Losing Faith

Kevin Lewis

January 24, 2023

Opiates of the Masses? Deaths of Despair and the Decline of American Religion
Tyler Giles, Daniel Hungerman & Tamar Oostrom
NBER Working Paper, January 2023 


In recent decades, death rates from poisonings, suicides, and alcoholic liver disease have dramatically increased in the United States. We show that these "deaths of despair" began to increase relative to trend in the early 1990s, that this increase was preceded by a decline in religious participation, and that both trends were driven by middle-aged white Americans. Using repeals of blue laws as a shock to religiosity, we confirm that religious practice has significant effects on these mortality rates. Our findings show that social factors such as organized religion can play an important role in understanding deaths of despair.

All Models Are Wrong, and Some Are Religious: Supernatural Explanations as Abstract and Useful Falsehoods about Complex Realities
Aaron Lightner & Edward Hagen
Human Nature, December 2022, Pages 425-462 


Many cognitive and evolutionary theories of religion argue that supernatural explanations are byproducts of our cognitive adaptations. An influential argument states that our supernatural explanations result from a tendency to generate anthropomorphic explanations, and that this tendency is a byproduct of an error management strategy because agents tend to be associated with especially high fitness costs. We propose instead that anthropomorphic and other supernatural explanations result as features of a broader toolkit of well-designed cognitive adaptations, which are designed for explaining the abstract and causal structure of complex, unobservable, and uncertain phenomena that have substantial impacts on fitness. Specifically, we argue that (1) mental representations about the abstract vs. the supernatural are largely overlapping, if not identical, and (2) when the data-generating processes for scarce and ambiguous observations are complex and opaque, a naive observer can improve a bias-variance trade-off by starting with a simple, underspecified explanation that Western observers readily interpret as "supernatural." We then argue that (3) in many cases, knowledge specialists across cultures offer pragmatic services that involve apparently supernatural explanations, and their clients are frequently willing to pay them in a market for useful and effective services. We propose that at least some ethnographic descriptions of religion might actually reflect ordinary and adaptive responses to novel problems such as illnesses and natural disasters, where knowledge specialists possess and apply the best available explanations about phenomena that would otherwise be completely mysterious and unpredictable.

Trust and Contracting: Evidence from Church Sex Scandals
Gilles Hilary & Sterling Huang
Journal of Business Ethics, January 2023, Pages 421-442 


Firms located in communities in which people are, on average, more trusting enjoy some benefits in terms of the power of CEO contracts. We present two pieces of empirical evidence to support this claim: (1) higher average trust in a county is associated with "flatter" executive contracts and (2) when an exogenous shock occurs (such as a scandal involving an important social institution), both trust and contracting move in similar directions. We obtain the first result in a panel specification and the second in a "difference-in-difference" specification that uses the revelation of sex scandals involving the Catholic Church across different U.S. localities.

Beliefs in inevitable justice curb revenge behaviours: Cultural perspectives on karma
Namrata Goyal & Joan Miller
European Journal of Social Psychology, forthcoming 


Across cultures, people believe that moral actions have 'karmic' consequences. Do cultures share assumptions about how karma operates? Four studies (N = 1114) assessed cultural differences in perceptions of inevitability associated with karmic justice and whether perceiving karma as inevitable curbs antisocial behaviours, such as revenge. Study 1 found that Indians perceived karmic justice as more inevitable than Americans and reported lower revenge. Studies 2-3 manipulated whether participants saw karmic justice as inevitable (vs. probable), finding that both Indians and Americans in the inevitable justice condition reported lower revenge. Study 3 found that perceived punishment certainty for oneself (for enacting revenge) rather than perceived punishment certainty for the offender (for the offence) better explained condition differences in revenge. Study 4 uncovered that reincarnation belief related to, and explained, cultural differences in inevitable karmic justice, which subsequently curbed revenge. Research on karma can uncover a range of cultural differences in psychological functioning.

Sectarian Competition and the Market Provision of Human Capital
Heyu Xiong & Yiling Zhao
Journal of Economic History, forthcoming 


We study the role of denominational competition in the expansion of higher education in the nineteenth-century United States. We document that nearly all colleges established in this period were affiliated with a Christian denomination. Empirical analysis reveals a robust positive relationship between the denominational fragmentation of the county and the number of colleges established. We take several steps to rule out competing explanations and also highlight the causal channel by utilizing two historical case studies. We conclude by estimating a model of school choice and showing that students exhibited strong preferences to attend same-denominational colleges in terms of willingness-to-pay and willingness-to-travel. Therefore, we argue that religious diversity softened the extent of tuition competition between institutions and precipitated an "excess" entry of schools.

Magic, Religion, and Science: Secularization Trends and Continued Coexistence
Luke Matthews et al.
Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, forthcoming 


While multiple studies have applied cultural evolutionary perspectives to the study of religion, few studies have examined the cultural evolutionary dynamics of a more secretive but equally ubiquitous form of supernatural belief: magic. We conducted two studies, an American nationally representative survey and a comparative phylogenetic analysis of religious traditions, to test three hypothesized cultural evolutionary drivers for beliefs in magic. We find the greatest support for the hypothesis that magic is employed when it provides its users benefits that are distinct from those provided by either science or religion, some support for secularization (broadly conceived) trends applying to magic, and no evidence that innate and unavoidable features of human cognition are primary drivers of the cultural evolution of magical beliefs. We conclude by suggesting specific hypothesized benefits for magic that may account for the evolution of humanity's facultative (i.e., context-dependent) use of magical beliefs.

Serving two masters: The effect of state religion on fiscal capacity
Antonis Adam & Sofia Tsarsitalidou
Public Choice, January 2023, Pages 181-203


This paper examines the effect of having a state religion on fiscal capacity. Our analysis extends the legitimization argument, which postulates that a state religion legitimizes the revenue-raising motives of the state. We then argue that the effect reduces the incentive of the state to invest in fiscal capacity. First, we build a simple theoretical model to highlight our central idea and derive our testable hypothesis. The model shows that in the presence of a legitimization effect, countries with a state religion face weaker incentives to invest in fiscal capacity, as they can raise revenue by exploiting the legitimizing power of the church. Next, we test the hypothesis in a potential outcomes model, which models the selection on observables using both recent and historical data. We show, always following our theoretical model, that countries with a state religion have lower fiscal capacity.


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