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The Microeconomics of Religion

Religion is a very convenient way to shape individual’s internal cost-and-benefit calculator. As such, what an individual decide to do depends on how they perceive the cost and the benefit. Religions provides that framework. For example, French sociologist Émile Durkheim (1897) in his classic Le suicide presented aggregate indicators suggesting that Protestantism was a leading correlate of suicide incidence. An economic study extends that finding further:

“Previous work has looked at suicide from an economics perspective (see Hamermesh and Soss 1974, Becker and Posner 2004). Suicide can be modelled as a choice between life and death where the utility of staying alive or ending life are weighed against each other. If the utility of staying alive falls below the utility of ending life, suicide is an ‘optimal’ choice.
In our recent work (Becker and Woessmann 2011), we show that within such a framework, three mechanisms predict higher suicide rates of Protestants than Catholics from a theoretical viewpoint. First, as already suggested by Durkheim, Protestant and Catholic denominations differ in their group structure, with Protestantism being a more individualistic religion. When life hits hard, a Catholic can rely on a stronger community, which might keep up his or her life spirit.

We argue that, besides Durkheim’s sociological argument, there are also differences in theological doctrine between Protestants and Catholics that work in the same direction. Thus, second, Protestantism stresses the importance of salvation by God’s grace alone and not by any merit of man’s own work, whereas Catholicism allows for God’s judgement to be affected by man’s deeds and sins. As a consequence, committing suicide entails the disutility of forgoing paradise for Catholics but not for Protestants.

Third, Catholics (but not Protestants) consider the confession of sins a holy sacrament. Since suicide is the only sin that (by definition) can no longer be confessed, this additionally creates a substitution effect that diverts Catholics from committing suicide towards other forms of behaviour considered in times of utmost desperation.” (Source: Religion matters, in life and death)

Other observation can be drawn from the Islamic Abbasid Caliphate. The 7th Abbasid Caliph, Al Ma’mun, institutionalized Mu’tazilaism as the official creed for his caliphate. One of the feature of the Mu’tazila is their belief in absolute free will. Al Ma’mun forces the scholars to accept this view and purge those who oppose him. One scholar at the forefront of opposing him was Ibn Hanbal, one of the four Imam Madzhab. He was tortured for this, but that only made him a folk hero. This suggest that altough the preference of elite may change depending on the political climate, the preference of the masses is not that easy to change, hence the people who persist in believing in Sunnah and support Ibn Hanbal

Several years latter, the 10th Abbasid Caliph, Al Mutawakkil, realizes that he needs legitimacy to support his claim for the caliphate. Thus he did a populist action by stopping the Mu’tazila inquisition and freeing Ibn Hanbal, thus gaining the support of the people.

Much later, the 25th Abbasid Caliph, Al Qadir, endorsed Ashari predestination as the official creed of the realm and banned Mu’tazila completely.The reason is unknown, but present day historians argued that its was driven by political situation (the caliphate was so overrun by external threat, Byzantine and Fatimids, and internal rebellions) so that the common folk would be more content with the famine, injustice, and corruption since those were supposedly part of God’s plan. Mu’tazila free will incite critical thought which inspire rebellion and political unrest. Thus by doing this, he can ensure political stability. (Source: Rise and decline of science in Islam)

I think this is a very interesting fact. Religion might be just that, but there is a varying interpretation of religion. Those different interpretation can change people’s action because they believe it is the right thing to do.

I recall the concept of linear algebra in Andrew Ng’s machine learning course. There are variables, and the coefficients that put weights in each of the variables. Summing all the weight-adjusted variables will give the value of the function. Building upon this framework, we can draw an analogy that the variables are all components that make a person’s worldview, while the coefficients are the weight given for each of those components, which depend on their interpretation on how the world should be (this is provided by ideology or religion). What action they will take depends on the multiplication of the variable vector and the coefficient matrix. Then we can influence the coefficient matrix in such a way that we change a person’s world view.

For this idea to be possible, we need several things. First, an intellectual foundation to identify and isolate each and every variables that composes a world view, and the interrelationships and interactions for each of those variables. Second, a study to investigate what makes different people have different coefficients/weights for their variable vector. Third, find out whether the coefficient matrix can be influenced, and if so, by how much we can change them. Fourth, explore different interventions that can best produce such change (maximum change and optimal change[using least resource for most output]).

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