My publisher (and friend) Oscar van Gelderen alerted me to this article by Steven I. Weiss in The Atlantic about religion and economy:
‘Economists? What can economists tell us about religion? A lot, as it turns out.
A new book by George Washington University professor Carmel Chiswick, Judaism in Transition: How Economic Choices Shape Religious Tradition, is a pioneering work in this new area of study. Chiswick is a labor economist, and that turns out to be crucial here because of the field’s focus on scarcity, and especially the scarcity of time.
“Religion is a good,” Chiswick told me in an interview. While it's unconventional to think of religion that way, the transaction of exchanging time and money for a particular experience retains certain core qualities whether that experience is religious or secular. For example, though it might seem more wholesome than buying a boat, paying for religious schooling is still a purchase of a luxury good. Heading to church or synagogue might make one feel more righteous and community-oriented than going golfing on a weekend morning, and that’s pretty much the point: The feelings and knock-on effects gathered from spending time in a certain way are part of the overall purchase.’ (…)
‘What's most relevant here isn't just generic human capital but what Chiswick calls “Jewish human capital,” which we might gain by investing in going to Jewish schools and camps, learning Hebrew, reading Jewish texts, or attending Jewishly-relevant art exhibits or events, and even prayer services. The various ways to engage with the Jewish world assume differing degrees and types of investments in Jewish human capital: If you go to an Orthodox synagogue without know a fair amount of Hebrew, you’ll have a hard time following what’s going on; likewise, if you attend a Jewish literature discussion and haven’t read any Philip Roth or Isaac Bashevis Singer, you'll be quite lost as well. The attainment of this "Jewish human capital" has costs, but it enables people to enjoy and experience Jewish life more deeply. Said simply, those costs can sometimes pay off.’
(Read the article here.)
I’m not sure if this is an adequate enough explanation why well-educated Americans invest time and money in religious activities, but it’s important to realize that there is such a thing as religious capital.
Probably we should distinguish between cultural capital (time and money mainly invested in art, literature, movies, games etcetera), religious capital (time and money invested in religious activities) and athletic capital (time and money invested in sports).
If you are unemployed and the religious activity is free of charge, your investment in this activity is very cheap, we can call it a bargain – nevertheless your religious capital is probably growing quickly. It’s like buying a penny stock and seeing the stock go up day by day.
No wonder that religious activity is popular in societies where religious capital is highly valuated and investment in this capital is cheap.
This doesn’t explain why well-educated Americans invest lots of time and money in religious capital, but I would say that in the US it’s hard to distinguish between religious capital and cultural capital. This is obviously one of the major differences between the US and Europe.