"We Pretend We Are Christians"
The Freakonomics e-mail inbox constantly produces interesting material. Like this one, from a reader we’ll call G.D.:
I loved your books! I have found my thoughts drifting to some of the subjects over the past few days, especially altruism and apathy. I was curious if any of the experiments took into account the subjects’ religious beliefs. I don’t know how one would logistically test that but it would be interesting to see how those claiming to follow a religious doctrine teaching altruism would do in the tests.
This thought led to another about myself. How would I do in the tests? We are agnostics living deep in the heart of Texas and our family fakes Christianity for social reasons. It’s not so much for the sake of my husband or myself but for our young children. We found by experience that if we were truthful about not being regular church attenders, the play dates suddenly ended. Thus started the faking of the religious funk.
It seemed silly but it’s all very serious business down here. We don’t go to church or teach or children one belief is “right” over another. We expose them to every kind of belief and trust that they will one day settle in to their very own spirituality. However, for the sake of friends and neighbors, we pretend we are Christians. We try not to lie but rather not to disclose unnecessary information. As the children are getting older, this isn’t so easy for them and an outing is probably eminent.
We are not the only ones. We have found a few other fakers out there. I would love it if you ever explored this subject in a future book. I should mention that the friend who recommended Freakonomics to me is the head of the bible study at her church. Interesting.
I am interested in hearing similar stories from readers. I would not be surprised if political ideology is another vibe that gets faked once in a while.
Also, while the altruism experiments we wrote about in SuperFreakonomics did not factor in the subjects’ religion, we did include a somewhat related endnote:
Along these same lines, consider another clever field experiment, this one conducted in thirty Dutch churches by a young economist named Adriaan R. Soetevent. In these churches, the collection was taken up in a closed bag that was passed along from person to person, row to row. Soetevent got the churches to let him switch things up, randomly substituting an open collection basket for the closed bags over a period of several months. He wanted to know if the added scrutiny changed the donation patterns. (An open basket lets you see how much money has already been collected as well as how much your neighbor puts in.) Indeed it did: with open baskets, the churchgoers gave more money, including fewer small-denomination coins, than with closed bags – although, interestingly, the effect petered out once the open baskets had been around for a while. See Soetevent, “Anonymity in Giving in a Natural Context – a Field Experiment in 30 Churches,” Journal of Public Economics 89 (2005).