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Religious incentives and life in society



St. Bartholomew

Economics can help understand two contradictory aspects of religion: its potential usefulness in a free society and the incentives of some believers toward extreme bigotry.

The social usefulness of religion has been noted by many thinkers, including Friedrich Hayek (see Chapter 9 of The fatal conceit). Religion, or at least some religions, can provide the right incentives for the moral behavior necessary to maintain a self-regulated order. In their groundbreaking The calculation of consentJames Buchanan and Gordon Tullock went in the same direction, but with a caveat (pp. 300-301):

Widespread adoption of Judeo-Christian morality may be a necessary condition for the functioning of a truly free society of individuals. …

To be effective in leading to a more harmonious social order, Christian idealism must be tempered by the acceptance of the moral imperative of individualism, the rule of equal liberty. The acceptance of the individual’s right to do as he pleases, so long as his action does not infringe on the freedom of other individuals to do the same, must be a characteristic feature of any ‘good’ society. The precept ‘Love your neighbor, but leave him alone if he wants to be left alone’ can in a sense be called the overriding ethical principle for Western liberal society.

While religion can generate useful incentives for living in society, it can also lead believers to engage in behavior more conducive to intolerance, social strife, and violence. An extraordinary example of this was given by Ismail Haniyeh, who headed Hamas’s Qatar-based political bureau. Three adults among his thirteen children, who were also reportedly involved in Hamas terrorism, were targeted and killed in Gaza by an airstrike attributed to the Israeli government. Four of his grandchildren also died in the strike. Haniyeh stated (“Israeli airstrike kills three sons of Hamas political leader,” Wall Street JournalApril 10, 2024):

I thank God for this honor he has bestowed upon us with the martyrdom of my three sons and some grandchildren.

It is difficult to counter the incentives of individuals who believe that their cruelty and the sacrifice of their children (and “some grandchildren”) will be rewarded with blissful eternal life. Blessed eternal life, by definition, has infinite value. The greedy incentive to get there has led to religious wars, and unfortunately continues to do so.

St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre (1572), by François Dubois. Wikipedia Commons,_por_Fran%C3%A7ois_Dubois.jpg