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Andrea Useem, creator and publisher of ReligionWriter.com, is a freelance journalist and editor based in Northern Virginia who specializes in writing about religion. Andrea holds a Masters of Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School, as well as a Bachelors degree in religion from Dartmouth College. Previously, Andrea worked as a freelance journalist in Eastern Africa for four years; she has also lived in Muscat, Oman. She is married and has three sons.

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Using Economics to Improve Your Faith Life

In his entertaining new book, Discover Your Inner Economist: Use Incentives to Fall in Love, Survive Your Next Meeting, and Motivate Your Dentist, economist Tyler Cowen considers the following scenario: You are about to walk into an art museum. You aspire to appreciate the many works of art you will see, in part because valuing high art is part of your self-image: You consider yourself a person who would enjoy spending an afternoon at an art museum.

But here’s the problem: In spite of your plans and aspirations, you get tired after an hour or so of walking around, and all the paintings, no matter how wonderful, begin to blur together.

To resolve the tension between the fact that you want to enjoy the art museum and yet it eventually bores you, Cowen, a professor at George Mason University and co-founder of the popular blog MarginalRevolution.com, poses an economic question: “What is the relevant scarcity hindering a better outcome?”

The answer: Your attention span is the scarcity. And the solution? Make it fun for yourself. In his words, give yourself incentives to reach your goal of enjoying the museum.

Cowen offers several ways to trick yourself into paying more attention. Instead of advising that you read up on the exhibit in advance or study the informational placards beside the paintings, Cowen writes:

In every room ask yourself which picture you would take home — if you could take just one — and why. This forces us to keep thinking critically about the displays. If the alarm system was shut down and the guards went away, should I carry home the Cezanne, the Manet or the Renoir?

Another tip:

Pretend we are shopping for pictures on a budget. We are probably better at shopping than looking at pictures. … How might $20 million be spent at the Met? … This exercise will again focus our attention, force us to clarify our intentions, and improve the quality of our viewing.

The first step toward enjoying art more, Cowen writes, is admitting “that we don’t care as much about culture as we like to think we do.”

So how can Cowen’s approach be applied to questions of faith? ReligionWriter contends that for many people, religious observances present problems similar to those of Cowen’s art museum. We want to enjoy the experience, and it’s part our self-image to believe we find going to the church or synagogue or mosque meaningful and fulfilling. Yet who has not yawned their way through a sermon or prayer at one time or another? How do you keep your mind from wandering from the divine service to thoughts about grocery shopping later in the day or your next work assignment?

Applying Cowen’s logic, the first and probably most difficult step is admitting that we don’t always enjoy religious services and observances as much as we would like to think we do. There should be no shame in this admission. Cowen himself, a voracious consumer of culture and appreciator of art, reports that after a few hours in an art museum he gets “museum legs” and begins to whine.

So church/mosque/synagogue/temple/fill-in-the-religious-blank is sometimes boring — accept that as a given. How can we apply Cowen’s concept of incentives to make the experience more enjoyable?

The Prophet Muhammad used to advise his followers to pray each prayer as if it were their last. This advice, repeated constantly, can become a bit glib. But if we actually take a moment to imagine, before a prayer or religious service, that we might die in a car accident or tsunami later in the day, we might find it easier to concentrate on facing the divine in the moment, rather thinking idly about our everyday worries.

What if you listened to a sermon with the idea that you would have to stand up and summarize the best points when it was over? What if, in fact, you did call up someone when church was over and tell them what you liked and didn’t like about the sermon? If you want to genuinely enjoy the experience, you have to make it fun for yourself. (ReligionWriter and her brother used to accomplish this goal by seeing how long they could hold the Communion wine and wafer in their mouths before swallowing them, though this practice is only recommended for church-goers 12 and under.)

ReligionWriter learned about Cowen’s economics work because his George Mason University colleague, Larry Iannacconne is helping to pioneer the study of the economics of religion. The final lesson? Next time you look for a book on religious inspiration, don’t walk too quickly past the economics section.

Related Content on ReligionWriter:

Economics of Religion: Suicide Bombing a Response to “Market Demand,” Says Scholar

Also read Tyler Cowen’s posting:

The Theology of Popular Economics

There Are 10 Responses So Far. »

  1. Like I commented at Tyler’s website:

    In analyzing the preferences and utilities of the worshiper, it may be dangerous to overlook the preference and utility of the Worshiped.

  2. “In analyzing the preferences and utilities of the worshiper, it may be dangerous to overlook the preference and utility of the Worshiped.”

    Especially if the Worshipped is…



  3. Your limited attention span is not just a “relevant scarcity”; it’s a symptom of a larger problem: that you’re squeezing a year’s worth of art appreciation into one afternoon.

    This works about as well as eating your next week’s worth of food all at once. Your upset stomach is not an indication that your food is not interesting enough, but that you’re trying to cram in far too much in one sitting.

    Make whatever religious parallels you’d like.

  4. BTW, Cthulhu really hates it when you spell his name wrong.

  5. Are you ready for the greatest harvest the earth has ever seen? For the enemy cannot stop what God is about to do. For the great cloud of witnesses are cheering on the saints of the earth.

