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JOEL: Jesus can’t keep the heat out in there!

WAYNE: Woo man, nice and warm!

JOEL: I’m dumping sweat…

WAYNE: I’ll tell you what!

That’s Joel Rogers and his father Wayne.

JOEL: Yeah! So we’re just about to walk into Grace Life Baptist Church and worship with my parents, and my brother, also, my sister is about to be here, running a little late as usual.

We’re in McCalla, Alabama, about 20 minutes outside of Birmingham, on a very warm Sunday morning.

WAYNE: It’s uh, I would say, fairly typical evangelical service.

LAURI: It used to be an old gym so the setting is a little different than a traditional church. There are no windows in here, but there is a praise band up on the stage. Sometimes there is a choir, the choir is off right now for summer.

That’s Lauri, Joel’s mom. She has a lot of friends here.

PEOPLE: Hi! Nice to see you! Hey! How’s it going? Good to see you!

LAURI: This is kind of like the fellowship area, it’s fun to see everybody in here and you get to see people who might not come to your service.

JOEL: Most people call it hanging out, at the church they call it fellowship.

LAURI: Exactly! That’s the church word.

Pastor Joel FREDERICK: Glad you’re here, let’s stand together this morning. We want to go to the Lord in prayer today. Father God, we bow our hearts before you, and we are so thankful God to see people coming to know Jesus…

We went to church with Joel Rogers’s family this morning because of an email he sent us. Joel works as a tax accountant in Birmingham. Here’s what he wrote: “Being devout Southern Baptists” – Joel italicized “Southern” – “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 that 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.” Joel goes on here: “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 here’s what Joel wants to know:

JOEL: Will forfeiting 10% of your income, for the right to go to a church and experience a church congregation….will that make you happier or less happy, overall?

That’s the question we’ll try to answer on today’s show. But really Joel is 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. Here are Joel’s parents again:

LAURI: I think the world is a better place because of our little bit of tithing.

WAYNE: By tithing I am pleasing God. I am doing something that God would want me to do. That gives me happiness in that way, too.

And even Joel sees how giving money to the church can have a personal upside:

JOEL: I mean if I think back to another thing that I spent 20 dollars on, I don’t know, a t-shirt, like, which one would bring me more prolonged happiness? And I think the answer is probably giving the money away.

But, as we’ll see in this episode, these questions aren’t so simple.

WAYNE: Does it make me happy to tithe? Would I be happier if I had that 10% in my 401(k). Ugh, I don’t know. But you know my 401(k) would look a lot better if I had all the 10% that I had given over the years.

FREDERICK: ….we thank you God for all of this and we pray it in Jesus name and all of God’s people said:


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Okay, we’re trying to answer Joel Rogers’s question about whether giving money to your church makes you happier in the long run:

Laurence IANNACCONE: When you just look at survey statistics, particularly in the United States, you find a strong and consistent positive association between rates of giving and happiness.

That’s Larry Iannaccone.

IANNACCONE: I’m a professor of economics here at Chapman University. I’m Christian I would classify myself as Evangelical Christian.

Iannaccone has studied the history of religious giving, including tithing:

IANNACCONE: Tithing literally comes from the word a tenth and  traditionally meant ten percent of something, usually your income, paid to a church or to religion in general. The term originates as far back as the Bible, and in ancient Israel, the people of Israel were expected to give a tenth of their income, a tenth of their farm produce, to the priesthood, and to also help the poor.

At some points, and places in history, tithing was essentially a government tax. But things have evolved a good bit:

IANNACCONE: In American churches, however, when you hear tithing used today, you’re almost always talking about contributions that are freely given to the church. Often some fixed percent of people’s income, but not necessarily 10 percent. So, in that sense, the term is something of a misnomer and its use has evolved and changed quite a bit over time.

Iannaccone can tell us which American denominations are most likely to tithe:

IANNACCONE: It varies some, but you hear it more among Protestants and especially conservative Protestants, those who try to emulate or describe their behavior in terms of biblical traditions. So they’re drawing on that ancient term and tradition from the Old Testament. You hear it especially among Mormons, but you also hear it in the Assemblies of God and many theologically conservative Protestant traditions. It’s not unusual to hear Baptists talking about tithing.

Baptists like Wayne Rogers.

WAYNE: I was taught to do it by my grandparents. When I was very young, my granddad would give me a dollar every Sunday to give to the church. From the time I was three years old I would take an envelope with a dollar in it. So then as I got to be in middle school and high school and started making a little bit of my own money, my grandmother said Wayne, are you tithing off of that money?

Larry Iannaccone has some data, from the General Social Surveys, on the rate of giving among different American Christian denominations. At the top are Assemblies of God, Seventh-Day Adventists and Mormons.

IANNACCONE: They average closer to 6 or 7% of their income—which is really quite an astonishingly large amount.

