Posted by: aboutalbion | February 7, 2013

Has the rationality of religion been neglected?

Rodney Stark thinks so.  For his research into ‘The Rise of Christianity’, he draws on rational choice theory.

He points out that this notion of associating rationality with religious phenomena is at variance with most social science work that seeks to explain religion (in general).  He describes “the enormous weight of learned opinion that created and sustained … [an] irrationalist approach to religion …”. (p167)

“… from the beginning, social scientific studies of religion have been shaped by a single question: ‘What makes them do it?’  How could any rational person make sacrifices on behalf of unseen supernatural entities?  The explicit answer to this question nearly always has been that religion is rooted in the irrational.  …  [Social scientists] have been content to apply the irrationalist argument to such ordinary activities as prayer, observance of moral codes, and contributions of time and wealth.  For whether it be the imputation of outright psychopathology, [or] of groundless fears, or merely of faulty reasoning and misperceptions, the irrationalist assumption has dominated the field.” (p166)

In contrast, Stark chooses to use rational choice theory.  His trinity of explanations of what this theory might mean includes the following:

“Individuals choose their actions rationally … weighing the anticipated costs and benefits of actions and then seeking to act so as to maximize net benefits.” (p169)

“… people are more likely to perform an activity the more valuable they perceive the reward of that activity to be.” (p169, citing Homans 1964)

“… humans seek to maximize rewards and minimize costs.” (p169)

So is the use of rational choice theory to explain the phenomena of religion justified?

To those who object that it is reductionist, Stark whole-heartedly agrees.  “Reductionism is the primary scientific task – to explain as much of the world as possible by reference to as little as possible.” (p169f)

To those who object that a rational person will not (and cannot) have complete information about a religion prior to a decision, Stark replies that it is normal in the discipline of economics to make rational decisions on the basis of less than complete information (because the desire for more information involves unwelcome costs).  “Incomplete information … should not … be confused with irrational or volatile behaviour.” (p170, citing Gary S Becker)

I am comfortable with Stark taking this approach, and (looking towards the end of his book) Stark’s work will suggest a rational choice explanation for some of the distinctive behaviours associated with the nascent Christian church.

[Stark, Rodney (1997) The Rise of Christianity. New York: HarperOne.]


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