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Economics As Religion: From Samuelson to Chicago and Beyond
Economics As Religion: From Samuelson to Chicago and Beyond
Robert H. Nelson
Pennsylvania State Univ, 2002
408 pp., $35.95

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Andrew P. Morriss


Heaven on Earth

Ecomonics and the secular faith in progress

In the sequel to his acclaimed 1991 book Reaching for Heaven on Earth: The Theological Meaning of Economics, University of Maryland School of Public Affairs Professor Robert Nelson has written what may be the most important recent book on the future of the economics profession. Mixing intellectual history, theology, and a sophisticated yet readable account of the primary doctrines of 20th-century economics, Nelson's book both illuminates economics' immediate past and draws attention to the problems of its future.

Economics as Religion takes on two tasks. First, Nelson recasts the intellectual history of 20th-century economics in theological terms. Economists, he suggests, constitute nothing less than "the priesthood of a modern secular religion of economic progress that serves many of the same functions in contemporary society as earlier Christian and other religions did in their time." This priesthood offers, in Nelson's account, "another grand prophecy in the biblical tradition. The Jewish and Christian bibles foretell one outcome of history. If economics foresees another, it is in effect offering a competing religious vision. The prophecies of economics would then be a substitute for the traditional messages of the Bible." Second, Nelson uses his master-metaphor to pinpoint the challenges facing economics as a discipline, and economists as individuals, in the 21st century.

Thinking about economics (or other social sciences, political movements, and the like) as a religion can be helpful even where the analogy is only an approximate fit, but Nelson makes a persuasive case that the analogy is a good one. It can also be quite a bit of fun—Nelson's playful aside comparing the technical language and mathematics of current mainstream economic writing to medieval church Latin is both entertaining and enlightening, and there are quite a few more like it sprinkled throughout the book.

To make his case, Nelson relies heavily on two extended analyses of particular sets of economic ...

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