The cost of discipleship

The headline and deck in the Dec. 6 BusinessWeek (Economists Are Getting Religion: Can organized faith be explained by supply and demand? They think so) might create dread among believers. Are some pointy-headed intellectuals going to reduce the complexity, mystery and wonder of faith to something so mundane as commerce and "product"?

Well, no. As reporters Joseph Weber and Peter Coy tell the story, some economists have been humble and intellectually curious enough to admit that their discipline has too often underestimated the enduring attraction of religious belief:

A new generation of economists of religion is following in the footsteps of University of Chicago economist Gary S. Becker, who won a Nobel prize for applying economics to the study of crime, drugs, and family interactions. . . .

The sudden interest is vindication for the most tireless advocate for the field, Laurence R. Iannaccone, 50, an economics professor at George Mason University who studied at Chicago under Becker. He heads a new academic group, the Association for the Study of Religion, Economics & Culture. Academics ignored religion in part out of a belief that it would fade under the onslaught of secularization. Says Iannaccone: "We finally figured out that religion remains a very powerful force in contemporary society."

A visit to ASREC's website yields an appealing variety of papers available in PDF: "Religion's Role in the Rule of Law," "The Unintended Consequences of Religious Suppression: Understanding the Growth of Suppressed Religions," "Rational Martyrs vs. Hard Targets: Evidence on the Tactical Use of Suicide Attacks" and "Some Implications of Belief in the Afterlife and the Allocation of Time to Spirituality."

The conclusions of AREC's members likely will be as diverse, for good or ill, as those of the American Academy of Religion. But they'll be more thought-provoking than your average quarterly report.

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