Baptists on average give 3 to 5% of their income. Catholics, Lutherans, and Episcopalians give about 1%. So the trend is that the more liberal denominations give less. And then there are the Unitarians.

IANNACCONE: Unitarians, who by many measures are the most liberal of all, give less than 1% of their income to religious causes.

According to one evangelical Christian polling firm, 5 percent of Americans give at least 10 percent of their income to a religious or other non-profit institution. Among born-again Christians, that 5 percent rate jumps to 12 percent. If you look at the share of religious giving in the whole charitable picture, you find that roughly two-thirds of Americans’ individual contributions go to religious institutions. We could talk at great length about what those institutions do with all that money, and maybe someday we will. But today, we’re trying to answer Joel Rogers’s question, which is: what does all that giving do for the giver? Larry Iannaccone again:

IANNACCONE: The data that we have suggest a pretty strong positive association between various measures of happiness and wellbeing on the one hand, and other measures of religious involvement, including giving, on the other.

Okay, that sounds fairly persuasive – that giving and happiness go hand in hand. But, as Iannaccone is careful to point out, there are a number of caveats here. Just because giving and happiness go together doesn’t mean that the giving causes the happiness. It could be that happier people are more likely to give money. It could be that having more money makes you happier, and therefore more able to give. Or that being happy makes you likely to make more money, which makes you more able to give. In other words: it’s not so easy to establish firm causal proof – as our listener Joel Rogers is looking for – as to whether giving money to your church makes you happier.

Jonathan GRUBER: The answer is complicated and the answer actually speaks to two different elements of research I’ve done on religion.

That’s Jon Gruber.

GRUBER: I’m a professor of economics at MIT. Um I grew up in a Jewish household with a very religious mother and a fairly not-very religious father.  You know, mom sort of ran things. We were reform but pretty serious about it.

Stephen J. DUBNER: So are you a religious person yourself?

GRUBER: No I’m not.

Gruber is, however, very much interested in the questions we’re asking today. But, with causality in this realm being elusive, Gruber had to get a little creative.

GRUBER: This was my first paper on religion. It’s called, it’s my favorite title of a paper I’ve ever written, it’s called “Pay or Pray.” And it was actually a bit inspired by an episode from my childhood, which is my father, he’s a finance professor, and so he was sort of induced to become treasurer of our temple. And he said, “Oh, now I’m treasurer of our temple, oh good, that means I can go less.” Now that wasn’t about giving and going. That was about time and going, but nonetheless it sort of implied that trade-off.

The question Gruber was asking in this paper is a subtle one: does giving money to a religious institution complement going to religious services, or act as a substitute?

GRUBER: Giving to charity is very tax-price sensitive. This is well known in economics that when you give a bigger tax break to charitable giving, people give more. But then no one had ever looked, well what did it do to their attendance? And I found that if you give a bigger tax break to charitable giving, people give more and go less. That is: they are substitutes.

Gruber’s father, in other words, was more norm than exception. Gruber found that every 1 percent rise in charitable giving led to a 1.1% decline in religious attendance. But what about someone like Joel Rogers’s parents? They give their 10 percent to the church, and feel really good about it. Is it the giving that feels good, or is it the going to church that feels good?

GRUBER: I would say if it’s really going that matters, if it’s going to church that matters for them, for their happiness and wellbeing, then they should maybe even give less and just go more.

Coming up on Freakonomics Radio: does attending religious services make people better off?

GRUBER: What I find is an incredibly strong correlation, that basically these people are more likely to have higher incomes, have higher education, have more stable marriages, be less likely to be on welfare, essentially be more successful on any sort of economic measure you want to use.

One more thing: if you do not already subscribe to Freakonomics Radio — we believe you should. Just sign up, for free, at iTunes, and you’ll get the next episode in your sleep.

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Today we’re in church, in McCalla, Alabama…

FREDERICK: Let’s pray: Lord thank you. Thank you for your love for us that never gives up…

… with Joel Rogers and his family. Joel’s parents give 10 percent of their income to their church. Here’s what Joel wanted to know:

JOEL: Will forfeiting 10% of your income, for the right to go to a church and experience a church congregation, will that make you happier or less happy overall?

We’ve already established that the connection between donating to a church and happiness can be hard to prove. But what about the connection between happiness and religion itself?

GRUBER: So, I came up with what I thought was a fairly convincing idea for this.

That’s Jon Gruber again, he’s an MIT economist who has tried to measure whether religion makes people better off.

GRUBER: As your listeners know, developing a causal case means finding some factor that changes religiosity, but doesn’t change happiness. You know, the fact there’s this correlation that religious people are happier could be that religious people have higher incomes, religious people live in parts of the country that are happier, whatever.

Or it could be that happier people tend to be more likely to participate in religious services, yeah.

