- Given that money has been at the center of human society for 5,000 years, it's no surprise that all the major religions have a lot to say about it.
- No major religion today actively encourages wealth and greed. Still, a cursory look around you will reveal a lot of very wealthy believers. Are they hypocrites?
- It depends. Each religion has a complicated and nuanced approach to money that might not be so damning.
“For the love of money is the root of all evil.” — Timothy 6:10
Whether it be for numbers on a bank screen or a fairytale’s bag of gold, the want of riches is as old as human society itself. According to our best archaeological evidence, “money” dates back at least 5,000 years. And, given that the oldest of holy books we have — a toss-up between Hinduism’s Rigveda and the Jewish Tanakh — were written around 1,300 BCE, it makes sense that the major world religions would have a lot to say about money.
But, as you can imagine, the messages are not often clear. While Timothy 6:10 is a famous Bible passage, it’s obvious to anyone who’s taken even a passing look at the Catholic Church or Christians worldwide that there’s a lot of money-loving going on. Likewise, while the Qur’an, Dhammapada, Bhagavad Gita, and Tanakh all feature explicit proscriptions against excessive wealth, the world is swimming with very rich Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and Jews.
So, are these people all duplicitous hypocrites? Well, before we throw the first stone, perhaps we should examine what those religions actually say.
The Artha Path
One thing needs to be made clear from the get-go: No major holy text today is in favor of unbridled greed, obscene wealth, or nefarious methods of earning. But that isn’t to say they teach that money is always bad.
Probably the most actively approving of wealth is Hinduism. In Hinduism, there are four goals in life (known as Purusharthas), but they are perhaps better understood as three roads to a single destination. The ultimate end of life, the goal of goals (the parama-puruṣārtha), is Moksha, which means liberation from the cycle of rebirth. The road to Moksha, then, requires three things: Kama (pleasure and enjoyment), Dharma (righteousness, good deeds, and duty), and Artha (material wealth and prosperity).
What Hinduism makes clear is that without wealth or money, it’s much harder to both enjoy life and be fully Dharmic. Those who are utterly destitute have few resources left to satisfy Kama. It’s perhaps the voice of condescending privilege to say, “Money can’t buy happiness.” It certainly helps. For Hinduism, it’s only when we have money that we can fully enjoy life and fully help other people.
Possession without desire
In Buddhism, there is nothing fundamentally evil about money in itself, but there is something wrong with the desire or want for it. One of the central tenants of Buddhism is to detach ourselves from the world of material things as much as we can. We should aim to focus on transcending our mundane reality (which is probably illusory, anyways) and on pursuing enlightenment. As the Dhammapada advises us, “There is no fire like lust, no chain like hatred, no snare like delusion, and no torrent like craving.” Attaching ourselves to family, friends, possessions, and, yes, money is a sure way to never leave Samsara (the rebirth cycle).
But there is another strand of Buddhism that is quite subtle. While you ought not to attach to money, you can also recognize the great potential for good in money. In the same way that Hindus believe Artha is necessary to Dharma, some Buddhists maintain that wealth acquisition is fine so long as it’s redistributed and used virtuously.
He who gives you your wealth
There is nothing inherently wrong with wealth in both Jewish scholarship and the Tanakh. Money and riches, as all things, are to be given and taken by God. As Deuteronomy 8:18 puts it, “But remember the LORD your God, for it is He who gives you the ability to produce wealth.” Unlike in Christianity and Islam, Jews were never forbidden from moneylending, which is why, historically, they took on the role of bankers and loan providers.
But nowhere in Judaism is greed or selfishness encouraged. While Leviticus 19 allows landowning and wine manufacturing, it also tells Jews to leave a portion of their property “for the poor and the foreigner.” While Exodus 22 allows moneylending, it also says, “If you lend money to any of my people with you who is poor… you shall not exact interest from him.” Charity, kindness, and using wealth for good pop up again and again, from the scholar Maimonides all the way to today’s rabbis. Central to many Jews practicing life is the idea of tzedakah. Tzedakah is not simply charity (it is that, too), but also social consciousness and justice — an awareness and passion to make the world better.
Easier for a camel
Because Christianity is one of the most visible and well-known of the world’s religions, there’s a lot written about the apparent hypocrisy in how it approaches money. Jesus was the poor son of a poor carpenter in a poor province of the Roman empire. In Matthew, he quite explicitly said, “You cannot serve both God and money,” and, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.” One of the greatest of Church Fathers — Augustine — even compared the love of money to idolatry (which was, back then, punishable by death).
And yet, the Catholic Church today has $3 billion in financial assets and immeasurable wealth if you consider the sale value of its church property, art, relics, and artifacts. Bill Gates, Beyonce, and Chris Pratt are all practicing Christians. All have a penny or two to spare. How do Christians square this? Well, like with Judaism, a lot of Christian theology focuses on the idea of “stewardship.” God gives wealth and (in some Protestant strains) it’s even rewarded to those who work hard. It’s up to us to use that money well and for good deeds. Timothy (of “root of all evil” fame) even implies that being rich is fine, so long as it’s not coupled with arrogance and a turning from God. Wealth and money are not bad but should be used well. They might even allow you to do good.
Do not consume one another’s wealth unjustly
Given that it’s the last of the three Abrahamic religions, it might come as no surprise that Islam is similar to Judaism and Christianity in how it views money. Like them, wealth is not bad in itself (ḥarām) but can be ill-gotten (mal-ḥarām), ill-spent (tabdhir), or squandered on pointless things (israf). The Qur’an states, “Wealth and children are the adornment of the life of this world,” and advises, “Let not your riches or your children divert you from the remembrance of Allah.”
One of the “Five Pillars of Islam” (which are the foundational beliefs and behaviors of Muslims) is known as Zakat. This is the compulsory almsgiving, where all Muslims must give a portion of their wealth (traditionally 2.5% of their wealth) to charity or the poor. Foolish are those who do not give their zakat, because, as the Hadith (Bukhari) tells, “Whoever is made wealthy by Allah and does not pay the zakat of his wealth, then on the Day of Resurrection, his wealth will be made like a bald-headed poisonous male snake with two black spots over the eyes. The snake will encircle his neck and bite his cheeks and say, ‘I am your wealth, I am your treasure.’”
Which is the thing of nightmares.
Jonny Thomson is our resident philosopher and the author of The Well, a weekly newsletter that explores the biggest questions occupying the world’s brightest minds. Click here to subscribe.