring of a preacher in a Methodist chapel.  Everybody is bound to have a religion, but it does not much matter what it is.

Levine et al., “The Joy of Secularism”

Secularism, as we say in this business, is a radically contested term. Does it refer j9433 to a political program, a moral philosophy, or a description of reality? Does it suggest a rejection of religion or a religion all its own? Princeton University Press has come out with a paperback edition of last year’s collection of essays, The Joy of Secularism: 11 Essays for How We Live Now (2011), that explores the topic. The collection is edited by George Levine, a professor emeritus of English at Rutgers. Here’s the publisher’s description:

 Can secularism offer us moral, aesthetic, and spiritual satisfaction? Or does the secular view simply affirm a dog-eat-dog universe? At a time when the issues of religion, evolution, atheism, fundamentalism, Darwin, and science fill headlines and invoke controversy, The Joy of Secularism provides a balanced and thoughtful approach for understanding an enlightened, Read more

If Only the Aztecs Had Known

Here’s something you don’t see every day, even if you follow the law reviews. On SSRN, George Mason University economist Peter Leeson has posted an abstract for a new paper that explains human sacrifice in terms of property rights (Human Sacrifice). Although economists typically dismiss the practice as irrational, he argues, human sacrifice is actually a rational social strategy that allows a group to signal to outsiders that it’s poor and therefore not worth plundering. Religious commandments are useful in creating incentives — to get people comfortable with the idea of ritual immolation — but really are only secondary. Leeson hasn’t posted his paper on SSRN, but you can find it on his website. Here’s the abstract:

This paper develops a theory of rational human sacrifice: the purchase and ritual slaughter of innocent persons to appease divinities. I argue that human sacrifice is a technology for protecting property rights. It improves property protection by destroying part of sacrificing communities’ wealth, which depresses the expected payoff of plundering them. Human sacrifice is a highly effective vehicle for destroying wealth to protect property rights because it’s an excellent public meter of wealth destruction. Human sacrifice is spectacular, publicly communicating a sacrificer’s destruction far and wide. And immolating a live person is nearly impossible to fake, verifying the amount of wealth a sacrificer has destroyed. To incentivize community members to contribute wealth for destruction, human sacrifice is presented as a religious obligation. To test my theory I investigate human sacrifice as practiced by the most significant and well-known society of ritual immolators in the modern era: the Konds of Orissa, India. Evidence from the Konds supports my theory’s predictions.

I don’t know enough about the Konds or economics to evaluate Professor Leeson’s paper, but it does suggest a strategy for religious communities that seek to influence public debate. Don’t make sectarian arguments that might be inaccessible and off-putting to non-believers. Find an economist.