GRUBER: Or more worrisome, what we call reverse causality, that the happier people could be more likely to participate.

Gruber began by looking into the research conducted by sociologists, like Rodney Stark:

GRUBER: One of the findings in this field is that  people are more religious if they’re in an area that’s more densely composed of their religion. So basically if you are a Catholic in Boston, you are more religious than a Catholic in Minneapolis. And if you’re a Lutheran in Minneapolis, you’re more religious than a Lutheran in Boston.

Now, why was that religious clustering important for trying to measure the impact of religiosity?

GRUBER: That’s a fact that was given to me. That was well documented in the literature. And so what I said is, well, if you look at who lives where, that’s largely a function of sort of what waves of immigrants came over at what time. And certain ethnic backgrounds have certain religions associated with them.

DUBNER: Alright, so let me say this. I believe you because you sound believable and you have good credentials, you have great credentials. But as a layperson, and in this case I speak not only for myself, but I probably represent most of our listeners, that methodology as a means to extricate the causal relationship of attending religion changing your life, it’s a little, I don’t know how to say it.

GRUBER: Distant.

DUBNER: Yeah, distant is a great word. So, before we get into the findings, just persuade me a little bit more, and in as plain English as you can, why this variable and why this methodology is worthwhile and believable to you.

GRUBER: Okay, so first of all this is an unbelievably hard problem because there’s lots of things that correlate with both outcomes and religion, and because people who are say richer or happier may choose to be more or less religious. So it’s clearly a typical, difficult, Freakonomics-style problem. So, basically, why do I believe my solution? Well, essentially the starting point for my solution is saying, look, Polish people in Boston are much more religious than Polish people in Minneapolis. Likewise, Swedish people in Boston who are otherwise pretty similar are less religious than Swedish people in Minneapolis. Now, there’s no great reason for that other than the fact that they’re not around people of their ethnicity and thus their religion. Moreover you might say, well, maybe Polish people in Boston are just different in some way. But then let me go one step further. You might say okay well look Jon, that’s all well and good, but Poles and Swedes aren’t identical. Maybe Poles in Boston are different than Poles in Minneapolis. Maybe they’re different along some other dimension. The way I can test that is I can look at participation in other activities. So if you’re really worried that gee Poles in Boston are just different they should be more likely to be in other clubs, or other civic activities or other similar things, and they’re not. So except for being more religious, Poles and Swedes in Boston are no different. Now look, is this a bullet proof argument? No. I mean, let’s be honest about this paper, this is how economics works. This paper was not accepted at a top economics journal. The top economics journals had enough concerns that this was not real, that you know, this paper was published in a second tier journal. So is this the cleanest paper that I’ve ever written, not by a long shot. But I’m pretty convinced.

DUBNER: Right, okay, so you find that the clustering of national identity has something to do with religious participation.

GRUBER: Exactly.

DUBNER: Therefore…

GRUBER: Therefore, I look and I ask does the clustering of ethnic identity also correlate with economic outcome. And what I find is an incredibly strong correlation, that basically these people who are clustered with others of their ethnicity are more likely to have higher incomes, have higher education, have more stable marriages, be less likely to be on welfare, essentially be more successful on any sort of economic measure you want to use.

DUBNER: And just persuade me that it’s the religious participation that you feel is the causal driver in that as opposed to let’s say the ethnic clustering itself. In other words, I could imagine that when there are a lot of Poles in Boston, there are network effects that might aid education, health, income/outcomes the way that potentially religious observation does.

GRUBER: Right and the way I want to convince you of that is two things. One is I want to say what I do is I can look at what happens to Poles when there are a lot of Italians in Boston. So essentially because they share the same religion but not much else. So I can actually ask what happens not just to Poles where there are Poles in Boston, I can control for that, I can essentially say let me get rid of your own ethnic density and ask what happens to Poles when there are a lot of other groups that happen to be Catholic in Boston? And so that way it’s not just asking look if there’s other people of your ethnicity, it’s asking are there other people of other ethnicities that share your religion. And then I also have the fact that you’re not more likely to participate in anything else, so it looks like it’s operating to the religion margin.

DUBNER: Excellent, okay good. So I have to say, that was one of our…I love these…This show is meant to be primarily entertainment, but we love to teach when we can. And to me that was a great teaching sequence there. I think anybody will hear that and really understand the way that someone like you tries to approach a question like that. So that was awesome.

GRUBER: Yeah, and look, I think, you know, its important for your listeners to understand that you know, life’s not black and white, and sometimes there’s cleaner answers than others, and sometimes we have a randomized trial and sometimes we don’t. And in life you’ve got to decide, is the question important enough that you want to answer it even if there’s not as clean an answer as you’d like?

