Christmas, Faith, and Economics

This post is probably ill-advised. But I am trying to write it in a way that hopefully nobody will take offense. Please read it in that context.

To start with, let me just say that I am not a Christian – I do not believe in Jesus. A good friend of mine, who is a devout Christian, has tried a number of times to get me to believe. He has provided me with reading material – including CS Lewis’ Mere Christianity. And I think he has been very surprised that I do not believe, because I have had a lot of exposure to religion in my life, and always been very interested in religious matters. I read the Old Testament, the Testament, the Koran, the Book of Mormon, as well as part of the Book of Christian Science and Dianetics at least once before graduating from college. I also know something of the history of each of the major Western faiths. (In part that comes from spending one’s childhood at a Catholic school, in part from natural curiosity.)

I’ll be honest, though, and note that I haven’t been paying as much attention to religious issues in the last decade – I think I’ve given up my search by concluding that there isn’t much out there. That doesn’t mean any disrespect toward those who have concluded otherwise, but I personally just don’t see it. But this being Christmas and all, and this being an economics blog, I want to talk a bit about believers, Jesus (these two being issues of Christmas) and motivations and constraints (these two being the building blocks of economics).

My devout Christian friend has had even more exposure to religion, though on balance, his has been more limited to Christianity as practiced widely in the US. He went to Wheaton College, in Illinois – about as religious an institution as you’ll find, and he’s read the classics. He tells me that as far as he can tell, there is only one unforgiveable sin, which is to turn away from God when God calls you.

Now this is interesting to me as it is an area that overlaps economics. Christians feel that faith is a gift that God provides to some but not to others. You either believe or you don’t, and presumably, one cannot make oneself believe. (Try forcing yourself to believe, to truly believe, that the sky is Kelly green.) That has to come either from evidence, or from somewhere.

Now, if there is a True Faith (whether Christianity more or less as widely practiced in the US or something else), it hasn’t relied on evidence. Most of the Holy Books (of Western faiths at least) describes miracles – things that are clearly evidence of the supernatural if they did occur. But how can one believe that the miracles described in one Holy Book occurred while those described in another did not? What diferentiates between set and the other? The evidence available is not enough to say that Holy Book A describes true miracles, while Holy Book B describes fraudulent miracles. Thus, in the end, the differentiating factor – the reason why one person is a Jew, another a Christian of one denomination, another a Christian of second denomination, the next person a Muslim, the one after that a Mormon, and so forth, comes down to faith. And faith is not enough to guarantee that is True Faith. (I note that the doctrines of the major Western Religions alone are sufficiently different that I, at least, do not see how they can be compatible.)

Now, let us assume (because most readers of this blog are American) that the True Faith is the American version of Christianity, and return to the one unforgivable sin. An economist might ask – how can someone who truly believes turn away? The benefits of doing what God asks you, if you believe in Christianity as its practiced in much of the US, are literally infinite – spending Heaven in eternity. What about the costs? Well, the costs of compliance may be high – God might call you to do something difficult, that causes you to lose your pride, to renounce material wealth or even family and friends. But these are temporary, they last at most, literally, only a lifetime, which is not even a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of human history, much less of eternity.

The only type of person who would do something like this has to have an infinite discount rate. Honestly, I’m not sure such a person could be considered rational, which raises questions in my mind about punishing such a person.

Anyway, I’d like to throw this open to any issues of how economics ties in with religion you might have. I’m particularly curious… for those who believe in one or another faith… how do you reconcile faith in one religion as opposed to another religion with lack of evidence? One request… please keep all comments civil.

In any case, I would like to wish all the Angry Bear readers, those who have faith and those who don’t, a Merry Christmas. May you find happiness.