The Economics of Salvation

Imagine two economic offers:

Wait 12 months and you get $150 Wait 13 months and you get $165

In the above choice, most people choose offer B.  Now, keep the same financial offer, but change the time offer:

You get $150 NOW Wait 1 month and you get $165

In this scenario most people switch their choice to offer A — they experience a sort of preference reversal.  That is because of the human cognitive habit of valuing future money less than present money.  (For more fun economic detail see Bias & Belief where they explore why this happens).

But now, let’s entertain if this same cognitive bias can happen for a religious commodity: Salvation. Imagine these two salvation offers:

A: Future Religion B: NOW Religion
Eternal life
Great glory described in after life
Suffering in this life
Eternal life
Little discussion of afterlife
Benefits in this life

What do you mean, "What comes next?" This is it. (HT: New Yorker)

Perhaps this is why most religions eventually offer some benefits in the here-and-now and not just in the future.  Because people value here-and-now benefits more than they they do extra frills in a future promised eternity.  Maybe I am pushing the logic but something seems right here.

The religious specialists in all religions try to fight the corruption of their faith into spiritual materialism, but it is often inevitable.  Eventually sects evolve which promise of a prosperous life on Earth as well as in the afterlife — promises of health, wealth, and success PLUS you go to heaven.  Who could turn down wonderful benefits in this life in exchange for a few extra jewels in your crown and preferred seating positions in God’s heavenly court but austerity in this life.  Who wants to live a long miserable life for a glorious future, when you can have the joys here plus a good-enough eternity?   I am guessing that is part of how prosperity gospels emerge.  Humans make the rules of theology — they are not revealed truths of gods, so it is not surprising that economic theory applies to theology.

As I wrote this, I thought of obvious exceptions.  Imagine people who would blow themselves up in this life to gain 72 virgins in the next life — indeed a much hyped-up future paradise.  Well, I think the prosperity gospel only works if people have some hope.  For those without hope,  the future is about the only thing that will sell because they can see with their own eyes that the present is hopeless.  This is why a good way to diffuse this sort of desperate fanaticism is to improve their future a bit and offer them hope when possible.


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

12 responses to “The Economics of Salvation

  1. Well, done, Sabio! I think you’re totally right about this one. I love that you tied hyperbolic discounting in with religion; very astute.

    Interestingly, poor people *appear* to suffer the most from hyperbolic discounting. People would argue that the poor are poor, and the rich are rich, *because* of this. However, Sendhil Mullainathan of Harvard recently spent some time studying the phenomenon among the poor of India and came to a different conclusion. It’s actually more rational for someone who is poor to hyperbolically discount, and for the same reason that evolution endowed us with this behavior in the first place — because you don’t know what tomorrow holds.

  2. Temaskian

    Yes, good post. Delayed gratification doesn’t come naturally to us.

    Your mention of crowns reminds me of a Christian correspondence course I did as a child.

  3. @ Temaskian
    Your examples of real life fundamentalist implications in a child’s life are always the nail in the coffin. I am so glad I did not have the experiences that you have to work through. You sound like you are doing an excellent job escaping severe limiting emotional-cognitive traps you were surrounded by in your youth.

  4. @ JS Allen
    Thank you. I think you point out that there is no undiluted “rationality” — decision and choices are made through our emotional habits born of our temperament and our environmental history. Emotion and Thoughts are one thing.

  5. geoih

    I’m not sure I’m seeing consistency in your examples (either in the tables or the text). In my mind, the suicide bomber wants paradise now, not later (i.e., a high time preference).

    Everybody has some time preference, but it has been generally shown that people’s time preference is not typically linear, but hyperbolic. So, the examples of 12 months versus 13 months, and now versus one month, are not the same (i.e., it is not a preference reversal).

  6. @Geoih
    You may be right, I did not analyze deeply and I put that caveat in the post. It was a casual observation. The facts are of course complex, but I think the principle of money of the future having less perceived value and of lack of hope driving decisions very differently from those with hope, are two important principles. My point, these can be used in economic analysis and economic analysis can be used to try and understand the selling of theologies.
    But you are right, my details may be confused — I am not certain.

  7. geoih

    Quote from Sabio Lantz: “My point, these can be used in economic analysis and economic analysis can be used to try and understand the selling of theologies.”

    I completely agree.

  8. It does seem to come up a lot in the selling of theologies, that present/future benefit is pitched depending on the circumstances of the individual or the ebb and flow of the debate. Whatever works, eh?

  9. It’s a theology based in capitalism (or capitalizing). Religion is so co-joined with the concept that the offer of a ‘reward’ makes sense to a consumer based society (makes it a selling feature).

    Originally, in the time this concept came about the Romans had a sort of Capitalist system as well…but the fact is the poor were receptive to the message because of it’s benefits right now more than benefits of the latter.

  10. @ ATTR :
    You got it, ATTR. I like your rephrasing (as always).

    @ Societyvs :
    Sorry, Societyvs, I don’t buy into your anti-capitalism. I have said so several times on your site. And if you don’t mind, I don’t care to take that tangent here.

  11. I only am indentifyng part of the current political and religious system that exists – not much more – to discredit that plays anything is to rule out a whole sector of influence

  12. @ Societyvs
    From what I have read of your writing and from your allusions here, I think your understanding and classification capitalism is inaccurate. But that is another thread or better yet, another blog.

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