I want to respond to Ilya Somin’s claim that religious leaders need to learn (some version of) economics before opining on social justice. A curious editorial by Arthur Brooks provides a nice entree into the topic.
Mr. Brooks writes frequently on the WSJ editorial page on charity and religion. He lauds the charitable sector as superior to government-funded services, and offers survey evidence to demonstrate that religious people are both more charitable and happier than their secular peers. Brooks found the revelation of Mother Teresa’s profound and persistent sorrow a reason to re-emphasize that fact that, on average, the religious are statistically more likely to be happier than others:
The happiness gap between religious and secular people is not because of money or other personal characteristics. Imagine two people who are identical in every important way — income, education, age, sex, family status, race and political views. The only difference is that the first person is religious; the second is secular. The religious person will still be 21 percentage points more likely than the secular person to say that he or she is very happy.
On one level, I think this is important data: a classic premise of natural law is that submission to right belief and right action makes for genuine happiness. You only need to watch a few episodes of “Behind the Music” to get a sense of where untrammeled hedonism will lead.
However, the failthful also embrace the negative emotions associated with religious experience. A religious person may feel guilt or self-reproach at how little he’s done to relieve the world’s suffering. Penance is not a fun experience. Perhaps the Book of Ecclesiastes put it best: “in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.” As Kierkegaard critiqued a complacent Christendom, so too should the modern believer question any effort to facilely align personal/national prosperity and Christian teaching.
I thus question Brooks’s “validation” of religious faith by its statistical correlation to “happiness”–particularly the crude measures of that state common to survey instruments. Much of religious thought refuses to be contained in our ordinary notions of well-being or success, a point eloquently made in the series of paradoxes posed in the prayer of St. Francis.
These paradoxes also render suspect the many suggestions of market-oriented thinkers that church leaders need to conform social teaching to particular economic models.