Saturday, May 14, 2005

Why strict churches are strong - Slate

Judith Shulevitz provides a reader friendly description of economist Laurence Iannacone 1994 paper "Why Strict Churches Are Strong." It's interesting that she would devote an entire Slate article to a piece written over 10 years ago by an economist publishing in a sociology journal.

I liked this quote:

You wouldn't expect an economist to do a better job than the religious at explaining religion. But one has, using the amoral language of rational choice theory, which reduces people to "rational agents" who "maximize utility," that is, act out of self-interest.
It reminded me of what The Economist said about the Barro and McCleary 2003 paper "Religion and Economic Growth across Countries":

IF YOU want to avoid an argument over religion at your next dinner party, you might suppose it safe to invite an economist or two. They, of all people, could be expected to stick to Mammon. Or maybe not, if a new paper by Robert Barro, one of America's best-known economists, and Rachel McCleary, a colleague at Harvard University, is any guide. It explores the influence of religious belief and observance on economic growth.
This is how The Economist summarized Barro-McCleary:

The most striking conclusion, though, is that belief in the afterlife, heaven and hell are good for economic growth. Of these, fear of hell is by far the most powerful, but all three indicators have a bigger impact on economic performance than merely turning up for church. The authors surmise, therefore, that religion works via belief, not practice. A parish priest might tell you that simply going through the motions will bring you little benefit in the next world. If Mr Barro and Ms McCleary are right, it does you little good in this one either.

Indeed, Mr Barro and Ms McCleary go further. They find that church-going, after a certain point, is (in an economic sense, anyway) a waste of time. They argue that higher church attendance uses up time and resources, and eventually runs into diminishing returns. The “religion sector”, as they call it, can consume more than it yields.
Shulevitz summarizes Iannacone this way:
According to Iannacone, the devout person pays the high social price because it buys a better religious product. The rules discourage free riders, the people who undermine group efforts by taking more than they give back. The strict church is one in which members with weak commitments have been weeded out. Raising fees for membership doesn't work nearly as well as raising the opportunity cost of joining, because fees drive away the poor, who have the least to lose when they volunteer their time, and who also have the most incentive to pray. Fees also encourage the rich to substitute money for piety.

What does the pious person get in return for all of his or her time and effort? A church full of passionate members; a community of people deeply involved in one another's lives and more willing than most to come to one another's aid; a peer group of knowledgeable souls who speak the same language (or languages), are moved by the same texts, and cherish the same dreams. Religion is a " 'commodity' that people produce collectively," says Iannacone.
Thank you to NW for alerting me to the Slate article.

1 comment:

Jeff said...

Ezekiel 25:17

The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the inequities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men. Blessed is he who, in the name of charity and good will, shepherds the weak through the valley of the darkness. For he is truly his brother's keeper and the finder of lost children. And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who attempt to poison and destroy my brothers. And you will know I am the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon thee!