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Essay/Term paper: What are the main strengths and weaknesses of the rational choice approach to religions behavior?

Essay, term paper, research paper:  Religion

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What Are The Main Strengths and Weaknesses of The Rational Choice Approach To
Religions Behavior?

One of the pioneers of the rational choice theory has been Gary Becker.
He states that this approach can be applied to all human behaviour, including
religion. This approach has three assumptions. It assumes that people engage in
maximising behaviour. When applying this approach to religion we are not
concerned with money. We are concerned with the maximisation of personal
benefits. When we make a decision we weigh up the costs and benefits and choose
the option which offers the most benefit. Secondly, there are "markets that
with varying degrees of efficiency allow the actions of different participants
to function together efficiently.' Thirdly, prices and other market functions
can affect demand and supply, controlling desires and affecting the actions of
consumers. Becker explains that price is not described in money terms but as a
shadow price. For example, muslims cannot drink alcohol.
This approach involves four theorems. Firstly, a rise in price reduces
the quantity demanded. The example he gives is if people have to put more time
and effort into having children then less people will do so. Secondly, a rise
in price increases the quantity supplied, the example given is women in the
labour market. Thirdly, competitive markets are more efficient then
monopolistic markets and lead to the diversity of a product. Fourthly, a tax on
the output of a market reduces that output eg the punishment of criminals is a
tax on crime.
Finke and Iannaccone have applied this theory to religious behaviour and
understand that the high degree of religion in America is attributed to the
existence of a free market and therefore competition and diversification in
religion. Finke argues that in a free market start up costs are low and this
leads to new ideas and more diversity and therefore more chance of everyone
finding a religion they like. Also in a competitive free market earning a
living acts as an incentive to clergy to work harder and try to tailor their
religion to suit the demands of the consumer. He also suggests that state
monopolies are less efficient in the absence of competition and believes that
state churches would therefore allow high costs.
Bruce highlights some weaknesses of this theory. He states that the
early Christian church had very high startup costs eg persecution and this did
not prevent the recruitment of new followers. On the other hand, according to
the maximisation theory, the benefits must have outweighed the cost of the
threat of persecution or no-one would have joined. Bruce criticises the theorem
that inefficiency exists in the absence of competition by pointing out that the
Roman Catholic Church is a state supported monopoly in many countries and a
hegemony in others yet it has been very efficient. Also, Roman Catholic success
is not a result of a free market as it has done well in Poland and the Republic
of Ireland where there is almost no competition. Bruce also states that as
people moved away from the national church and competition increased in the
middle ages, people became more invloved in religion. This suggests that
competition does lead to religion but the free market model does not explain the
decline in involvement in religion from the start of the century. Maybe this
decline can be best described by the sociological theory of secularisation.
Perhaps people feel that the costs of religion and the restrictions it imposes
on their lifestyles outweigh the benefits or that religion would not benefit
them at all.
Iannaccone believes that economics can explain known facts about
individual decision making with regards to religious behaviour. He believes
economics can explain facts about denominational mobility, typical age of
converts, typical patterns of inter-religious marriage and participation levels
found in different marriages.
The majority of Americans remain in the churches they were raised in and
return to them if they drift away. If they do move it is likely to be to a
similar church. Iannaccone explains these facts with reference to investment ie
people have already spent a great deal of time and effort in their religion and
to move to a new religion requires new investment and initial investment is
wasted. Bruce suggests an alternative explanation would be that beliefs "
sediment', effecting our response to alternatives. He explains that beliefs
which seem more plausible to us are beliefs which accord with residues of
earlier stages of belief.
The human capital model predicts religious switching will occur early in
the life cycle as people search for the best match between their skills and the
context in which they produce religious commodities. Over time diminishing
marginal utility will occur ie gains from further switching will dimiinish as
the potential for improvement decreases and the years left during which they can
capitalise on that improvement decrease. Bruce suggests that socialisation with
like-minded believers and how much of a satisfactory explanation of the world
and our place in it is given is likey to increase plausibility over time and
that there is no need for reference to economics.
