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

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  • What Are The Main Strengths and Weaknesses of The Rational Choice Approach To Religions Behavior?
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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 involved 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 likely to increase plausibility over time and that there is no need for reference to economics. Iannaccone states that households practice 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 which 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 averagely 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 economic 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 different.

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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