Friday, July 25, 2008

Religion from the perspective of economics and rational choice theory

After encountering numerous references for Rodney Stark's work, I thought I would just bring up a couple of short thoughts about approaching religion from the perspective of economics and rational choice theory. Wilson (2002, pp. 48) summarizes this approach nicely in his book Darwin's Cathedral;

"Religion is envisioned as an economic exchange between people and imagined supernatural agents for goods that are scarce (eg., rain during a drought) or impossible (e.g., immortal life) to obtain in the real world. Religious belief is therefore rational in the sense of employing cost-benefits reasoning."

One question that arises from this approach is whether exchanges with imagined entities for impossibly given products has practical benefits? While it is possible to discuss the spin off benefits that come from emergent structures, I think the question is much more interesting when narrowed. Are there any benefits directly related to this class of exchange?

To answer this from a religious perspective, I suspect a history of exchange experiences is necessary before nuance and weight emerge. In lieu of this religiously focussed discussion, I think the question continues to get more interesting when focussed to the level of quasi-religious organizations. For example, in terms of the quasi-religious aspects of formalized education, what benefits emerge when educational players enter into exchanges for results that are essentially random or impossible to produce?

The following examples may be parallels.

Religion: A folk religion may involve dancing to end a drought.
  • An indirect effect of this action may be a changed potential for group cohesion.
  • Individuals may be indirectly affected by changing personal commitments.
  • Individuals may be directly affected by the imagined exchange by altered perceptions of religious utility.
Education: A motivational speaker gives some advice at a conference whose effects, when implemented at the level of detail understood, are essentially random.
  • An indirect effect of this action may be a changed potential for group cohesion.
  • Individuals may be indirectly affected by changing personal commitments.
  • Individuals may be directly affected by the exchange by initiating a learning cycle that produces measurable effects.
So, on one level, the question to ask is whether an altered perception of religious utility has results that are as real as a work place learning cycle? They both can spur pragmatic investigation which find practical applications. The former may be subject to greater idealistic fantasy than the latter, but is the controlling variable the degree to which practical results can be knowingly leveraged, or is the controlling variable the degree to which practical results end up being leveraged?

I suspect many people heavily weight actions whose benefits are weakly dependent on deep awareness. You shouldn't have to know sophisticated linguistic discourses to produce benefits from an elementary reading program. However, religious actions may require sophisticated cognitive awareness in order to leverage direct benefits on an individual level. (I don't think you need to really know what is going on to leverage group benefits).

1 comment:

chris g said...

Just thought I would include an additional quote I found of Wilson's (2002, pp. 49) as I finished up my reading this morning.

"Missing entirely from this conception [rational choice theory of religion] is the category of goods that can be procured by human action, but only by coordinated human action, and the role of religion in achieving the required coordination."

For me, biting off the question of individual access to group benefits is just too large a question right now. Hopefully I can tease out direct individual benefits first.