Iannaccone states that households peactice their beliefs more
efficiently when husband and wife belong to the same religion. He believes they
benefit from economies of scale as they can take the same car to church and
avoid disputes over whcih religion the children are to practice etc. He states
this is why tend to marry within the same denomination. Bruce suggests that an
alternative explanation would be that the church is a place where people with
similar backgrounds and beliefs come together. He also argues that the strength
of a persons belief is reinforced by social interaction. Therefore a husband
and wife reinforce each others beliefs and encourage church attendance. Also
Iannaccone shows a correlation between couples sharing the same faith and being
more than averagelt involved in their religion but his data does not show which
causes which. It also seems likely that people who are highly committed to
their religion will want to marry someone of the same faith.
Bruce argues that there is a degree of indeterminacy in the economc
approach and gives the example of the low start-up costs controversy explained
above. He states that there can not be any way of proving the utility
maximisation theory false because utility is a matter of social construction
which is interpreted in different ways by different people. What is a cost to
one person could be a benefit to another. The only way to identify what are
costs and what are benefits is to look at the choices themselves. It is these
choices that we wish to explain so we seem to be going round in circles.
Another weakness highlighted by Bruce is that economising requires the
ability to choose between items that are comparable. he argues if religion is
not comparable on some scale then how can we decide which choices will maximise
our utility? He argues that religions cannot be alternatives to each other in
the sense that material goods are as religions demand and mostly achieve the
complete faith of their followers. With the exception of Buddhism and modern
liberal protestantism the great religions claim unique salvational truth. Other
religions cannot be regarded as alternatives. On the other hand you have to
choose the religion in the first place.
A second requirement of economising is pricing. This is a neautral way
of comparing costs, this is absent from the application of the economic approach
to religious behaviour. Costs differ between people. On the other hand
Iannoccone does not talk of price in money terms but in shadow price. Bruce
argues that time for exampple cannot be used as a shadow price as the cost of
the time spent on one persons religion does not equal another persons.
There are cultural constraints on supply ie norms. Demand can have an
effect on supply such that popularity can influence the recruitment of
candidates for the ministry. However there are cultural constraints on what
churches can do to become more popular. They cannot change there religion to
meet popularity. Religious failures can attribute their failings as the "price'
of ideological purity. On the other hand, churches can tailor their religion to
meet demand in other ways eg the introduction of the nine o'clock service.
There are also cultural constraints on consumers, that is there exist a
number of norms that constrain religious choice. For example, in a racially
divided society the introduction of new black churches does not effect the
choice of white people as a result of the social "norm' of racial segregation.
But can this not be interpreted by the weighing up of the costs and benefits of
breaking norms? Here the costs certainly outweigh the benefits.
Elster (1986:17) believes rational choice theory fails because it cannot
tell us what rationality requires. He believes rational choice theory depends
on us knowing what the rational choice is. In this way the economic model is
not a good model for making predictions concerning overall religious behaviour
but it still provides a good explanation of religious behaviour. I believe the
word in itself tells us what rationality requires. Rationality is an act of
reasoning and this is a very personal thing. When making decisions we reason as
to what would be the best course of action for us ie the choice which maximises
our satisfaction. People tailor their religions to meet the demands of their
unique lifestyles. This points to the obvious fact that there can be no one
simple explanation for an individuals choice of religion as we are all so very
Bruce argues that we cannot talk of religion as we do commodities. He
states that people in the modern world are not consumerist and those who do
change their religion hope for and normally form an enduring attachment closer
to tradition than rationality. He argues that only in a thoroughly secular
society would religion be a commodity


1) G. Becker, 1986, "The economic approach to human behaviour', pp. 108-22 in J.
Elster (ed.), Rational Choice. Oxford: Blackwell.

2) L. Iannaccone, 1990, "Religious practice: a human capital approach', Journal
for the Scientific Study of Religion, 29: 297-314.

3) S. Bruce, "Religion and rational choice: a critique of economic explanations
of religious behaviour', Sociology of Religion, 54: 193-205.

4) H. Bredemeier, 1978, "Exchange theory', pp. 420-56 in T. Bottomore and R.
Nisbet (eds), A History of Sociological Thought. New York: Basic Books.

5) Lecture Notes.

6) J. Sloman, 1996, Economics. London: Harvester Wheatsheaf.


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