Oof, it’s taken me a long, long time.
About a month ago or so, I wrote a blog about parsing my favorite definition of economics, and Akshay Alladi responded on Twitter thusly:
And coming up with a reply to this tweet is what has occupied my mind for all this while. I don’t mean that as a complaint – quite the opposite, in fact. It has been a very enjoyable thing to keep gnawing away at, and it has resulted in more than a couple of lovely, relaxed conversations. It has also taken me down many a rabbit hole online, including on the etymology of the word religion. I have, in fact, a whole other draft of a post in response, but it ended up being so chaotic and full of links that I decided to start anew instead.
And in this new post, I decided to keep things simple. Rather than try to define religion (and I invite you to take a stab at it), or think about why one should be (or should not be!) religious, I decided to step back for a bit and take a look at the definition again:
And here’s my first line of defense against Akshay’s question. “What might be the thing that will give you the most out life?” is a question whose correct answer may well be religion for some. What is religion?
“the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods.”
Wikipedia goes on an extended trip, with a twist at the end of the sentence, if you prefer a more thorough definition. But whichever definition you go with, you may well decide that it is this – the practice of this thing called religion – that will get you the most out of life. And I say this will all sincerity: good for you, if that be the case!
Again, to be clear, religion isn’t my own answer to the question of how to get the most out of life, but it may well be yours.
But now that you have decided to get the most out of life by practicing religion, economics absolutely can help you from here on in.
What is the cost to you of practicing religion? What are you giving up in order to do so? What incentives can be put in place for you to be religious – both positive and negative? Should you be needing incentives at all in the first place when it comes to being religious? What are the short term benefits and costs, and what are the long term benefits and costs? Economics can help you frame these questions, and can help you answer them.
Or put another way, economics does not help you decide what “most” should be. In fact, it cannot help you decide what “most” should be. It may well be the case that something associated with religion (or even religion itself) helps you answer this question. But once you’ve decided that this – whatever this may be – is your definition of “most”… then the how to go about it is all economics.
Remember, economics is about choices, horizons, costs and incentives. Choices regarding what? Costs pertaining to what? Incentives for what? The answer to this question must come from you.