Adam Smith ( left ) and his good friend David Hume ( right )— two of the creators of modern economics — were not religious men , but they lived at a time when religion was so pervasive that it influenced their economic thought and ideas .
But the point is more than just a matter of the history of ideas . The influence of religious thinking also bears on how Americans today , along with citizens of other Western countries , think about many of the most highly contested economic policy issues of our time . This connection between people ’ s economic views and religious beliefs — often including religious beliefs that they do not personally hold — stems from before the creation of the American republic , and it runs to the core of how economics came to be the line of thinking we know today . It also helps explain what we often view as the puzzling behavior of many of our fellow citizens whose attitudes toward questions of economic policy seem sharply at odds with what would be to their own economic benefit .
The foundational transition in thinking about what we now call economics — the transition that we rightly associate with Adam Smith and his contemporaries in the 18th century — was importantly shaped by what were then new and vigorously contended lines of religious thought within the English-speaking Protestant world . The resulting influence of religious thinking on modern economic thinking , right from its origins , established resonances that then persisted , albeit in evolving form as the economic context changed , the questions economists asked shifted and the analytical tools at their disposal expanded , right through the 20th century . Although for the most part we are not consciously aware of them — this is why their consequences seem puzzling whenever we stumble across them — especially in America these lasting resonances with religious thinking continue to shape our current-day discussion of economic issues and our public debate over questions of economic policy .
The idea of a central influence of religion on Smith ’ s thinking , or on that of many of his contemporaries , will initially strike many knowledgeable readers as implausible on its face . Smith ’ s great friend David Hume , who also played a key role in the creation of modern economics , was an avowed skeptic and an outspoken opponent of organized religion ; Hume notoriously referred to Church of England bishops as “ Retainers to Superstition .” Smith , as far as we can tell , was at best a deist of the kind Americans identify with Thomas Jefferson . There is little evidence of Smith ’ s active religious participation ,
www . MoAF . org | Spring 2022 | FINANCIAL HISTORY 15