Religion and the U.S. Mortgage Crisis
One of my weekly pleasures is an NPR program called This American Life. I download the podcast and take it on a walk or bike ride where I can enjoy it uninterrupted.
In a recent program, the staff of TAL coordinated with NPR’s news division to produce an hour long, behind-the-scenes feature on the recent U.S. sub-prime mortgage crisis. I highly recommend this fascinating program, which answers questions on the hows and whys of the mortgage implosion of 2007-2008.
What the show uncovered was at once both surprising and not. It was surprising in terms of the brazen greed, sloppy assumptions and barely disguised fraud the program uncovered. And yet it was not surprising: Isn’t that trio – greed, laziness and fraud – at the heart of all scams?
As I listened to this sordid tale, spun out in the words of a bartender-turned-mortgage-broker and a mortgage “bundler” who made $75,000 to $100,000 a month (a month), I found my thoughts turning to religion.
Now, hold on just a minute. As a born-again Christian for 30 years, I don’t believe that religion is primarily driven by greed, laziness and fraud. I know that the televangelist stereotype that some lifelong atheists adopt for all religious people is false. I’m well aware that most religious believers are sincere, good-hearted and many are self-sacrificing.
However, there were certain parallels between the mortgage crisis and religion that intrigued me. The first was a retreat into an impenetrable thicket of jargon. Did anybody really, truly understand all the fast talk, statistics and lingo thrown around the mortgage industry during the years when the U.S. housing market was considered invulnerable? Similarly, can anyone lacking a Ph.D. in philosophy muddle through the high-falutin’ verbiage of sophisticated, postmodern theology?
The second parallel I noted was willful ignorance. People who had been in the industry for years knew darn well that NINA (“no income, no asset”) loans were junk. Heck, people who never went near the mortgage industry could tell you that much. But “everybody” was writing NINA loans and happily making money hand over fist. Those who dared raise objections were derided as nay-sayers and ridiculed for missing out on the windfall. Similarly, it seems like “everybody” believes in some kind of god, and also values faith as the highest virtue. Religious believers are suspicious and critical of those of us who cast a skeptical eye on their faith.
Finally, I found another common point in the over-reliance on assumption and authority. The U.S. housing market was a “sure thing,” the story went. The statistics (later found to be outdated and irrelevant) were rock solid. No one seemed to have learned anything from the bubble-and-burst cycle of overvalued American technology stocks less than a decade ago. Similarly, conservative Christians start from the assumption that god exists and wrote the bible through divine inspiration of the holy spirit. Liberal believers can point all day to gurus, books and dissertations, but can’t seem to summarize their own beliefs in a few simple paragraphs.
What did I conclude from this odd confluence of ideas? Mainly that I’m glad to be a skeptic. I don’t care if I’m missing a god gene or I’m derided by religious people for being “cold-hearted” or “uber-logical.” They don’t know that I’m a romantic, emotional woman working in a creative field, so they can’t know that their assumptions are way off base.
Besides that, experience has taught me that questioning, probing and holding out for objective proof is the best way to avoid wrack and ruin in life. And believe me, I’ve seen lots of wrack and ruin in the lives of friends and relatives who value faith as the highest virtue, lean on authority instead of thinking for themselves, and are all-too-eager to believe.
If you develop the mental muscle to consistently cut through jargon, insist that people explain what they mean in plain English, examine assumptions, scrutinize motivations and question authority, you become inoculated against falling for the “next big thing” – whether it’s an investment or a religious belief.