Why Religion is Like Mark Sanchez

In this week’s issue of the New Yorker, James Surowiecki digs into the frustrating problem now confronting the New York Jets: They owe less-than-stellar quarterback Mark Sanchez $8,250,000 next year whether or not he plays… but he’s not playing well at all. What should they do? Stick with him and hope he improves or go with a different quarterback (Tim Tebow?) altogether?

The Jets feel the same way about you, Mark.

The Jets have stumbled into a classic economic dilemma, known as the sunk-cost effect. In a purely rational world, Sanchez’s guaranteed salary would be irrelevant to the decision of whether or not to start him (since the Jets have to pay it either way). But in the real world sunk costs are hard to ignore. Hal Arkes, a psychologist at Ohio State University who has spent much of his career studying the subject, explains, “Abandoning a project that you’ve invested a lot in feels like you’ve wasted everything, and waste is something we’re told to avoid.” This means that we often end up sticking with something when we’d be better off cutting our losses — sitting through a bad movie, say, just because we’ve paid for the ticket. In business and government, the effect pushes people to throw good money after bad. The quintessential case of this is the Concorde. There was never a convincing business case for the supersonic airliner, and there were numerous attempts to kill it. But those attempts all failed, in large part because of the billions that had already been spent.

This is precisely why people are often afraid to leave their faith. They’ve invested so much time praying and reading the Bible. They’ve put so much money into their church. It would take so much work for them to explain to people why they’re no longer religious. They would have to deal with all the emotional issues of breaking ties with their church and the people in it.

It would be so much easier to just stick with a faith you’ve spent most of your life practicing than to break with it because the truth might lie somewhere else.

Daniel Dennett even talked about it in a 2009 speech when discussing clergy members who were secretly atheist but found it incredibly hard to leave their profession:

it is very hard to say to the rest of the world, “Oh my, I have wasted the last forty years of my life.” It takes a very strong person, I think, to announce that to the world. But I think… there is, in a way, a more heartening reason why these people stay in the ministry. It’s because they are basically very good people and they are trapped, and they don’t want to hurt people, and there are a lot of people for them to hurt: their families, their friends, their associates.

It’s such a difficult thing to do — leaving one’s faith after a lifetime of being faithful — but you stand to lose so much more by sticking with it when you know it’s a lost cause.

At some point, you have to forget about Mark Sanchez.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the chair of Foundation Beyond Belief and a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago. He began writing the Friendly Atheist blog in 2006. His latest book is called The Young Atheist's Survival Guide.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Tebow is toast. If they’re not happy with Sanchez, they’ll find someone else.

    • newavocation

      Someday someone will see Tebow on a piece of toast and will sell it for millions. Jets should start making some toast!

  • http://twitter.com/Ro542124 Gideon

    Old vehicles can be excellent examples of the sunk-cost effect. “It’s high-maintenance and it has numerous irritating qualities. But I won’t replace it with a less problematic vehicle because I’ve dumped so much money into parts and repairs already.” Any one fix is much less expensive than switching vehicles. When it keeps happening, however, it makes less and less sense over time.

    • allein

      I ran into this issue a few months ago. I knew I would need to start thinking about a new car soon but I was hoping to put it off until later this year (and I’d been saying “in the next year or so” for at least a year already; but I bought my condo a year ago so I was hoping to get more time on the car). My car was 10 years old and had been in decent shape, but then my engine light came on and when I got it checked out I found out it would cost more than the car was worth to fix the several things that were wrong (not including the brakes that weren’t urgent but I would have needed before winter hit). I was initially thinking I would just suck it up and get it fixed but I ended up calling my dad to run it by him and he came over and talked to the service guy (yes, i called my daddy; I’m a total girl when it comes to cars), then we went over to the sales side and I ended up leasing a new car that day. Normally I wouldn’t lease but since I didn’t really have time to do any research or figure out what I could really afford, so I went for the lower monthly payment of a lease over possibly financing a purchase that I might not really be able to afford. (On the up side, I liked my old car well enough that I was comfortable getting a newer version without doing a lot of shopping around.)

      I never had this sort of problem with religion, though. I got less involved as I got into high school, then went off to college and just kind of drifted away. Did a few years of the Christmas&Easter thing after college, mostly to humor my mother, but eventually I stopped doing that as well. I don’t miss it.

      • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

        Nothing wrong with getting a 2nd opinion from someone you trust who knows more about the subject.

  • not-a-yank

    Well, I used to hate minorities but I had invested so much time and effort into my racism that it was hard to give up.

    Then I realised, “hey, I’m a total asshole, maybe I should quit all that hating.”

    Fallacious reasoning is fallacious.

  • Barefoot Bree

    Thank you for including that last quote from Dennett. I get aggravated with people who do not seem to grasp the huge human cost to many people for leaving their church. When it adds up to losing literally every part of your life – your family, your friends, your social network, and sometimes even your job/career – that’s more than many people can really handle. It takes a VERY strong person to walk away from everything and everyone you care about.

