An Econtalk podcast on the subject of religion a few weeks ago was the first I haven’t fully enjoyed. Larry Iannacone, the guest that week, outlined a theory he has spent many years developing: the amount of religious participation in a market (e.g. a country) is correlated with the amount of religious freedom permitted. He alleged that the USA was a good example - somewhere that had constitutionally guaranteed religious freedom, and subsequently widespread religious belief. This argument has intuitive power (when people are more free to do stuff their own way, they are more likely to take part in it), and seems empirically justified too (I didn’t spend long on the ARDA website he linked to, which contains more statistics on this than one can shake a stick at).
However, Iannacone went on to say some things about average education levels of religious folk vs. non-religious folk that, as an agnostic atheist, made me rather uncomfortable. He didn’t really discuss how these education levels were measured, or how, if at all, they might be biased towards religion. Further digs at Ayn Rand (I’m not an objectivist, but I am a libertarian) seemed a bit below the belt.
This isn’t to say that Iannacone’s statistics seemed implausible; quite the opposite. If anything, they are a good illustration of how economics can sometimes clue us in on the truths we don’t really want to hear. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but feel a little more comfortable when I saw the case for the defence (admittedly without the economic content) presented by Richard Dawkins a few days later in The Root of All Evil - which is worth seeing, even if the arguments are a little simplistic.