Bryan Caplan  

Go to Church or Play a Game?

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I am tooling up for my debate on the economics of religion with Lawrence Iannaccone. Studying data from the General Social Survey, it's clear that people who attend church more are a bit happier. On a three-step scale (very happy/pretty happy/not too happy) people who attend church several times per week are about a quarter of a point happier than people who never attend. (And that's quite a bit smaller than the effect of income, which most happiness researchers think is over-rated).

However, it's striking that controlling for attendance, religious beliefs do little or nothing for happiness. In particular, it doesn't matter how firmly you believe in God - or if you believe; and it doesn't matter if you believe there's an afterlife.

This strongly suggests that the psychological benefits people get from religion stem from the social aspect, and not the doctrine. So while people often use findings like this to make a pragmatist's case for religion, a better interpretation is that people would be happier if they joined a group of some sort with regular meetings. It doesn't have to be a church; it could just as well be a regular gaming group. Back in high school, I did both, and guess which one gave me more happiness!

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COMMENTS (16 to date)
Adam writes:

I posted a criticism of this on my blog.

If you are interested, you can read it here.

Adam writes:

Crap. I'm an idiot. I just pasted the link I copied FROM your post.

Let me try that again.

this is the criticism of your post.

Sorry about that.

Brad Hutchings writes:

I thought the topic here in commentsville was to make the best educated guess as to which of church or gaming made Bryan happier in back in his glorious high school years. Staying completely on topic, I am going to guess, based on substantial previous evidence, that Bryan got more happiness out of gaming.

So now, counting the current votes, that would be 1 vote gaming, 0 votes church. Please be polite and keep this tally going as you post. Thanks!!

Ok, first, I give a second vote to games. Games make me happier (in the short term) then religion. However, I doubt if all I did was sit and play games I would be very happy for long.

The real reason I wanted to post here is because I have a second criticism in an attempt to further the first criticism. So to read the second criticism click here (I suggest reading the first first).

dearieme writes:

Gaming - but I'm sure that we all pray that you've grown out of it.

Matthew Cromer writes:

This reminds me of virgins talkin about what having sex is like. Only in this case, virgins who don't think there is anything much different between sex and a vigorous footrub, and who disbelieve in the orgasm.

Matthew Cromer writes:

Oh, and another vote for "gaming".

Swimmy writes:


I don't think this can be generalized, though. I'm a gamer introvert who attends church regularly, but would much rather the people at church not talk to me as much as they do. I'd say the greatest happiness I get from church is the intellectual debate. (I have no interest in most churches.) And, the period in which I regularly hung out with a group of gamers, a few years ago, was the second most depressing of my life.

(Neither here nor there, really - just stating the obvious. There are exceptions to everything.)

Bud1 writes:

I'll post 1 vote for church. People feel happy when they not only have confidence in their beliefs, but when they feel they are taking action to support those beliefs.

John P. writes:

Just to clarify. . . .

When Bryan said, "Guess which one gave me more happiness!" he was making a rhetorical point (I'm pretty sure); he wasn't commanding us to make guesses. ("Guess, damn you, guess!")

Also, it's important to note that his comparison was not between church-going and gaming, but between church-going and belonging to a regular gaming group. Comparing church with sitting in your basement alone while pretending to be Gandalf is not what he was talking about.

Finally, in response to Matthew Cromer, what makes you conclude that commenters who find Bryan's argument persuasive have never had "sex"?

Jacob B. writes:

I am a gamer through and through, so it is obvious that I will vote for games. I have been in a church in my life time and it was extremely boring to have to hear a sermon and so forth that is why I have a Playstation Portable and an iPod.

Barkley Rosser writes:

I would note that there is considerable lit on how church attending is associated with a lot of other things many might approve of, such as not cheating on taxes, volunteering more, being less involved in criminal activity, and a bunch of others.

OTOH, there is also probably a correlation with being part of the 51% of Americans who believe in creationism (which may make them happy, btw). I am not sure how these people explain the fact that the Book of Genesis has two completely contradictory accounts of the Creation (go check it out: Chapter 1 versus 2, just when was Adam created anyway?).

Matthew Cromer writes:

Finally, in response to Matthew Cromer, what makes you conclude that commenters who find Bryan's argument persuasive have never had "sex"?

Well first off I should begin by stating that I am not a huge fan of traditional social religiosity. So from that perspective "having sex" is certainly not going to church.

What I see as the "sex" analogy is having a transcendent mystical experience. These include (but are not limited to) near death experiences, experiences of oneness with the universe, and other life-transforming encounters with "God".

This is an example of the transformative effects of this kind of experience.

Brad Hutchings writes:

John wrote:

When Bryan said, "Guess which one gave me more happiness!" he was making a rhetorical point (I'm pretty sure); he wasn't commanding us to make guesses. ("Guess, damn you, guess!")

John was reading way too much into Bryan's sentence. Bryan was most definitely commanding us to guess. Otherwise he'd have put a smiley in there, not an exclamation point, which further notes the urgency of all of us making a guess. How thick are we?!?

As the self appointed vote counter, I am disqualifying the one vote for religion, as it was clearly not a guess about what Bryan thought. So we have a unanimous vote for gaming, and I don't think anyone is surprised at the outcome.

Steven McMullen writes:

Economists believe that people behave rationally given their information set. Many people go to church, and choose not to use the same time and effort to organize and tithe to a gaming group, (though many may do both, interior solutions are allowed). This leads me to believe that there is some reason why people choose to go to church, and perhaps the "happiness" measured in this data set does not cover it. Perhaps (just maybe) the explanitory power of this model is limited. (The model being that people's utility consists mostly of making themselves "happy" as measured by this survey, and community involvement from church and gaming are good substitutes.)

Oh, to make Brad happy, one vote for sitting in the basement pretending to be Gandolf. Though doing this at church could be way cool.

jaimito writes:

I found people feeling real fear of God only in the poker table. There, they remember their sins and ask for absolution. They promise to be good and donate - tomorrow ! - a thousand dollars to UJA. Then God smiles to them ... oh, happy days.

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