This week’s episode is called “Does Religion Make You Happy?” (You can subscribe to the podcast at iTunes, get the RSS feed, or listen via the media player above. You can also read the transcript, which includes credits for the music you’ll hear in the episode.)
We undertook this episode in response to a listener question from Joel Rogers, a tax accountant in Birmingham, Ala. Here’s what he wrote:
Being devout Southern Baptists my parents have steadfastly been giving 10% of their income to the church their whole lives. I recently voiced my opinion that I thought that was too [much to] give, and my parents and I got into an argument.
After a little back-and-forth, my parents conceded tithing at 10% may not be the exact amount ‘God’ expects, but my mother said something that stuck with me. She said the 10% they give to the church makes them happier than anything else they spend money on.
I’ve read that people who go to religious institutions consistently are happier than their counterparts. The economist inside me says that money (not given to the church) would make a non-tither happier, all things equal. So, will exchanging 10% of your income for the right to participate in a religious congregation statistically increase or decrease your happiness?
Joel is in effect asking two questions, related but separate. One is whether giving away money – in this case, to a religious institution – makes you happier. The other is whether religion itself makes you happier. Neither question is easy to answer, but we’ll do our best.
In the episode you’ll hear from Laurence Iannaccone, an economist at Chapman University who specializes in the economics of religion. Iannaccone says there is a strong correlation between religious giving and happiness but, as you’ll find out, just because giving and happiness seem to go hand in hand doesn’t mean the giving causes the happiness.
You’ll also hear from MIT economist Jonathan Gruber, who has done quite a bit of research on these topics. In “Pay or Pray? The Impact of Charitable Subsidies on Religious Attendance” (abstract; PDF), Gruber tried to determine whether giving money to church is a complement to religious attendance or a substitute — and, whether it’s the giving or the going that actually makes people better off. Here’s his suggestion for the Rogers Family:
GRUBER: I would say if it’s really going … to church that matters for them, for their happiness and well-being, then they should maybe even give less and just go more.
GRUBER: [The religious are] more likely to have higher incomes, higher education, have more stable marriages, be less likely to be on welfare, essentially be more successful on any economic measure you want to use.
In the podcast, Stephen Dubner also wonders: what if you’ve been giving to your church but find you’re no better off in the long run? As it turns out, some churches, like NewSpring in South Carolina, offer a money-back guarantee.