Religion and Rational Choice Theory

I think Chris vastly overstates my level of expertise when he says that I’ve done “extensive research” on how people choose their religious affiliation, but it is a topic in which I’m very interested; I wrote my undergraduate thesis on mathematical models that can be used to analyze this question and similar questions in economics and political science. I’ve actually never read the Hirschman book that Margaret Steinfels discusses in the Commonweal column that Chris has linked to, but the framework that she alludes to – conceptualizing religious institutions as something like “firms” competing with one another for adherents in an active “religious marketplace” – is a helpful one for thinking about issues of religious participation in the modern West.

There is a diffuse literature in economics and sociology known as the “rational choice theory of religion” which posits that individuals do not simply decide to remain or to become a member of a religious body because they have been socialized into it or because they feel pressure from their friends and relatives, but rather that they actively weigh costs and benefits in order to determine whether a particular group is right for them.

“Costs” might consist of frequent participation in services, fasting, tithing, volunteering, etc. “Benefits” can be either supernatural (rewards in an afterlife) or more mundane (a sense of spiritual well-being, a feeling of belonging to a supportive community, etc). This helps to explain why fringe cults that the vast majority of people would see as extreme can actually manage to cultivate a following (pun intended): while they may make extraordinarily onerous demands of their followers, they often promise immense otherworldly rewards to those who join the flock.

It turns out that integrating the economic notion of rational-self interest into the study of religion can provide plausible explanations for otherwise puzzling phenomena. Peter Berger’s The Sacred Canopy advances the theory that religious pluralism ultimately erodes religiosity, since the recognition and acknowledgement of competing theological ontologies and ethical systems causes one to become less sure of one’s own commitments. When one religion is dominant in a given area or among members of a certain population, it casts a “sacred canopy” over even those who do not belong. The emergence of other religious groups discredits not only the hitherto dominant tradition, but those newer groups as well. The canopy that had previously sheltered the very idea of religion from the raging storms of secularism becomes tattered and frayed.

It turns out that there are serious problems with such a view of religion, though. There is actually empirical evidence suggesting that religious pluralism, or what we might call religious competition in the market metaphor, actually promotes religious participation rather than eroding it. The rationale is easy to understand if you think through the implications of the metaphor. Healthy competition among firms is, all else equal, generally thought to lead to the production of higher quality and more affordable goods and services, since producers must give their customers what they demand or risk losing business to a competitor. Monopolies, unburdened by such a constraint, know that they can slack off and still do fairly well.

The United States, which has had a constitutional guarantee of freedom of religion since its inception, is the most religious industrialized nation in the world. The United Kingdom, on the other hand, has a state-sponsored church but far lower rates of attendance at services and lower self-reported religiosity. While there are obviously myriad other cultural and historical reasons why religion might play the role that it does in both countries, the apparent inverse relationship between pluralism and participation is suggestive. Richard Dawkins, a fierce advocate of the separation of church and state, has noted that people often ask him why quarantining religion from government seems to have the paradoxical effect of increasing religious activity rather than diminishing or suppressing it. He claims to have no explanation to offer, despite the fact that rational choice logic seems to yield a solution to the apparent conundrum.

In Acts of Faith: Explaining the Human Side of Religion, a comprehensive book-length exposition of the rational choice approach, sociologists Rodney Stark and Roger Finke argue that all human beings have some sort of innate religious preference, and that these preferences tend to follow a bell curve-shaped distribution. Some people have an inborn sense that religion should be strict and should guide every aspect of their lives. Such people will likely be drawn to demanding varieties of religion, like Mormonism or the Jehovah’s Witnesses or Orthodox Judaism. Others have a preference for more liberal faiths that offer a greater degree of individual autonomy and that leave a wider range of decisions to personal choice.

The majority, however, falls somewhere in between. In America today, both austere sects like the Amish and progressive churches like the Unitarian Universalists command relatively small followings. Although aggregate religious participation has dropped off steeply over the last few decades, it is still the case that the groups dominating the scene are those that are strict, but not too strict. They may require their congregants to attend weekly services or undertake periodic fasts, but they probably don’t ask them to sell all their possessions and become itinerant preachers (well, maybe they do, but they don’t really press the issue).

