New York Times - Economix: A Conversation With Eduardo Porter
(I'm not saying I endorse everything Porter is saying but it is an interesting discussion.)
Eduardo Porter and I were colleagues on the economics beat at The New York Times several years ago, and he is now a member of the editorial board. He’s also the author of the recent book “The Price of Everything.” Our conversation, the latest installment of this blog’s Book Chat series, follows:
Q. Let’s start with an unusual topic for a book on prices: religion. You suggest an economic framework for thinking about religion. The costs of religion are time (in church, praying and the like) and behavior restrictions (against what you can eat, whom you can marry and the like). The benefit — or at least one benefit — is the fact that religious people report being happier on average than nonreligious.
It’s a big gap, as you write. The average happiness gap between someone who goes to church weekly and someone who never goes to church is as large as the average happiness gap between the richest 20 percent of Americans and the poorest 20 percent.
Does this mean that nonreligious people and marginally religious people should, for the sheer sake of earthly satisfaction, consider becoming more religious?
Mr. Porter: No.
Religious belief contributes to happiness and well-being by providing social glue to bond groups together. The investments required to participate — from dietary restrictions to, in some societies, mutilation — wall religious groups off from the rest of society, protecting their investment from uncommitted free riders. The rules might contribute to happiness as they lead believers to drop unhealthy behaviors, like alcohol abuse. More importantly, the walls foster trust and solidarity, which allow mutual support networks to emerge. And the enclosed nature of the system reinforces collective belief sets –satisfying believers’ need to belong.
But religion does not guarantee higher well-being under any circumstance. Religious belief helps people cope with sudden unemployment. But divorce can distress believers much more than non-believers. Devout Americans aren’t happier than their secular fellow citizens just because religion confers some benefits in terms of mutual support and insurance. Secular Americans also suffer from being marginalized in a predominantly believing nation. When was the last time an atheist ran for high office in the United States?
Mostly, adherence to a religious faith is not a matter of individual choice. More often it is a decision taken by our forebears before we were born. Fortunately for the secular, there are other ways to improve one’s happiness. Higher income is associated with higher happiness. So are more free time and emotional attachments. Surveys may suggest that religious Americans are happier than those of a secular disposition. But surveys also suggest that Danes, a bunch of heathen unbelievers by American standards, are happier than Americans. And this is despite being poorer.
One thing to keep in mind is that the benefits conferred by religion have little or nothing to do with the specific nature of the religious belief. It’s all about creating a walled garden with onerous rules of behavior that will allow trust to flourish inside. This presumably could be achieved through a secular belief set. Though maybe that would amount to inventing a new religion.
Q. Perhaps the single most uncomfortable topic involving prices is the idea that you can put a value on a human life. As you note, the E.P.A. has valued a human life at $7.5 million. People just instinctively recoil. How can you persuade someone that this framework is actually a useful one?
Mr. Porter: This kind of evaluation is more common than we care to admit. ...