    • http://www.flickr.com/photos/chidy/ chicago dyke

      i know what you mean because i have lived in communities where it is like that for some people. still, i have to question the wisdom of investing so much in a church or temple that you have no outside friends, and your job is related to your faith in some way. i think of very orthodox and/or fundamentalist communities where this is the case, the the plight of abused women in violent marriages. over and over again i’ve read about how if they try to leave their husbands the entire community will shun them and leave them with nothing. it’s horrifying.

      never let religion totally determine your life in the first place seems a much wiser choice to me. be religious if you want, just retain your independence.

      • http://twitter.com/docslacker MD

        Some people are raised like that. I know a guy, born into a 7th Day Adventist family. His playmates? Adventists. His schools? Adventists. Weekends? Adventist temples. Scouting activities? With the Adventist “scouts”. University? Adventist.

        Breaking away must seem really really scary.

    • Aaron Harmon

      This is why I hesitate to discuss religion with my nephew, who is one of my favorite people in the world. He is a minister and just joined the army as a chaplain. If we discussed religion, even though it would likely be an interesting and enlightening conversation,and I managed to convince him that his faith is baseless, it could end his career, and possibly his marriage. Why would I do that to him?

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/John-A-Anderson/100000016895400 John A. Anderson

    That’s how we get stuck in unpopular wars, such as Vietnam. I can remember conservatives saying “We can’t just leave or all those soldiers killed would be for nothing.” So thousands more got killed.

    • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

      Marriages.

  • A3Kr0n

    My dad’s 78. If would be easier for him to stick with his faith.

  • Dee

    The costs of leaving religion are NOT sunk…. You have to consider those things before leaving.

    I did, and I paid, and it’s not cheap.

  • busterggi

    Or possibly magical thinking as in gambling addiction.

    Years of losing money on bets but the next one will turn everything around.

    Years of praying with no results but the next one will turn everything around.

  • meekinheritance

    This sounds like a good reason to support organizations like the Secular Student Alliance, hoping to catch more people before they have wasted too much.

  • WallofSleep

    Though my family has been quite active religiously and in the church scene, I never really was. I haven’t even set foot in a church since my early teen years. And even though I had zero investment in any kind of religious community, I still felt quite a lot of bitterness, resentment, and anger when I finally ditched that last bit of superstition I called my faith.

    Bitterness and resentment towards those who filled my head with such nonsense, and a great deal of anger at myself for being gullible enough to believe it. The anger at myself was the strongest emotion. I think that is because above all else, people hate to admit, even to themselves, that they’ve been played for a fool.

    And despite the fact that my personal investment was no greater than my individual belief, I still felt as though I had wasted a great deal of my life. These feelings fade over time, fortunately for me they faded rather quickly.

    Apologies for the rambling, I’m highly caffeinated at the moment. I guess my point is that even those of us with little or no investment in a religious lifestyle can still feel that sense of wasted time/effort when we let it go.

  • Guest

    There is a term I learned in business school called a “sunk cost”. When looking at two investments or strategies, it is incorrect to consider what you have already spent and cannot get back. Those costs are sunk and are no longer relevant to the discussion. You can only look at the changes your choices will bring in the future. However, it is often emotionally uncomfortable to abandon a failed strategy when you have already spent a lot on it, and many people do it.

  • http://absurdlypointless.blogspot.com/ Bubba Tarandfeathered

    People have saved an average of $385 by switching to Atheism.

  • Gregory Lynn

    The thing is, Sanchez isn’t just a sunk cost. The way the NFL salary rules operate, he would cost the Jets more (in salary cap space) if they get rid of him.

    Which, I guess, is kind of like how leaving a religion makes everyone hate you and be mean to you.

    Also, the Jets are just terrible and it amuses me to no end.

  • Dave

    Very good post; and a very real issue. I had invested over 35 years into my faith (and untold $$$ in “tithes and offerings” (what a crock!)…The financial investment is one thing; but the emotional investment is incalculable; especially when all of your family and almost all of your friends are in the faith. I consider myself strong for standing up and saying- “no more”…but the cost has been enormous (two grown daughters have cut me off; and most of my friends who I have come out to). So the pain is still very real and very present and the sense of community has not yet been replaced. I trust it will- in time; and the truth of the matter is- I had no choice. What is true is true and once the light has shined on that…what you believe naturally follows. It has to. But thanks to those of you who recognize that it is no small thing to leave a belief system in which you were heavily invested. It’s quite an identity crisis.

  • http://www.facebook.com/oswegowriter Matthew Harmer

    Also, someone has to convince Rex Ryan that Sanchaise is a bad investment in the first place. RR is so convinced of Sanchaise’s potential greatness that even a buttfumble is a genius play.

    Huh. Also like religion.

  • Michael Koch

    After being a JETS fan since 1964 when they were still the N.Y. TITANS, I gave up on them this year, and I won’t watch them on TV anymore until they rid themselves of both Sanchez and Tebow…. Pay them both off, send them on their ways and draft a real NFL Quarterback, or I’ll become a New England Patriot fan…. That’s a well run organization, folks……… Sanchez should have been benched two years ago……..


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