by George Kane
I have a new job with a financial services company that provides a lot of training that I have to attend. One recent training session dealt with theoretical mechanics of the market system. As you might expect in a business-training session, the presentation was freighted with assumptions, such as that the self-correcting mechanisms of the market will always return to the way they were before an episodic crisis. I consider this to be a superstitious view of the market economy.
But while listening to the lecture, I was thinking how market precepts apply to the marketplace of ideas. We are involved in a marketplace battle on several fronts, or products: atheism vs. god-belief, evolution vs. creationism, science vs. superstition, reason vs. belief, and ethics based on consequences in peoples’ lives vs. divine declaration. We are confident that we have already won the intellectual arguments on merit, but the question is: why can we not drive our opponents out of the marketplace?
Psychologically, most Americans prefer the comforts of religion to the uncertainties of life, and socially they prefer commonality and acceptance in a nation where god-believers predominate. But like the economic market, religious orthodoxy waxes and wanes in cycles. Fortunately for the secular history of our nation, it was at a low ebb when out nation was born, and the founders were heavily influenced by the Enlightenment. Christianity rebounded, however, in the so-called “Great Awakening” that followed. The political importance of religion was likewise at low ebb in the 1960s, but bounced back up in the 1980s with the rise of the religious right.
Throughout the history of America, every economic recession has been followed by a recovery, and every period of sustained growth has ended in a recession. One cannot conclude from this, however, that the current recession (or any recession) will end with a market correction. Certain operations of the market are necessarily cyclical, like overstocked inventories being depleted after cutbacks in production. But other market forces work in one direction only, advancing the economy through history. For example, the ever-increasing population drives long term growth of Gross Domestic Product, rather than remaining at stasis or returning to previous levels. The loss of American jobs to emergent nations due to the internationalization of consumer markets and capital outlets, however, is unidirectional. It will be “corrected” only when the level of compensation and standard of living of the American worker matches that of workers in India and China, where those jobs have gone. Because these and other factors are never reversed by market correction, it is quite possible that the market will at some time be fundamentally transformed, whether by systemic evolution or by revolution. When economic crises are as broad, deep and widespread as the current one, they threaten the continued existence of the market economy.
Likewise, the ground of the atheist/theist debate has significantly shifted. First, while we remain a minority, the percentage of atheists has grown significantly over the last 18 years. According to the American Religious Identification Survey 2008, those with no stated religious preference, atheist, or agnostic has grown from 8.2% in 1990 to 15.0% in 2008. In earlier times, dissidents from religious orthodoxy were rarely explicit atheists. Second, science has demystified the history of life and discredited the religious explanations, such as the Genesis narrative. Third, the global War on Terrorism has exposed fundamentalist Islam as the inspiration for paramilitary groups that pose an existential threat to secular governments around the world. This has discredited the common opinion that religion is reliably peaceful and constructive.
The Wheel of Fortune is an ancient analogy to both the caprice of life and its cyclical, repetitive nature. Shakespeare personified fate in Hamlet and had her “break all the spokes and fellies from her wheel.” The imagery was used by Cicero, and in the Tarot it is the tenth card of the Major Arcana. But all analogies have limitations, and we should not be deluded that markets must run in cycles for perpetuity. The cycles of religion may be close to a breakdown, creating at last an opportunity for the ultimate triumph of reason.