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Is religion a business model, Economist?
#17 – Present photography meets future economics
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P: Good morning, Economist.
E: Good morning, Photographer.
P: Do you believe in God, Economist?
E: Ehm, not really. Why do you ask?
P: I was in the German city of Erfurt last weekend. Among other things, I wanted to have a look at the cathedral there. I only got as far as the entrance portal. The church was locked. But my eyes lingered on the doorknob. A man in the mouth of an animal. The animal significantly larger than man. Only head and arms stick out of the mouth. The man, halfway down the animal's mouth, threatens to be completely devoured.
E: Not very inviting, such a church door. Why does it exist?
P: My guess, the animal symbolizes the devil. Man in the mouth of the devil could mean that we all are sinful beings, we are threatened with ending up in hell and therefore need the church because it can free us from sin.
E: What do these horror stories have to do with my profession, Photographer?
P: When one thinks of belief, one does not initially think of economics. But at least the church is about a lot of power and money. So I was wondering what economics knows about religion.
E: Indeed, religion and its institutions can be viewed economically. In such a view, religion is a market with suppliers and buyers, like every market. The demanders in a market for deisms long for meaning, forgiveness of guilt, hope for eternal life, belonging. The provider, in the form of the church, offers behavioural rules, confession, promises of eternal happiness and community.
P: Sounds strange to me to look at that topic from an economic perspective.
E: The perspective is, in a way, eye-opening.
P: In which sense?
E: In a market, there is demand and supply. Sometimes supply creates demand, but most of the time, it's the other way around. People have wishes, the providers fulfil them. It's probably the same with religion. People have longings, churches serve these longings. But this view is dangerous for the church as for believers.
E: The believer believes that god exists without his belief. But market reasoning suggests that religious offerings are more a result of demand. God only comes into existence, so to speak, through the wish that there is a God and the satisfaction of this wish through the church. This can jeopardize the core of the product, which is belief.
P: In which way?
E: The product “Belief in God” is fragile since verifying whether it keeps its promises is difficult. Is there really life after death? Is there really a god who helps you in difficult situations? If the believer loses faith, the church loses a customer.
P: Churches want to avoid that.
E: And not only churches. Also those who are looking for faith, the customers of religion, so to speak. Because meaningfulness is existential. Both churches and seekers of religion want to remain in the market.
P: A sober consideration of religion is not helpful for them.
E: Exactly. Without at least some hope that believing in god isn't pure nonsense, no one invests in faith, pays church taxes, obeys behavioural restraints, or takes the time to attend the service and pray.
P: I'm a bit surprised that so many do this anyway.
E: I guess even the slightest hope is enough for many. It's like gambling. Almost everyone knows that the probability of winning is low. But you still buy a lottery ticket every week because the prospect of winning alone makes you happy. People like to live with the idea that the impossible is possible.
< silence >
E: I have to tell you something, Photographer.
P: Unburden your heart, Economist.
E: I enjoy going to churches and attending services from time to time.
P: So you are a believer, after all.
E: I am not. I like the theatricality and staging of services and especially the music.
P: The church just knows something about its business.
E: It does.
P: I wish you a hopeful day, Economist.
E: Same to you, Photographer.
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