    The sands of time are calling out. The soil is calling out, the earth is calling out. The heavens are releasing their glory to the earth! For now is the sign for you to know that when Christmas comes the glory of the stable will be released, and the child in the manger will be placed in and all over the cities and in the commercial places, homes and restaurants! For this Christmas the sands of time are being released to the nations of the earth all over as the Christmas spirit releases a double anointing over your lands and seas.

    We must have connection in the generations, connections from this generation to the next walking side by side. For when this generation takes over the houses of God, the generation will not be changed by society, but this generation will change the society, says the Lord.

    You have noticed the phenomenon in the earth and sea, and I tell you this is a spiritual thing taking place, and has the potential for greatness, for this generation does not want to destroy values, but restore them.

    Watch now, says the Lord, as I strike the secular media and revamp it to speak the great news of My voice, I will penetrate Hollywood and I will cause them to celebrate Christ this Christmas and find Me after there time of heartbreak. For I am causing a death in Hollywood that will cause them to say, where do we stand? Where are the sands of time taking us now? And the Lord God says, to the Rock of Christ Jesus!

    For many in Hollywood have exhausted their pleasures and are looking for something eternal. Madonna, where are you going with your influence, a new virgin looking to be an influence for her children and for the world.

    America, many have called you Babylon the great! And I tell you as Daniel was raised in Babylon he changed the whole nation to Me, says the Lord. And I tell you that this generation will do the same. For this generation, and their belief, their pursuit of God will allow the fountains of the earth to awaken and the great reign of the Spirit will shine upon them.

    Is there a Samuel out there who will anoint the next President of this nation, is there a prophet who will say, this year in 2008 you will know the Lord’s anointed and the Spirit of God is with this person. For God will union with the anointed and the Spirit will be upon this leader until the Presidency is completed. He will have a spiritual father and they will be in one accord.

    Look upon Tennessee and see what is taking place, a wind of the move of God, for he is starting a fire there that will unbuckle the Bible Belt! It will move into Kentucky and into the Carolina’s even a movement taking place in the West Coast!

    Oh, Josiah, can I give you someone who will speak to you about the Father! Can I tell you that you can turn the world around? Yes you are young, but you will teach the generation all that you know about Me. This is the generation of God’s heart is looking upon.

  6. Mr Udell,
    Would you summarize what you have to say, so that you as well as anyone else can understand what you think is so valuable?

  7. what in sam hell was that

  8. “Look upon Tennessee and see what is taking place, a wind of the move of God”

    Straight Line Winds Hit Hard In Manchester, TN

    Aug 25, 2007 08:53 PM CDT

    MANCHESTER, Tenn. - Friday night’s strong storms chased motel guests out of their rooms in Manchester when the winds blew the roof off the building.

    Straight line winds tore the roof off the Ramada Limited, near Interstate 24, in Coffee County. The wind sent sheet metal from the roof across the parking lot where it landed on several cars, and sent it flying into a nearby convenience store. Ninety percent of the roof blew off. The wind also damaged a nearby gas station. The storms also knocked out power to some parts of the city.

    “I mean, within a split second, it was just like, straight line winds and all of the debris starting twisting and hitting everything,” said Ramada Limited employee, Vicky Robertson.

  9. “Look upon Tennessee and see what is taking place, a wind of the move of God, for he is starting a fire there that will unbuckle the Bible Belt!”

    Outbreak Of Fires In Tennessee Mountains, Lightning Blamed
    8/28 9:19 am

    Wildfires are burning in at least four locations in the Cherokee National Forest in northeastern Tennessee.

    The National Forest Service believes lightning started all of them.

    By early Tuesday morning, the fires had burned are area as large as 200 football fields.

    In the Smoky Mountains foothills, Blount County and state Forestry Division firefighters are keeping a watch on a 200-acre fire threatening the Top of the World community.

    At one point, flames came within about 10 feet of a house. There are about a dozen homes in the community.

    The fire is also burning toward Eagle Rock Retreat.

  10. “The sands of time are calling out. The soil is calling out, the earth is calling out.”

    Mild earthquake rattles southern California,
    Sun Sep 2, 5:37 PM ET

    LOS ANGELES (AFP) - A mild earthquake shook parts of southern California on Sunday but there were no reports of injuries or serious damage, authorities said.

    The 4.7 magnitude quake struck at 10.29 am local time (1729 GMT) about 81 kilometers (50 miles) southeast of Los Angeles near Lake Elsinore, the US Geological Survey reported.

    Light earthquake hits Southern California

    SAN DIEGO, Sept. 4 (UPI) — A light earthquake shook inland areas in southern California early Tuesday.

    The U.S. Geological Survey said that the quake measured 4.0 on the Richter scale, The Riverside Press-Enterprise reported. Earthquakes of that size are unlikely to cause any real damage, although those who experience them will feel buildings shaking and indoor items rattling.

    3.4 Earthquake Rattles Lake Elsinore
    Sep 5, 2007 8:53 am US/Pacific

    (AP) LAKE ELSINORE, Calif. An earthquake with a preliminary magnitude of 3.4 has shaken an area around Lake Elsinore.

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