Priests, sacrifices and modern economics

by Jonathan Clatworthy

from Signs of the Times, No. 38 - Jul 2010

At their New Year Festival the ancient Babylonians recited the Enuma Elish, their account of how the world was created. After some wars between the gods one of them, Marduk, gained supremacy. To consolidate his position he did something to please the other gods. Until then they had all done their own cooking and housekeeping; but Marduk created the world, put humans on it, and gave us the job of maintaining temples and burning sacrifices. We are a labour-saving device for the gods!

Not everybody believed it, but this was the ruling classes' explanation of reality. The job of humans is to do what the gods tell us; if we don't, they will send us illnesses, floods and plagues, or may even wipe us out and let the world return to the original chaos.

Avoiding divine punishment was therefore a matter of knowing which actions to perform. This knowledge was the preserve of the experts, the priests. Their knowledge brought them wealth and power; when the animals were burned on the altars, the gods breathed in the smoke and the priests took the best cuts of meat.

It is all too easy to imagine the plight of the poverty-stricken farmer. If he took his bull to the temple to be sacrificed, the family might have nothing left and might starve. If he didn't, the gods would wreak their revenge; plague or famine, perhaps, conceivably even a complete collapse of the world order - in any case, far worse than watching your own children starve to death. The message was clear: however poor the farmers were, they had to bring their prize animals to the wealthy priests for fear of disaster. With every omen that the gods were angry, more sacrifices were needed: the rich gave the instructions, the poor paid the price.

Among the unconvinced were some exiles from the land of Judah. Preferring their old religion, they wrote it down, emphasising the differences. In their story the world was created by a single god, who designed it to be a blessing for humans and provide for everyone's needs. It is therefore possible for everyone to live together in peace and harmony. When people go without the problem is moral, not technical: it's because some people are taking more than their share and depriving others.

Those dissident writings later became the beginning of the Bible. Their message about the one good God is the central insight of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The contrast reveals the central difference between polytheism and monotheism, a difference which still haunts our society today. Perhaps the underlying reality of the universe is meaningless chaos, and the order which sustains our lives and well-being is a fragile achievement, constantly threatened. If so, our survival depends on those with the technical knowledge to preserve it. Progress is a struggle between humanity as a whole, led by our experts, and the natural world. Alternatively perhaps the universe is fundamentally ordered and designed for our well-being, in which case progress is a matter of improving our relationships with each other, overcoming our selfishness and making sure everybody's needs are met.

Modern science is based on the monotheistic view. It could not have developed without the medieval consensus that the world order was reliable, with consistent laws of nature knowable by the human mind.

Similarly the medical profession increasingly encourages us to value and live within the parameters nature has given us, rather than treating our bodies as tools to be improved by new technologies. So they recommend breast feeding rather than bottle feeding, exercise and a healthy diet rather than invasive surgery. Drugs and operations have a place, but they are directed to establishing nature's version of a healthy body, not an artificial goal of our own.

The dominant account of modern economics, on the other hand, is rooted in the polytheistic view. It comes in secular guise, of course: we do not talk about the gods, but there is a rich vocabulary of 'harsh economic realities' to perform the same role.

The difference underlies many of the contradictions in our society. Doctors tell us we should give up smoking, economists that the last thing the economy needs is a collapse of the tobacco industry. Scientists tell us that to resist climate change we must produce less and consume less, economists that to get the economy moving again we must produce more and consume more.

Modern economic theory typically thinks in terms of humanity-as-a-whole pitted against nature's meanness, dependent on economic expertise to avoid the chaos which threatens. We therefore over-value the modern equivalents of the Babylonian priests. During the housing crisis, the banking crisis and the recession our mass media did for a short while reflect on whether top bankers with their massive bonuses should be penalised, but their threats to emigrate and leave us without their essential expertise soon led to a search for other scapegoats. Like the Babylonians, because we think we depend on economic experts to save us from chaos, we pay them whatever they demand. Chaos is presented as an ever-present threat by superhuman powers. We call them market forces rather than gods, but they perform the same age-old role of protecting the wealthiest and most powerful against any redistribution of resources.

Take, for example, public discourse about essential services. At the end of the Second World War the founders of the British welfare state argued that, given the widespread poverty, the state should directly ensure that everyone's essential needs were met - housing, schooling, health care and a basic minimum income. Today, on the other hand, the mantra is 'public expenditure bad, private expenditure good'; so those very essentials come to be seen as the most obvious target for cuts. Even in the extended period of economic growth which lasted until two or three years ago, it was the needs of 'the economy' that called the shots; the needs of the people took second place. It is as though we all accept that the purpose of humans is to serve the economy, rather than the other way round.

There are of course alternative voices. The international development agencies have for decades been arguing that there is no shortage of essential provisions; the problems lie in the way they are distributed. The New Economics Foundation has been promoting alternative models for an economically healthy society. The recent book by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better, has been influential enough to impress the UK Prime Minister.

Ultimately the two contrasting accounts of reality cannot both be true. Either life is constantly on a knife edge and we depend on our technical experts to produce artificial means for getting away from a state of nature towards something more secure; or nature provides security, and the way to seek well-being is to live in harmony with our bodies and our environment, making sure everybody's needs are met. It makes a big difference which we choose. It is not for nothing that what those ancient Judeans wrote down is now the preface to the world's all time best seller.

Jonathan Clatworthy lives in Liverpool and is Modern Church General Secretary. He has worked as a parish priest, university chaplain and lecturer in Ethics.