This week I sat in my Economics 102 lecture and learned about the utility function: the relationship between consumption and “happiness” — conceptually measured in fictional units called utils.

Illustration by Megan Mulholland

Despite pages of textbooks and explanations from multiple professors that economics is model-based and not literally based, my anti-arithmetic mind rejected this form of measurement. How could a small graph and equation quantify human happiness?

But beyond this resistance, I questioned why and when and since when did humans feel the need for this type of economic organization. And if humans felt the need for economic organization, at what point did humans desire a moral — or in some people’s eyes, religious — organization?

Humans organized economically in the early 18th century when Nicholas Bernoulli theorized the decision-making patterns of consumers. Between Adam Smith, John Maynard Keynes and hundreds of others, economics has evolved, but always continued to provide humans with a structure of looking at their world.

When humans were nomadic, they found a spirit in everything they interacted with: the river, the sun, powerful animals, great leaders and themselves. The earliest form of religion was through imitation of the things they admired. They found these concepts so purposeful that they were driven to imitate them as a form of guidance for survival.

In his book, “A Man’s Search for Meaning,” Viktor Frankl chronicles his experience in concentration camps during World War II. He observes that those who found meaning in their daily routine, despite their dire circumstances, were the ones who preserved and survived.

Karen Armstrong, a former Roman Catholic nun, wrote in her book “A History of God” about the evolution of three monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. One observation that she makes is that the three religions, all in their own way, believe God is a figure that gives humans this type of purpose. The line of thinking translates to: God made you for a reason.

Humans across generations have found that religion gives them a purpose. Though, in some ways, I believe this sounds as if religion is a social crutch, there is no denying that it is also a tool that motivates humans to think about their morals, their ethics and their purpose here on earth.

If religion grants purpose and if a concept of purpose grants a successful life, then, like economic utils, fictional religious utils hold a valuable place in our world too.

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