Thursday, May 22, 2008

More on the Opportunity Cost of Religion

Mark Thoma points us to a paper by Jonathan Gruber and Daniel Hungerman titled "The Church vs. the Mall: What Happens When Religion Faces Increased Secular Competition?" The authors show that when you increase the opportunity costs of church attendance--in this case by repealing Sunday blue laws that in turn open up other opportunities on Sunday like shopping at the mall--there could be a decline in attendance. There may also be an effect on religious financial giving:
When the laws are repealed, there are two possible effects. First, time devoted to religious pursuits unambiguously falls, as individuals choose to devote more time to work and more secular consumption. Second, there is an ambiguous effect on religious contributions. On the one had incomes may rise due to new work activities, and this could increase contributions. On the other hand, new secular consumption opportunities compete with religious giving for a share of the individual’s budget, and this could decrease contributions.
What, then, do the authors find?
Thus, secular competition does matter for religious participation: increased secular opportunities for work and leisure on Sundays lead to less time at church and lower religious contributions.
The authors also find that the repeal of the blue laws lead to a significant pick up in drinking and drug use by religious people. The authors conclude by discussing two implications of their research:
First, this finding serves to validate economic models of religiosity, as discussed extensively by Iannaccone (1998). Religious participation is not independent of economic influences such as the opportunity cost of church-going.
I concur and believe it is consistent with our earlier discussions on the business cycle and religiosity. Now to the second implication:
Second, this finding can be a valuable input into the discussion of the regulation of religion and substitutable activities. Absent strong negative externalities, there seems little argument for restricting the days of the week that commerce can take place. But religious participation may be one of those activities with such externalities. As such, secular regulations such as blue laws which promote religious participation can have external effects. Whether those external effects are sufficiently large to justify restrictions on commerce is an excellent question for future research.
I believe the negative externalities they are referring to is the steep pick up in drinking and drug use by religious people after the repeal of the blue laws. However, do we really want to mix church and state because some people are now making bad choices? I certainly would not want to make the case for more state intervention in order to promote religious participation, especially one that promotes participation on a particular day of worship. What about those who worship on Saturday or who do not worship at all? There are all kinds of problems with this supposed implication.

With that said, this is an interesting paper--take a look.

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