LS 815: Business, Science and Religion

Fall 2011  | Dr. Geoffrey Poitras


This course explores how Western society has evolved a religious orthodoxy that has embraced scientific and commercial ideals. The central topics to be examined in the course are: the historical foundations of Christian belief; the religious foundations of current business practices, concentrating on financial activities; conflicts between business, science and religion as reflected in classics of literature, featuring Shakespeare, Swift, Voltaire and Mary Shelley; the rational foundations of religious belief; how religious, scientific and commercial communities have dealt with gender; how modern business practices are justified, both ethically and ideologically and how modem business rhetoric uses the pretext of ethical superiority or scientific objectivity to promote economic, political and social objectives; Revelation, the Apocalypse and modern millenarian thought.


Readings for each week will either be made available online for download or, where the material is not downloadable, in a readings package which contains relevant assigned readings. Poitras (2000) is an useful source for both a number of weekly assigned readings and additional background material.


D. Defoe (1719), Anatomy of Exchange Alley and The Villany of Stock Jobbers Detected.
R. Ekelund, et al., Sacred Trust: The Medieval Church as an Economic Firm, New York: Oxford U. Press, 1996.
M. Friedman, Free to Choose, New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1980.
C. Haskins, The Rise of Universities, Cornell: Cornell U. Press, 1923.
F. Hayek, The Road to Serfdom, Chicago: U of Chicago Press, 1944.
W. Howell, Logic and Rhetoric in England, 1500-1700, New York: Russell and Russell, 1956.
D. Hume, Essays, Moral, Political and Literary, (1742) reprint, London: Oxford UP, 1963.
J.M. Keynes, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money (1936) reprint New York: Harcourt, 1964.
J. Kirshner (ed.), Business, Banking and Economic Thought, Selected Studies of Raymond de Roover, Chicago: U of Chicago Press, 1974.
C. Mackay, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds (2nd ed., 1852) reprint New York: Bonanza Books, 1980.
J. Noonan, The Scholastic Analysis of Usury, Cambridge: Harvard U. Press, 1957.
M. Olsen, The Logic of Collective Action, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard U. Press, 1965.
K. Pearson, The History of Statistics in the 17th and 18th Centuries, (E. Pearson, ed.) London: Griffin, 1978.
G. Poitras, The Early History of Financial Economics. 1478-1776, Edward Elgar, 2000.
J.R. Saul, Voltaire’s Bastards: The Dictatorship of Reason in the West, New York: Maxwell Macmillan, 1992,
W. Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, (1600) Quiller-Couch (ed.), Cambridge: Cambridge U. Press, 1969.
M. Shelley, Frankenstein (1818, 1831)
J.Swift, Gulliver's Travels (1726), I. Asimov (ed.), New York: Clarkson Potter, 1980.
Voltaire, F. (1759), Candide, J. Butt (trans.), Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1965,
M. Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, New York, Scribner, 1958.


The evaluation will be composed of three parts: 40% individual work; 40% group work; and 20% individual class participation.

The individual work component will be an essay on a topic relevant to the class themes. The specifics for the essay, such as length and topic, will be determined after individual consultation with the instructor. A non-binding list of potential topics, together with an essay template, will be made available on request.

The topics for the group presentations will be concerned with developing the specific course themes, such as how business interests use the rhetoric of scientific objectivity to promote political and social objectives. To form groups, the class list will be divided into groups of 3 to 4 people, using a method which is agreeable to the class.

In addition to individual groups being responsible for leading class sessions, each individual will be expected to participate in the class discussions during weeks when their group is not directly responsible for that topic (20%).