DUBNER: So let’s say I accept that finding that religious participation doesn’t just correlate to better outcomes in life but actually helps produce them: higher levels of education and income like you said lower levels of welfare receipt, disability and divorce. What, if you have any idea, are the mechanisms by which you think religious participation leads to these outcomes?

GRUBER: So there’s essentially several possibilities. The sort of least exciting possibility is through educational routes, which is maybe when there’s a lot of Catholics, there’s more Catholic schools. Now, I don’t think that’s it. But that is one possible route. I think another route and the route that I probably find most likely is the church is essentially a social network, that essentially provides kind of insurance against bad things happening to you, and that it provides a place where you can go and network if you lose a job, you can have people who can help you out if times get tough, loan you money or whatever.

DUBNER: Or even if times aren’t tough, if you’re a successful business person theoretically you expand even more if you’re successful within your community.

GRUBER: Exactly. Basically churches are the source of social capital in society, are the main source of social capital in society. And therefore if you’re around more people like you, that’s a bigger community, that’s what we call in economics a thicker market. There’s more people around who can help you out as you’re growing, help you out if you’re hurting, it’s really sort of a social insurance notion of a church. And then finally and most speculatively, faith itself may produce better outcomes. I know a number of people who are very religious. It gives them a calmness and a certainty that allows them to be successful in other areas of their life.

DUBNER: I’m curious if along the way of doing this research if your research persuaded you to either get involved, or want to get involved more in something resembling religious participation since it seems to be pretty good for you, or were you convinced that you’re already doing well enough and didn’t need it?

GRUBER: You know, what it changed in me is it gave me, I probably had the typical secular, rich, liberal skeptic’s view of religion.

DUBNER: Which is what?

GRUBER: Which is that religion is sort of an opiate to the masses. You know, kind of, the religious right is kind of ruining America. Religion is a source of wars in the Middle East. Religion is basically bad. And I think it really changed my view on that, that I really gained appreciation for the role religion can play in people’s lives, appreciation for my friends who are more religious, and a respect for the role religion plays in their lives. But it didn’t really affect my religiosity. I think it’s something that just has to come to you or not. I was kind of forced to go to temple as a kid, I kind of burned out on it, and it’s just not, I kind of tried, and I just didn’t feel it. So I decided I wasn’t going to kind of fake it to make it. So it didn’t really affect my life. But for example, my wife is, she’s Unitarian. We raised the kids Jewish, although she never converted, and now she’s going to become a Unitarian minister. And I think that’s something I probably wouldn’t have been supportive of before I did this research. And now I’m very supportive of her. I think it’s great for her. She’s getting faith and doing that.

Okay, so does religion itself make people better off? As best as Jon Gruber can tell, the answer is… quite possibly. If that’s the case, you can see why some people are willing to donate a considerable chunk of their income to their religious institution. Which, if you follow this line of questioning through to its natural conclusion, might lead you to think – well, okay, if I’m tithing money to my church and I’m not better off in the long run, maybe I should get my money back? It turns out that some churches do offer that money-back guarantee.

Pastor Perry NOBLE: We are challenging you to take our 90-Day Tithe Challenge. And in 90 days if you don’t feel like God has blessed you, if you don’t feel like God has done what his Word has said, if you believe God is a liar, here’s what we’ll do, we’ll refund every dime that you gave during that 90 day period. No questions asked.

Perry Noble is the senior pastor of NewSpring Church in Anderson, South Carolina.

NOBLE: I think the thing about the 90-Day Tithe Challenge is it just tells people, hey, we’re smoking what we are selling here. I believe we’ve had over 4,000 people total sign up for the challenge since we’ve started and between 15 and 20 people total since we started it a couple of years ago have ever asked for their money back.

I asked Jon Gruber, the economist, what he thought of this offer:

GRUBER: Well, I think it’s, I guess quite frankly I think it’s terribly misleading. I think that you know, if we go with the theory that religious participation is good for you because it builds faith and security, the last thing you want to do is have people keeping track and saying God didn’t really score me anything in the last three months, I want my money back. That sort of, that seems to promote a transactional view of religion which is damaging. And I don’t find that helpful at all.

We also ran the tithing refund idea past the Rogers family. They didn’t like it any more than Jon Gruber:

WAYNE: I think that’s completely nuts! I mean it’s not Sears. It’s very different when you give to the church. Once I give the money away I expect them to do something good with it and I don’t want the money back.

LAURI: God says, “Give a tithe. Test me and see if I will pour out blessings.” It doesn’t say what type of blessing and I don’t think the blessings have to necessarily be in any way that we can measure it. So I don’t see how a church could say they could have a money back guarantee. Seems like a very selfish reason to give if the only reason you give is to get back, so I think it takes away from the whole heart of it.

JOEL: You do get an itemized tax deduction, though, for giving to the church, a good 30 percent.

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