Saturday, January 29, 2011

The Economics of Religion: More good than harm?

There are some that argue that religion should be eliminated because of all of the harm it does, such as the suicide bombings, honor killings, the Inquisition, etc... This includes the “New Atheists”, like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins. Others counter that this one-sided perspective ignores all of the good that religion does, such as support for people when they are ill, the donations to natural disaster funds, etc... They argue that religion does more good than harm. This sort of argument is used in economics, and is similar (although not identical to) a cost-benefit analysis. One can focus on, for example, the harm that cars bring in pollution and pavement like environmentalists do or one can focus on the benefits of cars like the access to better health care, the allowance of critical population densities to support significant industries like the industry reps would do. An economist would then weigh both sides, benefits minus costs, and see which to prefer.

In order to do this with religion one cannot simply take the good of religion subtract the bad, come up with a positive number, and say that religion is a benefit to society. It’s like saying that the treatment for the measles is two aspirin and some juice resulting in more cases of recovery than death and saying that we shouldn’t replace this treatment with something else. As is turns out, for the measles, a vaccine will prevent nearly all contractions of the disease, and virtually all deaths.

If we replace religion with a rational perspective (as Sam Harris proposes), which includes a respect for spiritual experiences but not the supernatural explanations of them, then it may be that we essentially vaccinate people against such behavior as suicide bombings, honor killings and inquisitions.

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