Economics can help understand two conflicting aspects of religion: its potential usefulness in a free society and the incentives of some believers for extreme intolerance.

The social usefulness of religion has been noticed by many thinkers, including Friedrich Hayek (see Chapter 9 of The Fatal Conceit). Religion or at least some religions can provide the proper incentives for the moral behavior that is necessary for the maintenance of an autoregulated order. In their seminal The Calculus of Consent, James Buchanan and Gordon Tullock went in the same direction, but with a caveat (pp. 300-301):

A widespread adoption of Judeo-Christian morality may be a necessary condition to the operation of any genuinely free society of individuals. …

Christian idealism, to be effective in leading to a more harmonious social order, must be tempered by an acceptance of the moral imperative of individualism, the rule of equal freedom. The acceptance of the right of the individual to do as he desires so long as his action does not infringe on the freedom of other individuals to do likewise must be a characteristic trait in any “good” society. The precept “Love thy neighbor, but also let him alone when he desires to be let alone” may, in one sense, be said to be the overriding ethical principle for Western liberal society.

As much as religion can generate useful incentives for life in society, it can also lead believers to behavior more conducive to intolerance, social strife, and violence. An extraordinary example of this was provided by Ismail Haniyeh, who ran the Quatar-based political bureau of Hamas. Three adults among his thirteen children, who were reportedly also involved in Hamas terrorism, were targeted and killed in Gaza by an air strike attributed to the Israeli government. Four of his grandchildren also died in the strike. Haniyeh declared (“Israeli Airstrike Kills Three Sons of Hamas Political Leader,” Wall Street Journal, April 10, 2024):

I thank God for this honor that he bestowed upon us with the martyrdom of my three sons and some grandchildren.

It is difficult to counter the incentives of individuals who believe that their savagery and the sacrifice of their children (and “some grandchildren”) will be rewarded with blissful eternal life. A blissful eternal life has, by definition, an infinite value. The greedy incentive to get there has led to wars of religion, and alas still does.

St. Bartholomew's Day massacre (1572), by François Dubois. Wikipedia Commons,_por_Fran%C3%A7ois_Dubois.jpg

St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre (1572), by François Dubois. Wikipedia Commons,_por_Fran%C3%A7ois_Dubois.jpg