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Thursday, December 22, 2005

Do Fortuitous Economic Outcomes Cause People to Go to Church?

Or is it the other way around? The first thing that came to mind as I started reading this was whether a causal relationship had been established. Just because there are a lot of churches in Nevada does not necessarily mean that churches cause gambling and prostitution. Similarly, going to church may not raise income as this research finds, income and going to church may simply be correlated through a common response to a third variable, or causality could run in the other direction. However, causality is a focal point of the discussion:

Wealth from worship, The Economist: At Christmas, many people do things they would never dream of the rest of the year... Some even go to church. Attendance soars, as millions of once-a-year worshippers fill the pews. ... Some of the occasional churchgoers must wonder whether they might benefit from turning up more often. If they did so, they could gain more than spiritual nourishment. Jonathan Gruber, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, claims that regular religious participation leads to better education, higher income and a lower chance of divorce. His results ... imply that doubling church attendance raises someone's income by almost 10%.

The idea that religion can bring material advantages has a distinguished history. A century ago Max Weber argued that the Protestant work ethic lay behind Europe's prosperity. More recently Robert Barro, a professor at Harvard, has been examining the links between religion and economic growth ... At the microeconomic level, several studies have concluded that religious participation is associated with lower rates of crime, drug use and so forth. ...

Until recently, however, there was little quantitative research on whether religion affects income directly and if so, by how much. A big obstacle is the difficulty of disentangling cause and effect. That frequent churchgoers have higher incomes than non-churchgoers does not prove that religion made them richer. It might be that richer people are likelier to go to church. Or unrelated traits, such as greater ambition or personal discipline, could lead people both to go to church and also to succeed in their work.

To distinguish cause from coincidence, Mr Gruber uses information on the ethnic mix of neighbourhoods and congregations. ... Measuring the density of nationalities that share a religion in a particular city can ... be a good predictor of church attendance. But ... [s]tudies have found that people who live with lots of others of the same ethnic origin tend to be worse off than those who are not “ghettoised”. So Mr Gruber excludes an individual's own group from the measures, and instead calculates the density of “co-religionists”, the proportion of the population that shares your religion but not your race. According to Mr Gruber's calculations, a[n]... increase in the density of co-religionists leads to a... rise in churchgoing. Once he has controlled for other inter-city differences, Mr Gruber finds that a[n]... increase in the density of co-religionists leads to a ... rise in income...

Other economists, though they think Mr Gruber's approach is clever, are not sure that he has established a causal link between religious attendance and wealth. So how might churchgoing make you richer? Mr Gruber offers several possibilities. One plausible idea is that going to church yields “social capital”, a web of relationships that fosters trust. Economists think such ties can be valuable... Churchgoing may simply be an efficient way of creating them. Another possibility is that a church's members enjoy mutual emotional and (maybe) financial insurance. That allows them to recover more quickly from setbacks, such as the loss of a job... Or perhaps religion and wealth are linked through education. Mr Gruber's results suggest that higher church attendance leads to more years at school and less chance of dropping out of college. A vibrant church might also boost the number of religious schools, which in turn could raise academic achievement. Finally, religious faith itself might be the channel through which churchgoers become richer. Perhaps, Mr Gruber muses, the faithful may be “less stressed out” about life's daily travails and thus better equipped for success...

    Posted by on Thursday, December 22, 2005 at 12:54 AM in Economics, Religion | Permalink  TrackBack (1)  Comments (10)


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