Religion, happiness, and clueless economists

In a delightful post, Sophistpundit takes to task a George Mason University economist, Bryan Caplan, for the latter’s clueless attempts to explain religion in economic terms.  For economists, of course, human behavior hinges entirely on self-interest.  More:  on rational self-interest.  That such a description of human motivation is almost entirely wrong seems not to have hindered the development of economics, or at least the careers of economic professors.

Caplan, to Sophistpundit’s amusement, appears genuinely perplexed by the disconnection between religion and the pursuit of happiness.  Why, then, would people believe in the Bible, and go to church?  And, market-wise, in significant numbers, too?

No wonder they call it the dismal science.

As anyone but an economist knows, there is an economy to the human heart.  It creates a demand for certain things that are beyond material self-interest.  This demand is universal, and so powerful that it will not be denied:  perverted, it can lead to self-destructive behavior, of which becoming a human bomb is among the most newsworthy today.

The religious feeling manifests itself with equal strength among secularists:  observe the inquisitional fervor, by the staff of the Smithsonian Institution, demonstrated in this incident.  Equally, belief in Marxism-Leninism, or in the fuehrer, was once a source of self-sacrificing fanaticism, often wielded against the church and the church-going.

But by far the most frequent means of satisfying this demand is religion, both as a faith and as an organization, and in my opinion the most frequent consequence of religion is comfort in a cruel world, or – what is the same – a glimmer of understanding in the swirl of chaos.  Does this drive us back to self-interest?  Not in any sense that an economist would recognize.

Religions like Christianity make comfort and understanding conditional on service:  to attain membership, we must, as a matter of principle, treat others as ourselves.  That nearly all religious people fail in this ideal is besides the point; nearly all of us fail in all ideals, whose purpose, except for the saintly few, is not attainment but direction-setting.  The direction of Christianity, and of all the great historical religions, is toward selflessness.

Go read Sophistpundit, whose take on the subject is far wittier than mine.

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