Christianity and the Shadow of the Future

Prisoner’s dilemmas create a situation where, in the short run, individuals have an incentive to act in a way that does not lead to a group optimal result. In a repeated game, however, players can gain optimally through cooperation. Because Christians expect to live eternally, and indeed to that extent, we should expect these folks to act consistently with a repeated game, perhaps after correction for intelligence.

It’s a common debate within and without the church: Does Christianity make people better? An easy answer seems to be, “Yes, if you do apply it correctly,” but this easy answer rapidly becomes complicated. How does one know he or she is ‘doing Christianity’ correctly? A related question is whether religion generally improves individuals. I’m less interested in that question. First, it pretends all religions are equal. Second, it’s trivially proven that many religions make people worse off than secularism.

In 2011, Plante asked “Do we need religion to be ethical?” He surmised, with plenty of citations, “While not essential, religion potentially helps people be and stay good.” Plante also has faced criticism. Plante is simply a quick example demonstrating that this is a long-running conversation. I’ve also dabbled in this evidence-based religion stuff, arguing Empirical Research May Back Prayer and Laying on Hands.

Plante and many others target religion broadly. Fewer others and I target Christianity specifically, but the specific mechanism called the Shadow of the Future targets a specific behavior set. In this article I’ll briefly engage an even narrower analysis on the overlap of patience-based optimization and Christianity. Patience is a value within Christianity, but there are many values within Christianity, and there are many mechanisms for generating and utilizing patience. This specific examination is able to eschew the generalities which plague much of religious study, and even much of empirical religious study.

What is the Shadow of the Future? It’s the perception of the potential gains from cooperating in a repeated Prisoner’s Dilemma. It’s an incentive to be cooperative and patient. Here Garett Jones describes the phenomenon:

Specifically, naturalistic atheism tends strongly toward the notion that life is a one-shot game. This means that after holding everything else constant, and perhaps critically after correcting for intelligence and education, a naturalistic atheist would be expected to exhibit lower patience compared to an otherwise-similar Christian.

Does this pan out in the data? Here is a selection of related scholarly articles:

  1. Sharifi, T., HONARMAND M. MEHRABIZADEH, and H. Shokrkon. “Religious Attitude and General Health and Patience in Students of Ahvaz Islamic Azad University.” (2005): 89-99.
    1. The results showed that the religious attitude had a negative correlation with disturbance of general health and a positive correlation with patience.
    1. In Table 3, observe the simple relation where individuals high in religiosity are less impatient (eg more patient). They are also marginally less present-biased.
    2. Table 4 shows after linear regression, including correction for education and income, there is a very weak effect on religiosity, but the effect is in the expected direction: More religious people are more patient (less impatient).
    3. Lots of room for empirical improvement in this paper. Nonlinear effects are missed, direct measures of intelligence are missed, religiosity is left in generic form, etc. Despite all of these sources of noise we still find the hypothesized result.
    4. This paper references Aydin (2014), but I see no proper citation. It claims self-consistency with Aydin (2014), which I found on my own and describe below.
  3. Aydin, Eda. “Religion and long-term investment.” (2014).
    1. Highly religious people suffer less present-bias problems than non-highly religious people do.
    2. I can’t get a free copy and I’m not paying, but according to ÇAVUŞOĞLU (supra), this paper also indicates average impatience is higher for low-religious individuals.
  4. Schnitker, Sarah A., and Robert A. Emmons. “Patience as a virtue: Religious and psychological perspectives.” Research in the Social Scientific Study of Religion, Volume 18. Brill, 2007. 177-208.
    1. Patience was significantly related to spiritual transcendence (ST) and to religious behaviors.

Based on the above, it seems that Christianity specifically, and to some extant many religions with eternal life theology, are correlated with patience. By all means, please add your own correction for my selection bias 😉

Related articles:

  1. November 2015, Caplan on Christianity
  2. January 2015, On the Apparent Link Between Atheism and Intelligence
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