Economic Growth and the Rise of Religion

An intriguing thought, trigger by this Atlantic article, “A Cost-Benefit Analysis of Being Jewish“:

What is religion is now a luxury good?

Consider the following: Marx called religion the opiate of the masses.  During an era in which life was brutish, nasty, and short, focusing one’s attention on a glorious afterlife made a lot of sense.

But as standards of living rose, the influence of religion waned in the developed world.  Rather than worshiping in temples, people worshiped at the altar of the vast entertainment complex (including sports and the arts).

All this makes sense if religion is an “Inferior Good” (an economic term, not a value judgment) where demand decreases as income increases.  In the 20th Century, Jewishness behaved like an inferior good; higher incomes and education were strongly correlated with Reform Judaism.

But perhaps religion is both an inferior *and* a luxury good.  As standards of living rise higher and higher (for example, even the poor now carry connected supercomputers in their pockets), the ability of religion to provide unique experiences makes it increasingly attractive to well-off consumers.

One might even consider things like Burning Man or TED as evidence of this theory; these secular events show a lot of religious characteristics, such as community and ritual.

Rather than viewing religion as a relic of the past, we might be wiser to see it as a once and future pillar of the human experience.

1 thought on “Economic Growth and the Rise of Religion

  1. One interesting point the article hints at but is well-known to anyone observing modern religion: the more involved and organized the religion, the better it's doing.

    The Anglican church is an excellent example: the African branches of the church is old-school fire & brimstone, and is booming. The English church is basically "do your own thing & support the feelgood cause du jour", and is dying.

    In this context, it doesn't surprise me that Conservative & Orthodox are doing well.

    And there's the simple fact that religion and family size are strongly positively correlated. Agnostics (like me) and atheists have far fewer children than religious people. This holds even if accounting for education level, city versus not, income, education of the wife, etc.

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