Where does the notion of the Catholic Church as a “lazy monopoly” fit into this framework? Chris, following Steinfels, suggests that the Church might be growing rather than shrinking if the hierarchy were more responsive to the concerns of the laity, treating them like adults rather than infantilizing them. While Francis might possibly be moving toward a “flatter” vision of the Church (more on that in an upcoming post), Benedict XVI seemed to embrace the idea of a pyramidal ecclesial structure wholeheartedly. He did not see the Church as a lazy monopoly but as a monopoly that knew exactly what it was doing, and mused about whether it might not be better if we ended up with a “smaller, purer Church.”

There is a sense in which this line of argument is beyond critique. Chris rightly points out that there is little an institution that understands itself to be dealing in “immutable truths” can do to appeal to the masses if people are simply nonreceptive to those truths or to the meta-notion that any truth can be immutable. Moreover, there are those who embrace Benedict’s approach but reject his false choice between purity and mass appeal. As Ross Douthat has written, both in his 2012 book Bad Religion and in several of his Sunday New York Times columns, it is the churches that have most enthusiastically embraced the innovations of modernity that have been most seriously impacted by the decline in churchgoing. If you have nothing to offer people that they can’t get from, for example, participation in secular politics, then why would anyone give you a second look? Liberalizing is not as promising an option as it might seem for churches seeking to revitalize themselves.

The problem with this hypothesis is that it fails to account for the idea that individuals might have heterogeneous religious preferences. Another way to think about the prediction that greater competition leads to greater participation is to imagine that there are a variety of “market niches” that are ill-served by the presence of a single religious monopolist but that are more likely to see their personal spiritual needs met when there are a variety of available options.

While some niches may respond negatively to a lack of theological rigor or to a perceived doctrinal flexibility in their religious leaders, others may be drawn to such things (although they would no doubt frame them in more positive terms). Any shift in dogma or practice will please some and offend others. What matters is the relative size of the constituencies that are pleased and offended. So while it could very well be that Episcopalianism would collapse if it adopted every idea ever pushed by John Shelby Spong, it might also be the case that the Amish population would grow if they allowed themselves to start using microwaves.

This argument that liberalization, or what Stark and Finke would call a lessening of “tension with the social environment,” is intrinsically fatal to the robustness of religious congregations carries an implication that there is but one way to reinvigorate religion, and that is to cling firmly to “orthodoxy.” Acts of Faith contains a helpful example that shows why the rational choice approach cannot be used to make definitive recommendations about the path that should be taken by ailing religions. Stark and Finke consider the steep dropoff in vocations to the Catholic priesthood since the mid-1960’s, and conclude that

[t]he collapse of Catholic vocations was self-imposed, not merely incidental to the process of modernity. It was the assembled bishops of the Catholic Church who, after collective deliberations [at Vatican II], withdrew many of the most compelling motivations for the religious life [e.g. intimating in Lumen Gentium that priests and religious are not superior in holiness to the laity], while retaining the most costly aspects of vocations [e.g. celibacy]. Perhaps orthodox Freudians and other proponents of irrational choice theories might have expected that Catholics would still flock to the religious life out of neurotic need. The fact that the “flocking” went in the other direction testifies that humans subject even their most intense forms of religious commitment to reasoned evaluation. This point is additionally confirmed by the exceptions: some dioceses still generate vocations, and some religious orders still attract new members – those able to revivify perceptions of a positive ratio between the costs and rewards of the religious life… We do not propose that the Catholic Church ought to retain its reliance on costly religious vocations – on a church staffed by a corps of what Max Weber called “religious virtuosi.” Centuries of Protestant experience demonstrate the adequacy of less costly vocations.

According to this analysis, the effect of retaining “costly” practices like celibacy while reemphasizing the exalted status of the priest would have a similar effect to abandoning or reforming those practices but continuing to put laypeople and priests/religious on equal footing. The tenor of Francis’ papacy so far, as well as remarks made to reporters by his newly-appointed Secretary of State Pietro Parolin, suggest that the latter path is more likely than the former.

As a budding economist who obviously spends a great deal of time thinking and reading about religion and culture, I worry about attempts to overextend economic logic and to apply it to situations where explanations from sociology or anthropology or other related fields might be more effective. And so even I myself sometimes find it strange that I’m drawn to the approach promoted by people like Stark, Finke, and Hirschman. Yet maybe it isn’t all that unusual. Just as economists need to develop a sense of where and when and in which contexts their preferred assumptions are appropriate and where they break down, so too should scholars of religion appreciate the fact that religious behavior is not entirely unlike other kinds of human behavior. Maybe the sacred and the profane are not mutually exclusive.