|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|
Great glory described in after life
Suffering in this life
Little discussion of afterlife
Benefits in this life
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.