Freedom makes us happy. When we can, we choose what makes us happy. Religious belief is irrational.
Most readers of this blog would, I guess, subscribe to these propositions. This new paper, however, challenges all three.
The authors studied the effects upon happiness of the repeal of laws against Sunday trading in US states, using states where there was no change in the law as a control group. They found that such repeals reduced church attendance - which is only to be expected because some people chose to go shopping instead.
However, these repeals also led to a fall in self-reported happiness. “Pah, coincidence” you might think. But here’s a queer thing - the people whose happiness fell most happen to be the same people whose church attendance declined most - white women. This is not because they had to work Sundays instead.
This, the authors claim, helps explain what Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers have called the paradox of declining female happiness.
It does, however, flatly contradict the ideas I began with.
1. If freedom enhances subjective well-being, you’d expect the repeal of Sunday trading laws to have increased happiness. It didn’t.
2. Some people, it seems, systematically make choices that make them unhappy - choosing to go shopping rather than to church. This corroborates work by Dan Haybron and Christopher Hsee (eg this pdf), suggesting that our choices can be systematically bad.
3. Religious belief is rational, in the sense that it makes us happy. The raw correlation between church attendance and happiness - which the above suggests might be at least in part a causal link - is striking. Averaged over the 1972-2004 period, 17.4% of Americans who never attend church say they are not happy, compared to only 8.9% of those who attend at least once a week.
This draws attention to an ambiguity in the nature of rationality. On the one hand we - at least economists - think that rationality consists in choosing that which maximizes our utility. By this criterion, religious belief seems rational. But on the other hand, rationality consists in having beliefs which are consistent with evidence. By this standard, the rationality of religion is less obvious.
Of course, there is no reason to suppose that religion is the only context in which there is a conflict between act-rationality and belief-rationality.