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Religion and Economics

Religion and Economics

Author: Ted Fairchild

Recognize the practices of various religions relating to the giving and lending of money.

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Hello. Welcome to this tutorial on religion and economics.

Religion and the concept of economics-- it's practical implications and the interaction of religion and economics goes back a long way in the history of religions. Among the Abrahamic traditions there are many commonalities.

One thing that is shared among them is the practice of giving a portion of one's income to the needy. For Jews this is laid out in the Torah, or the Hebrew Bible. It's called the ma'aser kesafim or tithing, giving away 10 percent of one's income to charity.

In Christianity there's the custom of supporting the church with financial contributions on an annual basis and/or on a weekly basis in the context of church-going and the passing of the plate which is a literal and a symbolic offering of support.

So ethics, the world of responsible action and exchange, are naturally tied into economics as well. Economics is, after all, based on the idea of exchange. And perhaps this physical, apparently mundane, activity is meant to symbolize, if not reflect, exchange of some other sort on a higher level.

In Islam the Quran as well as the Sunnah which is the model of the prophet Muhammad's life, his sayings and practices, are believed to express the will of Allah. One of the pillars of Islam is the zakat. It states that one must give away a portion of one's income. One must use one's financial resources to contribute to the lessening of inequality in the world and in the community around them. And it's believed and interpreted from the text that divine intention includes equality. And economic interactions are one practical way of moving in this direction.

Well, throughout history the value of equality has perhaps been recognized, but maybe not realized as such. Within Christianity in the Middle Ages in Europe there was an inherited climate that forbid and even detested the idea of charging excessive and unfair interest on loans, a practice called usury. And this is the idea of the suggestion of implications of personal gain in a material sense, which was believed to work directly against God's will.

And Muslims too in the Middle Ages, as Islam emerged and spread. And even today Muslims have strong prohibitions against lending money. Instead, some sort of joint activity is to be pursued, thereby reinforcing the values of community and equality.

So the restrictions on lending money with or without interest can be traced back to the sacred texts of Islam and Christianity and even further to the sacred texts of the East, in Hinduism, for example, which we'll look at in a moment.

And in Judaism, as expressed in the Torah, or in the Hebrew Bible, there is no prohibition against charging interest on loans to non-Jews. However, one mustn't charge interest to one's fellow Jew. For this reason the money changers who, in fact, helped keep the economy moving during the Middle Ages, they were predominantly Jewish.

And if you look at some modern day practices among the three Abrahamic religions that we've just talked about, you'll see that these traditions still hold. For Jews and Christians lending money is generally considered a worthy endeavor, while among Muslims it is, for the most part, considered against Sharia law, or Islamic law.

We mentioned earlier that usury had been prohibited during the Middle Ages, and that its roots stretch back into the Eastern religions as well. In the ancient Vedic texts of Hinduism, for example, a usurer, or a kusidin, is described as someone who charges interest beyond the legal rate, an unethical use of power or control. In other words, an unfair exchange. So from approximately 2000 before the common era the meaning of usury has remained essentially unchanged.

Nevertheless, aside from the issue of unjust interest rates, some Hindus do believe that any lending of money at all tends to bring about bad karma and is therefore prohibited or to be avoided.

The Buddha, on the other hand, had no problem with lending money as long as certain principles and doctrines were recognized and adhered to. And this brings us to our final point which has to do with the worthy pursuit of truly understanding the practical relationship between economics and religion.

In relation to Buddhism there is an official term called Buddhist Economics. It's a way of engaging with economics from a holistic, all-inclusive perspective. No part or detail is left out of the equation- intention, production, sale, , consumption waste, et cetera. All of these processes are considered. And you might think of the Doctrine of Dependent Origination, which is a Buddhist doctrine that states that everything is somehow dependent upon something else for its existence, and for its identity.

And from this the notion of anata, or no-self, emerges. And then when considering economics, which is based on the idea of exchange, one has to ask, what is the nature, the structure, and the identities involved in this exchange? So Buddhist economics is an approach to this form of exchange that emphasizes spiritual principles which, in fact, come down to the level of psychology.

The first noble truths of Buddhism state that life is suffering and that suffering is caused by desires and cravings of an unclear and ignorant mind. The idea is that economic activity, like other things in life, are motivated by the psychological mechanisms of anxiety, fear, desire. All the emotions that grab hold of us, causing us to respond in one way or another, often with our wallet or our credit card perhaps.

So the hope with Buddhist economics is to come to some understanding of balance, a middle way, between harm on the one hand and excess on the other. And along this path one might see what beneficial really means in terms of an economic exchange.

So while this might seem to be a unique perspective, perhaps it isn't so different from the others. What links them is the hope of a fruitful, fair, and just exchange. An exchange with the higher principles of devotion, respect, honesty, charity, justice, and equality. And certain material expressions of these principles might be seen as a binding influence, maybe even drawing the religions together at times.

For example, the purchase and exchanging of gifts during the holidays of Christmas and Hanukkah, and perhaps the festival of Eid al-Fitr, the Muslim breaking of the Ramadan fast, which is also a time when Muslims are expected to pay the zakat.

All of this economic activity might function to bring communities together in a positive recognition of what it could really mean to exchange.

Terms to Know

The practice of loaning money for interest-based profit.


The Islamic practice of giving part of one’s wealth away to those in need. Considered one of the Five Pillars of Islam.