In honor of Christmas and the holiday season, I thought I might write a little lighter column, with a religious focus to fit the festive mood. So, with that in mind, in a country divided over which macroeconomic policies work and who creates jobs, here are some facts about religion that we can all agree on. In an amazing number of ways, religious attendance is good for the economy.
Interestingly, there is a large body of research on the health, economic, educational, and other benefits (or lack thereof) of religion. Most researchers have found that the myriad non-spiritual benefits of religion are related to regular religious attendance. It is less the strength of your faith than the dependability of your arrival at religious services and other events that matters. This suggests that the mechanism for these benefits may be as much or more the social network that a religious community provides than the actual practice of the religion in a theological sense. Or it may be that those with the most faith also attend services regularly.
Also, all the results presented here are benefits found to derive from religious attendance or involvement in any religion, so there is nothing here to suggest that one’s particular beliefs are the key to the results. It is having the beliefs, practicing them, and regularly joining with other like-minded adherents that produce the benefits reported here. With that said, what are the benefits?
First, studies have shown that religious attendance once or more per week leads to an extra seven years of life expectancy. Other studies have shown other health benefits such as a stronger immune system and lower blood pressure. Further, religious involvement has been linked to less depression and less alcohol and drug use.
Religious participation by kids has been shown to result in less juvenile delinquency, less drug use including less smoking, better school attendance, and a higher probability of graduating from high school. Graduating from high school has a large positive economic impact, so that is a big benefit to the economy. Less juvenile delinquency also provides big savings through the avoided costs of incarceration and rehabilitation.
Similarly, adults who regularly attend religious services also commit fewer crimes. Again, this comes with huge savings as both crime and prisons are very expensive. They also end up on welfare and unemployed less often. More cost savings for those entitlement programs.
People who are regular religious attendees give more money to charity than other people, which does much good in their communities.
How much does all this add up to, in terms of economic gains? According to Rodney Stark, a professor of sociology, the American economy benefits to the tune of $2.6 trillion per year thanks to being a quite religious country. That is about one-sixth of our total economic output.
These gains, found in his recent book, America’s Blessings, derive from the extra human capital, lower unemployment among the religious, fewer crimes being committed, and other benefits listed above. Some of the benefits are direct gains that show up in economic statistics. Others are monies saved (for example, by not imprisoning as many people), so they do not actually contribute to GDP or other visible statistics, but they save society money. Religious people are keeping our tax rates and insurance premiums lower than they would be otherwise.
On top of all these economic benefits, one that cannot really be quantified is that people who are religiously involved are also happier. I cannot put a dollar figure on that one, but it is certainly worth something.
I do not know if this column is going to be evangelical and convince any of my readers to become regular attendees at a religious institution of their choice. Any in my area are certainly welcome at my church, Central Presbyterian Church of Athens, Georgia.
Even if nobody starts going to religious services because of this column, perhaps, as we are counting our blessings in this holiday season, we can be thankful for all the economic benefits religion is bringing us on top of the spiritual rewards that are its main purpose. If anyone does decide that religion sounds like a pretty good deal and makes regular religious attendance part of his or her New Year’s resolution, that would be a wonderful blessing.
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