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What Are The Main Strengths And Weaknesses Of The Rational Choice Approach To
Religions Behavior? Essay, Research Paper

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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